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White Poets Want Chinese Culture Without Chinese People

Calvin Trillin's "Have They Run Out of Provinces Yet?" is the latest in a long artistic tradition.

It’s become a routine feature of the Asian American poet’s life: waking up to your inbox full of messages asking, “Have you seen this?” And it’s never good. A few months ago, it was the news that a white poet had published a poem in The Best American Poetry while masquerading under the name “Yi-Fen Chou.” This week, it was a poem in The New Yorker by Calvin Trillin titled “Have They Run Out of Provinces Yet?”, a bit of light verse ostensibly poking fun at foodies chasing the latest Chinese regional cuisine. But when I read the poem, I got a sick feeling—the feeling you get when you are the butt of a joke. Trillin’s poem comes out of a long tradition of white writers praising Chinese culture while ignoring Chinese people.

On its surface, Trillin’s poem seems harmless enough. In rhyming couplets, it lists various provinces of China and laments how hard it is for diners to keep up with the influx of new dishes from these regions:

But then food from Szechuan came our way,
Making Cantonese strictly passé…

Then when Shanghainese got in the loop
We slurped dumplings whose insides were soup.

But there was one couplet in particular that stopped me cold:

So we thought we were finished, and then
A new province arrived: Fukien.

Fukien (or Fujian) is my mother’s home province, the place she and her parents immigrated from in the 1950s. So when I hear “Fukien,” I’m not thinking about a cuisine. I’m thinking about the place my family came from, and of the long history of migration that they’re a part of. And I’m thinking of others who have come from there, like the writer Wo Chan, a self-described queer Fujianese immigrant poet who is currently fighting deportation. Trillin’s poem, to me, erases all that; “Fukien” is nothing more than the source of a new exotic food.

Now defenders of Trillin (and there are plenty) have explained to us that Trillin is not speaking for himself, but is mocking pretentious foodies. As Trillin told the Guardian, it’s “simply a way of making fun of food-obsessed bourgeoisie.” Trillin, we’re reminded, is no Chinese food tourist, but a revered food writer with serious knowledge of Chinese regional cuisine. The superficial dropping of one style of Chinese food for another due to the whims of fashion is something hipsters might do, but not Trillin himself. He is not a trend-follower, but a connoisseur.

So if the target of Trillin’s satire is not Chinese food itself, but the trend-sniffing foodies who love it, that lets him off the hook, right? Well, here’s where the problem goes deeper than Trillin’s intentions: For Trillin’s satire to work at all, he must be implicated in the “we” of the poem. He must possess the knowledge to distinguish between Szechuan, Shanghai, and Hunan cuisine, even as he mocks the inconstancy of those who rush from one to the next. Trillin critiques the “food-obsessed bourgeoisie” from a position of superior connoisseurship, but also from the position of the weary diner nostalgic for the “[s]imple days of chow mein and no stress.”

And who are “they” in the poem? It was this word, in the poem’s very first line, that made me realize that I, as a Chinese-American reader, was excluded from it. Because the “they” can only be the Chinese themselves, with “their” provinces and “their” food brought to “our” tables. And the “we,” by implication, can only be white American diners befuddled—or delighted—by this influx. What we have here is white-on-white satire—the white connoisseur gently mocking his trendy fellow white diners. The provinces of China and their cuisines are nothing more than a prop for the joke, and “they,” the Chinese, hover ominously just out of frame.

Reading Trillin’s poem this way places it in a much longer tradition of American poetry about China, one that uses Chinese objects, Chinese culture, and even Chinese bodies to express white American anxieties and desires. As I read Trillin’s poem, my mind flashed to Bret Harte’s poem on the “heathen Chinee,” one of the iconic anti-Chinese poems of the nineteenth century:

That for ways that are dark
And for tricks that are vain,
The heathen Chinee is peculiar,
Which the same I would rise to explain.

What do Harte and Trillin have in common? While Trillin’s poem may seem to lack the overtly negative portrayal of the Chinese in Harte’s, both trade on the “peculiarity” of things Chinese, and both assert the privilege of the (white) speaker in “explaining” those peculiarities. And both present themselves as merely lighthearted verse; indeed, it is said that Harte (like Trillin) intended no attack on the Chinese through his poem, although it was later taken up by others as a rallying cry of racism.

Similar rhymes about “John Chinaman” stoked anti-Chinese sentiment in America throughout the late nineteenth century. One such popular song describes the shift from welcoming Chinese laborers to resenting their presence:

John Chinaman, John Chinaman
But five short years ago,
I welcomed you from Canton, John—
But wish I hadn’t though…

I thought of rats and puppies, John,
You’d eaten your last fill;
But on such slimy pot-pies, John,
I’m told you dinner still.

The disgusting food of the Chinese serves as the ultimate symbol of their foreignness and their refusal to assimilate.

Anti-Chinese racism would lead to the near-total exclusion of Chinese migrants from the U.S. by the dawn of the twentieth century. But although Chinese bodies were banned from American shores, Chinese culture became an increasing obsession for American poets. The founder of American modernist poetry, Ezra Pound, rose to fame in part through his translations from the Chinese. Marianne Moore was fascinated by chinoiserie, praising Chinese painting and porcelain in her poems. In short, at the very moment that Chinese people are being excluded from the U.S., Chinese things—poems, philosophy, porcelain—are being celebrated by (white) American poets who write as connoisseurs of China. My new poetry book, 100 Chinese Silences, traces throughout modern American poetry this tradition of celebrating Chinese culture while erasing real, living Chinese people, whether it is Billy Collins admiring the long titles of Chinese poems or Dean Young, just a couple weeks ago in The New York Times Magazine, articulating a modern American fantasy: “I wish I was an ancient Chinese poet.”

So Trillin’s poem, whatever its satirical intent, extends this tradition into a contemporary moment where it is now possible to be a connoisseur of Chinese food, which for so long has been seen by white Americans as alien and disgusting or, at best, unsophisticated. For many Asian Americans, who grew up being mocked for what they ate, there is a biting irony in the “columbusing” of Asian food. But Trillin’s poem keeps the tradition I’ve described intact; the provinces he lists are places that dishes, not people, come from. It is a China without the Chinese.

And that brings us back to the “they” of Trillin’s poem, which evokes the darkest Chinese stereotype of all: that of the “yellow peril.” How else can we explain the abject fear that grips Trillin’s speaker “as each new province appears,” if not as an echo of the old American fear of being overrun by the Chinese hordes? “Have they run out of provinces yet?” echoes, for this Chinese American reader, Jack London’s century-old warning that the “real danger” of China “lay in the fecundity of her loins.” Trillin’s “we,” pretentious foodies, are figures of fun, but “they,” the Chinese themselves, are a “threat” (yes, his word) whose numbers are legion.

So here’s why I think so many Asian Americans are troubled by Trillin’s poem: It continues an American tradition of talking about Asia as if we Asians were not in the room. It’s an in-joke among white consumers of Chinese things, but actual Chinese people are at best absent from its lines, and at worst a looming peril within them. The eruption of response to the poem shows how wrong Trillin was: Asian Americans are in the room, and although his poem wasn’t meant for us, we’re speaking back to it. Writers like Franny Choi, Craig Santos Perez, myself, and the team of Celeste Ng, Karissa Chen, and Beth Nguyen penned riffs on Trillin’s piece, and pretty much every Asian American writer of my acquaintance spoke up in some way online.

The playing field is far from level. Asian American voices are still by and large relegated to marginal spaces, while prestigious magazines like The New Yorker continue to be dominated by white writers. (While its numbers were not complete, the VIDA Count identified only three Asian writers published in The New Yorker in 2015, compared to 79 white writers.) But the loud and visible response to Trillin’s poem, and to the Yi-Fen Chou affair before it, by Asian American writers makes me hopeful that the time when American poetry could simply have a conversation with itself about Asia is ending. Asian American readers, and writers, are in the room now, and we haven’t run out of words yet.