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.

https://goo.gl/images/pcXxcD

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.

Being a Foreigner is Like a Lifelong Pregnancy: Simile in “The Namesake”

Being away from home for an extended period of time can be difficult. But it’s especially challenging when you have to leave home and move out of the country, the only place you’ve known your whole life, and adapt to an entire new culture and society. This is the exact struggle that Ashima Ganguli experiences in Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake. After marrying Ashoke, she leaves her family behind in Calcutta, India and follows her new husband to the city of Boston in America, where Ashoke decides to complete his engineering studies and become a professor. While Ashoke is happy to be seeing a different part of the world, Ashima is constantly racked with homesickness, to the point where she compares the experience of being a foreigner as painful as pregnancy.

It is clear from the onset of the novel that Ashima misses her home. On the very first page of the novel, Ashima attempts to recreate a concoction from India to consume during her pregnancy, which is “a humble approximation of the snack sold for pennies on Calcutta sidewalks and on railway platforms throughout India” (Lahiri 1). However, she notices that, “as usual, there’s something missing” (Lahiri 1). Ashima’s efforts at trying to create a reminder of her homeland in her new home abroad can be seen as a representation of her homesickness because even though she has been living in Boston for a while, something is still out of place.

https://goo.gl/images/Pgxm8X

Throughout the rest of the novel, Ashima’s homesickness is more explicitly stated: she often ponders about the cultural differences between India and America, feels lonely without her family, cries when there are no letters from Calcutta, etc. Prior to her son Gogol being born, Ashima would “spend hours in the apartment, napping, sulking, rereading her same five Bengali novels on the bed” (Lahiri 35). Though life does improve when she has children, Ashima still feels saddened by homesickness. For instance, when the Gangulis move from Boston to a university town outside of the city, Ashima feels distressed all over again from having to leave behind a familiar setting. At the beginning of Chapter 3, her thoughts about this process are highlighted: “For being a foreigner, Ashima is beginning to realize, is a sort of lifelong pregnancy – a perpetual wait, a constant burden, a continuous feeling out of sorts. It is an ongoing responsibility…like pregnancy, being a foreigner, Ashima believes, is something that elicits the same curiosity from strangers, the same combination of pity and respect” (Lahiri 49 – 50). The simile used here exemplifies how being a foreigner is like being pregnant. Ashima uses pregnancy as a comparison to her experiences as a foreigner to allow the reader to understand her emotions in a more familiar manner and to emphasize how difficult and painful it is.

https://goo.gl/images/DkJub3

Ashima’s pain as both a mother and a foreigner are addressed in this passage. Through the usage of similes, Ashima makes it clear how, as an Indian living in America, she constantly has to struggle with the burden of taking care of her status. She always has to combat homesickness, deal with new ways of life, and put up with ignorant people. Much like raising a child, the feeling as a foreigner never leaves Ashima alone, constantly demanding her attention, looking for a cure to the feelings of emptiness and desire for her former life of relative ease and familiarity.

B5

Works Cited

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

Ethnic Lit: A Hot Topic & License to Bore

It’s hot. It’s important. It focuses too much on exotic food. It’s a bore. It’s a mean of exploitation.

All of these phrases are used to describe one thing in Nam Le’s “Love and Honor and Pity and Pride and Compassion and Sacrifice”: ethnic literature. In this short story, protagonist Nam struggles with reconnecting with his abusive father and with writing & submitting a story in three days. Because Nam and his father are refugees of the Vietnam War, Nam is torn over whether or not he should write a story about his personal experiences and background. While Nam understands the importance of telling a personal story, he does not want to confront his family’s past or fall into the expected category of “ethnic writers.” As Nam mulls over these problems, thoughts of contrasting perspectives and various pieces of advice from literary agents, colleagues, and friends fill his head, highlighting the juxtaposition of ethnic literature’s roles in the story.

Though Nam’s thoughts are fictional, his issues with ethnic literature, identity, and categorization are grounded in reality. Vietnamese American authors, like Nam, have struggled with separating their writings from the Vietnam War. As noted by Daniel Y. Kim and Viet Thanh Nguyen in “The Literature of the Korean and Vietnam Wars,” Vietnamese Americans “express deep ambivalence about writing a literature that is marked so indelibly by war, colonialism, racism, and the experiences of being exiles, refugees, and immigrants…Vietnamese Americans tend to be visible so long as they speak of [the war] and invisible when they speak of other matters” (Kim & Nguyen 66 – 67). Thus, Vietnamese American writers find it difficult to assert their own independence in the writing world since most people expect (and perhaps wish) for their pieces to be about their Vietnamese backgrounds and experiences with the war and refugee crisis that followed.

https://goo.gl/images/85TMSp

The categorization of Vietnamese American authors as a race of people whose works are only worthy if they write about the war creates an identity that Nam greatly dislikes. This racial categorization is represented in the story when two literary agents talk to Nam: “‘You have to ask yourself, what makes me stand out?’ She tagteamed to her colleague, who answered slowly as through intoning a mantra, ‘Your background and life experience‘” (Le 9). The fact that the words “background” and “life experience” are italicized demonstrates how much these terms stand out to Nam and how the two literary agents like to emphasize them. Additionally, the choice to use the word “mantra” implies how often the literary agents have pitched this idea to potential ethnic writers, highlighting the racial categorization present in Le’s story.

https://goo.gl/images/8JJ1tA

But not all of the people in Nam’s life implore him to focus on his racial identity when writing. A drunk friend rants about how “it’s a license to bore” (Le 9) because people of a certain culture, ethnicity, nationality, etc. are constantly writing about their own background, creating predictable stories filled with characters who are “always flat, generic” (Le 9). Although the very same friend later encourages Nam to “totally exploit the Vietnamese thing” (Le 10), his argument on categorization and predictability bring attention to the juxtaposition of ethnic literature. The comparing and contrasting of the perspectives, pros, and cons of ethnic literature help paint a larger picture: we are able to see how ethnic literature is important because it helps shed light on the experiences of minority communities but at the same time, puts ethnic people in a box of assumptions, such as Vietnamese Americans being expected to write about the Vietnam War. Thus, the juxtaposition of ethnic literature highlights the assumptions that Vietnamese American writers must combat and makes us readers take into consideration how a person’s culture, race, or nationality does not automatically guarantee the production of a story based on these factors.

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.

House after House, Plane after Plane: Displacement & Movement

When one is forced to constantly move around, the sense of belonging and meaning of home can become difficult to understand and painful to think about. The little girl, her father, and four “uncles” in lê thi diem thúy’s novel, The Gangster We Are All Looking For are a group of people who carry this weight. The girl, a nameless narrator, shares her experiences as a Vietnamese refugee through intense observations of her surroundings, such as the apartments/houses her family has lived in and the multiple planes she boarded to reach America.

In the opening paragraph of the novel, the girl lists out all of the places she has lived: “Linda Vista, with its row of yellow houses, is where we eventually washed to shore. Before Linda Vista, we lived in the Green Apartment on Thirteenth and Adams, in Normal Heights. Before the Green Apartment, we lived in the Red Apartment on Forty-ninth and Orange, in East San Diego” (lê 3). The amount of details given about these places (color of apartment, street name, city, neighborhood, etc.) not only exemplifies the narrator’s keen observation skills but also shows how much she has moved around since arriving in America. This is thus an example of displacement within the novel because the girl and her family have been forced out of their war torn country (“washed to shore”) and have struggled to find a place to settle down as demonstrated through their jumping around from house to house.

https://goo.gl/images/nKuvz7

Furthermore, the journey to reach these places in America has not been easy for the girl and her family. The constant movement from one destination to another has been marked by multiple stages in various forms of transportation: “we floated across the sea, first in the hold of a fishing boat, and then in the hold of a U.S. Navy ship…we entered the revolving doors of airports and boarded plane after plane. We were lifted high over the Pacific Ocean. Holding on to one another, we moved through clouds, ghost vapors, time zones” (lê 4). The movement that is showcased in this passage (floating in boats, boarding planes, moving through time zones, etc.) marks not only the physical aspect of the long journey from Vietnam but also hints at how difficult it must have been emotionally: leaving behind a home because of war though less than ideal methods and having to traverse “through clouds, ghost vapors, time zones” is not a simple task for a little girl.

https://goo.gl/images/ZEC22c

The imagery of the apartment buildings and the modes of transportation (boats and planes) thus highlight the challenges for the Vietnamese refugees of the novel. The list of places the narrator has lived in represents displacement because the amount of addresses listed shows how much the family has had to move around. Meanwhile, the boat and plane journeys represent the movement that the characters have endured. By examining these two images closely, the reader is able to reach a better understanding of the Vietnamese refugee experience and how things that non-refugees take for granted, such as a physical home, can serve as powerful symbols of motivation.

B3

Works Cited

Lê, Thi Diem Thúy. The Gangster We Are All Looking For. Anchor Books, 2004.

All Those Before the Judge: Shifting Perspectives in “No-No Boy”

Often times when we are stressed, we picture a scenario in our head in which the conflict is taking place. Perhaps we are afraid of confessing a secret to a friend and therefore need to play out all possible responses and how to address them. Or maybe we are dreading a class presentation and thus need to practice things to say and observe how they sound. An example of this subconscious response to a problem is presented in John Okada’s No-No Boy in the form of an interesting narrative style.

Ichiro Yamada, the protagonist of the novel, is plagued with feelings of anger, confusion, guilt, and hopelessness after returning to Seattle from prison. He is unsure of what to do with his life or who he truly is because as a “no-no boy”, he is constantly rejected by friends, family, and strangers alike. Tormented by these emotions, Ichiro’s thoughts burst forward onto the pages of the novel, usually in streams of consciousness or through the eyes of different characters.

1957 cover of “No-No Boy”

In one instant of the story, Ichiro’s inner turmoil over whether or not he made the right decision to say “no” twice on the loyalty questionnaire becomes a flashback to when he had to face the judge with his reasoning. Ichiro’s perspective, however, is not the only one present in the flashback. We get to see other no-no boys give their reasons for not joining the U.S. army:

“You can’t make me go into the army because I’m not an American or you wouldn’t have plucked me and mine from a life that was good and real and meaningful and fenced me in the desert…” (Okada 30)

“If you think we’re the same kind of rotten Japanese that dropped the bombs on Pearl Harbour, and it’s plain that you do or I wouldn’t be here having to explain to you why it is that I won’t go and protect sons-of-bitches like you…” (Okada 30)

“I can’t go because my brother is in the Japanese army…” (Okada 31)

We thus see Ichiro dealing with his problems by reflecting on the past through the eyes of multiple no-no boys. Interestingly, there are no quotation marks, italics, or other forms of dialogue that are usually present in flashbacks, making this scene seem like it was all just a collection of Ichiro’s own thoughts. In fact, Okada later writes, “And then Ichiro thought to himself: My reason was all the reasons put together” (Okada 32), indicating that Okada’s unique narrative style is supposed to demonstrate how the various emotions and thoughts circling through Ichiro’s head represent the crisis that he is going through. By playing this scenario in his head, Ichiro struggles to understand who he is and to justify and cope with his reasoning.

B2

Works Cited

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

“We Did Not Vilify All White Men”: Allusions to Other Tragedies

“we did not vilify all white men when mcveigh bombed oklahoma. america did not give out his family’s addresses or where he went to church. or blame the bible or pat robertson” (Hammad 3).

Such is the way in which poet Suheir Hammad describes the anger and pain she feels in the aftermath of the September 11 terrorist attacks. Throughout her poem entitled “First Writing Since”, Hammad channels the overwhelming amount of emotions she experiences in the wake of 9/11, such as in Part Five when she alludes to another terrorist incident in which people of the same color of the attacker did not become victims of unjust hate crimes.

Hammad’s use of allusion in Part Five on the third page of her poem highlights the way in which she feels about Muslim Americans being unfairly treated after the 9/11 attacks. In the second stanza of Part Five, Hammad mentions how “mcveigh bombed oklahoma” (Hammad 3). This is a direct reference to Timothy McVeigh and the Oklahoma City bombing of April 1995. Prior to the September 11 attacks in 2001, this was the deadliest terrorist incident in the United States. McVeigh was a white American who killed his own countrymen in a massive attack yet the world did not begin hating and discriminating against all white Americans. Additionally, Hammad alludes to Christianity, a major religion in white America, not coming under attack by stating that people did not “blame the bible or pat robertson” (Hammad 3) as reasons for McVeigh’s actions.

Aftermath of the Oklahoma City bombing 

Hammad’s use of allusion drives her point home: by using real life examples and facts, Hammad is able portray the emotions that she feels in a relevant manner. She does not need to only rely on creative language or vivid descriptions to express her feelings: all she needs to do is bluntly point out hard evidence. Seeing Hammad do this in such a straightforward way is powerful because her frustration and anger is so clear. She laments how unfair it is for all Muslim Americans and Islam to be treated poorly simply because the terrorists of 9/11 were Muslim. She exclaims how white Americans and their religion didn’t come under attack after McVeigh’s awful actions. By openly challenging the racist notions of the hate crimes against Muslim Americans, Hammad brings immediate attention to contemporary issues.

No More Hate Crimes

Allusion is a powerful tool in writing and Hammad takes full advantage of its capabilities. By making references to real life events, readers are able to quickly understand Hammad’s point and think about shifting perspectives and irrational reasoning that exist in the wake of a tragic event such as September 11. Reading Hammad’s poem can help one realize how people are just people, regardless of skin color or religion.

 

Works Cited

Hammad, Suheir. “First Writing Since.” In Motion Magazine, 7 November 2001, p. 3.

“Timothy McVeigh.” Encyclopedia Britannica, 7 June. 2018, https://www.britannica.com/biography/Timothy-McVeigh.

Oklahoma City bombing image: https://goo.gl/images/8DaL8h

Hate Crimes image: https://goo.gl/images/jQeM4w