We vs. They: Pronouns in “Have They Run Out of Provinces Yet?”

The mentality of “us vs. them” has been highlighted by many as a concept that is irrational as it typically leads to division within society. Such grouping (often seen in war) tends to emphasize how the other side (“them”) is wrong in comparison to one’s own group (“us”) due to numerous factors that are different, such as culture, ideology, etc. In doing so, differences are heralded as bad, creating definitie barriers that essentially dehumanize certain groups of people: those who are not one of your own are “others”, aliens who cannot understand your ways.

In Calvin Trillin’s poem “Have They Run Out of Provinces Yet?”, the usage of the pronouns “we” and “they” are prominent. Told from the perspective of a foodie who is keen on trying out new dishes of Chinese cuisine, the poem satirically highlights how fanatic foodies can become, by expressing the concerns felt over missing out on the latest Chinese food trend. The speaker is a foodie (most likely a white American) who identifies as someone who is a part of group who loves eating Chinese food, meaning that the “we”in the poem are American foodies. Meanwhile, the “they” is a reference to the Chinese, as it is their provinces from which new food is being made. The title also contains the word “they”, demonstrating from the onset of the poem that there is a separation between groups.

While Trillin stated that “the poem was simply a way of making fun of food-obsessed bourgeoise who are fearful of missing out on the latest thing” (Waldman 1), many readers were upset, as the poem came off as offensive to Chinese people and culture. In her article “Calvin Trillin’s New Yorker Poem Wasn’t Just Offensive. It Was Bad Satire”, Katy Waldman discusses why people were angry with Trillin’s poem. One of the issues that Waldman notes is the suggested “us vs. them” tone within the poem. Waldman remarks how “some interpreted the final lines as a nostalgic wish for the days when Americanized noodles represented white people’s closest contact with the Asian ‘other'” (Waldman 1). This interpretation indicates that the Chinese are foreign others who produce strange and exciting foods, which in turn exoctizies an entire culture. Such a reading implies that readers saw Trillin’s use of satire and language as a separation between American foodies (“we”) and the Chinese (“they”), with the former eagerly awaiting for new arrivals from the Far East. With this in mind, it is easy to notice how labeling Chinese as “they”, or merely as provinces who constantly produce food, can be seen as problematic.

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Thus, the use of pronouns, such as “us”, “them”, “we”, and “they” can be seen as controversial as it belittles people to groups with no names or specific values worth mentioning. Even though Trillin may have had a satirical motivation, his poem can come across as offensive because the Chinese are written as a group of others who only have numerous provinces with local dishes. Labeling them as “they” erases identity and suggests that there is tension with an opposing side.

Works Cited

Trillin, Calvin. “Have They Run Out of Provinces Yet?” The New Yorker, 2016.

Waldman, Katy. “Calvin Trillin’s New Yorker Poem Wasn’t Just Offensive. It Was Bad Satire.” Browbeat, Slate, 2016.

One thought on “We vs. They: Pronouns in “Have They Run Out of Provinces Yet?”

  1. In Kai’s post, he focuses on the us versus them dynamic created by Trillin through his pronoun use in his poem. I also commented upon pronoun usage in my post, and I think the differences between our posts is interested. Kai discusses the definition of “they” as being applied to discuss Chinese people, whereas “we” speaks to the perspective of American foodies. However, I think that Trillin’s use of pronouns is much more vague than this dichotomy. It is unclear within the poem if, especially in the poem’s opening line, if the narrator is putting himself against Chinese people and culture or against American food critics.
    While originally reading the poem, I did not realize that the poem was about food critics at all, and after reading Waldman’s critique, I attempted to apply the “they” pronoun to the critics, the source of the conflict. However, Kai raises an interesting point, suggesting that Trillin includes himself in the category of food critic and claims that all critics are lost stressed by the presence of the many variants of Chinese food.
    This view of the poem gives it a new layer of understanding, suggesting that Trillin, while mocking food snobs as confused, finds need to use a “threat” of diverse Chinese food as a scapegoat to mock this confusion. Instead of simply critiquing food snobs, this reading of the poem furthers a dangerous us versus them dynamic, not only putting the narrator against Chinese culture, but putting food critics against it as well.

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