Stress and Threats: Word Choice in “Have They Run Out of Provinces Yet?”

The problem with “Have They Run Out of Provinces Yet?” is that it is a joke with an unclear subject. In his controversial poem, Calvin Trillin describes the different provinces representingcalvin trillin different varieties of Chinese food, critiquing the drive to move between styles of cuisine. This poem has faced much criticism itself, from being xenophobic to simply being badly writtensatire, an argument noted by Katy Waldman in her article “Calvin Trillin’s New Yorker Poem Wasn’t Just Offensive. It Was Bad Satire.” Personally, I certainly agree with Waldman that the poem fails to portray its satire well. However, I think that in failing to perform as satire, it takes on accusatory and potentially racist tendencies, tendencies increasingly relevant within Trillin’s word choice.

Trillin begins his poem with a rhetorical question: “Have they run out of provinces yet?” (Trillin 1). This question does not seek an actual answer, instead, it serves to open his line of pondering upon the many different varieties of Chinese food. However, in addition to discussing cuisine, this question contains particular word choice which creates a problem in reading the poem. Who is “they?” Who has run out of provinces? Does “they” refer to theChinese Foodfood snobs that he claims the poem depicts (Waldman 2), or does “they” refer to the producers of the food themselves – Chinese chefs? This vague word choice affects and shapes the context of the entire poem. And as Trillin never mentions critics and snobs within the poem, the question’s “they” pronoun seems to signify the general idea of China or the Chinese, the one providing the provinces.

Trillin’s word choice also suggests a bias in his view of China and Chinese food. He writes “So we sometimes do miss, I confess, / Simple days of chow mein but no stress, / When we never were faced with the threat / Of more provinces we hadn’t met. / Is there one tucked away near Tibet? / Have they run out of provinces yet?” (Trillin 23-28). In this passage, Trillin assigns nostalgia to simplicity and to the lack of need to distinguish between Chinese food’s provinces. By noting how he misses “simple days” with “no stress” and “no threat,” Trillin presents a sense of security in correlation to the lack of knowledge about China’s variety. Furthermore, describing more provinces as a “threat” specifically assigns fear and alienation toward them.

The poem’s end returns to Trillin’s use of a vague “they,” repeating the same rhetorical question from the poem’s origin. After defining China and Chinese culture as a threat to his peace of mind, Trillin’s question “Have they run out of provinces yet?” (Trillin 28) has become better defined. Now, it is more accusatory, suggesting that China has provided something entirely unwanted.

Waldman’s perspective of this poem comes as more pacifistic. She writes “The poem doesn’t read like an indictment of casual racism. It reads like a good-natured poke at the snooty aspirations of wannabe hipsters. Yes, it is derisive, but of the wrong things. In its gusto to swat Katy Waldmanat ‘we’ white people, it hardly seems aware that its attitude toward Chinese people (‘they’) is problematic” (Waldman 3). I’m not sure that Waldman’s point rings true. Trillin’s word choice seems to assign a direct threat to Chinese cuisine and culture, as well as to suggest fear toward it. This poem doesn’t have any direct criticism of white food snobs – it never brings them up. But it does bring up China, and with its word choice, makes it a threat.

Grocery Shopping: Assimilation through Juxtaposition in The Namesake

I’m going to be honest. I read Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake for class in high school, and my strongest memory of that unit was everyone complaining about having to read it at all. For context, I went to a fairly white and mostly assimilated high school in the suburbs eastern Massachusetts, so you would think that the parallels between our town and the town the Gangulis occupy would have been a bit more obvious than they actually were. But at the time, no one seemed to notice just how present the novel’s depiction of assimilation was directly around us.

Regardless of my high school’s opinion on The Namesake, the novel outlines clear tensions within the Ganguli family’s assimilation to American culture, particurally within the generational gap. Lahiri juxtaposes these generations while speaking of the adaptations Ashoke andboar bristle shaving brushAshima make through the years. She writes that “Ashoke, accustomed to wearing tailor-made pants and shirts all his life, learns to buy ready-made. He trades in fountain pens for ballpoints, Wilkinson blades and his boar-bristled shaving brush for Bic razors brought six to a pack” (Lahiri 65). Lahiri identifiesBic RazorsAshoke’s material habits to fall into one of two opposing categories: American convention and Indian convention. By setting tailor-made clothing, fountain pens, and a shaving brush against ready-made clothes, ballpoints, and Bic razors, Lahiri juxtaposes the material elements of Ashoke’s life. She emphasizes the replacement of Indian lifestyle conventions with American ones, identifying the swapping out of possessions as a marker of the family’s assimilation and adaptation of American life.

In contrast to Lahiri’s description of Ashoke’s switching from Indian conventions to American conventions, she only refers to the American conventions when speaking of Gogol. She writes that “In the supermarket they let Gogol fill the cart with items that he and Sonia, but not they, consume: individually wrapped slices of cheese, mayonnaise, tuna fish, hot dogs. For Gogol’s lunches they stand at the deli to buy cold cuts, and in the mornings Ashima makes sandwiches with bologna or roast beef. At his insistence, she concedes and makes him and American dinner once a week as a treat, Shake ‘n Bake or Hamburger Helper prepared with"american food aisle" at a british grocery storeground lamb” (Lahiri 65). In the lists of American food that she identifies as staples of Gogol’s diet and tastes, Lahiri never compares them to the Indian alternative which they substitute in for. Instead, she presents without alternative the American conventions which Gogol prefers. Lahiri’s description of Gogol and American food directly juxtaposes with Ashoke and American objects, as for Gogol, the younger generation, she does not note on the alternative, which lingers for Ashoke, the elder generation.

Through juxtaposition, Lahiri reflects on the generational perspective between immigrants and their children as they assimilate. With the descriptions of food and materials in their lives, Lahiri suggests the separate nature of assimilation. For an elder generation, American assimilation comes more with a sense of substitution and replacement. However, for the younger generation, being raised in America, gravitate toward American cultural norms and do not experience that sense of replacing their heritage.

Lahiri, Jhumpa. The Namesake. Houghton Mifflin, 2003.

Hot, Easy, and Entertaining: Redefining a Genre by Being Abrasive

What could possibly be easier than writing about yourself? What could be more natural, more relatable, more fascinating? In his short story, “Love and Honor and Pity and Pride and Compassion and Sacrifice,” Nam Le plays with the expectation of ethnic literature as easy, entertaining writing.

When the story’s main character, Nam, struggles with writer’s block, he reflects on what others have told him about the genre of “ethnic literature.” Nam reflects on the words of a friend to him: “How can you have writer’s block? Just write about Vietnam” (Le 8). This Nam Lesuggestion brings up the outsider expectations of ethnic literature as easy to write, as something natural, something inherent. Adding to this assumption of ethnic literature as an easy genre, Nam also remembers what a writing instructor told him once, that “Ethnic literature’s hot. And important too” (Le 9). The reflection of ethnic literature as “hot” suggests the genre’s easy popularity.

So what makes ethnic literature so easy? What allows it to sit on the shelf as a “hot” genre for an American audience? In part, because it simply does not challenge American ideas of the Vietnam War. It does not assign fault or blame for trauma with America’s involvement in the war; it exists to be unobtrusive to its American readers.

In lê thi diem thúy’s novel The Gangster We Are All Looking For, even as she discusses the trauma which shaped her entire life, the events affecting this trauma are her brother’s death and her separation from her mother. Notably, she never discusses a source of blame for these events, although if causes for either event were to be identified, then the ocean and the chaos of war would be these direct sources. Similarly, Ocean Vuong’s “Aubade with Burning City,” while the poem details the traumatic event of the evacuation from Saigon, the poem does not assign a sense of blame that alienates an American audience. Vuong writes “The radio saying run run run” (Vuong). Vuong’s poem highlights American assistance in the evacuation of Saigon, situating America in the light. Even as lê and Vuong’s works discuss wartime trauma, this trauma never challenges the United States, and therefore is able to exist unchallenged as a piece of genre writing.

However, in his short story, Le refuses to leave America unchallenged. Perhaps due to his residence in Australia, Le directly discusses American actions as the root of trauma in the Vietnam War. In excruciating detail, he discusses the My Lai massacre that his father survived, stating “People were now shouting, ‘No VC no VC,’ but the Americans just frowned and spatMy Lai Massacre and laughed” (Le 16). Le paints Americans as cruel and impassive as they commit inhumane actions, murdering civilians, raping women, and committing mass slaughter. This scene directly challenges American involvement in the war, and in doing so, challenges ethnic literature’s convention of being unabrasive to an American audience.

Despite being seen as an easy genre to add writing to, Le digs deep into the meaning of “ethnic literature.” In discussing such a difficult memory and assigning a sense of blame in it, Le directly combats the idea that ethnic literature is easy and entertaining. He dredges up severe trauma in excruciating detail, proving the difficulty of ethnic literature’s creation.

Colors and Haze: Liminal Space in The Gangster We Are All Looking For

There is something inherently disorienting to travel, regardless of the reason. Even within driving the eight hours from my hometown to school, everything seems to exist in a hazy, liminal space, time marked only by occasional stops at a gas station for snacks. For the narrator of lê thi diem thúy’s novel The Gangster We Are All Looking For, this disorientation is only compounded by the reason for her movement: her status as a refugee from the Vietnam War.

liminal space: a silhouette of a figure swinging on a trapeze in the clouds

The Gangster We Are All Looking For opens with the description of physical locations. lê writes “Linda Vista, with its rows of yellow houses, is where we eventually washed to shore. Before Linda Vista, we lived in the Green Apartment on Thirtieth and Adams, in Normal Heights. Before the Green Apartment, we lived in the Red Apartment on Forty-ninth and Orange” (lê 3). lê charts the movement between homes, each represented by a color. a variety of houses, brightly coloredBy passing rapidly through colors, lê creates a flickering, unstable effect, charting themovement between yellow to green to red and orange. The selection of specifically yellow, green, and red evokes the image of a stoplight, a marker relating to a physical travel on the road. By passing quickly between colors relating to transit, lê connects the imagery of the houses to the idea of movement. The inconstancy of color establishes an inconstancy of location, and the quick shifts between these descriptions creates an immediate effect of disorientation in displacement.

The novel’s initial feel of displacement is exacerbated by the narrator’s description of flying on an airplane, leaving a refugee camp and traveling to America. She describes the flight, stating “Holding onto one another, we moved through clouds, ghost vapors, time zones” (lê 4). lê once again charts movement and transit. This time, she notes the passage not between colors, but through hazier constructs: “clouds, ghost vapors, time zones.” The movement through clouds signals a physical haze and a spatial movement, while moving through ghost vapors suggests a more metaphysical movement.view out an airplane windowThe word “ghost” has a context of an echo or remainder of the past; Merriam-Webster defines it to mean “a disembodied soul” (“ghost”). In moving through “ghost vapors,” the narrator moves through a disembodied past. In addition to moving through physical and metaphysical markers, the narrator also passes through “time zones,” creating a sense of disorientation by dismantling the linear construct of time. lê’s imagery of the airplane associates the narrator’s movement with the passage through space, memory, and time, a disorienting and hazy experience.

lê’s imagery of movement situates the narrator in both a physical and metaphorical liminal space. She exists in a state of physical threshold, shifting between houses and countries. However, she also exists in a state of metaphorical threshold, her senses affected by the feeling of disorientation that comes from these movements. lê’s depiction of movement as disorienting and liminal suggests that the narrator’s experience as a Vietnamese refugee, as a person with transit forced upon her, reflects both this physical inconstancy and the feeling of unreality.

 

“ghost.” Merriam-Webster.com. Merriam-Webster, 2018, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/ghost. Accessed 10 Oct 2018.
lê thi diem thúy. The Gangster We Are All Looking For. Anchor Books, 2004.

Distraction and Distraction and Distraction: Something’s Always Moving on Jackson Street

More than ever, I feel like I lack the ability to focus. I’m always jostling my leg up and down, I’m always gnawing on the end of my pens, I’m always doodling into the margins of my notebooks. There’s always something to keep me occupied.

It seems that I am not the only one who needs the constant bustle of background distraction. In his novel No-No Boy, John Okada continually narrates the stream of his characters’ background actions, emphasizing the undercurrent of anxiety and avoidance that runs through the work.

When Ichiro first returns home and speaks with his father, he watches his father make tea, drink it, then immediately rise to rinse the cup. Ichiro identifies this restless series of actions, stating “He’d never realized how nervous a man his father was. The old man had been constantly doing something every minute since he had come” (Okada 10). By associating constant action with nervousness, Okada builds a connection between them.

Ichiro too commits one of these minor actions: smoking. Immediately after expressing his frustration with his father’s need for distraction, he smokes one cigarette, then “Using the butt of the first cigarette, Ichiro lit another” (Okada 11). This action fills the background of Ichiro’s conversation with his father and the following conversation with his mother. Later, Ichiro retreats to his bedroom where, unable to sit in silence, lies in bed “fighting with his burden, lighting one cigarette after another” (Okada 12). Ichiro’s drive for minor action persists through the text. Later, as he ponders his mother, “he crushed the stub of a cigarette into an ash tray filled with many other stubs and reached for the package to get another” (Okada 17), and even later, when talking to Freddie, he “walked over to the window and lit a cigarette” (Okada 44). Okada’s reference to the repetitive nature of Ichiro’s smoking transforms it into a habitual action, always used as a background distraction to an important thought or interaction. By juxtaposing continually smoking to Ichiro’s uncomfortable moments, Okada links the reference of repetitive minor activity to avoidance.

The need for occupation affects not only Ichiro and his father, but many other characters as well. Freddie also smokes; Kenji drives; Taro plays solitaire. All take up a minor action to keep themselves active.

The repetitive appearance of background motion in the text suggests an anxious undercurrent present in each character. By emphasizing the background, Okada makes clear that no one can sit still. The past remains ever present, forcing the characters to seek distraction.

Okada, John. No-No Boy. 1957. U of Washington P, 2014.

No Words and No Poetry in a Poem Made of Words

I do not remember 9/11. I was two years old when it happened, and I have no memory of the event itself. For me, 9/11 was not an outstanding moment in time, but an event that indirectly shaped my life through the culture of my country.

Hammad reading First Writing Since

In her poem “First Writing Since,” Suheir Hammad creates a series of contradictions between an expectation and reality, drawing from the real world political and social ironies after the 9/11 attacks. Opening the poem by immediately introducing irony to the text, she arises a contrast between the stated narrative and the situation actuality. Hammad’s poem begins “1. there have been no words. / i have not written one word / no poetry in the ashes south of canal street. / no prose in the refrigerated trucks driving debris and dna. / not one word” (Hammad 1). Hammad’s first statement denies the existence of words, but by the sheer nature of the medium, her poem consists entirely of words. In addition to the denial of a presence of words, Hammad also denies the presence of poetry and prose. By indicating the absence of these forms of writing, she surfaces a contrast between the lack of meaningful writing and the presence of her work, a piece of reflection. This dissonance that comes from denying an easily observable fact creates an irony, and therefore establishes a disconnect between presented statements and the truth of the matter.

The effect of acknowledging a contrast between words and reality surfaces throughout the poem. Hammad references a vilification of the Middle East from the public and political authorities, citing the assumptions people make about her due to her race and family. To disrupt those assumptions, however, she constantly questions their validity and consequences, referencing the victims of bombing strikes and the presence of prejudice in America (Hammad 2-3). Hammad’s suggestion of the disconnect between a stated narrative and the realities behind it.

Near the end of the poem, Hammad writes “there is no poetry in this. there are causes and effects. there are / symbols and ideologies. mad conspiracy here, and information we will / never know” (Hammad 4). Again denying the poetry in the subject she has quite literally written a poem about, Hammad brings up a reminder of the implicit contrast between words and the truth behind them, noting the symbols, ideologies, conspiracy, and information that shape these contradictions.

9/11 Memorial Wall. "No day shall erase you from the memory of time -Virgil"

Hammad, Suheir. “First Writing Since.” Motion Magazine, 2001.