I’m giving Franny Choi the post title because of her amazing poem responding to the latest in a long string of poems by white people that shouldn’t have been published. Calvin Trillin’s poem “Have They Run Out of Provinces Yet?” ran in the New Yorker last week. I’m not going to quote it, so you can go read it and come back if you like, but the gist is, too many different kinds of Chinese food (each representing a province, Szechuan, Hunan, Fukian), and oh, don’t you long for the days of simple chow mein.
Let’s ignore how Shanghai is not a province and Uighur is not only not a province, but a group of people, and focus on the fear-mongering that’s underlying what some may see as a nice, cheeky poem about Chinese food in the United States. With increased fears, the poet faces a threat. Gee, that sounds like the anti-Asian discourse that has been running under, well, a very sizable portion of American history and Western history too. Hordes of people descending on our American utopia of chow mein. Maybe when you say “they,” you really mean those foodie hipsters, but when I hear “they,” I hear the they implied in us and them. I hear they, the other. I hear they, the scary. I hear they, they don’t belong.
Oh, but Lily, don’t you see? It’s ironic!
It’s making fun of those people who think they know everything about all these exotic international cuisines! You’re over-reacting! Didn’t you hear? “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.” OH, he loves Chinese food. All is forgiven! And he did this before, and no one cared, so it’s all fine.
PSA: “It’s satire!” should not be used as a safety net for poorly conceived, poorly executed, or unwisely published pieces.
— Celeste Ng (@pronounced_ing) April 7, 2016
In the last stanza, Trillin’s narrator is basically fretting about Columbusing. This is not a thing one should be doing, let alone fretting over, ironic or not. So thank you Franny, and thank you internet, for calling him out, and doing it in style. Check out other Asian American writers’ response over on Asian American Writers’ Workshop (also THIS RAP BATTLE, SWOON). Take it away, Franny: