Can Orientalism Explain Stereotypes About Chinese Food?

There are some ideas that, despite their nakedly obvious racism, persist in the popular consciousness and subtly inform how we see different people. One of these ideas is that East Asians, particularly the Chinese, eat everything, including animals that Westerners think are taboo to eat. This idea has obvious connections to the theory of Orientalism in that it oversimplifies Eastern culture to make it appear opposite to similar concepts in the Western world: Chinese cuisine becomes savage and antiquated, which in turn makes the Western palate seem more civilized and sophisticated. Indeed, the unsubtle recent resurgence of this idea carried the message that Chinese food was “dirty,” with people in the early stages of the pandemic fearing they would contract COVID-19 if they ate at a Chinese restaurant.

While historically the concept of Chinese food has been met with fear and derision by Europeans and Americans, there is still an element of fascination that is also present in Orientalism; the East can supposedly offer “wonderful flavors wholly unknown to any American,” despite the fact that the menus of most Chinese restaurants in the US during the late 19th and early 20th centuries consisted of mostly Americanized hybrid dishes (this was done on purpose in order to destigmatize Chinese food and attract American customers). Even though Americans now have access to authentically prepared Chinese food, most restaurants that cook this way are extremely expensive and cater to a high-class demographic, so “real” Chinese food is still largely inaccessible to the American public, thus obscuring the real culture behind the food.

While the blatant fear surrounding Chinese food has significantly died down due to its rise in popularity across America, the sinophobia displayed at the start of the pandemic shows that we as a population have not detached ourselves from the racist systems of thought that form this attitude. In order to improve our views of foreign cultures and cuisine, we have to dismantle the West’s image of the East and get to know the reality of those places. To start, we could clear up the confusion surrounding the “exotic animals” that supposedly make up the Chinese diet. While markets that sell exotic or endangered animals like bats and pangolins do exist in China, they are fairly rare and very expensive to shop at, so your average Chinese person mostly eats dishes made with chicken, pork, beef, or seafood. And just like in the States, eating habits can vary based on the region of the country. By drawing back the biases and stereotypes, we can begin to recognize our similarities to and celebrate our differences from other cultures.

At the Worst

In Shakespeare’s time, the dominant belief was that events on Earth were controlled by the movement of the stars, which are referenced often in “King Lear”. Another common religious or superstitious cultural motif used in this play is the wheel of the goddess of fortune; even though the wheel itself is supposed to represent how a person’s fortunes may change suddenly and drastically, the assumption that some force is deliberately causing those changes prevails. The characters in the play think everything happens for a reason.

“King Lear” is a tragedy, so the majority of the play is spent in suffering, and many of the characters ruminate on the effects of suffering, and especially on its relativity: Lear says that one bad situation might not seem unbearable if your only other option was something even worse and Edgar says that suffering is more easily endured if you are with other people or if you see someone else struggling more than you. There are some positive takeaways from the suffering in the play, like when Lear realizes he didn’t care enough for his poor citizens during his reign when he was out in the storm. Additionally, characters often remark how each new development in the story only makes things worse and worse, and sometimes equate their suffering to the aforementioned wheel of fortune (for example, when Edmund is brought to justice in act V, he says, “The wheel is come full circle; I am here”). All of this suggests that there is some sort of cosmic balance in the world of the play, that someone’s situation might not be so bad, if only comparatively.

All of this brings me to what I consider the most tragic moment of the play: the death of Cordelia. Calling this moment tragic may seem odd given it doesn’t fit the conventional structure of a tragedy we were discussing in class, but what I mean by tragic is that this moment can’t be comparatively made better, nor can it really be made sense of in relation to the play’s universe. There is no moment more awful to make it seem better in comparison; Lear is not able to be consoled by the other people in the scene; at this point in the play, nobody has suffered more than Lear, not even Edgar, whose father and brother both died (and he was responsible for both deaths, whether directly or indirectly); Cordelia’s death doesn’t teach the other characters anything; and there is no karmic good that balances this scene out, not even the fact that Lear killed the soldier who was hanging Cordelia. It was an absurd murder that took away not only the lives of two of the play’s most important characters, but the last dredges of Lear’s sanity (that were slowly being built up after his reconciliation with Cordelia), and Albany’s hope that Lear would unite and rule England like he used to. The unabashed sadness of this moment makes it one of the rawest and most powerful of the play, and I don’t think “King Lear”‘s legacy as a great tragedy would be as impactful as it is now without this moment.

1. Is it Poetry? – True/False

When starting this assignment, I was not able to find a song that I knew fit the definition of poetry we were working with. I changed directions and picked a random song I normally listen to–“Here Comes the Sun” by The Beatles, from the Abbey Road album–and decided to evaluate how poetic it is. What does it say about a certain experience or about life in general? Does it paint enough of a picture of an experience to be considered poetry at all?

The second question was difficult for me since the lyrics of this song are so repetitive:

Here comes the sun, do, do, do / Here comes the sun / And I say, it’s all right”

This is the chorus of the song, and it’s played five times. The sun’s repeating welcome and the assurances that everything’s going to be okay serve to deliver the central subject of the song: the sun has come out after a long, harsh winter and the relief it’s caused is immeasurable. It’s noteworthy that the sun is personified, imbued with the life it gives to the narrator and their peers. The emphasis on the sun coming (in present tense) suggests that it hasn’t fully returned, which is echoed by the other lines: “The smiles returning to the faces” and “I feel that ice is slowly melting” both suggest that the sun’s return is an active process, with cold and unhappiness being a still somewhat present reality in the song’s world. However, the song’s focus isn’t on the present, but the future, which is why the people are so excited to welcome the sun–they know a happy future will come along with it (that’s why they say “it’s all right”).

This feeling of relief the sun provides is emphasized by the line “it seems like years since it’s been here” the repetition of which only emphasizes it more, like the narrator can’t seem to get away from this thought. The song doesn’t seem to be set in a specific time or place besides the end of winter, so the return of the sun and the relief everyone feels because of it have more universal weight than a simple change in weather (it also feels more exalted and magical thanks to the reverent tone of the chorus). The mention of “smiles returning to the faces” creates a sense of community; the sun shines for everyone, so everyone has come together to celebrate, providing a sense of shared happiness–one that even includes the listener since the “little darling” at the start of every non-chorus line addresses them. In this way, I think the theme of this song concerns the experience of shared joy following shared hardship. When things get better, people may come together to celebrate as well as become more optimistic for the future overall (they also may share their own joy with others). The vagueness of the song invites the listener to partake in the relief whether or not their specific experiences match the events of the song because everyone has known hard times and the feelings of happiness and freedom that follow their ending. The goal of the song is to remind people of those happy experiences so they can share in the song’s general cheeriness.

My final answer is a shaky True. Even when trying to analyze it, this song’s lyrics are very straightforward and don’t have much in the way of dimension. However, they do speak to an experience, one that’s specific but applicable to possibly anything the listener wants it to be given the song’s very broad meaning. “Here Comes the Sun” does fulfill one of poetry’s core purposes in that respect.

Conscious of the Past

One of the most distinct motifs I picked up on when first reading Exit West were mentions of the past, usually meant to highlight a change that had taken place within the world of the story. Most of those changes are rather negative; lines like “The cinema they remembered so fondly had been replaced by a shopping arcade for computers and electronic peripherals,” “The Mars it showed was more detailed as well, though it was of course a Mars from another moment, a bygone Mars,” and “The family that used to run the place, after arriving in the city following the Second World War, and flourishing there for three generations, had recently sold up and emigrated to Canada,” all denote the loss of something (13, 16, 23). Sometimes the changed versions, the ones that had something missing, were more modern, which the rise of technology and increase in light pollution from the first two lines show.

Modernity is also a sort of motif in the novel, since Hamid often comments on aspects of modern city life within the novel: phone usage, drugs, commuting, emailing, going to Chinese restaurants, etc. While this was intended to push back against the Western perception of cities in underdeveloped nations, it also solidifies the book’s place in a contemporary era. But that only makes the parts where the past is mentioned stand out more.

When thinking over the purpose of these continual references to the past, I remember the quote from the very start of the book that details how “…one moment we are pottering about our errands as usual and the next we are dying, and our eternally impending ending does not put to a stop our transient beginnings and middles until the instant when it does” (4). I believe these references enhance the spontaneity of life and the finality of sudden changes that the quote talks about: the cinema is a cinema until it’s remodeled, and the family will run the same Chinese restaurant until they move away. There have been irreversible changes made before, and they will continue to occur, especially as Saeed and Nadia’s cities begin to fall to the militants, which is a very severe example of change, but nevertheless change is something we all expereience. We all have a past, things have changed for all of us, this will continue to be so; these ideas add to the novel’s focus on transience and the human experience.

Things Have Changed

The distinction between parts 1 and 2 of The Stranger is something to take note of, both from a regular writing standpoint and a broader thematic standpoint. The most basic change was to the setting, but the prison environment forced the writing to change as well. Because of Meursault’s lack of freedom, there are fewer instances of landscape description (this bleeds into the once ever-present sky motif–it doesn’t get mentioned nearly as much in part 2). Also, due to prison’s daily tedium, we don’t get descriptions of actions or events as much, which was kind of jarring after going through all of Part 1.

The gaps left by the change in scenery are filled in with monologuing and character interaction. This part has a lot more focus on people’s opinions rather than facts of a certain situation (compare the descriptions of Meursault meeting the funeral director to him meeting the magistrate–the latter scene goes a lot more in-depth into the thoughts of the characters than the former), whether they were Meursault’s own opinions (like those on his cell or desire for a woman) or someone else’s. Even though Meursault is just as detached as ever, I got the sense that he was engaging more with the people around him, since he just has to be there, has to listen to their positions.

This introduces the most striking aspect of part 2 in general: a lot more people are challenging Meursault on his way of life. Meursault can’t catch a break in this regard; throughout part 2, he has encounters with his lawyer, the magistrate, and the chaplain, and the entire trial is just one big example of this. In every interaction, Meursault is the one being put on the spot, since his lifestyle and logical processes are just incomprehensible to people. He goes through life having wants and needs like any other person, but he doesn’t make anything more out of what they are, doesn’t try to give them some sort of higher meaning.

It seems like the other people in the book–the “normal” people–cannot function without some obligatory sense of meaning, derived from their common experiences… like, say, crying at a loved one’s funeral. It’s viewed as unheard of because if someone were to go against it, that would force them to look at the situations in life they’ve created and question why they were made. Why does the idea of family carry so much societal weight? If we’re looking at it head-on, families are units of people that aid in each other’s survival; important, yes, but to a life-defining degree? Meursault surely doesn’t think so. In this way, if part 1 was an establishment of The Stranger‘s philosophy through Meursault’s apathetic lifestyle, then part 2 is where this philosophy is directly challenged and must be reasserted by Meursault (which does happen at the very end of the book).

“Forget it, Meursault, it’s Algiers”

When reading the first 3 chapters of The Stranger, I had a nagging sensation of familiarity. I had never read this book before, nor any of Camus’s work, but there was something about the way it was written that seemed familiar to me. Well, I’ve finally figured it out: The Stranger reminds me of film noir. Mr. Heidkamp has said that this book heavily influenced a lot of Western pop culture, and since this book came out in the 1940s, which was around when film noir was rising to prominence, so I think this book may have influenced the popularity of the genre.

I think the main reason this story gave me the same feelings a noir story would is the futility of it all. So far, the entire story has just been descriptions of events and characters in the protagonist’s daily life, nothing that’s particularly exciting, and this feeling doesn’t ever change even if things that are out of the ordinary do start happening (like when Raymond plans to get revenge on his girlfriend). This is a very big staple of noir films–there is a large focus on how life always goes on, even if tragic or otherwise important events occur, and it can be seen in the way Meursault reflects on his mother’s death: “It occurred to me that anyway one more Sunday was over, that Maman was buried now, that I was going back to work, and that, really, nothing had changed” (24).

The character of Meursault represents this theme well. He doesn’t seems to have any severe opinions about anything, and prefers to spend his free time idling away, sleeping or people-watching. He has fully embraced the unchanging, unforgiving nature of time, and it manifests in an almost overwhelming sense of apathy, like when he says, “He told me that I’d have to act as a witness for him. It didn’t matter to me, but I didn’t know what I was supposed to say” (37). While most noir protagonists have to learn this way of thinking by the end of the story, he in introduced with it.

Another characteristic of noir is having the protagonist come face to face with extreme and tragic violence (sometimes they are just a witness to it, other times they’re committing the violent act themselves–Meurault is in this second category). I’ve only just finished chapter 6, but Meursault’s murder of the Arab man is definitely extreme. The entire passage is very intense, it feels unhinged and senseless, and that raw feeling is also present in a lot of film noir murder scenes. It will be interesting to see how Meursault’s apathetic nature might be affected by the aftermath of the murder, so I’m looking forward to reading more.