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Earlier this month The New Yorker published a poem by writer and humorist Calvin Trillin titled “Have They Run Out of Provinces Yet?” in which Trillin, who has written for the magazine since 1963, describes foodies overwhelmed by the increasing presence of regional Chinese cuisine. He and the audience he speaks to long for “Simple days of chow mein but no stress, / When we never were faced with the threat / Of more provinces we hadn’t met.”

In the poem, read generously as satire, Trillin doubles as an exasperated diner whose dreams of an era of chow mein sound a lot like nostalgia for a pre-1965 era, before racist immigration quotas based on national origin were phased out. Trillin is part of the “we” in his poem but it’s clear that Chinese and Chinese American people are not. Instead, invoking Yellow Peril fears, Trillin speaks of the threat food from “more provinces” while ignoring that those provinces are home to people, too. Speaking of which, where are the Chinese people in the poem? As the poet Timothy Yu writes incisively in the New Republic, Trillin’s poem

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.

We asked writers to send us their responses—to take up space in this room and speak back to Trillin’s racist poem. We’ve published a selection of them here. And don’t miss Karissa Chen, Celeste Ng, and Bich Minh Nguyen’s excellent rap battle with Calvin Trillin.

 

 

Contributors

 

1. Adrienne Su | 2. Jen Hyde | 3. Franny Choi | 4. C Dale Young | 5. Luisa A. Igloria | 6. Craig Santos Perez | 7. Ali Eteraz | 8. Lee Herrick | 9. Fatimah Asghar | 10. Ian Dreiblatt | 11. Clarissa Wei | 12. Wendy Chin-Tanner | 13. Diana Keren Lee | 14. Shelley Wong

 

* * *


1. Adrienne Su

 

The Chow-Mein Years in Atlanta

 

“So we sometimes do miss, I confess,
Simple days of chow mein, but no stress.”

—Calvin Trillin, “Have They Run Out of Provinces Yet?”

 

What do I miss about the chow-mein years?
My mother picking me up from school.
My father doing repairs, or just being near.

I didn’t enjoy the neighbors’ terror
of what we might serve from carton or bowl.
What I miss about the chow-mein years

is whispering jokes in my best friend’s ear
during church, as we tried not to howl.
My father, repairing the attic or cellar,

was working more than he made it appear
so that some in Fujian might escape state control.
I do not miss, from the chow-mein years,

being asked to explain the Pu-Pu Platter
or the textbook sketch of the Mongoloid.
I miss my father being healthy and near,

my mother frying rice with hot-dog slivers,
and none of us knowing what we were called.
What I would ask of the chow-mein years
is my father repaired, and both of them near.


2. Jen Hyde

 

After I read Calvin Trillin’s poem I looked up the definition of poetry in the Oxford English Dictionary which names it a “composition in verse or some other comparable patterned arrangement of language in which expression of feelings and ideas are given intensity by the use of distinctive style and rhythm.” By this definition Trillin does write a poem, but I think a poem is more than just that. A doggerelist is a purveyor of ornamental verse, substanceless rhymes that not so much invoke a moment but replicate thought. No poetry school I ever attended stood for that kind of flattening of art, and no poem I want to read tells me something I already know, especially when what I already know is how afraid you are of China, or how exotic and trendy you think my mom’s cooking is. At best Trillin’s doggerel poem makes me feel my tastebuds are a little behind everyone else’s and at worst, that China is a country “we” know so little about we should eat all of it before it eats “us”.

Netflix tells me that I love watching romantic TV shows with “strong female leads,” and has recently suggested I might enjoy the Hallmark Channel series, When Calls the Heart. Based on a serial novel by Janette Oke, the show follows a privileged society woman-turned-school teacher, Elizabeth, who resists falling in love with a handsome mountie, Jack, when she moves to a frontier town in Canada to pursue her career. I’m two weeks in and two seasons deep. The binaries make this show easy to escape into; I indulge in the exchanges between Jack and Elizabeth because their tiny world is built on the fantastically false idea of what love is. For thirty-seven minutes I can forget that the love between my husband and me is built on who takes out the trash, remembers to get the espresso beans, or does the laundry when it’s raining (note: it hasn’t been me lately).

I would not call this series a work of art, and I know that Trillin does not call his poem a work of art, however the decision to place it in a well-respected literary magazine elevates the doggerel to something it is not. Trillin’s poem offers what I want out of bad TV, a knowingly binary rendering of the world that is simultaneously quickly experienced and substanceless. But the difference between my love for shows that feature “strong female leads” who have to decide between their great love and their career, and Trillin’s poem is that this doggerel is built on the already popular, quite limited view of who we Asian Americans are. His rendering is more real than Jack and Elizabeth’s love; it is a replicate of reality, it does not stand apart from it. Any doggerel limited to that cannot even connote ornamentation, so it seems to me that Trillin’s bad poem is not so much a work of poetry, but “some comparable patterned arrangement of language” from a very limited perspective of Chinese food and Chinese people, one that, in our political moment in America, is the doggerel we need the least. Maybe what we need even more is a definition of poetry that separates ornament from art, that resists binary thinking and the white gaze as the central perspective on who we are, our experiences, and how we feel about food trends. I’m not sure convincing Trillin of this is possible, but I do think resisting the publication of thinking that aligns with his in a nationally distributed magazine is something I hope for.


3. Franny Choi

 

Have they run out of white poets yet?

 

Have they run out of white poets yet?
If they haven’t, we’ve reason to fret.
Long ago, there was just Billy Shakes –
other white people’s stories he’d take.
But then Ezra looked toward the East
to spice up his post-War can of meat,
said he wanted to bridge East and West
(but it’s shoddy translation, at best).
And then Kenny Rexroth got prize winnings
for translations of Japanese women.
But surprise! It was all a big game
for ol’ Ken to get unearned acclaim.
Then Araki-so-called-Yasasuda
turned out to be Johnson, and you’da
thought that that’d be the end of the story,
but more white poets wanted more glory.
M.D.H. couldn’t get his poems placed,
so he took on Ms. Yi-Fen Chou’s face.
(Not to mention Vanessa and Kenneth –
among recent fuck-ups, they’re the zenith.)
Now along bumbles – what’s his name? Trillin?
Figured it’d been a while, so he’d fill in
for the other old crusty white croutons
who ran out of nice flowers to muse on.
To be fair, Calvin didn’t pretend
to be aught but himself: a sad send-
up of Dr. Seuss decked in his finest
anti-Asian regalia, minus
any interest in speaking to those
who don’t share his tax bracket or clothes.
We thought after Yi-Fen we’d be set
with this shit but I’m willing to bet
soon we’ll find one we still haven’t met.
Have they run out of white poets yet?

(first published at frannychoi.com)


4. C Dale Young

 

When I first read Calvin Trillin’s “poem” “Have They Run Out of Provinces Yet?” in The New Yorker, my immediate response was anger. I was so surprised by my response that I had to read it again. On second reading, I knew my response was not unjustified. Although this “poem” is certainly meant to be humorous, it is completely tone-deaf in that it is unaware that it alienates an entire group of people, Asian Americans, specifically Americans of Chinese descent. As the “poem” progresses, with its hard rhymes, it becomes more and more an orientalist scapegoat piece. How dare these Chinese have so many provinces? How dare they subject Americans to their cuisines? Can you imagine if this poem were to tackle French cuisine? Or American cuisine?

I have had people tell me to lighten up, but the reality is one of my grandfathers was Chinese, from Hong Kong, and was ridiculed for his Cantonese. He was told to cook because that is what Chinese did. Is it just me that feels disgusted by this “poem”? Apparently not. My Facebook feed was filled with people in shock, many of whom are not Asian American or even of Asian American descent. Every single person who has told me to lighten up has been Caucasian. In the end, I realize that this “poem” is only funny to people born to privilege, the majority of whom are white Americans.


5. Luisa A. Igloria

 

Have They Run Out of Tasteless White Yet?

 

Have they run out of tasteless white yet?
Looks like they haven’t, so we’ve reason to fret.
Long ago, they started a trend: statues in alabaster.
(Long ago, we thought this was just about marble.)
But then they stole to stuff their museums with our artifacts.
Brass Buddhas, bulols, black Venuses: filched, no contract.
With not so much as a by-your-leave, they set up camp
on our shores. Took our women, flogged our men, looked askance
but secretly salivated at dishes made by the kitchen slaves.
Pigafetta (another kind of white) wrote in his journals
with a certain type of disgust that the natives were not normal:
they wore next to nothing on their skin and ate things
fished from the swamp with bare hands. It’s why the white man brings
this gift called civilization. Cloth and cutlery, its own style of chow.
But on weekends they’ll make exceptions and head to Judy’s for the Xiao Long Bao.
Perhaps week after week of white Wonder Bread does things to the psyche—
already burdened with historical conflict, how to admit one’s curious about lychee?
So fascinating… but what’s beneath the crimson of those dragon-like scales?
They’ll wait for the food review, even knowing “epicures” eat things like snails.
From LA to New York, they read that Filipino food is the next big thing,
plus some others— too many to name. Like how at Panda Express, Beijing
Beef Bowl rates as actually good. But I’m so tired
of these cycles of bashing and reappropriation, tired
of the lame defenses of those who, let’s face it,
have no respect for either a spring roll or a tit.
We come from places with catalogs of jewel-colored rice
and more than a hundred names for moss, rain, spice.
We come from places where universities were founded
before your Ivy Leagues. Their lies about us, unfounded,
have glibly masqueraded as history, geography, poetry—
We can’t let them continue with such tasteless bigotries.


6. Craig Santos Perez

 

Have they run out of franchises yet?

 

Have they run out of franchises yet?
If they haven’t, our health has reason to fret.
Long ago, there was just A & W.
(Long ago we were easy to seduce).
But then burgers from White Castle came,
Making A & W strictly passe.
Whiteness was the anthem that we sung,
Though the racism could burn through our tongue.
Then when McDonald’s got in the loop,
We scarfed Big Macs whose patties were goop.
Then DQ, the acronym for Dairy Queen,
Came along with its curled, soft-serve ice cream.
So we thought they were done, and then
A new franchise arrived: Burger King.
Then nutrition was a fraction of meagre
For those eaters who had eaten Carl’s Jr.
And then Wendy’s and KFC gained fame,
Plus some others—too many to name.

Now, as each brand-name franchise appears,
It brings diabetes, increasing our fears:
Could the America extolled as our destiny
Be revealed as a franchise of cruelty?
So we sometimes do miss, I confess,
Simples days of white bread but no sickness,
When we never were faced with the threat,
of more settler foods we hadn’t met.
Is there one tucked away in Monsanto?
Will they soon be serving fast GMOs?


7. Ali Eteraz

 

Ghazal for Walt Whitman

 

I don’t want to, Walt, be a soldier in the Anglo’s canon.
Its bombs fall too oft upon those that have no canons.
This man isn’t a magnet pulling the Proles to his poles.
He can die silent without salute from four-score canons.
Rushmore is an etch chiseled from a meteor called war.
I have enough ink to jam shut even infinite bore canons.
How did an empire emerge from the essays of Emerson?
They can’t make me submit. It’ll take many more canons.
Eteraz came to America to drink from oak barrels of love.
But the vineyard was a barracks. And in its core, canons.


8. Lee Herrick

 

The latest example of racism in the publishing and literary world comes from the New Yorker, via an author whose apologists’ befuddlement at the uproar should come as no surprise. We have come a long way—the growing numbers of Asian American authors and organizations attest to this—and I hope that the numbers will increase in other positions of influence: faculty and tenured faculty, administrators, editors, publishers, and owners. But we have a long way to go.

I am Asian American and grew up, as a Korean adoptee, in a White family. I love them dearly. My family is not only White, but many of them are quite educated. My grandfather went to Yale (Trillin’s alma mater) as did several other men in my family. A lot of East Coast boarding schools. My great-grandfather founded one of the most prestigious boarding schools in the country. I know this mindset very well. The vast majority of my family gets race to some degree, but some of my extended family mirror not only Trillin’s views (or Hudson’s, or others who came before Trillin and those who will surely follow) but also the views of those who want people like me to “lighten up.”

It is important to realize just how little many people care about racism. They could not care less. It has never been part of any concern in their lives—not school, not work, not goals, not trouble. They cannot fathom it, in any context or kind of severity, so when a person or group who has experienced it deeply for decades speaks up against it, it jolts them out of a comfortable slumber and seems irrational or sensitive. I would say to those people: allow people their anger. Allow people the right to their trauma. Trillin apologists may have experienced war, or divorce, or cancer. If they were angered by something connected to their own trauma or difficulty, I would never tell them to lighten up. To do so would be arrogant and dismissive.

There will be other Trillins, but I hope there will be fewer and fewer as the years pass. The world has passed some writers by, and they don’t even know it. The landscape is changing. Yellow peril, fear-based racism has no place in American letters and publishing or any other industry or institution. The fight against such small mindedness is tiring and those of us who have fought and worked against it for so many years know this, but there is hope. Even though I get tired, I have plenty of fire. I have plenty of energy left. We know how to build. We have the tools to dismantle and create. We can be part of a new landscape that we shape. We can write, and write, and write.


9. Fatimah Asghar

 

TO THE WHITE MEN WHO FEAR EVERYTHING

 

& everyone. Including my 11 year old frame
a circle of empty surrounding me & my violin

on the crowded bus the weeks after the towers
fell & then you blamed my skin. It was your feet

& broken glass that followed me around the field
when I showed up too early for soccer practice,

you who reminded me no sidewalk or park
would ever be mine. Anything coming from

a country ending in –stan steamed terror, towelhead,
exotic words I’d never heard, but now all my name but not

now all my resume but not. I know I must scare you,
white men, me with my heavy lidded eyes, loud

laugh & insistence on being here & heard.
Me, with my brown & fly until I die, me with my Islam

& tattoos & my uncle who changed his restaurant
to Afghani food the month after you threw bottles

against his windows & wrote go home terrorists
across all the menus. This is who I come from.

A man who said let them hate us & painted turbaned
men dragging a dying goat across the walls.

This is where I come from. These provinces
you can’t name, the wars you keep starting

& can’t win. Look at my people live. Look at my
people love. Look at how you drone our cities

& murder our children & we still find floor to dance.
Look how many heavens we have, just for us.

The world is full of people like me you want
to dissect, you want a name for everything

or else it’s free & not yours. Freedom outside
of whiteness is terror, food outside of whiteness

is spectacle, land outside of whiteness doesn’t
exist. White men, I know I make you afraid.

Me, with my colored rice, me with my name
you can’t pronounce, me without any land

& no intention to steal or pay you for a home
you can snatch up. Or burn down. Or hold a mirror

to & try to convince me I want more.


10. Ian Dreiblatt

 

for Calvin Trillin

Can Europe be offering yet more cuisines
To munch as we read our Gourmet magazines?
Time was, refinement could wear a French toque,
To see served on fine porcelain some truly baroque
Arrangement of raw beef and brown slugs in butter —
At Versailles the joy taken in such meals was utter.
And then, barely asking if our poor tongues are ready,
Next came the Italians with their damn spaghetti!
Sometimes served with just sauce, sometimes meat-a-ball,
And some rotten grape juice to help eat ’em all.
Next the damn English, with grey meat, potahto,
And grim pints of ale for to make us all blotto.
In the Northlands, the Vikings, who in boats once pursued a risk
Boil sea life in lye to make vile, jellied lutefisk.
As for the continent’s center, one can hardly avoid
Associations between sausages & the birthplace of Freud.
What’s next?! Is Switzerland convincing its proles
To eat something besides milk rotten solid, with holes?
In Belgium they like waffles, which — shhh! — are just bread.
And they all love their head cheese, which — shhh! — is just head.
Oh, it’s too many countries! Who can keep pace?
So many empires for so small a place!
Oh my dear Europeans, how delicious it’d be
If instead of your wild colonial spree
You could just have been chiller and kinder and, heck,
You might not have been stuck there eating that dreck.
And so, Gentle Reader, please remember this when you
Are sitting with Calvin, boldly wielding a menu
That when you try to pronounce it you cannot but muck up —
Be grateful they’re serving you, and please, shut the fuck up.


11. Clarissa Wei

 

Have they run out of greens yet?

 

Have they run out of greens yet?
If they haven’t, we’ve reason to fret.
Long ago, there was just Iceberg
(Long ago, we were easy to please.)
But then Romaine came our way,
Making Iceberg strictly passé.
Romaine was the song that we sung,
Then when Baby Spinach got in the loop
We ate salads whose insides were soft.
Then Kale, the most nutrient dense of them all,
Came along with its own style of chow.
So we thought we were finished, and then
A new salad ingredient arrived: Frisee
Then respect was a fraction of meagre
For those eaters who’d not eaten Dandelion
And then from hipster gardens, Swiss chard gained fame,
Plus some others—too many to name.
Now, as each brand-new veggie appears,
It brings tension, increasing our fears:
Could a place we extolled as a find
Be revealed as one veggie behind?
So we sometimes do miss, I confess,
Simple days of Caesar Salad but no stress,
When we never were faced with the threat
Of more green we hadn’t met.
Have they run out of greens yet?


12. Wendy Chin-Tanner

 

Since The New Yorker’s release of “Have They Run Out of Provinces Yet?” blew up social media like a late April Fool’s Day prank, there’s been a flood of adroit responses by members of the Asian American literati ranging from acerbic parodies to incisive essays contextualizing the histories and sociocultural implications of the poem’s underlying discourses. At the same time, however, some members of the literary community have expressed concern that the massive outcry over a purportedly satirical, tone-deaf-and-badly-written-but-also-not-exactly-the-most-racist-poem-ever by an octogenarian “humorist,” foodie, and New Yorker insider might lend credence to the claim that Asian Americans are oversensitive politically correct crybabies who can’t take a joke.

And thus ensued the backlash. Aiya-ya, the backlash! Suffice it to say that the condescension, minimization, silencing, gaslighting, and outright aggression endured by those who have spoken out reveal all the shades that liberal American privilege has to offer.

Meanwhile, other writers have called for an examination of more structural systemic issues such as the lack of diversity amongst gatekeepers and for names to be named. That sounds like a good idea. After all, poems are cultural products that are neither produced nor consumed in a vacuum and as such, looking more closely at what The New Yorker’s gatekeepers have been up to in and around the Trillin bomb may be illuminating.

So let’s connect a few dots. Four days after Trillin’s poem was published and promptly hate-shared by scores of offended readers, an interview of the beloved young Asian American poet Ocean Vuong entitled “How a Poet Named Ocean Means to Fix the English Language” was published online at The New Yorker and promptly love-shared by the same contingent.

In the opening paragraph of the Vuong piece, the line, “I could eat you he said, brushing my cheek with his knuckles,” is quoted from the poem “Notebook Fragments” just before the writer shares in the following paragraph that Vuong did not learn English until he was eleven and was raised in an illiterate family.

At the same time, in the April 4 print issue of the magazine, a piece entitled “The Tasting-Menu Initiative” tells us all about the Nordic chef who opened an “ambitious” restaurant in Bolivia. Do you see where this is going?

Is it a coincidence that the opening remarks of the Vuong interview reference a young Asian American being eaten by an older white man alongside a badly received piece of doggerel written by an old white man about consuming Asian food? Is it a coincidence that this narrative thread is then continued in a food piece that constructs and supports the mythos of a “common” culture? I don’t think so.

Trillin is not a villain and Vuong is not a victim. But Paul Muldoon, the New Yorker‘s poetry editor, is most certainly having a laugh at our expense. In a cleverly orchestrated and highly strategic Don Draperesque move, he’s managed to gin up an awful lot of publicity for a mediocre issue of a magazine that people had been starting to call irrelevant. Muldoon knew exactly what he was doing when he threw Trillin under the bus and then served up Vuong as a palate cleanser. He knew exactly what the public reactions would be at every turn. Let’s face it. He played us like an orchestra. And in the meantime, the silence over at The New Yorker is deafening.


13. Diana Keren Lee

 

Have They Run Out of White Whine?

 

I’m in therapy for my addiction to white whine.
I love getting drunk on it — I almost feel exotic
like one of them. But clichés don’t age well.
I have wrinkles from the stress of networking,
trying to be seen against white walls as I cry
white tears. I’m bored. I need better glasses.
As a sommelier at Nobu, I give the trendy a taste
of their own medicine. I’ve swapped Squealing Pig
for Franzia, but no one can tell the difference.
My disses are artisanal, served sideways.
Another glass of this whine will reveal my color:
face red as kimchi, trendy as fermentation.
I hope I don’t sound too sour grapes;
without white whine, I have no business.


14. Shelley Wong

 

Call Out

 

Today a white woman yelled at me

for something she was responsible for

and did not apologize when I turned

her words to look upon her

for an answer. On the train,

I walk away from people

who try to catch my eye

as I consider whether I have

enough love for anyone when

I am tired from insisting I know

what the fuck I am doing.

What the ghosts don’t see

is that I am rare and lit.

I am four generations deep

in American anger. Today

there is nothing I want from them.

I will answer. It is not meant

to be beautiful.

 

 

 

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