Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Take that, Calvin Trillin!

Last year, a student was texting in flagrante delicto on the second day of class. I asked her to please put her phone away. In response, she retorted, "Do you know how to make Chinese food? Because, if you do, can you bring me some General Tso's chicken? It's my favorite." 

Oh, where to begin with that one. In a perfect world, I could send her to her dean and there she would be reschooled on the school motto, "Diversity, Opportunity, Respect." But who was I kidding? The fact that she did not even bother to pretend to text surreptitiously says everything you need to know about how things work in my school.

I contemplated pointing out to her that General Tso's chicken is an American invention, just like fortune cookies. I considered asking her if she makes requests of all her teachers to serve her favorite dishes in class after they dare ask her to put her phone away. And if she does, what specific requests has she made? Scallion pancakes? Lasagna? Mac and cheese? Irish soda bread, fried chicken, barbecue?

In the end, I opted to keep teaching. At the end of class, I told her in front of her classmates that I'm vegetarian. So no, I won't be bringing in General Tso's chicken, which, by the way, is not real Chinese food, so if you're interested in that, you should order some from the Panda Express at the mall.

That was the best I could muster. 

Last week, in the aftermath of the piece-of-crap Calvin Trillin poem on Chinese food called "Have They Run Out of Provinces Yet?" published in the April 4, 2016 edition of The New Yorkerthe Asian American community (writers, bloggers, celebrities, and allies) blew up Twitter with cogent responses to Trillin's lazy, reductive, poorly-written piece of doggerel. 

Trillin's poem begins by positing the "they" against the "we." 
Have they run out of provinces yet? 
If they haven’t, we’ve reason to fret.
"They" are the faceless, nameless entity that threaten to disturb the comfort of the "we." "We" are the fretters who can't seem to keep track of exotic, regional cuisines of China that have multiplied like wild mushrooms on the foodie scene in America. 

Then comes a parade of provinces, starting with the familiar "Cantonese" to the "food from Szechuan," to "Shanghainese... dumplings whose insides were soup" to "Hunan" to "Fukien" to "Uigher" to "Xian"--and it's all oh-so-confusing to keep track of! 

By the second stanza, Trillin's lame rhyming couplets take a turn from a whiny, irritating voice to one that's far more ominous as the tone shifts from why are there so many kinds of Chinese food to keep track of? to damn that country and all its confusing provinces for creating "tension" and "increasing our fears." Whoa. There it is. There it is: yellow peril, loud and clear. 

Does it take a genius to predict that Trillin's words would strike an Asian American ear as reductive, racist, and xenophobic? Apparently so, and even the geniuses at The New Yorker failed to see the problem with this poem.

As a respected food critic and humorist who is versed in the subtleties of regional Chinese cuisines, Calvin Trillin does not need a history lesson on the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. So, how then did Trillin and the New Yorker become so myopic and tone deaf? How did they fail to see the one hundred and one ways in which this poem was not going to be one bit funny to many of its readers? Oh right. The white gaze. Again. 

But something really awesome happened in response to Trillin and The New Yorker's blunder. Asian Americans talked back! Bet they weren't expecting that from the so-called model minority whose immigrant parents told us not to draw attention to ourselves. 

And, as usual, when POC talk back, the people who are called on their bigotry resort to these familiar refrains:
  • How is this racist?
  • You missed the joke.
  • You misunderstood his point.
  • He has friends who are [insert name of oppressed group].

Amidst outcry from the Asian American community, Trillin explained to the Guardian that his poem was "simply a way of making fun of food-obsessed bourgeoisie.” Among the people who rushed to defend Trillin was author Joyce Carol Oates, who tweeted that he was "Misunderstood / for writing funnily of food." Samuel Cohen notes, "He's being ironic. He's been a food writer and poet of doggerel verse for a million years and I've seen him riding his bike around Chinatown, where he loves to eat. He is not actually complaining about the variety of regional Chinese cuisines and he is not actually nostalgic for the days of chow mein. He is making fun of white people."

As so many people have already pointed out: good satire doesn't require a disclaimer. So let me try to wrap my head around this one. Trillin was making fun of white people by commodifying a culinary history he claims to love? #TrillinFAIL #NewYorkerFAIL 

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Remembering Qingming Festival

At some point in my schooling in the American system, like so many children, I went on a field trip that involved making a grave rubbing. As the teacher gave instructions and demonstrated, I was horrified. Did she not fear the wrath of the departed? How disrespectful to traipse through sacred grounds as though it were Disney World. Luckily, one of my classmates was more than happy to make two grave rubbings. I did not have to participate in desecration of someone's ancestor's final resting spot after all. Disaster averted!

Yesterday was Qingming Festival, a national holiday in Hong Kong, Taiwan, and China for honoring one's ancestors. On Qingming, families gather to bai san, literally translated as kowtow to the mountain, a nod to the feng shui belief that the most auspicious grave sites face water and rest along a mountain side. 

Tsuen Wan Chinese Permanent Cemetery, where my grandfather is buried
As one of the mostly densely populated cities in the world, it's no wonder that cemeteries in Hong Kong are also bursting at the seams. I read somewhere that it's easier to get public housing in Hong Kong than a burial spot. (Note to the living: if you are claustrophic, you'll need to reconsider Hong Kong as a final resting spot.)

Although I have not returned to Hong Kong in 30 years, I still remember the importance of Qingming festival, which falls on the first day of the fifth solar term of the traditional Chinese calendar, or 15 days after the vernal equinox, either April 4th or 5th, depending on a given year. In Cantonese, four is a homonym for death, so the fourth day of the fourth month was always a spooky mnemonic for me. 

My family--siblings, parents, uncles, aunt, cousins, grandmother--hiked up many concrete steps carved into a mountain, bearing elaborate food and libation to offer to the spirit of my grandfather, buried in Tsuen Wan, and my great grandmother, buried in Chai Wan. Although I was scared of ghosts and hated the long trek up the seemingly never-ending steps of the mountain, it was a fun holiday filled with shenanigans between cousins, as we pretended to be mules carrying provisions into the desert to save many lives. A roast pig was involved, so we took turns as pall bearers to piggy, an offering to our departed ancestors, along with Hennessy XO cognac, fruits, and other delectables. When it came to food, we did not play around. Mountain or no, feasting was the promised reward. 

Along the way, the grown ups would inevitably retell famous family stories of how grandfather did not condone laziness or insolence one bit, that just one glare from grandfather and you knew to shape up or else.

When we finally reached our destination, we swept the grave, lay out the offerings, burned spirit money and incense, and one by one, took turns kowtowing three times to show our respect to ancestors. And then came the reward for trekking up the mountain: FEAST! 

Paying our respects to grandfather (I am the second from left in the front row). As I look at this picture today, I'm struck by the simplicity of my grandfather's tombstone compared to ones behind us in this picture. My uncle Tony was only 20 years old when he had to buy a grave for his father. He, my grandmother, and later my mom, worked hard to pay off that piece of land.

I have not celebrated Qingming in 30 years, but in two weeks, my family will be convening at my beloved grandmother's final resting spot, also on a mountain--yes, feng shui really matters!--to begin a new North American tradition of honoring our ancestors. I can barely wait.