A poem this week in the New Yorker by Calvin Trilling, “Have they run out of provinces yet?” has caused some controversy. The poem begins:
Have they run out of provinces yet?
If they haven’t, we’ve reason to fret.
Long ago, there was just Cantonese.
(Long ago, we were easy to please.)
But then food from Szechuan came our way,
Making Cantonese strictly passé.
Szechuanese was the song that we sung,
Though the ma po could burn through your tongue.
Then when Shanghainese got in the loop
We slurped dumplings whose insides were soup.
Then Hunan, the birth province of Mao,
Came along with its own style of chow.
So we thought we were finished, and then
A new province arrived: Fukien.
The critique of the poem is that it characterizes China as an endless sea (what, yet another province!) of anonymous people (have they run out). A professor of Asian-American Studies, Timothy Yu. wrote a response he called “Have they run out of white poems yet?”, in which he writes:
When my family arrived from Fujian.
The country they found was now eager
For Chinese food, but not its people.
We’re now just a dish on the menu
For gourmets to sink their teeth into.
Others have defended Trilling, agreeing with his own rebuttal, that he was intending to poke fun at the foodie culture rampant today in US cities, where always finding something new and different is a badge of honor. In fact, Trilling is a big fan of Chinese food; he wrote a fun column about Chinese chef Peter Chang a few years, a master of Szechuan food, which we have the good fortune to have now in Richmond. It is more the tone of the poem (especially in the title) which are unfortunate. In fact, speaking and writing today of issues involving specific cultural groups or immigrant populations can be a minefield, even if writing about something as seemingly innocent as food. NPR published a piece today entitled “Why Hunting Down ‘Authentic Ethnic Food’ Is A Loaded Proposition” which explores some of those issues.
Given the great variety of Chinese culinary traditions, it is wonderful to see that variety finally showing up in the US. It would be ironic indeed for anyone in the US to see this welcome development as Chinese cultural imperialism, given the fact that we have saturated China (and the rest of the world) with our representative cuisine: McDonald’s, KFC, and Pizza Hut.