Wednesday, January 30, 2013

China and The Critical Mom

To my vast amazement, I have lots of Chinese readers.  Hello!  I'm grateful to you for reading my blog.  But I'm also amazed.  I wonder why the bemused ramblings of an American housewife somewhere in Germany--who knows next to nothing about China--could be interesting.  I started to think whether I could write anything interesting to Chinese readers, but all I could come up with was How Little I Know About China.  

What do I know?

(1) I remember the one and only Chinese restaurant on the Upper West Side of Manhattan when I was growing up: The Moon Palace.  It was on Broadway and the corner of 112th Street, right around the corner from the building I grew up in.  My family went there often, perhaps once every weekend.  We thought of Moon Palace food as Chinese food, the only kind of Chinese food there is.  But this is like the mistake some mid-Western Americans made when they first saw a Northern German--from North-Rhine Westphalia--step off a plane.
"Where's your Lederhosen?"  asked the Americans.  Since Lederhosen are only worn in the South--a place as foreign to the Northern German as the U.S. to China--this comment did not go over well.  
When the Moon Palace closed in 1991 after 26 years, The New York Times eulogized it: 

. . . when Moon Palace served its last dish of egg foo young on Thursday night, Lyn Casals-Ariet cried, Wai-Tong Lau rushed in from Queens to say goodbye, and Camilla Koch didn't even try to eat. She sat at her regular table, drinking white wine and smoking L&Ms. "Camilla is in a state of grief," said Eugenia Montgomery, her smoking companion . . . The waiters became their family . . . And in a city where different kinds of people often live parallel lives, Moon Palace was an intersection where Chinese immigrants, Columbia University professors and nurses from St. Luke's Hospital crossed paths. Never, Ever Chic

The Moon Palace served either "Shanghai" or "Cantonese" cuisine, depending upon whom you asked, and New York was going the way of Szechuan at the time.  Probably still is.  I remember the egg rolls and the noodles, and I know it was "Chinese Food" for Americans, not any kind of food eaten by anyone anywhere in China. It was bland stuff, blanketed in white, creamy sauce, but it tasted good.

Paul Auster took "The Moon Palace" as the title of one of his best-known novels.  I'm sure he ate there lots when he was a student.

(2) I remember Richard Nixon's trip to China in 1972.  I know that he shook hands with Mao ZeDong in February of that year.

(3) I know the following version of how footbinding ended in China:

Intellectuals plucked the issue of footbinding from the realm of morals and aesthetics and remolded it into a question of patriotism. Women were told the practice was not only harmful to their own physical and emotional health, but also a costly disability to the nation, retarding its political and economic development. In 1928 the Nationalist government announced its plan to eradicate footbinding, requiring girls under the age of fifteen to let their feet grow naturally. Some local officials took a tougher stand, requiring that all women unbind their feet or be subject to fines and sometimes physical punishment. (from Joseph Rupp's History of Footbinding website)

The other version of the story remains that English missionaries founded anti-footbinding clubs, and that the group support helped parents have the courage to stop doing something to their girls that the culture continued to demand they do.

All this is relevant since one theory of how female genital mutilation could be stopped in sub-Saharan Africa is through the founding of anti-cutting clubs.

(4)  Have you noticed I've avoided all mention of political and literary controversy?  Believe me, I read about that stuff all the time in The New York Review of Books and elsewhere.  I'm able and willing to write about Ai WeiWei and lots of other things.

So, readers in China, should I write more about (1), (2), (3), (4) or none of the above.

P.S. At the Moon Palace, and most other American "Chinese" restaurants, you were supposed to "Choose one from column A, one from Column B," and then you got a square meal, followed by fortune cookies.


  1. No mention of Amy Tan here? That's where most of us Americans get whatever ideas we have about China... all of her older generation women (the awful mothers) tell us about their lives back then (while tiger-momming their poor kids).

  2. Oh, but I know Maxine Hong Kingston! And Amy Chua! Anyway, now I'm acquainted with Moishe Pipik.