Just finished Eating Chinese Food Naked (I should have more clearly started that sentence “Just finished reading Eating Chinese Food Naked, but I didn’t.), an unexpected find at Walden Pond Books in Oakland. I really do mean it was unexpected. I went there with no goals of acquiring new texts, but then there were two huge fluffy dogs and I was standing in the fiction section and the author of this desperately titled book – Mei Ng – had the same first name as my last name and it was about Asian American diaspora and there you go.
I’m sorry to say I didn’t really like it. Not to say that I expect to love every Asian American piece of fiction that comes along, but I’ve read more than a few from that genre, possibly on a constant search to find an echo of my own feelings and experiences. Eating Chinese Food simply didn’t do it for me, though I hoped it would. The author appears relatively young in the portrait on the back cover, and something (non-pinpointable) in the blurb told me the protagonist and I might have something in common. Alas, she was a girl with even worse familial relationship issues than mine and her constant search for sex in lieu of simple, pure love got annoying. But hey, maybe that was Ng’s goal. (For the record, I think it was.) In general I liked her writing. It seemed like the voice of a peer telling me a story. I just felt unsatisfied that the characters, even with all their vices, didn’t grow on me in the way that Free Food for Millionaires did. It just wasn’t my cup of tea.
I’m also in the middle of Dreams from My Father, so I think I just needed a bit of a break from President Obama’s autobiography of racial identity.
Still, I finished the book. It was a quick read and there were just a few things that led me to lift my pen.
Although she had made friends, sometimes she looked at them and thought, Yes, you are my friend, but your parents have a house and sleep in the same bed and will send you to Europe in the summer and buy you a car for graduation, and yes, I am your friend, but I am your Chinese friend. She went to a few parties given by the Asian Student Union, but she felt everyone knew one another and that they were Chinese in a way she didn’t know how to be.
He went on. “How can they mean that? They’re just saying that. Just before, when you were standing there in your robe, not holding me, not even looking at me – you know it drives me crazy when you do that, when you go so far away – I was thinking, Who is that ugly Chinese woman standing in my room? But now here you are and you’re beautiful. I don’t even notice your Chineseness. You’re just Ruby who I love.” His voice was tender and awed.
When she wore her tight clothes, men looked at her and tried to talk to her. She didn’t want that. When she wore her big clothes, she felt that she was flopping around inside them, a little lost.
Despite the fact that two of these three quotes are blatantly about being “The (Chinese) Other,” the book doesn’t hit you over the head with the protagonist Ruby’s feelings of being on the outside based on her skin. That, I appreciated. The quotes do allude to Ruby’s identity formation being an unfinished project, though, and her coming to an understanding of her identity is one of the strongest themes throughout.