Sunday, October 27, 2013

No Chopstick Snobs Here

When Lisa See sat down to write Shanghai Girls, she surely drew upon her immigrant parents' stories, rich material that schooled her in the dialects and the varied quarters of the city and the complications of bound feet.  She must have been one of those good children who want to hear the old stories again and again. 

How else could she make it sound so real? 

Then I checked her picture on the back of the book jacket.  I expected shiny black hair and high cheekbones.  Instead, I found myself staring at a woman with auburn hair and round eyes.

Which makes her novel all the more remarkable an achievement.   Her body of work captures the culture so well that the Organization of Chinese American Women recognized her as their 2001 National Woman of the Year. 

"We are kaoteng Huajen--superior Chinese--who follow the religion of ch'ung yang:  worshipping all thing foreign, from the Westernization of our names to the love of movies, bacon, and cheese," explains Pearl, the narrator of Girls.  Pearl and her sister, May, enjoy the run of the city, traveling to the neighborhoods that resemble Paris and modeling for the "beautiful girl" calendars that advertise wine, soap and cigarettes.

But then their daddy can't pay his gambling debts.

His solution?  Arranged marriages.  Oh dear.

Let's stop a moment and consider how we all might have ended up had our own parents had their way in matrimonial matters. 

Arranged marriage seems to depend on who your parents know and respect.   Mine knew a lot of farm boys.  One of my sisters went out with a son of the land, a boy who surely knew how to bale hay, set irrigation pipes and rise early for the morning milking.  Maybe he even had some nice farm-boy muscles.  But never mind that.  This isn't what parents look for, is it?

So they could have cast their eyes round about their wider circle, seen this young man and decided he would do. 

That he boasted of killing mice with his bare hands would not have bothered them at all.  But once my sister heard his mouse story, she was in a hurry to get home.

Mom and Dad urged another sister toward a confirmed bachelor, a middle-school gym teacher who could not look a girl in the eye.   "All he needs is a good woman.  Could really set him straight."

Like marriage is a field on which to exercise your humanitarian impulses.

Anyway, back to May and Pearl.   Once they get husbands and come up with a plan to escape the yuckier parts of the deal, war intervenes.   And our story takes off at a gallop.

I haven't finished it yet, but I eagerly await the next fifty pages of surprises.

On a side note, May and Pearl end up working at a tourist attraction, serving "Chinese" dishes that they never heard of at home.  Yeah, I know the menu at your local Ho Wah Buffet probably isn't all that authentic.  But given the choice between pickled eggs, or crisp-fried eel and the fake stuff, I'll take the fake.

I spent a summer waiting tables at my hometown's "Chinese" dive, the Golden Pheasant, and couldn't understand the appeal of the chow mein or the egg foo yung that I carried out of the kitchen all night long.   Ever tasted canned chow mein?   It's one of the world's least exciting foods.

But I got hungry by the end of the shift.  And the carton of leftovers was free.  And it was remarkably tasty, nothing like that canned stuff.  So there I'd be, counting my tips at 2 in the morning, munching on the chicken and onions and celery.

I found a chow mein recipe (in the same cookbook as Bye-Bye Nesquik's flagship dish, Chocolate Marshmallow Pudding) and played around with it until I got that slightly sweet Golden Pheasant taste.  Works for me, but then I'm not snobbish about my Asian food.


1 lb. boneless, skinless chicken breast
1 TB vegetable oil
2 cups diagonally sliced celery
3 medium onions, sliced
3/4 tsp. salt
2 cups water
1 TB brown sugar
1 TB soy sauce
3 TB flour
1/2 cup cold water
1 (16 oz.) can assorted chop suey vegetables
4 to 5 cups chow mein noodles 

Cut chicken into thin strips. Saute' for 5 min in oil, until delicately browned.  Add celery and onions and cook 2 or 3 minutes longer until slightly softened.  Add salt and 2 cups water; cover and simmer for 15 to 20 minutes.  Add brown sugar and soy sauce; whisk together flour and cold water until smooth.  Stir into chicken/celery mixture, bring to a boil and cook until thickened.  Add drained chop suey vegetables and continue cooking until thoroughly heated.   Serve over chow mein noodles.  YIELD: 5 servings, 410 cals. ea.

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