“Have They Run Out of Provinces Yet?”: Trillin Informs His Readers But Waldman Thinks Otherwise

Chinese Provinces

I could not help but smile when reading Calvin Trillin’s food poem, “Have They Run Out of Provinces Yet?” (2016). Perhaps my joy is because of the rhymed couplets, which reminded me of a childish song, that Trillin uses to inform his readers about numerous Chinese provinces as they connect to Asian cuisine. Or greater than this, upon first reading Trillin’s piece, it reminded me of cherished memories with my grandmother. Every weekend I would indulge in sharing “Szechuan” crispy shredded beef with my grandma at our favorite Asian restaurant, “Hunan” Ritz (Trillin 5, 11). Therefore, with these fond memories in mind, I was shocked to read Katy Waldman’s negative reaction to Trillin’s poem in her piece, “Calvin Trillin’s New Yorker Poem Wasn’t Just Offensive. It Was Bad Satire” (2016). Nevertheless, while Trillin’s piece personally evoked nostalgia, I can understand the backlash Waldman brings up and critiques. However, given the speaker’s inquisitive and informative tone, I believe Trillin looked to “delight in the cultural richness left to discover” rather than intentionally spread bigotry towards Asians (Waldman 3).

Trillin’s poem begins with the question, “Have they run out of provinces yet?” (1). Paired with the second line, “If they haven’t, we’ve reason to fret” creates a good-natured inquiry (Trillin 2). Trillin advocates for additional Asian cultures to gain respect. The speaker asks this question because it is a bigger problem if additional provinces seize to exist instead of looking at them as an emerging threat. Waldman argues that Trillin’s “interchange[ing]” of “Chinese cuisines” is a main reason for angering readers (Waldman 1). However, Trillin does not interchange these cultures, but rather distinguishes the importance of each. His tone informs readers that “Long ago, there was just Cantonese” (Trillin 3). It was not until “Szechuan came our way” that people questioned the different provinces within Chinese cuisine (Trillin 5). Until then, Chinese cuisine was generalized as only one thing. Trillin is informing readers of the progression of provinces that influenced foods they believe they know all about, but actually may not know the history behind. Waldman states that the “Americanized noodles represented white people’s closest contact with the Asian ‘other’” (1). Thus, Trillin is informing “white people” about the distinct cultures that “noodles” emerged from, creating an understanding instead of “other[ing]” (Waldman 1). While Trillin’s attempt to inform readers may come off as stereotyping, considering “burn[ing] through your tongue” is not the only characteristic of “Szechuanese” food; ultimately, Trillin’s poem “reads like a good-natured poke at the snooty aspirations of wannabee hipsters” (Trillin 8,7; Waldman 3). One may not know about the origins of the food they love, or perhaps they complain about the numerous options when they simply want noodles. Trillin attempts to remedy both categories of customers through information and distinction between cultures many (mis)associate with their favorite chow.

Szechuan Crispy Shredded Beef

Trillin’s “Have They Run Out of Provinces Yet?” is not a perfect poem. Waldman’s commentary reveals the insensitivity many readers felt in Trillin’s work. What one reads as nostalgia can be interpreted as bigotry by another. Nevertheless, whether one reads this poem as “good [or] bad satire,” Trillin reveals a list of different provinces and cultures (Waldman 2). While one reader may take offense by Trillin simply dropping names with little elaboration, he also exposes readers to over five provinces they may never have heard of before. Waldman cites an “eye-rolled Rich Smith at the Stranger;” however, perhaps it is more eye-opening (2). The next time you “slurp dumplings” remember they originate from “Shanghainese” culture (Trillin 10, 9). This is a fact unknown from the generic name of Chinese restaurants, but one revealed by Trillin, making readers potentially think twice about food they casually eat thanks to the information they learned in his poem. B6.

Works Cited

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

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

 

 

“I’m afraid I don’t understand. Good name?” Misinterpretations Associated with Names in Jhumpa Lahiri’s, “The Namesake”

The 2003 novel, The Namesake, by Jhumpa Lahiri, is worthy of its title. “Good name,” “pet name,” “legal name,” “nicknames”: the list goes on and on for different, distinct name categories (Lahiri 58). If that sounds confusing to distinguish, you are not alone. Using the proper name given the situation is a central problem that arises in Lahiri’s text. Ashima, Ashoke, and their Bengali relatives recognize the importance of having at least two names. One name is used in private and the other is reserved for the public sphere. However, Mrs. Lapidus, the principal of Gogol’s new school, does not understand this Indian tradition. Her inability to comprehend, or take the time to do so, results in an unique shift in power dynamics, created using dialogue.

Hello, My Name Is

After Ashoke leaves his son at his new elementary school, Gogol expresses his distress about his “parents want[ing him] to have another name in school” (Lahiri 59). Mrs. Lapidus asks the five year old, “And what about you, Gogol? Do you want to be called by another name?” (Lahiri 59). Upon first glance, one may interpret this moment as progressive. Mrs. Lapidus notices Gogol’s unhappiness and actively creates a dialogue with and acknowledges the opinions of the child. Oftentimes, the requests of a kid are not considered because their parents dictate their actions and beliefs. However, the principal is not necessarily sympathetic to Gogol because of his age, but because of her misunderstanding. Mrs. Lapidus’ question to Gogol follows a lengthy conversation with Ashoke. When dropping Gogol off, the question of his name emerges. Given his multiple names:

Mrs. Lapidus studies the registration form. She has not had to go through this confusion with the other two Indian children… ‘There seems to be some confusion, Mr. Ganguli,’ she says. ‘According to these documents, your son’s legal name is Gogol.’

                            ‘That is correct. But please allow me to explain—’

                            ‘That you want us to call him Nikhil.’

                            ‘That is correct.’

                            Mrs. Lapidus nods. ‘The reason being?’

                            ‘That is our wish.’

                            ‘I’m not sure I follow you, Mr. Ganguli…’ (Lahiri 58).

Thus, the praise once given to Mrs. Lapidus for asking Gogol his preference regarding his name should be reconsidered. Her motivations for gaining Gogol’s insight is because she does not understand his father’s rational. She admits to her “confusion” but is not interested in fully understanding or resolving this misunderstanding (Lahiri 58). Dialogue establishes an opportunity for understanding, considering it allows for clarification by questioning back and forth between participants. However, Mrs. Lapidus does not take up this opportunity. Ashoke explains, “That is our wish” to call his son Nikhil in school instead of Gogol (Lahiri 58). Rather than respecting this “wish,” Mrs. Lapidus refers to the boy as Gogol because doing so is easier than being educated about this Indian custom (Lahiri 58). Ashoke attempts to explain his name preference several times. Nevertheless, Mrs. Lapidus “does not understand a word” (Lahiri 59).

Therefore, this conversation becomes a problem because it “others” Ashoke and Ashima. Mrs. Lapidus asks Gogol his preference because he is more American than his parents. She is able to easily comprehend Gogol’s wishes because they are similar to her own. Gogol grew up with only one name, a custom traditionally American. This becomes a problem of intolerance. Mrs. Lapidus would rather practice methods of her convenience instead of educating herself about beliefs different from her own but that are incredibly important to Ashoke and Ashima. Because their “wish” was not respected, upon the birth of their daughter, Ashoke and Ashima have “learned their lesson after Gogol. They’ve learned that schools in America will ignore parents’ instructions and register a child under his pet name” (Lahiri 58, 61). The parents are forced to shift their beliefs in order to fit into a school system and nation different from their home.

Form to fill out with name

Avoidance over education often takes precedence when confusion occurs. It is ironic that Mrs. Lapidus, a principal of a school, would rather ignore the requests of Indian parents than educate herself about their culture and customs. This gives more power to a child than adults because it is easier to go along with the established norm instead of taking time to learn about a new situation. As a result, Ashoke and Ashima are othered because they are not Americans. Beyond that, they are also othered from other Indians considering, Mrs. Lapidus “has not had to go through this confusion with the other two Indian children” (Lahiri 58). This mindset creates categories for discrimination. Mrs. Lapidus struggles to comprehend the different categories the Bengali culture associates with names; yet, she does not hesitate to place Ashoke and Ashima into Americanized boxes. B5.

Works Cited

Lahiri, Jhumpa. The Namesake. Mariner Books, 2003.

 

The Trap of Challenging Expectations of Writing “Ethnic Literature” in “Love and Honor” by Nam Le

“Write what you know / so they say, all I know is I don’t know what to write / or the right way to write it,” is a lyric from the musical, Newsies; but, this mantra could apply just as well to Nam Le’s dilemma in his short story, “Love and Honor.” Daniel Y. Kim and Viet Thanh Nguyen state in their book chapter, “The Literature of the Korean and Vietnam Wars,” that “the Korean War (1950-1953) and the Vietnam War (1960-1975) serve as dominant themes of much Korean American and Vietnamese American writing” (Kim and Nguyen 59). As a Vietnamese Australian, writing about the Vietnam War should be easy for Le, right? However, Le challenges this common theme by presenting the difficulty attached to writing “ethnic literature” (Le 9).

Crumpled paper and a typewriter.

As our Unit III title suggests, “Writing [about] War,” is a prominent topic in Asian American literature. Because of this topic’s prevalence, there is often an expectation that Asian American authors write about this theme. As a result, Asian American authors often feel pressured or obligated “to write about the war or at least find it difficult to get published if they do not write about the war” (Kim and Nguyen 67). This conflict brings up questions of identity and worth, which also connect to Le’s work. The question arises: Are Asian American authors only worthy of praise and notice if they write about war? Le’s narrator in “Love and Honor” challenges this notion by attempting to write other genres. Nam “choose[s] to write about lesbian vampires and Colombian assassins, and Hiroshima orphans—and New York painters with hemorrhoids” instead of the typical war narrative (Le 10). However, it is important to look at the beginning of this sentence and conversation. Coming out of a party, the narrator is talking with his friend about writer’s block. Due to the commonality of writing about the Vietnam War, as Kim and Nguyen mention, his friend suggests an “easy” solution:

You could totally exploit the Vietnamese thing. But instead, you choose to write about lesbian vampires and Colombian assassins, and Hiroshima orphans—and New York painters with hemorrhoids (Le 10).

The use of italics emphasizes the friend’s critique of Le’s choice to stray away from the subject matter expected of Asian American writers. Through “totally,” the friend is suggesting that “exploiting” the trope of writing about the Vietnamese War is an easy task. The italics add a nonchalance to the word. “Totally” becomes a phrase that anyone can use, insinuating a task that anyone can accomplish. The use of italics suggest that writing about war is an easy task for Asian American authors. Because they are Vietnamese, there is an expectation that Vietnamese writers automatically know about this event in depth and have a personal story to share about it. However, this is not always the case. Le looks to avoid this stereotyping by writing about different genres. Because he is looking to get as far away from the expected as possible, Le chooses rather obscure topics, including, “lesbian vampires and Colombian assassins” (Le 10). Yet, Le’s attempt to challenge expectations creates greater ridicule from his friend. Rather than following the norm and writing about war, his friend points out that “instead” Le picks peculiar topics that result in writer’s block and do not have a specific audience. Once again, italics emphasize the friend’s scorn towards Le’s choice. This ridicule, combined with writer’s block and approaching deadlines, causes the narrator to fall into the trap of writing about war. Therefore, even when Le attempts to challenge the norm and reframe the expected narrative, he realizes the reality of his situation. This revelation is not that “ethnic writing” is easy, but rather that it can become a default for producing work under tight pressures and popular opinions. Le tries something new; but, he is not immune to the pressures Asian American writers, and writers in general, are subjected to.

Trap

Le has good intentions when he “rebel[s] against this expectation of telling the ethnic story” (Kim and Nguyen 67). His narrator attempts to broader what is expected of Asian American writers, by selecting topics that are unique and daring for writers in general, not just Asian American ones. Yet, this risk does not reap the expected rewards. Ultimately, thanks to writer’s block, the narrator realizes that “ethnic writing” is not the easy route but an effective route for Asian American writers to take when pressures arise. This encapsulates the difficulty of being an Asian American writer who simultaneously wants to break down stereotypes, and advance the expectations of their capabilities; but, also wants to keep and secure their job. 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, Alfred A. Knopf, 2008, pp. 3 – 28.

 

 

“Are We There Yet?”: Exploring Dislocation and Movement in The Gangster We Are All Looking For

The color of the walls in my hometown bedroom are light purple. That’s clear to anyone who enters. But did you notice, or remember, the ticket stub from 2008 sitting on my dresser? I bet not, and that’s okay. You were in my room for two hours, I have been living there my whole life. In The Gangster We Are All Looking For by lê thi diem thúy, the narrator, a nameless girl, struggles with dislocation. lê’s novel follows this girl, her father, and four “uncles” as they become refugees in San Diego after fleeing Vietnam following the war. Their journey is not easy, with no particular final destination. In the opening paragraphs, lê depicts the constant movement this family faces, as seen through “eventually” and “after” (lê 3-4). These particular words and images work together to show the extensive and constant journey this family endures. They struggle to make lasting memories along the way, as seen through the girl’s inability to characterize locations beyond generalizations.

Eventually

lê begins her novel, “Linda Vista, with its rows of yellow houses, is where we eventually washed to shore” (lê 3). The word “eventually” emphasizes the ongoingness of the narrator’s journey (lê 3). “[E]ventually” suggests that the family has been traveling for an extended period of time before disembarking from their ship. It was only a matter of time before she “eventually washed to shore” (lê 3). The end of this sentence, “washed to shore,” continues the effects of “eventually” (lê 3). Here, lê  suggests that there was no intended destination, Linda Vista just happened to be where their boat arrived. This diction conveys uncertainty; thus, creating a sense of dislocation. The family has been moving for an extended period of time; however, they have no clear idea of where they are going or will “eventually” end up (lê 3). An uncertain fate is a common feeling among Vietnamese refugees. These Vietnamese were forced to suddenly flee their homeland without knowing where they might end up, or how long it will take to get to their new location.

Additionally, the narrator describes leaving the refugee camp in Singapore and going to the airport. Here, she states, “We entered the revolving doors of airports and boarded plane after plane” (lê 4). Once again, lê creates a sense of displacement and movement, considering planes are vehicles which carry someone from place to place. The phrase, “boarded plane after plane” reveals that this was not the family’s first time moving (lê 4). “[A]fter” particularly emphasizes the reoccurrence of movement. This alludes to the fact that there must be more than one plane which the family is getting onto. The narrator must have just been in one place and is now flying on another. As well, the mention of a “revolving door” creates an image of going in circles (lê 4). This family is constantly moving from one place to the next, repeating the same simple actions but in different places. “Revolving” denotes rotating around an axis (lê 4). In this case, the family is physically traveling around the world from Asia to North America.

Revolving Door

Together, these two images display the long, uncertain fate of a Vietnamese refugee. “Eventually” and “after” reveal that the family’s voyage took a long time (lê 3-4). The family “eventually” landed in California, but it was only after several modes of transportation and numerous stops along the way. Directly after the first line, the narrator describes several of these stops. She states, “Before the Green Apartment, we lived in the Red Apartment… and Orange, in East San Diego” (lê 3). This follows her description of Linda Vista’s “yellow houses” mentioned above (lê 3). The narrator characterizes these places simply by color, mentioning “Green.. Red.. and Orange” (lê 3). This is a very basic, general description. Due to her long and constant journeys as a Vietnamese refugee, she has no time to settle down or make memories. Therefore, she describes each place in a way that is easily identifiable but lacks specificity.

What good is a story if it has no substance? While this family has traveled to a lot of places, each place might as well be interchangeable as no lasting memories were formed during their stays. Dislocation creates long-term effects on the narrator. She is forced to relocate somewhere new before fully living in the last place. This sense of constant uncertainty becomes the fate of the Vietnamese refugee. It takes a long time to get to one destination, but soon enough, they will be on to the next. B3.

Works Cited

lê, thi diem thúy. The Gangster We Are All Looking For. First Anchor Books, 2004.

“Tense” as in Anger or “Tense” as in Grammar?: Questions of Tense in Relation to Identity in John Okada’s No-No Boy

 

Road Sign with “Past” and “Present” Grammar Tenses

Huh, I thought this novel was written in third person narration? Wait, why are we now switching back and forth between past and present tense? When reading John Okada’s No-No Boy (1957), close readers have to do several double takes to notice the subtle changes Okada slips into his work. Revolving around Ichiro Yamada, a Japanese-American who is adjusting back to life in Seattle after two years in prison, No-No Boy occurs after the Japanese bombings of Pearl Harbor. Ichiro responds “no” twice to a US survey asking him to swear allegiance to the United States, making him a “no-no boy.” An extensive paragraph, spanning all of page 16 and half of the next, begins with a shift from third person narration to first person point of view without a stylistic or punctuational distinction noting this change in perspective. However, it is the constant shift from past to present tense that develops Ichiro’s stream of consciousness, a narrative style emerging in response to a conversation Ichiro has with his mother regarding identity and their connection to Japan, a concept Ichiro is constantly contemplating after his double “no” declaration.

Japanese and American Flags

After establishing a change in point of view, Okada transitions into a change in tense to distinguish Ichiro’s conflicting identity. When describing his life and heritage before World War II, Ichiro uses the past tense. He positively proclaims, “we were Japanese with Japanese feelings and Japanese pride and Japanese thoughts because it was all right then to be Japanese” (Okada 16).  In the past, Ichiro felt a sense of “pride” in relation to his heritage. He says his people were allowed to “think all the things that Japanese do even if we lived in America” (Okada 16). During this time, Ichiro accepted his heritage because it was nothing to be ashamed of. Even though his family lived in a country different from their ancestry, it was not an attribute that needed to be hidden as Japan was not seen as an immediate threat during this time.

Further along in the paragraph, Okada continues to use the past tense; but, Ichiro’s thoughts become sullen as he acknowledges a shift that occurs as the narrative moves closer to the events of Pearl Harbor. Suddenly, Ichiro states, “I was only half Japanese” in reference to his upbringing in America (Okada 16). A divide between cultures and identities arises in this moment. On one hand, Ichiro was raised “among Americans in American streets and houses” and it is only a matter of time before he embraced this side of himself (Okada 16). However, his connection to his mother and her love for Japan becomes a setback Ichiro must confront. Before, Ichiro never had to acknowledge these conflicting aspects of his identity considering being Japanese was all he ever knew.

Yet, it is the transition into the present tense that solidifies Ichiro’s lack of a place in society. He asserts, “I am not your son and I am not Japanese and I am not American” (Okada 16). The reader first hears Ichiro’s first person narration following a conversation with his mother. In spite of his inability to establish an identity, once again Ichiro turns his rage towards his mother. He declares, “I blame you and I blame myself and I blame the world” (Okada 17). While he cannot pinpoint one culture to identity with, Ichiro has no problem identifying his feeling of hatred towards a variety of sources. Having these feelings in the present tense shows the ongoing presence of anger even when the war is over. This is a feeling still inherent in many Japanese Americans today, which Okada identifies through Ichiro.

Identity Crisis, featuring a concerned, questioning tomato.

No matter how far away one moves from the events of Pearl Harbor, it does not make confronting the realities of the treatment of Japanese any easier. Whether one confronts this issue from the past or present tense, Ichiro grapples with both, perhaps anger is the only definitive answer when faced with the absurd challenge of having to choose an identity. Ichiro is forced to make a choice. In his decision to say “no,” Ichiro severs a part of his past identity and sacrifices a potential future.  In the present, Ichiro has to live with the consequences of his decision. B2. 

Works Cited

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

Thank You, Thank You, Thank You: The Use of Anaphora in Suheir Hammad’s “First Writing Since”

“Thank You” in several languages.

       When was the last time you said thank you for something you usually take for granted? As a response to the September 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center, Suheir Hammad gives “plenty of thank yous” in her poem, “First Writing Since” (33). Using anaphora, the repetition of a word or phrase at the beginning of a sentence, Hammad appeals to her reader’s emotions by stating that even in the hardest of times, it is important to be thankful for occurrences that may otherwise be overlooked.

       Through the repetition of “thank you” in the eighth stanza, Hammad encourages her reader to appreciate occurrences in life that may seem mundane or infuriating in the moment, but may actually end up saving one’s life. The use of anaphora emphasizes that there are a number of moments to be thankful for, even in a time as grim as September 11th. For example, Hammad states, “thank you for my lazy procrastinating late ass” (34). Typically traits such as “procrastinating” and being “lazy” and “late” are associated with negative connotations. However, had Hammad’s faults not been factors, she would have been on her “daily train ride into the world trade center” (31-32). Additionally, Hammad appeals to the reader’s emotions by saying, “thank you… rude nyer who stole my cab” (36-37). It is easy to think of an instance in which you have been late and it feels as if the world simply does not want you to make it on time. In any other instance, this is an irritating feeling. Yet, by starting her sentence with “thank you,” Hammad asks her reader to take a step back and recognize the implications of what would have happened had she successfully gotten a “cab going downtown” (37). She concludes this stanza with, “thank you for my legs, my eyes, my life” (38). This final, rather general, statement especially makes her reader recognize aspects taken for granted. Most days, many do not think about their legs, or the impact they have on daily occurrences. This use of anaphora is significant because September 11th made New Yorkers, Arabs, and everyone in-between realize the consequences and impact one day can make on the rest of their lives.

Rapunzel, the princess from Disney’s film Tangled, taking a deep breath.

       Admitting you are wrong and acknowledging the necessity of negative attributes as a key concept to success, and in this case survival, is a hard idea to come to terms with. Using anaphora, not only does Hammad acknowledge her faults, she actually says “thank you” and admits their importance. Recognizing situations that may seem undesirable and putting them in the context of appreciation allows Hammad’s reader to recognize that often small situations can have the biggest impact. It is important to take a deep breath when times get hard, as oftentimes there is a lot worse that could have happened. B1.

 

Works Cited

“Anaphora.” Merriam-Webster, Merriam-Webster, www.meriam-webster.com/dictionary/anaphora.

Hammad, Suheir. “First Writing Since.” In Motion Magazine, 7 Nov. 2001.