Food, Hunger and Identity in Mei Ng's Eating Chinese Food Naked and in Lan Samantha Chang's Hunger

Elisabetta Marino, University of Rome "Tor Vergata"

Different ingredients, different ways of preparing dishes, different tastes, shapes and colors: the contrast between the United States and their motherland in the mind and in the heart of Chinese American immigrants is expressed also through their relationship with food. As Doctor Henry Lu remarks, "in Western diet, foods are considered for their protein, calorie, carbohydrate, vitamin, and other nutrient content, but in Chinese diet, foods are considered for their flavors, energies, movements, and common and organic actions", besides being deeply connected with the preservation and the transmission of cultural values. For first and second generation Chinese Americans, traditional Chinese food is often perceived as the emblem of an embarrassing difference, of family ties that need to be severed by those who aim at the integration and are, therefore, hungry to partake of the "American dream" of success and personal fulfillment. Chinese food is doomed to be linked with Chinatown and its restaurants, with the hard work and the poor salary of the "model minority", with the secondary role of women, who labored in the enclosed, claustrophobic space of the kitchen, without being allowed to explore the world outside. On the other hand, Chinese food could be considered as a means of bridging past and present, of annihilating the geographical distance thus recovering one's cultural roots, of creating a bond between wives and husbands, mothers and daughters, of communicating feelings beyond words (that fade or stumble into broken English), beyond those hugs and kisses that Chinese culture does not contemplate, unless somebody is leaving, or dying. The affection with which food is prepared is assimilated through one's body: it permeates, it becomes one's body.

This paper aims at exploring the meaning of food in its relation with the identity formation process of the characters in two breakthrough Chinese American narratives: Eating Chinese Food Naked by Mei Ng and Hunger by Lan Samantha Chang, respectively a novel and a novella followed by five short stories. Both books were published in 1998 and both present some autobiographical (together with fictional) elements. The most remarkable connection to one another, however, is their dedication "for my mom and dad" (Ng's)/ "for my mother and father" (Chang's), which seems to anticipate the relationship between the theme of food and cultural heritage that will be developed, in similar ways, in the two works.

Eating Chinese Food Naked is the story of Ruby, a twenty-two year old Chinese American girl who, after graduating in "Women's Studies", goes back to her parent's house (which is also their laundry) in Queens, New York. Ruby is in love with her boyfriend, the Jewish Nick, but she cannot help playing around with other men and fantasizing about women, while eating Chinese food, working as a temp and trying to cope with her mother Bell and father Franklin at home. The plot follows the pattern of the "Chinese mother- Americanized daughter encounter" presented by writers such as Amy Tan in her first two novels . Frequent flashbacks shift the narration from current days in the US to the times when Bell gathered she had to get married to a stranger coming from "America", who would pull her away from China to take her to an unknown, foreign land. What strikes the most, however, is that Bell's storytelling unfolds through an imagery which is tightly, almost obsessively, connected with food, which becomes the only means to overcome her displacement and traumas. Her grandmother's bound feet, horrible in their deformity, are eventually approached when compared to "holiday rice dumplings, [Š] all wrapped up in bamboo leaves and tied with strings" (27); as a wedding present, Bell receives some dishes her mother "had picked out of her own kitchen to give to her" (27), as if she could pretend to keep eating with her family, at home. The first contact Bell has with "America" is on the plane, when a "yellow-haired stewardess passed around trays of cheese sandwiches, and for dessert, vanilla pudding" (30). While observing in dismay that strangely smelling "thick orange slab between slices of white bread", Bell cannot but ask her husband "don't they have rice in this country?" ­ her head turns back, looking out the window at the clouds "big and white like loaves of bread split open [Š]: no matter how hard she look[s], the fluffy mountains of rice in her mother's bowls [are] gone" (30), just as well as China, her roots, seem to be gone. Bell is cast in a world of massive T-bone steaks, Campbell's soup and automatic machines "where you push a button and food [goes] round and round [then] the door open[s] and you [get] your ham and cheese sandwich, your custard pie, your Jell-O" (35). The kitchen becomes her shelter, her nest; its vapors can mitigate the chill "that [Š] entered her bones [Š] when she stepped off the plane in New York" (50). Rice, dumplings, sea bass and shrimp in black bean sauce, chicken wings in soy sauce, bean curd and salty fish become the only "words" she feels comfortable to express, the very means of pleasing and communicating with her always stern, often abusive husband, with whom she has to lie at night in order to make babies. On the other hand, however, the kitchen soon transforms into the restricted space she is confined to, since Franklin states she does not need to "go outside" to learn the new language: he can teach her everything she needs, "as they iron side by side in the laundry" (33). The crabs, the female, pregnant, full of eggs crabs that silent Bell is forced to cook alive, and that only Franklin eats by gathering five legs in one hand and then pulling the shell away from their still pulsating body (40), seem to transform into those "words" of rebellion she is denied to utter, into the emblem of women's fragility beyond any defense.

Ruby eats hamburgers; she loves croissants, bagels and doughnuts, like any other American girl. But, at the same time, she is a compulsive cook of Chinese food and, in her college days, she would wake up in the middle of the night, she would go to the kitchen and cook, to feed her friends, to fill her void inside, to overcome the sense of uneasiness for "having left her mother behind" (16). Bell taught her how to cook when Ruby was still a child, when she had to replace her mother in the kitchen since Bell had undergone a hysterectomy. Cooking and food represent therefore a stronger bond between mother and daughter, in a moment of life when femininity physically ached. From then onward, Ruby's experiences, the shaping up of her identity are always intimately connected with food, as it is possible to notice in her relationship with Nick (the boyfriend to whom she always speaks about lunches and dinners), and with her several one-night stand partners, that she approaches following the same "pattern", as if it was a recipe. She goes into a bar or a restaurant, she sits, orders and stares at a generally "white" guy (she does not consider herself "Chinese"); they share a dish, she asks him "what he ha[s] eaten that day" (113), and then she follows him to his house. Ruby herself seems to turn into food to be offered to other people (as the very cover of the book suggests ), thus making known her hunger to be touched and loved, through the only code of communication she has learnt in her Chinese family, where "no one touch[es] anyone else" (52) but her mother saves for her beloved children and husband the nicest morsels of meat, keeping only bones for herself. Just to quote a few examples, when Ruby was a child, her Hispanic neighbors would go after her "like some tasty little roll, fresh from the oven, so good to eat"; once grown up, Nick "would eat her up right there in the hallway" (120) as soon as he sees her at his door and, when he is eventually invited at Ruby's house for supper, Bell decides to prepare an enormous quantity of food for her dinner guest, "so that he [won't] look at her daughter so hungrily" (130). Similar to Bell in her relationship with Franklin, Ruby seems to be unable to speak with Nick in order to point out what is missing in their love-story; she would like to say "Œlet's live together'. Or Œlet's break up'", instead, her only words, uttered in a light tone, are "What do you want for dinner?" (181). Moreover, in a striking parallelism with her mother's confinement in the kitchen, Ruby and Nick are described together only in the "enclosed" space of the house (whether it is his or her parents' it does not matter) or in the retreats of a bedroom, where they eagerly eat food after having sex. At a certain point, however, the plot takes an unsuspected turn: after symbolically re-painting her mother's kitchen with a bright, lively yellow, Ruby decides she will enroll in a cooking school and she will go and live by herself in an all-women's building, where men are "positively not allowed". The enclosed space of commodity-like women seems to open up and turn into Ruby's "room of her own" and Bell's New York, that she eventually starts walking all around, strong on her feet that did not undergo the same mutilation of her grandmother's. Ruby falls in love with a woman, Hazel, whom she meets at a party, symbolically in the kitchen of another girl of Chinese origin who lives on her own. Then, one night, when Ruby focuses on the way Nick is selfishly, uncommunicatively approaching food (probably in the same way he has just possessed her body), she discovers he has never really loved her, that he considers her like an "exotic dish", sometimes even too "spicy" for a white man:

He was eating all the good meaty bits and leaving the bony parts for her. This made her quiet, and she felt sad suddenly that she loved a man who took the good bits for himself. She had been taught to give the good bits to the other person and that the other person would give her the good bits, and, in this way, they would take care of each other. She watched the duck disappearing into his mouth. (234)

They have a fight; Ruby confesses she is attracted to somebody else, but when she tells him about Hazel, Nick relaxes (women do not seem to count, not even as competitors), decides to stop arguing and even says, when she eventually calms down, "you know, it drives me crazy when you do that [Š] I was thinking, who is that ugly Chinese woman standing in my room? But here you are and you are beautiful. I don't even notice your Chineseness" (236). The painful memories of her childhood when other kids would chant "Ching Chong, Ching Chong" at her (238) pulling the corners of her eyes, start surfacing in Ruby's mind. For the first time she cries, for the first time she gets dressed instead of stripping down, instead of offering her body like food, in a desperate need for affection. She leaves, and from that moment onward, Ruby turns into an independent, Chinese American woman who cooks for herself, in her flat, taking possession of her own life.

As it is possible to infer by the cover of the book, dominated by four empty bowls, also in Hunger by Lan Samantha Chang the theme of food is absolutely central. The main protagonists of the stories, though in different ways, are all starved, hungry for success, integration, love. In this final part of my paper, I will focus on the title story of the collection, the novella in which these themes are much more deeply developed. The narrator of "Hunger" is Min, a Chinese American woman who, after her death, comes back as a ghost to tell the story of her family. She tells of how she met Tian, her future husband (a violinist obsessed by the idea of "making it in America" and becoming famous), and of how, after his own professional failure, Tian would not even succeed in training both Anne - the first of the two daughters, willing to learn how to play but not talented ­ and beautiful Ruth, whose rebellious, untamed personality would prevail over her natural gift, thus turning her from music towards the marriage with a much older, wealthy man that might give her a better life. The story is set in Brooklyn, New York. Similarly to Bell in Mei Ng's novel, also Min associates her arrival in "America" with the winter wind and the "chill [that goes] beneath [her] skin" (11) and prevents her from feeling comfortable, from even "tasting [her] food" (11). The first time she feels warm is when she meets Tian, a customer of the "Vermilion Palace", the Chinese restaurant where she works as a waitress. She serves him food, she falls in love with him, she marries him, she gives birth to two girls and lives, silently, in her kitchen, through which all the feelings for her husband shape up, while he practices the violin in a separate room. Just like in Bell's story, food becomes a language. It replaces both Min's "broken English" and her Chinese, that she cannot speak before her daughters (who in their father's opinion have to integrate as much as possible in the American society), and that she is allowed to utter with her husband only "at the dinner table" (46), in front of those familiar dishes that smell like home. "If Tian ate a little less dinner one day" ­ Min remarks ­ "I would take care not to serve that dish again" (24); "mornings must begin with a bowl of porridge, fermented tofu, and youtiao, a fried bread that I learned to pick up regularly in Chinatown. Over these dishes" ­ Min recalls ­ "Tian would smile and joke" (25). But what Tian really "hungers for", as he explains to his wife (28), is fame and success, "the American dream", and not food. He is actually not interested in it (and consequently not interested in his wife's "words") as the reader gathers from this passage:

Tian had never paid much attention to food. He didn't know the names of vegetables; pork and chicken tasted the same to him. He sometimes had to be reminded to eat more than a single bowl of rice; he had a habit of simply sitting at the table, not even thirsty, with the light carving shadows into his face. (51)

The distance between Tian and Min grows bigger and bigger throughout the story; both parents die, in different circumstances, while Ruth flies away to France and the musically untalented, awkward Anne remains at home. The final part of the novella concentrates on her, as the only figure who overcomes the imbalance, the frustration, in a word, the hunger of the other characters by taking a Ph.D in Asian Studies, by studying Chinese, as well as by being completely Americanized. Therefore, just like Ruby at the end of Eating Chinese Food Naked, Anne eventually lives on her own and, in her mother's words, "makes for herself the sort of thoughtful, savory dishes I have always made" (109).

References

CHANG, Lan Samantha, Hunger, Penguin, New York: 1998.

NG, Mei, Eating Chinese Food Naked, Penguin, New York: 1998.


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Last modified: 6 July 2001