Book Chat

As a Chinese-American, I am neither white nor black and I am privileged to observe the nuances of race relations in this country as a bystander (except when my own racial heritage is a source of grievance).  I wonder if an academic awareness of an issue allows one to appreciate the inherent complexities?

I read Kathryn Stockett’s The Help and I was riveted but very perturbed by its central issue of race relations.  Set in 1962 in Jackson, Mississippi, a young white woman interviews and edits the painful narratives of black maids about their relationships with their white employers.  I wanted to identify a black perspective.  A friend cautioned me that I cannot generalize to all blacks, as African immigrants and people with Caribbean roots do not share the same experience as those descended from slaves brought to America.  No, indeed, but I was sure that a black person would respond differently to the book.

I spoke with a black staffer at my local library, someone whom I’ve known for the 21 years that my family has lived in this community.  She did not enjoy the book as did the white readers who have praised The Help, launching it onto the bestseller lists.  She could forecast how the plot would go, and she skipped over parts.  Her niece was bored by it and never did finish the book.  I asked her if it would have been a better book if it had been written by a black author, but she demurred at that.

Could the difference lie in perspective?  Events resonate more when they become personal, as Jews are instructed to imagine that they themselves are leaving Egypt during the Passover seder.  Issues become more painful.  It took me a few years before I could follow a friend’s recommendation for Anne Fadiman’s The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down, because the central character, a child, dies from an epileptic seizure and my child has the same disorder.

I’ve read that people like horror films because they find it cathartic, a vicarious experience that leaves them relieved to be safe and ordinary.  I wonder if readers of The Help become more understanding?  Are some readers smug that they are not racist and do not harbor any prejudicial intent?  Or do they have a renewed sensitivity to insults to human dignity?  Do they speak out in protest?  My Rabbi has noted that we do not feel pain to the same degree when a tragedy, a violation,  happens to someone else.  However, the challenge is in the striving to maintain sensitivity and that is a hallmark of a compassionate person.

I attended a book discussion along with my friend who grew up in the South.  She found the novel realistic, and told me later that the others (all white women) did not appreciate the fact that though the overt theme of the book was racism, the same kind of prejudice and peer control exist in other times, other places, including our own.  I attempted to point out that the new theory on bully-behavior management, is not to address the bully directly, but to educate the silent majority, that they can take control of a situation by speaking up.  The queen bee, Hilly, from the novel could not have continued in her role, if the others did not let her do so.  However, most people were too afraid, ignorant, or blind to the racial divide in a society in which they had a comfortable perch.  I wonder if readers would become more conscious and sensitive to injustice around them?  I made a reference to To Kill a Mockingbird, which is now a classic.  Did readers of the time immediately take to its message?

The film version, starring Emma Stone as the ingenue reporter, Eugenia ‘Skeeter’ Phelan, Viola Davis as her source, a black housekeeper named Aibileen Clark, and Bryce Dallas Howard as their nemesis, the controlling Hilly Holbrook, will open in the local cinemas on August 10th.

Book Review: Fortune Cookie Chronicles

The expression often cited to demonstrate patriotism is “as American as apple pie” but when was the last time you ate apple pie? Now compare that with your most recent meal of Chinese food.

For an immigrant group that was despised and feared from its earliest arrival on these shores (to date, the only group meriting a dedicated act by Congress, the Chinese Exclusion Act passed in 1882), the Chinese has made tremendous in-roads into the American society. Americans, and especially the Jews, have embraced Chinese food, both as takeout comfort meals as well as for celebratory occasions. But the beloved foods known as chop suey (now considered passé, but wildly popular in the years after World War II), fortune cookies, and General Tso’s chicken are as American-born as apple pie. In fact, an ill-fated endeavor to introduce fortune cookies to China in the 1990’s was met with abysmal failure, because the treat was considered “too American.” The tastes that Americans love— intensely sweet, crispy, deep-fried, and —are just not authentic Chinese ones.

The Powerball scandal of 2005 when 110 lottery winners nationwide all claimed to have obtained their winning sequences from a fortune cookie lead Jennifer 8. Lee to an journalistic investigation, from which she proceeded to write an intrigue-filled book on Chinese assimilation through the prism of food, titled The Fortune Cookie Chronicles: Adventures in the World of Chinese Food. Ms. Lee is a reporter for the New York Times, a graduate of Harvard with degrees in applied mathematics and economics, and an American-born Chinese.

One chapter in her book is devoted to answering why have Jews embraced Chinese food? I learned from Ms. Lee’s book that there are academic treatises written on this subject, including a paper written by Gary Tuchman and Harry G. Levine called “Safe Treyf” (treyf being the Yiddish word for non-kosher food) in which they propose that of all the foods encountered in America, Chinese food was the most foreign, the most “un-Jewish.” Yet, writes Ms. Lee, “Jews defined this particular foreignness not as forbidding but as appealing, attractive, and desirable. Indeed, many Jews saw eating in Chinese restaurants as an antidote for Jewish parochialism, for the exclusive and overweening emphasis on the culture of the Jews as it had been.”

Hanna R. Miller in her paper, “Identity Takeout: How American Jews Made Chinese Food Their Ethnic Cuisine,” cited the geographic proximity between these two immigrant groups in New York City’s Lower East Side (ignoring the third ethnic group living in nearby Little Italy). Other scholars note the absence of dairy in Chinese cuisine, which makes it more easily compatible with kashrut (laws on kosher food preparation, specifically the forbidden mixing of meat and dairy ingredients) than Italian or French cuisine.

Ms. Lee even sought out a literary angle, quoting Philip Roth’s character, Portnoy, on his perspective on Chinese food: “Yes, the only people in the world whom it seems to me the Jews are not afraid of are the Chinese. Because, one, the way they speak English makes my father sound like Lord Chesterfield; two, the insides of their heads are just so much fried rice anyway; and three, to them we are not Jews but white—and maybe even Anglo Saxon. Imagine!”

Finally, the author traveled to China to seek someone who could speak with authority about both Chinese and Jewish cultures. There she met an 81-year-old Chinese woman who lived on Jiaojing Hutong or “Teaching Scriptures Alley” in Kaifeng, where the Jewish faith was known as “the religion which removes the sinew.” (The Jewish community of Kaifeng thrived from 1163 until the 1860s.) The author hoped that “she, being one of the rare Chinese Jews in the world today, would be able to shed light on a question that had vexed academics, bolstered comedy routines and intrigued Portnoy.

‘“Why,” I asked, “do Jews in America like Chinese food so much?”

With a glint in her eye, she slapped the wooden table.

She knew.

I leaned in. This was the insight for which I had traveled thousands of miles, walked along a highway at midnight, and scoured alleyways.

Her Buddhist koan-like response was profound in its simplicity:

“Because Chinese food tastes good.”’

Another chapter introduced the soy sauce trade dispute in which the Japanese delegation petitioned to the international trade regulatory organization to set standards for soy sauce, as the French has done for champagne, the Italians for Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, and the Koreans for kimchee. However, these latter are known and consumed by few connoisseurs in comparison to the worldwide market for soy sauce. The version of “soy sauce” consumed by most Americans (most often served in little plastic packets distributed by Kari-Out, owned by the Epstein family of Westchester, NY) is not made from actual soybeans. Instead, its list of ingredients are: water, hydrolyzed vegetable protein, caramel coloring and corn syrup—essentially, thick, brown salty water. This is not an atypical story of the American alteration and mass-processing of foods from around the world, including beer, chocolate, and cheese (to the dismay and frustration of their original compatriots). After several years of hardball lobbying by the Americans, the Japanese quietly withdrew their petition in 2005. The Americans had won: soy sauce does not have to be made from whole soybeans.

There are other chapters with fascinating insights on how Chinese immigration has impacted American society. To find out the real deal on fortune cookies, check out Jennifer 8. Lee’s new book.

Photo credit: Rasa Malaysia