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.

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.

“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.

 

 

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.