Double Cup Love- book review

Taiwanese-American foodie Eddie Huang is back at it again with Double Cup Love- On the Trail of Family, Food, and Broken Hearts in China. His first book Fresh Off the Boat was about growing up and starting up his New York eatery Baohaus. Double Cup Love sees him, a little jaded after Baohaus’ success, and his youngest brother Evan go to Chengdu, China to test himself in the ultimate way – by cooking for the locals.

As with his previous book, Huang doesn’t hold back in talking about his fights with his brothers, or bursting in on his girlfriend when she’s using the toilet. In fact, his girlfriend is at the heart of the book since Huang has decided he is in love and ready to commit. As such, he decides to bring her to Chengdu after a few months and propose to her.

First, Eddie and Evan go to Chengdu where they find out their hotel is one of those hourly ones where people rent rooms for amorous activities. After some conflict with each other, which their other brother Emery gets involved in, they manage to bond with some locals and impress them with their food. Eddie’s girlfriend comes to Chengdu, where Eddie pulls off his proposal successfully. The main story ends there, but there is a sad epilogue where Eddie confesses that they broke up 18 months afterwards. Eddie still sounds like he hasn’t gotten completely over her.

The book is quite entertaining, but it contains too much details at times. Eddie’s recollection of details and conversations is impressive but readers probably don’t need pages of every argument or thought that comes to Eddie’s mind. What is impressive is when Eddie starts talking about cooking. At one point, he cooks beef noodles, augmenting it with a little local flavour, and Evan’s judgement of the dish is striking. Who knew so much flavour and feeling could be derived from a mere taste of noodles?

At the beginning of Double Cup Love, Eddie provides a raw and very politically-incorrect take on Asians that is one of the best insights I’ve read in popular media. Basically he riffs on how Asians aren’t actually quiet or lack opinions, but that Asians are a very passive-aggressive, tribal people. A little later on, Eddie says Asians are very keen at making judgments and calculations using “advanced research skills” despite never really touching, feeling or seeing the things they judge. It’s something that as someone living in Taiwan, and before this, Hong Kong, I think is very right on the money. Disappointingly, there is nothing like this in the rest of the book which I suppose is due to Eddie being new to China and not wanting to be too harsh.

However, Double Cup Love falls a little flat at times because the rationale seems to be two ABTs/Cs (American-born Taiwanese/Chinese) go to Chengdu, hang out and have fun. Also, the pan-Chinese angle is apparent (Eddie’s parents are from Taiwan, but his grandparents are from China) but it would have been more accurate if he’d gone to Taiwan to find his roots. Unlike Fresh Off the Boat, Double Cup Love lacks the emotional depth and cultural insights to make it more than just a book about a crazy guy going on a half-baked trip to China.


The Epic City-book review

Up until the 1970s, Calcutta used to be India’s wealthiest and largest city. Since then, Calcutta (now Kolkatta) has experienced a steady decline as it has relinquished its economic crown to the likes of Bombay, Bangalore and New Delhi. But despite this, Calcutta is still a proud city that has a legacy of producing literary and political greats. Whether it has more than just its legacy in the 21st century is a question Indian-American Kushanava Choudhury tries to answer with his book The Epic City – The World on the Streets of Calcutta.

Choudhury was born in the US to Bengali parents who later returned to Calcutta to work, then came back to the US after they realized things were not as idyllic as they had thought. By the time Choudhury graduated from university, he decided to do the same and went to his ancestral city to work for the Statesman, the city’s oldest English-language newspaper. After two years passed, Choudhury had had enough and went back to the US to pursue graduate studies, before deciding to return to Calcutta to write a book. The Epic City is the result.

Calcutta is a fascinating city, having been the home of the great Indian poet and playwright Rabindranath Tagore as well as countless famous Indian writers, poets, and politicians. Calcutta is the heartland of the Bengali people and culture, and was also India’s capital when the British ruled India. However, growing unrest made the British shift the capital to Delhi. After independence and partition, when Pakistan was created, Calcutta lost its Bengali hinterland which became East Pakistan and then Bangladesh.

While The Epic City starts off slowly as it introduces the city and the author’s family background, the book becomes more compelling as Choudhury tackles historical and political issues. Truth be told, it can be depressing at times as readers learn about past famines and massacres, and the city’s widespread poverty. Ironically, Calcutta has been relatively free of political turmoil in the last few decades as it underwent economic decline. This is cited by someone Choudhury talks to as the reason Calcutta lacks modern greats, with all its heroes dead, as nothing happens in the city anymore. Choudhury points out the further irony that these greats all lived during British colonialism.

There is also colour and excitement, in the form of the Durga Pujo festival when the city’s neighborhoods are filled with large pandals, bamboo lattices built to honour the Hindu goddess Durga. We are also introduced to para and adda, which mean the neighborhood and long discussions with friends respectively, that are a big part of Calcutta life. The city’s literary culture still exists, from its myriad secondhand bookstores to the “little magazines” of poetry, stories and politics.

Choudhary does not romanticize Calcutta though, he freely admits it is a tough place to live with little to do or see, which sounds a bit harsh. His wife Durba, a Delhi native who he met in graduate school in the US, detests Calcutta, which is the source of fights between them. Choudhary is hard on his beloved city as well, pointing out how thousands of years ago, the first ancient Indian cities had covered sewers but yet, in modern Calcutta, the smell of human piss is everywhere, which Choudhary hilariously points out.

The book was written in 2009-2010, so perhaps by now, even more of the old neighborhoods and way of life described by Choudhary have already gone. The Epic City is a heartfelt tribute and record of a proud city that, though a shadow of its old self, can always count on its writers to maintain its proud legacy.

Fresh off the Boat- book review

Fresh Off the Boat is the memoir of Eddie Huang, an American-born Chinese/Taiwanese restaurant owner and food show host who opened Baohaus, a well-known New York Chinese bao (meat bun) eatery. I first heard of Huang from the show Fresh Off the Boat, a comedy about his adolescence growing up as a minority in middle-class Orlando. The book, which came before the show, is significantly different.

Huang is actually not “fresh off the boat” as he is American-born and raised, but his parents, who hail from Taiwan, were. “Fresh off the boat” or FOB refers to East Asian immigrants who have just arrived in America or Canada, and it’s a little derisive, meant to highlight and make fun of immigrant kids for being foreign and not in tune with local culture and behaviors. Despite being American, Huang is singled out and picked on for his race (everyone else is white) by classmates, teachers and other adults. As a kid, he puts up with this for a while until his rage builds up and he decides to get back at society. This is where the comedy TV show and the memoir differ significantly, because the show is all laughs with awkward, goofy parents and amusing cultural clashes, whereas the reality was much more brutal and violent. Huang gets into fights, cuts classes, gets in trouble with the police, and is even expelled. At home, things aren’t much better as he gets beaten by his father occasionally (and I don’t think it was mere spankings), who his mother rages at almost daily. She in turn gets beaten by Huang’s father, which is disturbing. Despite the domestic turmoil, Huang’s father manages to become a successful owner of restaurants, and Huang admits they were genuinely rich when he was in high school.

Huang’s teenage years include spending some time in Taiwan where his parents sent him after he hits somebody with a car after a fight and faces charges. Huang embraces the local night markets, learns more about his parents’ culture, and leaves with some understanding and appreciation of his parents, especially his father. He’s also conflicted, as he wonders why his father left Taiwan, where he could have been anything he wanted, to go to America, where Taiwanese, like all immigrants, encounter racism and discrimination. The most obvious answer is opportunity, which is almost like a cliche, but Huang’s father admits being able to get with girls easily was also a factor (In Taiwan, you’ve got to pretend to love them, says Huang’s dad). I don’t envy a lot about Huang’s life growing up, but I admire how, at least, he related to his parents who passed on not just the typical platitudes about hard work, a fighting spirit and making the most out of life’s opportunities.

Besides the fights and the struggles with racism, Huang also talks a lot about coming to terms with Taiwanese/Chinese culture, which most ABCs (American-born Chinese) face, literature and food. As a “rotten banana,” which Huang calls himself (banana is a term for ABCs who retain little of their Asian culture – yellow on the outside, white inside), the writer knows he does not fit the ideal concept of the obedient, quiet Asian who gets straight-As and grows up to become a doctor/accountant/programmer. Huang finds solace in hiphop and rap, while retaining some part of Taiwanese/Chinese culture with his love for food. Before he becomes an entrepreneur, Huang goes to law school, then joins a law firm, demonstrating a little pragmatism. Not surprisingly, within a year, he gets fired by the law firm for drug use. Soon Huang opens Baohaus and his life takes off. Of course, by this time, he had mostly sorted out his life.

At times, Fresh Off the Boat is almost too real and there is a lot more details about his childhood antics than readers might need to know. The ultimate result is a crazy and entertaining story that holds nothing back.

Crazy Rich Asians’ undeserved hype

So “Crazy Rich Asians” came out in movie theaters two weeks ago and it has matched its hype as a Hollywood with an all-Asian cast. It has been praised by countless critics and moviegoers, especially Asian-Americans who see the release of CRA as a truly ground-breaking event. I read the book, as well as its two sequels, but I haven’t seen the movie yet. I enjoyed the book a lot, as I wrote on this blog, and I think I would like the movie. But the reaction hasn’t been all positive with the CRA movie, and I agree with several of the arguments.

The movie has been criticized by some Singaporeans, who see it as showing off a simplified version of their country where everybody is wealthy and Chinese-Singaporean with the exception of the minority Indian and Southeast Asian maids and servants. Ethnic Chinese do make up about 75% of the country’s population, but ethnic Malays and Indians consist of the remaining one-quarter. Imagine if one watched a movie about the US or Britain where everyone was white and there were no blacks, Latinos, etc; would that be cool?

Others have argued that the movie presents a distorted version of Chinese identity that fits in with Chinese Communist Party propaganda. Indeed the movie opens with a quote from Napoleon who supposedly said when China “wakes”, it would awake the world (if I remember correctly, the book also began with this line). Now, all the main characters and families are ethnic Chinese whose ancestors came from China, but what do their lives and success have to do with China? Singapore is an independent country, not part of China. This also extends to language, where Mandarin, the main language of China, is heavily spoken by characters, whereas Hokkien and Cantonese are hardly used.

This matters because ethnic Chinese often speak their regional language, so even many Chinese from China speak Cantonese, Shanghainese or Hokkien at home, while in Taiwan, many speak Taiwanese, which is similar to Hokkien. In both the book and movie, Rachel, the main female protagonist who is Chinese-American, speaks Mandarin with her mother. Yet her mother comes from the Chinese province of Guangdong, which is mainly Cantonese-speaking. Very few people from Guangdong, especially those of Rachel’s mother’s generation, speak Mandarin with their family.

My main criticism is that the praise given to the movie for breaking racial movie-casting barriers in the US is undeserved. The title of the book and the movie are misleading because they do not represent “Asians” at all. What they represent is wealthy, high-class Chinese-Singaporeans who live in a bubble where they mainly interact with other ethnic Chinese in Hong Kong, Taiwan, and across the region. Asia is not merely Chinese people or China, but the world’s biggest continent with dozens of countries and peoples with different cultures, religions, races and ethnicities.

Yet in CRA’s “Asia,” there are no Indians, Malays, Indonesians, Vietnamese, Pakistanis, Iranians etc (the books do have minor characters from countries like Thailand and Philippines who play very miniscule roles). I know in the US and Canada, the word “Asians” is usually used by Chinese-Americans and Canadians, because it’s probably more convenient and less awkward to say “Chinese” due to political and historical reasons. I think Korean-Americans and perhaps those hailing from Southeast Asia also call themselves Asian-Americans, though I’m not sure Indian/Pakistani/Sri Lankan-Americans do that. Whatever the case, the fact is Asia is not China and Asians are not only Chinese/of Chinese descent. The movie is set completely in Singapore, which is just a small bit of Asia, and even then, the movie does not show Singapore’s ethnic diversity. I get why Kevin Kwan used the word “Asians” in his book’s title because using “Crazy Rich Chinese-Singaporeans” wouldn’t sound as interesting or cool.

My problem isn’t with the book or movie. My problem is with all the hype about the movie. Crazy Rich Asians doesn’t represent Asians, but just a certain segment of Asians.

The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck- book review

Mark Manson writes one of the bluntest self-help blogs on the internet, and his message is always basically that life is full of crap and it’s not about avoiding it, but how you deal with it that helps you succeed. His book The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck does not disappoint as it drills that message relentlessly to help readers see life from a different perspective than most other self-help advice.

Manson is a very straightforward and profane guy, so if you don’t like too much cursing, be warned. It’s worth putting up with it because he makes a lot of great points backed up by very sound reasoning. The book’s title might sound straightforward but rather than not give a f*ck about anything, it’s about choosing something meaningful to care about and not giving a f*ck about everything else.

Manson’s advice and opinions jump out of each page, like a slap to the face or a blast of cold water. Happiness can be misleading because it should not come from avoiding problems, but in solving them. Don’t think you’re special because you’re not.  Don’t be afraid to be wrong and don’t think you are always right. In other words, don’t be afraid to fail.

A particular striking point is that people always have choices in life. Manson says that while we often can’t control what happens to us, we can control how to react or move on. Manson uses an example of a former reader who took this the wrong way and angrily challenged Manson. The reader had lost his son in a car accident and he was furious that Manson seemed to be saying being caught up in sadness was his fault. Manson explains to readers that a lot of things may not be our fault, but it is our responsibility for how we deal with the aftermath.

Manson slams a lot of positive advice such as being happy and needing to feel special. He believes people are too pampered and that there is too much superficiality in modern society, such as when people proclaim themselves experts, entrepreneurs, or innovators without much real-life experience. He urges people to know when to say no, to take responsibility for things in their life, and to confront problems in relations or work. Honesty is key for Manson, even when it comes to telling his wife her outfit doesn’t look good (she in return calls him out on his bullshit which he appreciates). The final chapter tackles the subject of death, and Manson’s main point is, not surprisingly, that one should not fear death but be comfortable with one’s mortality. Because once one does, then one can choose your values more freely, live life more and not be afraid.

The book is only a little over 200 pages long, but there is hardly a single wasted page. You don’t necessarily have to agree with everything Manson says, but for the most part, this book is the type of tough advice that you need in today’s world. In the end, the subtle art of not giving a f*ck is actually about choosing what to give a f*ck about.

The Happiness of Pursuit- book review

The Happiness of Pursuit is about finding a “quest that will bring purpose to your life,” as its sub-title states. At first glance, this might sound a little vague and sappy, but the book is surprisingly fun and inspiring to read.

Author Chris Guillebeau already embarked on his own quest of visiting every country in the world before 35 and succeeded. But instead of focusing on himself, he interviewed over 50 people from different walks of life who went on quests such as walking across the continental US, birdwatching around the world, or cooking food from a different country every week. The point of pursuing these quests, Guillebeau emphasizes, is not to brag or show off, but to create something meaningful for yourself by setting a major goal to pursue. These major goals include personal enrichment, protesting illegal logging by living in a tree for over a year, investigative journalism, setting up charities, traveling the world, and breaking athletic records. There is something for everyone to relate to in terms of striving for a goal.

The Happiness of Pursuit draws from the collective experience, lessons and insights of all these people to provide a guide for readers to pursue their own great quest. There are success stories, planning tips, warnings and even examples of failed quests in which people had to face up to their failures and re-dedicate their energy to pursuing other worthy quests.

Some of the key points include having a clear goal, being prepared for setbacks and persevering, following your passion and that understanding what bothers you is as important as knowing what excites you. Some of this might sound obvious but the hard part is to actually follow through. The people Guillebeau features in the book have all done that.

Instead of just giving advice and platitudes, Guillebeau provides real-life examples of people who actually did those things. In this, The Happiness of Pursuit is different from a lot of other books that try to inspire people to improve their lives. By not making the book all about him, the author makes sure readers can be inspired by the many different people he features.