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.
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.
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.