April 20, 2013

I think we needed that librarian to follow us around the hallways for every minute of every school day, reading us her story of our lives.

Vampires in the Lemon Grove
By Karen Russell

I couldn't decide how I felt about this book comprised of short stories, whether I liked it or didn't, and I think my final opinion is that I didn't, though two or three of the stories lingered with me for a while after.

Excerpt from "The Graveless Doll of Eric Mutis," at the part when a school librarian finds the main characters in the story bullying and beating a fellow classmate, Eric Mutis.

"Larry Rubio," she said, in a neutral voice, as if she were remarking on the weather. "You are better than this.
"Now you go back to your classrooms," she said, in this funny rehearsed way, as if she were reading our lives to us from one of her books.
"Now you go to Geometry, Gus Ainsworth--" She pronounced our real names so gently, as if she were breaking a spell.
"Now you go to Spanish, Juan Carlos Diaz and Mondo Chu--
"Now you go to Computers, Larry Rubio..." Her voice was as nasal as Eric's but with an old person's polished tremble. It was a terribly embarrassing voice--a weak white grasshopper species that we would have tried to kill, had it belonged to a fellow child.
"Remember, boys," the librarian called after us. "I know you and you know better. You are good boys," she insisted. "You have good hearts.
"Now you, Eric Mutis," I heard her saying softly. "You come with me."
I remember feeling jealous--I wanted to go with Mrs. Kauder, too. I wanted to sit in the dark library and hear my name roll out of her red mouth again, like it was the Spanish word for something good. I think we needed that librarian to follow us around the hallways for every minute of every school day, reading us her story of our lives, her fine script of who we were and our activities--but of course she couldn't do this, and we did get lost.

April 09, 2013

All the things instilled in me from a young age by my family and home, rehydrated and brought to life like instant noodles.

Fresh Off the Boat: A Memoir
By Eddie Huang

"There wasn't a section in the library titled "Books for Abused Kids" but there was black history and somehow, some way, it made sense to me. I listened to 2Pac. I remember when "Me Against the World" came out, Emery and I would just sit by the radio reading comics listening to that song over and over. People in Orlando never understood why two Asian kids were rocking Polo, Girbauds, and listening to hip-hop. We didn't do it because it was cool. At private school, teachers, parents, and other kids looked down on us for listening to hip-hop. It was a "black thing," downward assimilation. They didn't understand why we had flattops and racing stripes in our heads, but we did.

And when you get stranded
And things don't go the way you planned it
Dreamin' of riches, in a position of makin' a difference

Pac made sense to us. We lived in a world that treated us like deviants and we were outcast. There was always some counselor or administrator pulling us out of class to talk. We stayed in detention and we were surrounded by kids who had no idea what we were going through. We listened to hip-hop because there wasn't anything else that welcomed us in, made us feel at home. I could see why Milli wanted to pull a pistol on Santa or why B.I.G. was ready to die. Our parents, Confucius, the model-minority bullshit, and kung fu-style discipline are what set us off. But Pac held us down."
(p. 60)

"Justin called me "Gourmet," 'cause every time we got high, I couldn't just eat the chips or cookies. I made ill stoner food, like Doritos sandwiches, where I took ham, turkey, and cheese and rolled it up on plates, then sandwiched them between Doritos. I'd microwave cookies and eat them with ice cream, bake macaroni and cheese with crushed Cheetos on top, real disgusting Scooby snacks. A few years later at a bachelor party in Miami, after hitting Miami Gold, pissing off the VIP balcony onto the dance floor at Voodoo, and copping frozen chimichangas at 7-Eleven, we went back to our hotel. Total fail, because we didn't have a microwave in the room, but I didn't give up. I told my homies, "Ay yo, let me get the ironing board and iron!"
I put the frozen chimichangas on plates and started ironing the shits. Fifteen minutes later, we were eating chimichangas with crispy exteriors and I was officially the Iron Chef."
(p. 111)

"When people don't give you the time off work or school to celebrate the most important day of the year for your people, you lose yourself. How are you supposed to maintain your identity in America without your holidays? If not all of them, then how about one? It wasn't just about Chinese New Year, though. I was sick and tired of half-assed potlucks thrown by ABCs (American Born Chinese) who didn't even know how to cook Chinese food. These same ABCs couldn't speak Chinese and didn't care -- but you don't have shit without your native tongue. African slaves were forced by threat of physical punishment to abandon their native languages, but a lot of us just gave ours up with a shrug--these Uncle Chans convinced us to assimilate, shut the fuck up, and play the part. What they didn't understand is that after you have the money and degrees, you can't buy your identity back. I wasn't worried about degrees, but I cared about my roots. Even if I hated what it meant to be an Asian in the American wilderness, I respected the Chinese home I was raised in. Usually I wasn't so vocal about Asian identity, but without my parents around, I felt a sudden duty to say something myself. It's funny how annoying I thought my mom was, but as soon as she wasn't around, I carried the torch for her."
(p. 157)

"Ning also got me back in touch with my identity. While I was out drinking Mad Dog 40/40 and running over frat boys with Mitsubishi Monteros, she went to Chinese school on weekends all the way up until her senior year of high school. Instead of sneaking into bars or clubs, she was going to Bubble Island with her girlfriends. We kept making fun of each other, but as they say, opposites attract. I had become so obsessed with not being a stereotype that half of who I was had gone dormant. But it was also a positive. Instead of following the path most Asian kids do, I struck out on my own. There's nature, there's nurture, and as Harry Potter teaches us, there's who YOU want to be. Every part of me was something I sought out and encountered. And that summer in Taipei, I looked around and saw myself everywhere I went. Pieces of me scattered all over the country like I had lived, died, burned, and been spread throughout the country in a past life. Here I was coming home to find myself again in street stalls, KTV rooms, and bowls of beef noodle soup. All the things instilled in me from a young age by my family and home, rehydrated and brought to life like instant noodles. They never left, they just needed attention."
(p. 198)

Food at its best uplifts the whole community, makes everyone rise to its standard.

Fresh Off the Boat: A Memoir
By Eddie Huang

Lately, I've been instagramming covers of the books I read. No real reason, except that I'm reading so much now and I still prefer a book in my hand and an artistic cover. So that explains the picture above.

Absolutely loved this book. Gave it five stars on Goodreads because I enjoyed it so much. It was written in a language that while, not exactly mine, I could understand. He reminded me of some people I grew up around. (Not with -- our lifestyles were pretty different). I appreciated Eddie's honesty and the profundity of his revelations -- about his parents, peers, society, self. And his humor! I laughed a lot while reading this book. I saw him speak at a Skillshare event last year and thought he was cool, but have to say, definitely a Eddie Huang fan now. Going to try to make it out to Baohaus sometime this week; really craving some gua bao.  In the beginning, I jotted down lots of page numbers -- I wanted to blog everything. Then I stopped doing that because I just wanted to keep reading. Anyway, I don't guarantee everyone will like this memoir but I recommend it.

"I walked up to Jeff's room -- they called it a loft because it was upstairs and had a low ceiling; I couldn't believe my eyes. Everywhere you walked: toys, games, huge television, stuffed animals, it was like living in a Toys 'R' Us. I remember thinking to myself that if I died, I wanted to come back a white man. These fuckers had EVERYTHING. I didn't know what to play first, I was so confused. I literally rolled around in video games, read the instructions, looked at all the GamePro magazines, and then went to the bathroom and wiped my ass with their fancy toilet paper just to see how it felt. When you washed your hands, they had hand towels so you didn't have to wipe your face with the towel your brother wiped his balls with ten minutes ago. For real, if you are a broke-ass kid, you are wiping your face with your brother's balls. I felt like some wild gremlin child living in Chinese hell after going to their house.
By that point, I was ready to convert. I wanted to be white so fucking bad. But then dinner happened. All of us sat down. I had never eaten at a white person's house, but I just figured they ate pizza, hot dogs, or something like that. After a few minutes, Jeff's mom came out of the kitchen with two bowls. One bowl was filled with goopy orange stuff. For a second, I thought they might be little boiled intestines in an orange sauce, which I could get down with, but on closer inspection they were unlike any intestines I'd ever seen. The other bowl was gray and filled with a fibrous material mixed with bits of celery. I thought to myself, These white people like really mushy food.
She also gave us each two pieces of bread, the same plain Wonder Bread I saw at school. Jeff started wiping the gray stuff on the bread. I didn't want to come off like an idiot so I did the same thing. I put the other slice on top, lifted up, and went to take a bite, but holy shit, that smell. What the fuck was in this? Jeff and his brothers couldn't get enough but I was scared. I took a deep breath, clutched my orange juice, and forced myself to take a bite. Right on cue, gag reflex, boom went the orange juice. I couldn't hide it anymore. I had to ask.
"What is that, man?"
"You've never had tuna fish sandwiches?"
"No, never. Where do you get it?"
"At the grocery store, you want to see the can?"
"OK, but what's the orange stuff?"
"Macaroni and cheese."
"What's macaroni?"
"It's pasta."
I didn't know what pasta was, but was really starting to feel like a dumb-ass so I didn't ask. That shit was so nasty. We never ate cheese and it stunk like feet. A lot of Chinese people are lactose intolerant, so it's just not something we eat normally. We drink soy milk instead of cow's milk and stir-fry our noodles instead of covering them with cheese. I suddenly realized that converting to white wouldn't be easy, but still, that toilet paper was like silk. I tried to force myself to eat the macaroni and cheese but literally barfed it through my nose. Jeff and his brothers couldn't believe it. I realized no matter how many toys they had, I couldn't cross over. I'd much rather eat Chinese food and split the one good dinosaur with my brother. Macaroni is to Chinamen as water is to gremlins, teeth are to blow jobs, and Asian is to American. It just didn't fit."
(pp. 39-41)

"We walked up to the cart and I didn't say a word. I knew where we were. My dad had told me about this man for years. Every few months or so at home, Pops had to have Taiwanese 'Mian. Not the Dan-Dan Mian you get at Szechuan restaurants or in  Fuchsia Dunlop's book, but Taiwanese Dan-Dan. The trademark of ours is the use of clear pork bone stock, sesame paste, and crushed peanuts on top. You can add chili oil if you want, but I take it clean because when done right, you taste the essence of pork and the bitterness of sesame paste; the texture is somewhere between soup and ragout. Creamy, smooth, and still soupy. A little za cai (pickled radish) on top, chopped scallions, and you're done. I realized that day, it's the simple things in life. It's not about a twelve-course tasting of unfamiliar ingredients or mass-produced water-added rib-chicken genetically modified monstrosity of meat that makes me feel alive. It's getting a bowl of food that doesn't have an agenda. The ingredients are the ingredients because they work and nothing more. These noodles were transcendent not because he used the best produce or protein or because it was locally sourced, but because he worked his dish. You can't buy a championship.
Did this old man invent Dan-Dan Mian? No. But did he perfect it with techniques and standards never before seen? Absolutely. He took a dish people were making in homes, made it better than anyone else,  put it on front street, and established a standard. That's professional cooking. To take something that already speaks to us, do it at the highest level, and force everyone else to step up, too. Food at its best uplifts the whole community, makes everyone rise to its standard. That's what that Dan-Dan Mian did. If I had the honor of cooking my father's last meal, I wouldn't think twice. Dan-Dan Mian with a bullet, no question."
(pp. 51-2)

"Pops had only told me about the noodles and the old man, but I had no idea they were that close. It was as if they were each carrying something for the other. A secret, a burden, a past, but I knew better than to ask. Within minutes, two bowls of noodles appeared for us. Huge melamine bowls with khaki noodles, steaming soup, and a gremolata-like mixture of crushed peanuts, pickled radish, and chopped scallions. Of course, my pops put chili oil in it immediately, but I wanted to taste the broth: intense, deep, and mind-numbing. It was one of those bites that make you think maybe, just maybe, your taste buds carry a cognitive key that can open something in your mind. Like the first time I heard Lauryn Hill's voice scratch over "Killing Me Softly," I felt that I just had a mental breakthrough via sound; there has to be something like that with taste. It was then and there that I realized, you can tell a story without words, just soup."
(p. 52)