Monday, July 12, 2010

Aimless Reading: The H's, Part 35 (Yunte Huang)

Huang, Yunte
Transpacific Displacement:
Intertextual Travel in
American Literature

Given to me by the author, inscribed thusly:

For Mike Kelleher--

"What did the doorman say?"

With love,

I also get a shout-out in the acknowledgments for having read the manuscript when it was still his dissertation.

Yunte was my classmate for two years in Buffalo. We used to sit together in the back of Charles' Bernstein's seminars trading lines from various episodes of Seinfeld, which was then in its final season, and laughing to ourselves.

We often played Scrabble together at night. He was fierce competition, despite the fact that English was his second language. He also taught me the proper way to make shrimp fried rice, most importantly the little trick of slicing the shrimp in half down the spine, which creates thinner, faster-cooking pieces.

He also revealed to me that Chinese speakers get their own special menus at Chinese restaurants, with different menu items and different ingredients than English speakers. Once, when we were eating together at Jin Lan in Buffalo, Yunte ordered the dinner for us off the Chinese menu. Just as the meal was coming out, we heard a heated discussion going on in Chinese between the waitress and the cook. Yunte overheard them and translated the following:

Waitress: This is supposed to have white sauce, not brown sauce.
Cook: They're Americans, they won't know the difference.
Waitress: One of them is Chinese!
Cook: O! Alright, I'll fix it.

from Transpacific Displacement

When I was growing up in a small town in southern China, I had a next-door neighbor who was old and blind. As the story goes, he was born in that same house next to mine. At the age of two, he lost his vision as a result of an illness. At seven, he was sent to Meiguo (America; literally, the "beautiful country") to live with his relatives there. He learned the English language and later pursued a career as an interpreter. After retiring, he moved back to our town and planned to live there for the remainder of his life.

As a child, I was fascinated by this question: "What does he know about Meiguo since he hasn't really seen it?" I often imagined myself putting this question to him and wondered how he would respond. In childish vagaries, I convinced myself that whatever the old man might tell me would literally be hearsay, because it would not be as real as the way I saw, for instance, the bright golden sun, of which, I had heard, he had only some vague visual memories. But I never had the chance to ask him any questions. In fact, I never even saw him with my own eyes. He was too old to go out and would meet no one except those who went to his house for English lessons. I knew of him only by overhearing adults' conversations and the gossip told by my sister, who had a friend who took English lessons from him. In the sense, my present account of him is as much hearsay as I thought his account of Meiguo would have been.

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