The Westernization of Emoji

The Westernization of Emoji
Yiying Lu’s emoji depictions of chopsticks, a fortune cookie, a takeout box, and a dumpling will be available with the next emoji update in June 2017.

The takeout box and the fortune cookie are perceived as emblems of Chinese culture, when they’re actually central to the American experience of it.

When the restaurant Fortune Cookie opened in Shanghai, in 2013, local patrons were mystified. The food was Chinese, but also not Chinese at all. Crab rangoon, sticky orange chicken, and fortune cookies are staples of American Chinese food. They’re rarely found in China.

Fortune Cookie’s owners wanted to introduce China to Chinese food as Americans know it—characterized by startlingly sweet flavors and laughably huge portions. For authenticity, the restaurant’s owners had to import ingredients like Skippy peanut butter and Philadelphia cream cheese. And when restaurant staffers first saw the white-and-red takeout boxes, some of them gathered around to take photographs. The cardboard containers seemed like something out of a sitcom to Chinese workers, who had only ever seen them before on American television shows like Friends and the Big Bang Theory, Fortune Cookie’s owners told news outlets at the time.

“I never saw any fortune cookie in my life until I was a teenager,” said Yiying Lu, a San Francisco-based artist who was born in Shanghai. Lu encountered her first fortune cookie when she left China and moved to Sydney, Australia.

Now, the fortune cookie she designed for the Unicode Consortium will be one of dozens of new emoji that are part of a June update. Lu also created the new emoji depicting a takeout box, chopsticks, and a dumpling.

The irony, she says, is that two of the four new Chinese-themed emoji—the fortune cookie and the takeout box—are not Chinese Chinese, but instead reflect Westernized elements of Chinese culture. “It’s kind of like Häagen-Dazs,” Lu told me. “People think its Scandinavian just because of the two dots in the name, but it’s American. It’s the same thing with the takeout box. The Chinese takeout box is completely invented in the West. And the fortune cookie was invented by a Japanese person, but it was popularized in America.”

Emoji, too, were invented by a Japanese person before becoming hugely popular in the United States. For people outside of Japan, emoji were a charming and mysterious window into Japanese culture. The fact that they weren’t globally representative was part of what made emoji fascinating to people in the Western world.

Shigetaka Kurita, who designed the first emoji in 1999, never expected them to spread beyond Japan. But they did. And now they’re everywhere, thanks to the widespread adoption of the smartphone.

“The whole reason emoji are taking off the way they are is largely because of Apple, which is an American company,” said Christina Xu, an ethnographer who focuses on the social implications of technology. And although the Unicode Consortium—which standardizes how computers communicate text and agrees upon new emoji—it an international group, most of its voting members are affiliated with American companies like Apple, Google, Facebook, Oracle, and IBM. “So even when it is about other cultures, it’s still about America,” Xu said.