China Personified as the “Other”- What is Being Satirized?

Satire is meant to be offensive. However, when the label of ‘satire’ is used to mitigate blame after writing offensive content, it is worth questioning what is being mocked, and why. Calvin Trillin’s poem “Have They Run Out of Provinces Yet?,” published in The New Yorker in 2016, is narrated by a food critic upset by the various Chinese provinces with unique cuisines. After criticism for the poem’s dismissive tone toward Chinese cultures, Trillin defended himself by saying that the poem is satire of foodies, and Chinese cuisine was merely an example. Katy Waldman criticizes this defense in the article “Calvin Trillin’s New Yorker Poem Wasn’t Just Offensive. It Was Bad Satire,” saying “Trillin… doesn’t give us enough reason to think its parodic heart is any more honorable than its bigoted tongue” (Waldman 1).An Anthology, And A Life, Full Of 'Funny Stuff' : NPR

A major problem with Trillin’s poem is that the target, which is supposedly ‘foodies,’ is unclear. Waldman points out that “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…it hardly seems aware that its attitude toward Chinese people (“they”) is problematic” (Waldman 3). While I agree with Waldman, her analysis makes me question how problematic it is that Trillin chooses the Chinese to use as a scapegoat for his ‘satire’ of foodies. In fact, Trillin personifies the Chinese provinces themselves, assigning blame to them for the effects they have on the ‘foodie’ community. Rather than taking personal responsibility for ignorance over the various regions and cultures of China, the narrator personifies these provinces as malicious. This personification is apparent in the line, “Now, as each brand-new province appears, It brings tension, increasing our fears” (Trillin). The verbs “tension” and fears, according to Waldman, “seemed to stoke xenophobic anxieties” (Waldman 1). These lines say that the country of China itself is conspiring against these ‘foodies’ by endlessly revealing these new provinces.

After years of Americans homogenizing not just China, but Asia as a whole, the choice to personify China in this way is ill-advised. While the poem does not seem to be meant to mock the Chinese, is not evident why Trillin chooses Chinese cuisine as a punchline. It is even less certain if Trillin is also satirizing the homogenization of the Chinese, and Asia, by the United States. The most egregious aspect of “Have They Run out of Provinces Yet?” is how incomplete its supposed critiques are and lack of awareness of its subjects.

Works Cited

Trillin, Calvin. “Have They Run Out of Provinces Yet?.” The New Yorker, 4 April 2016.

Waldman, Kate. “Calvin Trillin’s New Yorker Poem Wasn’t Just Offensive. It Was Bad Satire.” Browbeat, Slate, 12 April 2016.

Images of Life and Death in “The Namesake”

Life and death. While many texts explore this dichotomy, The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri complicates these terms by juxtaposing them in relation to trauma. The Namesake explores a family of Indian immigrants in the United States and their adjustment to a new culture, parenthood, cultural conflicts, and trauma. In the first chapter of the novel, Ashoke describes his near death experience from years prior, in which he almost died after a train went off course. This leads to a conflict with his new role as a father.

Easter: It's a Matter of Life and Death - Feed the Hunger

Ashoke’s trauma conflicts with his desire to be the best parent possible, as his first moments with his newborn son are infiltrated with violent images. This uncomfortable contrast suggests that Ashoke has Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) from his near death experience.

As Ashoke waits for his son’s birth, he connects the arrival of new life with his traumatic experience, saying:

“Although it is Ashima who carries the child, he, too, feels heavy, with the thought of life, of his life and the life about to come from it… Again he tastes the dust on his tongue, sees the twisted train, the giant overturned iron wheels.” (Lahiri 30)

Ashoke fully identifies with Ashima’s experience as a pregnant woman in these thoughts, and feels heavy in a metaphoric sense. While Ashima feels the actual weight of a child, Ashoke feels an emotional weight of the responsibility of parenthood. “Heaviness” has negative connotations, making the birth of his son sound like a burden.

The nouns of “dust,” “twisted train,” and “giant overturned wheels” create a feeling of entrapment. The alliteration of “twisted train” emphasizes the impending doom, as it creates a rushed, uneasy sound.This arrival of new life is complicated by his trauma, as he has experienced what it is like to be on the verge of death. The imagery of dust on one’s tongue evokes not being able to breathe. “Giant overturned wheels” creates a feeling of smallness and imminent doom.FATHERS & FATHERHOOD: Greatest Quotes About Fathers and ...

These disturbing images of death are juxtaposed with the arrival of his newborn son. Although the birth of his son should fill Ashoke with joy, the unresolved trauma complicates this experience. The imagery of the final sensory experiences before his ‘death’ articulate how raw the experience is in Ashoke’s head. These intrusive thoughts suggest an impending conflict between Ashoke’s ideal role as a father and the trauma he needs to resolve before fully embracing those responsibilities. B5.

Works Cited

Lahiri, Jhumpa. The Namesake. Houghton Mifflin, 2003

 

Generational Understanding Versus Exploitation When Writing About the Vietnam War

My grandparents do not talk about their past. Despite their fascinating struggles and rich experiences, I am left to my own imagination in order to attempt to understand what they went through. Literature is frequently used as a medium to bridge generational disconnect and tell these lost stories. Vietnamese-American literature in particular continues to tell stories about the Vietnam War by a generation too young to have experienced it. As this new generation of writers grapple with their identities in the United States and beyond, there is a conflict between honoring their ancestors’ struggles and exploiting them for profit. Daniel Kim and Viet Thanh Nguyen articulate this conflict in “The Literature of the Korean War and Vietnam War,” saying “while often being self-conscious of their circumscribed conditions,  [Vietnamese-American writers] find it hard not to write about the war” (Kim and Nguyen 66). Since many Americans’ knowledge of Vietnam is limited to the war, writers sometimes feel trapped to strictly writing about what their ancestors went through.

5 Best Books on the Vietnam War | Quintessential ...

In Love and Honor and Pity and Pride and Compassion and Sacrifice by Nam Le, he explores the tendency/pressure for Vietnamese-American- or, in his case, Vietnamese-Australian- authors to write about their parents’ experiences with the war. The short story centers on a Vietnamese-Australian writer who struggles with writer’s block. When a friend hears about this, she says to him, “You could totally exploit the Vietnamese thing,” to which he reacts by feeling like his leg was “gory, blood splattered (Le 10). The physical pain he feels, or imagines to feel, is a metaphor for his emotional pain he feels over writing about the Vietnam War. The description of his leg as gory and blood splattered is an illusion to a bullet wound, linking his present experience to his father’s past. Despite the generational disconnect, he still feels tremendous emotional pain when he is told that writing about his father is exploitation.

This is a shift from the experience that Kim and Nguyen describe, as Love and Pity is a self-aware and critical story about those who continue to write about the Vietnam War. The narrator struggles with thoughts of exploitation throughout the story, as by writing about his father’s past, he is doing what is expected of him. He is illuminating his father’s past, but he feels wounded and cheapened by doing so. However, by writing about a narrator with these thoughts regarding writing about his father, Nam creates a unique reflection on what it is like for contemporary Vietnamese-American writers to simultaneously attempt to honor the past and also feel minimized to one topic. B4.

Works Cited

Kim, Daniel Y. and Viet Thanh Nguyen. “The Literature of the Korean and Vietnam Wars.” The Cambridge Companion to Asian American Literature, edited by Crystal Parikh and Daniel Y. Kim, Cambridge University Press, 2015, pp. 66 – 67.

Le, Nam. “Love and Honor and Pity and Pride and Compassion and Sacrifice.” The Boat, Knopf, 2008, pp. 3 – 28.

When Things Are Clearer in the Dark: Contrasts and Displacement in “The Gangster We Are All Looking For”

I have always loved the nighttime. During the day, people are so inhibited, but under the cover of darkness, people are often compelled to act more genuine. lê thị diễm thúy’s novel The Gangster We Are All Looking For explores this elucidating effect of darkness. Gangster tells the story of a young girl’s experience as a Vietnamese refugee with her father, Ba, and four ‘uncles’ following the Vietnam war. The first chapter of the book, “Suh-top,” features a series of vignettes from the narrator’s first couple months in America. Lê utilizes imagery of lightness and darkness to convey the narrator’s emotions of displacement during her first couple moments in an unfamiliar country.

While the narrator and her family drive over to their new home in America, she describes her new surroundings as “unfamiliar brightly lit streets” (lê 4).The lamps on the streets create artificial light. Although light usually has connotations of happiness and rebirth, in this context, has a fake effect. This reflects that while the narrator may be grateful for the opportunity America has given her, she cannot experience true lightness, or happiness, in a non-artificial way due to her displacement from her home and family. The fact that these streets are unfamiliar creates a feeling of alienation and dejection, which is juxtaposed with this intrusively ‘positive’ light, creating an uncomfortable contrast. This also reflects the characters’ feelings of discomfort, as they are out of place in America in the way light stands out in the dark.

After driving through the streets, they are “delivered to a sidewalk in front of a darkened house” (le 4). The fact that the house is not described as dark, but “darkened,” insinuates that the nighttime is darkening the house. However, the “darkening” also reflects the narrator’s state of mind. The artificial light from the lamps is gone, and she is forced to face the reality of the situation that is presented to her. It is also foreshadowing to her experiences in the home, which are mostly negative. This inauspicious start to her experiences in the house immediately paint the it as a place of suffering and darkness.

It is ironic that although earlier the streets were lit up, they were obscuring the reality of their situation as dark and dismal. In this sense, darkness allowed the characters to see their condition as it actually is. By contrasting images of lightness and darkness, lê foreshadows the characters’ situations throughout the rest of the chapter. B3.

An Interview with lê thi diem thúy

Works Cited

le thi diem thuy. The Gangster We Are All Looking For. Anchor Books, 2004.

Introspection and Alienation in “No-No Boy”

Do you remember the feeling of returning to your hometown after just a semester of college? The sense of both everything and nothing being different was eerie to me. In No No Boy, John Okada conveys this feeling of detachment from the world and coming back to find everything transformed in subtle ways. The first couple chapters consist of Ichiro wandering around his hometown, feeling neither Japanese nor American, but 100% an outsider to his hometown, family, and country. The narrative style is mostly introspective, as much more is said through Ichiro’s thoughts than his actions. Okada writes Ichiro’s thoughts from a dejected and heartbroken perspective. These emotions are especially prominent when Ichiro visits his former professor.

The professor greets Ichiro saying “You’re Su…Suzu…no…Tsuji…,” immediately indicating to Ichiro that he is not as important to the professor as the professor is to him, and that he homogenizes all of his Japanese students (Okada 51). Following an impersonal and generic conversation where the professor urges him to go back to school because Ichiro hasn’t changed as much as he believes, Ichiro muses that “It was all wrong… It was seeing without meeting, talking without hearing, smiling without feeling” (Okada 52).

This quote articulates Ichiro’s emotions toward all of his interactions in the first couple chapters of No-No Boy; they permeate with feelings of not only loneliness, but also complete emptiness. When the professor greets Ichiro with a list of Japanese names while lying about remembering him, another connection from a former life completely fades away, revealing his insignificance. While it is never stated in the text, depression and alienation radiate from all of his thoughts.

Following the conversation, Ichiro agonizes over whose fault the failed conversation was, saying that he “reduces conversations to the inconsequential because Brown is of that life which [he has] forfeited and, forfeiting it, [has] lost the right to see and hear and become excited over things which are of that wonderful past” (Okada 52). Ichiro’s thoughts reflect a deep guilt and self- deprecation, shattering the model minority myth following World War II. Japanese men did not only feel alienated from American society, but also had real depression and mental health issues due to the trauma inflicted upon them simply due to their race. Okada’s point of view honors this perspective and brings it to life, creating an unflinchingly realistic point of view.

Van Gogh - Trauernder alter Mann.jpeg

Works Cited

Okada, John. No-No Boy. University of Washington Press, 2014.

Suffering is Uncomfortable. Word.

 

While suffering is a universal human experience, it is somehow difficult to verbally sympathize with others, especially strangers. Expressing sorrow is often uncomfortable and embarrassing. “First Writing Since” by Suheir Hammad utilizes the poetic device of colloquialism to articulate the human tendency to minimize and belittle pain when dealing with these experiences.

In stanza sixteen, Hammad uses colloquialisms and casual language that juxtapose the tone of the rest of the poem, adding a comedic effect. The narrator details an interaction with a “big white woman” who is compassionate and accepting toward her, an Arab American navigating a post-9/11 world. It initially feels like a moment of genuine connection that the narrator is searching for. The woman is able to offer the narrator physical comfort; she gives an embrace “the kind only people with the warmth of flesh can offer,” (Hammad 2). Immediately after, however, when the narrator laments that she is an Arab in America with brothers in the navy, the exchange quickly turns darkly humorous. All the white woman can manage to say is “wow, you got double trouble.” Using the casual slang term “double trouble” is extremely minimizing, but also creates a feeling of awkwardness between them. The narrator’s unexpected reply of the colloquialism “word” feels distinctive from  her voice in the rest of the poem.

The use of colloquialisms to create an unsettling effect on the tone of the poem reveals the struggle to casually communicate about trauma, suffering, and loss in everyday situations effectively with strangers. While the women seems to be sympathetic, and is able to offer the narrator physical comfort, she cannot comfortably verbally express her compassion. This also reflects their different identities, and how the narrator is grappling with being both Arab and American. This white woman is presumably not dealing with these struggles, making her only able to relate on a surface level. The narrator is forced to adhere to a different manner of speaking to relate to this woman by saying “word,” and to soften her outburst of emotion. 

The way these colloquialisms create a feeling of struggling to articulate is ironic in an eloquent poem about 9/11. However, this exchange reflects how these unhinged emotions are expressed outside of art. While Hammad says that there is “no poetry in this. there are causes and effects,” this exchange reminds readers how difficult it is to express these negative thoughts outside of this medium, (Hammad 4). B1.

Works Cited

Hammad, Suheir. “First Time Since.” In Motion Magazine. 7 November 2001.