This has been bugging me for years, and I'd love to know your opinions.
First, my Chow cred. I grew up in New Jersey eating Chinese food my whole life. I now live in Los Angeles, am married to a Taiwanese woman, have spent several months traveling and eating all throughout China and Taiwan, and I speak Mandarin.
After many years of traveling and eating across this country and around the world, I came to see that the same Chinese-American dish ordered in Topeka is not necessarily the same as the same dish ordered in New York (or Beijing).
When I came to LA well over a decade ago, I remember ordering "chicken chow mein" and was surprised to have gotten not the soupy gravy with meat and vegetables with crunchy noodles, but rather a dish of stir-fried noodles, veggies and meat. (This is what I would have called "lo mein" back home).
Eventually I came to the odd, ground-shaking conclusion that in New York City (or New Jersey), when you order "chow mein" you get what Topekans, for example, would call chop suey. When I learned to speak Mandarin, I discovered that "chow mian" literally means "stir fried noodles", not "thickened soupy mess of veggies and meat over rice with a few crunchy deep-fried wontons sprinkles over the top".
Why or how this widespread misapplication occurred is an utter mystery to me, and if anyone here can enlighten me I'd love to know. Does it not seem insane to anyone else that this is so deeply embedded in the food consciousness of New Yorkers, and that there is no attempt being made to educate people or correct it?
As a kid I grew up eating "chicken chow mein", never realizing that I was essentially doing the equivalent of going into an Italian place, ordering a pizza, and getting a chicken parm. But the thing is, the Italian owner knows I want chicken parm, because people have been asking for pizza and getting chicken parms for so long that it's just expected.
It's lunacy, I tells ya!