You Are What You Eat

By Nancy Powell

Posted May 13, 2010 in Arts & Culture

I grew up Chinese American back in the day before ethnic diversity became chic; Orange County was whiter than white and being one of the only Asian kids on the block was a painful exercise in losing oneself culturally just to blend into the American melting pot. I would be lucky to escape the day unscathed before some ignorant fool streaked across the playground with his friends, eyes stretched out to slitty lengths, shouting “Ching chong, ching chong, go back to Japan, nip!” American-born Chinese, the “ABCs” or what my parents called juk sing—the banana generation, yellow on the outside and white on the inside—forsook both the language and culture of home as a way of fitting in. The mother tongue was relegated to a semi-pigdinized form of Chinese known as kitchen Chinese, “basic conversation, simple words picked up in the kitchen spending time with mom,” writes Ann Mah.

 Fast forward a decade later, after Amy Tan popularized the Asian mythos in her The Joy Luck Club. Chinese food expanded beyond the simple chop suey and chow mein to the more authentic-sounding kung pao, and the Asian spirit infiltrated the deepest reaches of American culture. Enter a new generation of writers to take advantage of this re-opening of China, the latest in this line being Mah, who has big shoes to fill considering she is the daughter of New York Times best-selling author Adeline Yen Mah (Falling Leaves). She doesn’t have far to dig in pulling together her debut novel, which flips the whole immigrant experience full circle and adeptly describes what it’s like to be Chinese in China—only an American-born juk sing, a stranger in a strange land, a cultural anomaly in a sea of faces that all look a bit like mine—and learning to live with it.

Mah’s heroine is Isabelle Lee, a thirtysomething editorial assistant who has just been fired from a high profile New York lifestyle magazine and goes in search of better fortunes elsewhere. She decides to move to Beijing for a fresh start and to reacquaint herself with her forgotten roots. Isabelle finds the tables turned in Beijing. The sister that left the states is no longer nerdy old Claire—it’s Claire the society girl. Meanwhile, Isabelle’s kitchen Chinese creates many faux pas, as she is soon to discover while working as a food writer for expat rag Beijing Now. Eventually, though, Isabelle rebuilds her life and, rediscovers her inner Chinese. Sprinkle in the harmless (so she thinks) flirtation with a bubblegum pop rocker and the triumph of finding true love in the least likely of places and, voilà, a perfect form of Asian Chick Lit emerges. Isabelle comes to understand her ethnicity in her day-to-day life abroad, embracing the dichotomy of her foreign birth. The ABC has come home to roost.

Mah’s own experiences in the New York publishing world and as a food writer in China serves as delicious fodder for her novel. While a bit clichéd at times, the overall result is a lighthearted romp about rediscovering one’s roots through food, the most universal of languages. Kitchen Chinese might even challenge my generation of juk sing to expand ourselves culturally beyond the parameters of the kitchen. And this indeed would be a good thing for future generations to come.

Kitchen Chinese: A Novel About Food, Family and Finding Yourself by Ann Mah, Avon/Harper Collins, Paperback, 368 pgs. List Price $13.99.


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