Friday, April 23, 2010

"Serve the People" - Jen Lin-Liu

I just didn’t hit it off with this book. While I was reading “Serve the People: A Stir-Fried Journey Through China”, especially as I reached the middle of the book, I kept asking myself why.

It certainly revolves around themes close to my heart: food and travel; It was on my wishlist for months; I was so excited when it arrived in the mail – and that’s about the most excitement this book caused. And it doesn’t help to know I’m in the minority here. A quick browse through amazon’s customer reviews proves that most found it not only engaging but even "unputdownable".

Maybe a humble “it’s not you, it’s me” would be in order here, but I just can’t quite bring my reader self to that level of self-doubt. A literary critic I am not, but I know a bland book when I read it.

Sad as it may seem to say it (or even cruel) “Serve the People: A Stir-Fried Journey through China” is one of those books that I could have never read and would have made no difference to me whatsoever.

Jen Lin-Liu is the daughter of Chinese immigrants who grew up in San Diego, maintaining few cultural connections with her parent’s homeland. She decided to relocate to China and style herself as a food writer/journalist in 2000. Based first in Shanghai, the book opens as she moves to Beijing which, she explains, has a more “genuine” Chinese feel to it, where she begins taking cooking lessons.

Her colleagues are hardly foodies – mostly men who need a certificate in order to work as cooks – and the teachers have little patience for questions, deviations from standard recipes or even for allowing students to do actual cooking. The author befriends a different teacher at the school, and soon the two become friends, with the middle aged woman telling the author about life under Mao.

However, Chairman Wang’s “revelations” seemed vague and, to me, felt impersonal. I surely did not learn anything I didn’t know already about the Chinese communist regime, and it didn’t really bring the teacher to life either. As for Beijing it sounds grey, cold, chaotic, polluted, a city where the historic quarters were being bulldozed just in time for the 2008 Olympics.

Next up the author starts as an “intern” at a noodle stall – I honestly felt that she had somewhat arm-wrestled herself into the position (by her own admission no established restaurant offered her a job), taking advantage of a kind cook. Lin-Liu speaks of being an “apprentice” noodle maker and that she felt “guilty” showing up for work in a taxi when not even the stall owner could afford such a luxury. She never makes it clear whether she was being payed for her time at the stall. I hope not – Zhang, the cook, was just scraping by, sending most of his money home to his family in the province.

Then there is a chapter where she “interns” at a Shanghai restaurant, where a Malaysian born chef is attempting to follow in the footsteps of western style celebrity chefs. Once again she is not taken on for her cooking skills – she “infiltrates” the kitchen as a journalist. Here cooking is a means to building a business empire – the young chef is clearly, unabashedly, ambitious in a cut-throat manner.

The last pages serve up the author’s blooming relationship with an American expatriate – which felt out of place to say the very least – and the book ends with her decision to open a cooking school.

All in all there seems to be little passion for cooking in the characters the author meets: some are cooks because that was the profession the Maoist regime assigned them, some because it’s a living, others a means to achieve fortune.

A lot of the food didn’t really sound appetizing to me, but I’ve read food-themed books before that I enjoyed even if I wouldn’t eat any of the dishes described.

Sometimes Lin-Liu seems to pull out the shock-value card: but somehow, and I could hardly believe it, she managed to keep me unmoved even as she ate dog-stew and various animal’s penis and testicles. She describes eating fish head at least twice – as if she couldn’t believe it herself – seemingly ignoring that fish head is a common enough dish in many parts of the world.

Then there is the glaring mistake, when she states that the “Portuguese egg tart” is a Chinese dish (so why did she think it’s called “Portuguese”? Fact Check anyone?). Even though Lin-Liu offers precious little historic or cultural culinary facts during the book, this one obvious mistake made me doubt the rest.

“Serve the People” felt stilted and shallow, like one of those short-story collections from Creative Writing program graduates, where every bit of quirkiness feels calculated. I felt the author was unable to put across the magic and wonder of becoming immersed in a different culture – her encounters with Chinese people felt artificial, lacking in empathy and her visual descriptions of cities and landscape didn’t really come alive on the page. It just felt foggy, as if you never really get to the meat of anything, not food, not people, not China and definitely not the author.

Also, the chapters felt disconnected like a bunch of magazine articles thinly put together. And while I hardly wish to seem mean-spirited, if I mention that the author wrote for Time-Out Beijing, you'll probably get a better sense of the kind of urbanite, disconnected, flighty and somewhat entitled tone I'm hinting at.

I almost feel guilty being so critical, but while I didn’t hate this book (it failed to elicit that kind of strong reaction) I certainly would not recommend it.

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