Stir-Fried Asian Culture: Panda Express & Samurai Pandas

Panda Express Site: Samurai Surf & Turf
Panda Express Site: Samurai Surf & Turf

Today my friend Scott shared a photo on Facebook featuring a Panda Express billboard ad and its new limited time only dish – Samurai Surf & Turf.   I went to the website home page to get the image for this page, which shares simliar characteristics with the billboard ad:

  • There are pandas dressed as samurai, weilding samurai swords with shrimp and beef. 
  • The dish is called Samurai Surf & Turf.
  • The dish is being showcased in a wok.

Let’s break a few things down here:

  • Panda Express calls itself “Gourmet Chinese”.
  • Pandas are from China.
  • Samurais are not from China; they are from Japan.

It’s possible this dish was named Samurai because its use of a “zesty samurai sauce” (not exactly sure if they mean the Belgian Mayonnaise-based sauce or something else), but it doesn’t mean that this should evolve into a potentially confusing ad that mixes Chinese and Japanese cultural icons.   The commercial for the dish doesn’t seem to say much either:

Arguably, Panda Express is an American company (if not evident by those very American pandas in the commercial).  It really serves Americanized Chinese food.  One of the best things about America is that we are a fusion of many things.  At its best, fusion is great because you blend distinctly different things into something new and amazing.  It is done in a way that pays homage to great aspects of different cultures (Kogi tacos, anyone?).  But, at its worst, fusion generates confusion by homogenizing differences badly, such as an advertising campaign that doesn’t distinguish between Chinese and Japanese cultures, cultures that people already mix up and shove underneath a banner of “Asia Things” without Panda Express’ help.

I’m not saying that Panda Express shouldn’t serve a Samurai Surf & Turf dish nor do I have anything against Samurai Pandas.  But I do think that when you self-identify as “Gourmet Chinese” and then add in Japanese references, it’s important to identify what you’re doing when you’re presenting them together.  Just showing it together without any explanation confuses the people who do see the difference and  potentially miseducates those who don’t.

Most people I know would argue that Panda Express isn’t “really Chinese food”, but I don’t think they can argue down the fact that it is a large company with reach all across the nation and potentially the world.  So I’m inclined to believe that what it says about different Asian cultures matters in some way, especially in places where maybe it is the closest thing to Chinese food.