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.

“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.

 

 

Blog Prompt #6: Calvin Trillin’s, “Have They Run Out of Provinces Yet?”

Blog Post #6 Due: Mon 11/26, 8:30am // Comment #6 Due: Mon 11/26, 11:59pm

Trillin's New Yorker ImageRead Calvin Trillin’s poem and Katy Waldman’s commentary on it. Then, develop your own argument about Trillin’s poem in conversation with Waldman. Focus on one specific literary device / pattern in Trillin’s poem and produce a detailed close reading of this device / pattern. Your analysis must clearly demonstrate how you are agreeing with, adapting, extending, or challenging Waldman’s argument.

Remember to introduce both Trillin’s poem and Waldman’s article. Please also be attentive to the format and organization requirements of the blog post (see Blog Post Assignment Sheet).

Finally, come to class on Monday prepared to lead a segment of our class discussion based on your blog post.