Nostalgia for a White Planet?

By Corrie Dosh   2016-05-13 16:34:04

A controversial poem on Chinese cuisine sparks criticism By Corrie Dosh

Students at Shenyang Agricultural University in Shenyang, northeast China’s Liaoning Province, take part in a cooking competition in April 2015

A chef from China gives a presentation on Chinese cuisine to Israeli cooks in Herzliya in December 2015

In singsong rhymes, an American poet tackles the seemingly endless varieties of Chinese regional cuisine and the difficulties involved in keeping up with the latest trends. Yet his unappetizing piece sparked controversy over perceived elements of racism and prejudice.

The writer, 80-year-old Calvin Trillin, runs through a list of provinces as he pines simpler times of bygone days. His poem—titled Have They Run Out of Provinces Yet?—was published on April 4 in The New Yorker. The magazine is known for its highbrow take on local culture and often elicits confusion from its poems and cartoons.

Here are the opening six lines:

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.

As well as upsetting many readers, the poem was criticized by several writers. Novelist Celeste Ng suggested that it should be renamed, Why Are There So Many Kinds of Chinese People? She scathingly tweeted, “The meter is TERRIBLE. If you’re going to write doggerel at least make it rhythmically consistent.”

While chef and writer Eddie Huang was equally critical, tweeting, “Soon the world is going to run out of provinces for basic whites to gaze on and consume and toss to the side.”

A veteran cook shares his experience making dumplings in Shanghai in June 2014

Szechuan is an old spelling for Sichuan, a province in southwest China, while Canton is now more often known as Guangdong, a province in the country’s southern region.

Columnist Rich Smith wrote a response in Seattle-based magazine, The Stranger, titled “Calvin Trillin’s Nostalgia for a White Planet.”

“This longing for a time of chow mein—which is, as I’m sure the food writer knows—a westernized dish—is a longing for the days of a white planet. Those days when we white people comfortably held power, when they made food for us, when the only fear was the fear of another cuisine to conquer, the days before we had to ask ourselves stuff like—does this poem rest on an unexamined racist sentiment?”

In his defense, Trillin points to a 2003 poem he wrote on the subject of cheese varieties as a similar example of his satirical tone; he has a reputation for this style of tongue-incheek poetry.

What happened to Brie and Chablis? Both Brie and Chablis used to be The sort of thing everyone ate When goat cheese and Napa Merlot Weren’t purchased by those in the know, And monkfish was thought of as bait.“It was not a put-down of the French,” Trillin told The Guardian.

Though, the larger issue at play is more than mere nostalgia for a white man’s world. Additionally, these poems are poorly constructed: simply stringing together a list of names into rhyming verse and repeating the same feeble tricks.

To worsen matters, Trillin actually has vast knowledge on regional Chinese cuisine. He has written long profiles on esteemed chefs and published a book on local specialties around the world. Clearly, he intended the poem to be a lighthearted piece on a food writer’s struggles to keep up with local trends. Yet, he unwittingly tapped into a wider dialogue about how Asians are represented in American culture. For many in the Chinese-American community, the poem is a reminder that Chinese people have not always been welcomed in the United States.

“What’s bothersome to a lot of AsianAmerican readers about it is not the satire; it’s the fact that Chinese things are kind of being used as the punch line or the prop,” Timothy Yu, an associate professor of English and AsianAmerican studies at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, told National Public Radio.

Yu wrote a response poem titled Have They Run Out of White Poems Yet?

Have they run out of white poems yet?

No! here’s one more whose words we regret. It began with the “heathen Chinee,”Long ago, with his tricks up his sleeve. That “John Chinaman,” here from Canton, Fed on puppies and rats all day long. Then Exclusion enacted its song, Making Chinese an illegal throng. Perhaps if Trillin’s satire had been well executed there would be a different conversation about his work.

“Effective parody has a double consciousness—the enlightened perspective of the poem both envelops and refutes the blinkered viewpoint of the speaker. Trillin’s verse doesn’t give us enough reason to think its parodic heart is any more honorable than its bigoted tongue,” wrote Katy Waldman for Slate.

It’s difficult to ascertain whether the poet’s intentions were good or not in light of the negative attention it has received. Are some of the critics overreacting and making a meal of things or is their response justified? Let’s hope his next venture into the world of food-based poetry leaves a less sour taste.

The New York-based author is a contributing writer to Beijing Review

Copyedited by Dominic James Madar

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