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Exile & Finding Home in Food

smalina's picture

I left class today thinking about food on the one hand, and language on the other--our discussion about Bình's refusal to speak to define, and to use the material, the edible, in its place (even if only to name that he cannot define love that way). 

Apart from the persistent erotic significance of food in the narrative, both food and language function to exile characters from their place of origin and heritage, in very different ways. For Bình, who left his home out of necessity and who feels he cannot return, food connects him to his loved ones, to the home he left behind. This exile is very much connected to his identity as a queer man, and the sensuality with which he describes the experience of eating seems to allow Bình to reconcile his home (and a father who disowned him for his sexuality) with his identity. In food, Bình can have both at once.

When he visits a restaurant, guided by his "scholar-prince," Bình expresses his surprise at what appears to be an incongruence between the ethnic heritage of the head chef and the food he presents to his patrons. As his friend explains, the food the chef presents comes from "all the places where he has been. It is his way of remembering the world" (Truong 99). Bình is familiar and in fact masterful with French ingredients--however, his shock that the head chef would choose to present cuisine that is not originally "his own" implies that Bình still feels like a guest in French kitchens. And yet, the memories interspersed throughout the narrative, rife themselves with magnificent descriptions of food, suggest that Bình, too, uses food as a "way of remembering the world." Maybe it is his way of making a temporary home in each place where he finds himself. (I'm thinking of another passage...maybe later on in the which a chef insists upon only authentic French ingredients being used in the dishes. Bình is familiar with these ingredients, and has thus created a home for himself among them, demonstrating resilience despite the rejection and erasure of his heritage)

And at the same time, language functions consistently to remind Bình of his distance from home. He insists that others ask him to speak so they can delight in the "otherness" of his accent, his "unique" and even "entertaining" way with words. It is this mockery that reinforces Bình's refusal to speak, to use the shared and language-less experience of taste to communicate (and, in turn, to call out the inadequacies of language). Though Bình can delight at the sound of English on his lover's lips, his lover cannot do the same for him, finding himself lost and distressed by his inability to understand. He is reminded, even in his romantic relationship, of his otherness. Later on in the book, Bình feels the weight of his inability to participate due to language barriers: "Lanugage is a house with a host of doors, and I am too often uninvited and without the keys" (155). 

I'm interested in the complicated relationship between these two worlds (of language and of food) when they collapse into one another--when Bình can know a food so well, can find such pleasure and such comfort in its taste and texture, but cannot speak its name in the language he is forced to use. 

(I'm thinking, too, of GertrudeStein's obsession with oysters and melon, and her need to be sure they will be found whereever the couple is traveling. Toklas works tirelessly to ensure her love that she will be able to find them at all of their stops--reassuring her that they will find a part of home away from home).