Thursday, February 08, 2007


Hi all,

So temperatures in New York have gone back to something approaching normal; there was even a light frosting of white stuff on the ground this morning, although it was mostly gone before I had the chance to grab a shovel from the garage. Still, memories of last year's back-to-back blizzards seem faint and fictional and vaguely magical, like a chapter from Harry Potter and the Whole Bunch of Snow; the weirdness of this winter still hangs there, smirking.

The return of cold weather does put one in the mood for bowls of steaming hot soup, however. Preferably with noodles in it. Which is why this week's SFGate column is about that most steaming hot and noodly of Japanese innovations, ramen--in the wake of the passing of Nissin chairman Momofuku Ando, the inventor of the instant variety:


By Jeff Yang, Special to SF Gate
Thursday, January 18, 2007

In memory of the late instant-noodle king, Momofuku Ando, Jeff Yang speaks to notable ramen authorities about the meal-in-a-bowl's awesome cultural impact


One of the factoids that came out of my ramenological research was that the concept of just-add-water instant noodles is originally Chinese (then again, we Chinese basically lay claim to every innovation under the sun, from the cotton gin to gangsta rap). As Wikipedia notes, during the Qing Dynasty, "yimian noodles were deep-fried to allow them to be stored for long periods and then prepared quickly." Ando's flash-frying process is similar, but better preserves the texture and aroma of the noodles (within reason; there's a reason why up to six separate "flavor packets" are needed to amp up the yum and turn a sodden mass of tangled dough into, well, food).

What it doesn't do is make the dish particularly good for you. We're talking a high-carb, low-fiber, pretty much vitamin and mineral free dish here. Because the noodles are fried to evaporate their moisture content, they're also high in saturated fats (and even the Great Food Satan, trans fats). And those little flavor packets? Mostly sodium and MSG.

The single largest consumer market for instant ramen is the nation that's becoming the single largest consumer market for anything: China, whose residents eat 44.3 billion packs a year. (Indonesia's second at 12.4 billion packs, then Japan at 5.4 billion. But South Koreans eat the most per capita, at 69 packs per person per year. Yikes!) It's interesting to note that China's, er, yen for instant ramen is running parallel to its embrace of lots of other not so healthy phenomena. A colleague of mine at work brought to my attention the fact that McDonald's has opened its first drive-through location in Beijing. (From WaPo, free reg required)

Three thoughts:

1. This is just another example of how successful we've been in exporting our ultraconsumerist lifestyle throughout the developing world. It ain't just China--India has seen skyrocketing levels of personal debt due to a boom in plastic; in Brazil, formerly celebrants of bodily lushness, women are experiencing rising levels of anorexia...the list goes on. It's like the worst lessons we have to teach are the ones being absorbed by rapt aspirationalists all around the globe, while the best ones fall on mostly deaf ears...

2. The success of drive-through fast food (this is the 16th Mickey D's has built in China, with 30 more to come in the next year or so) means two things: Lots of cars. And lots of demand for grease-laden, high-calorie fare. In short, China is getting fat. And polluted. The social and health implications of this in a nation of 1.3 billion are staggering to consider.

3. Finally, these drive-throughs are a joint venture with Sinopec, China's
giant petroleum combine, and are thus being installed at filling stations everywhere. Does that old joke "EAT HERE--GET GAS" translate into Chinese?

Okay, dumb gag. But dumb--and in many cases, patently offensive--gags have been much in the news lately. Hot on the heels of that whole Rosie mess, some of you may have heard of the flap over the Daily Princetonian's publication of a parody op-ed, supposedly from a student named "Lian Ji," in their annual "joke edition" of the student paper. An excerpt from "Princeton University is racist against me, I mean, non-whites":

"Hi Princeton! Remember me? I so good at math and science. Perfect 2400 SAT score. Ring bells? Just in cases, let me refresh your memories. I the super smart Asian. Princeton the super dumb college, not accept me. I get angry and file a federal civil rights complaint against Princeton for rejecting my application for admission."

And yeah, the spelling and broken English goes on. And on. And on. Along with references to doing laundry, working railroads, dog eating, etc. But it wasn't the op-ed alone that got my goose in a gander. Faced with a firestorm of controversy over the supposed satire, the Daily Princetonian's Managing Board (who collaboratively wrote the op-ed) responded with this editor's note:


"Since publishing Wednesday's joke issue, we have learned that some of our readers were offended by a column satirizing Asian stereotypes. The response surprised us: We did not seek to offend, and we sincerely regret having upset some of our readers.

Many criticisms of the column, however, do not recognize its purpose. Using hyperbole and an unbelievable string of stereotypes, we hoped to lampoon racism by showing it at its most outrageous. We embraced racist language in order to strangle it. At its worst, the column was a bad joke; at its best, it provoked serious thought about issues of race, fairness and diversity.

The column in question was penned by a diverse group of students — including several Asians on our senior editorial staff — who had no malicious intent. Given our purpose, we are deeply troubled by and reject the allegation of racism.

We welcome debate about our column, especially in the pages of this newspaper. We hope our readers will see the column for what it is.

Chanakya Sethi '07, editor-in-chief; Christian Burset '07, Neir Eshel '07, Anna Huang '07, Nancy Khov '07, Alex Maugeri '07, Tom Senn '07 and Ellen Young '07, Editors, 130th Managing Board"


Now, okay, these are kids. They have room to grow and learn. Most of them will go into fields that have little to do with media or entertainment or journalism. But regardless of what industry they decide to join, they've got to learn that this kind of post facto rationalization will never fly.

"We have learned...the response surprised us"? Uh...guys, you don't think you could have guessed that some of your readers would be offended? How tone-deaf can you possibly be? Sure, Dave Chappelle and Sasha Baron Cohen can be offensive (though arguably, that's in service of a larger message they're trying to convey); they are, however, absolutely aware that some, if not all, of their viewers will be offended. That's their job as humorists--to get people uncomfortable, so that they have an emotional reaction (and if they learn something, cool--but at least they won't walk out with the same blank sheet of paper they walked in with).

These dudes at DP didn't even think it through that far--they just assumed that everyone would get it, because, you know, Princetonians are *funny*. Like Bill Bradley, he's hilarious. And Brooke Shields. My sides hurt.

And then there's their creative nonapology: "Many criticisms of the column, however, do not recognize its purpose...we hoped to lampoon racism by showing it at its most outrageous. We embraced racist language in order to strangle it. At its worst, the column was a bad joke; at its best, it provoked serious thought about issues of race, fairness and diversity."

Reading this made me snort my ramen noodles out of my nose. "You didn't laugh, because you didn't understand/have no sense of humor/are dumb and ugly and should die." That's the Rosie Carolla defense all over again. Why is it always the least subtle, least inventive, most humor-challenged "comedians" who accuse other people of not having a sense of funny? Worse yet, they didn't just see this as thigh-slappin' high-larious. It was also supposed to "provoke serious thought"...good grief.

The editorial continues with some figleafing (noting that there are several Asians on the senior edit staff, including, presumably, the editor in chief) and then this kicker: "Given our purpose, we are deeply troubled by and reject the allegation of racism."

They use highfalutin' SAT words, but again, this is exactly the same tone and
structure as the spin put out by Rosie Carolla. First, they apologize for hurting your feelings. Then they imply that if your feelings are hurt, it's because you suck. Then they say THEIR feelings were hurt because you called them on their crap. Then they reject your argument out of hand, because, you know, it's not what they said, it's what they meant.

Or, to put it another way: "I didn't mean to crush your head with this two-by-four. I meant to tickle you with it, even though I swung it with both hands as hard as I could and aimed at your temple. The reason you didn't laugh is because you have a thin skull. And I reject your allegation that you were hurt, because it was not my intent to cause you multiple fractures and brain damage. Finally, by accusing me of hurting you, you hurt my feelings, so really, I'm the victim here--beeyotch!"

The note's conclusion, referring to the board's "regrettable mistake" (e.g., thinking that other people had a sense of humor) and requesting a "constructive debate on race and race-related issues" is, like most Rosie Carolla non-apologies, too little and too late.

See, we threw a grenade into an outhouse, and now we want to hold hands and sing "Kumbaya" in the flying fecal matter that has erupted. This guy Jian Li has submitted a suit against the college with the Department of Education. People are already pissed off in 15 directions, at all levels of the administration and faculty and student body. Some Asians think Li has a point. Some think he's a cancer. Lots of white people think exactly what the op-ed piece seemed to suggest--that Asians like Li don't belong, because they get good grades but have no soul, or something. And as the Managing Board of the official daily newspaper of the Princeton campus, we've decided that the best way to create an "opportunity...for constructive debate" is to run this joke op-ed...? Tiger pride, yo!

After the Michael Richards N-bomb flap, Malcolm Gladwell, of "Blink" and "Tipping Point" fame, suggested on his blog ( a framework for determining if a statement is genuinely racist (I smell a book coming on, Mal). He brings it down to three factors:

--Content: "What is said clearly makes a difference. I think, for example, that hate speech is more hateful the more specific it is. To call someone a n----r is not as a bad as arguing that black people have lower intelligence than whites."
--Intention: "Was the remark intended to wound, or intended to perpetuate some social wrong? Was it malicious?"
--Conviction: "Does the statement represent the individual's considered opinion?"

By these standards, the DP Managing Board gets a pass, right? I think Gladwell's being reductive, which is, of course, his stock in trade: Simple, universalist answers to highly complex questions. What he doesn't take into account is that racism isn't solely the province of the speaker; it is shaped by context and colored by the nature of the audience. Assuming that our goal is a civil society, we have a responsibility to understand the reason why others might take harm from our actions or statements; the harm may not be intended, but if, as the DP Managing Board suggests, flaps such as this are an opportunity for advancing the dialogue around race and stereotype--well, a dialogue is by definition a two-way street. You can't outright "reject" one party's opinion, then call for an open debate, can you?

For future Rosie Carollas, here's my personal set of metrics around race and humor--your mileage may vary. Quantifying what's funny and what's offensive is always tricky and sometimes dangerous, as one of my friends pointed out--for instance, most definitions of pornography tend to fall on "you know it when you see it," not, uh, that I've ever seen it. But I submit the following as thought starters, if not rules of conduct--at the least, these are things people should consider before busting out with a potentially inflammatory statement:

1. If you're using humor as a way of pushing people to think about a situation, by illuminating foibles or disconnects between and within racial groups, you should get leeway (if not a blank check). I would put a lot of Dave Chappelle's stuff in here, especially things like his "Racial Draft" sketch and his "black Ku Klux Klan member" skit. It's uncomfortable to watch some of it, there're things going on that some people might take offense at, but you get the point of the parody--there's a message beyond "look how stupid/cheap/crude/lame etc. [insert ethnic group] is! HAW!"

2. As a kind of addendum to point 1, if you are a member of the racial group you're satirizing, you are in a better position to illuminate said foibles or disconnects--it's at the least a more defensible position, and probably a more informed one. Arguably, it's a position of privilege (I would say that the latter is probably true if you're a member of an ethnic group satirizing that ethnic group in front of a private audience of fellow members of that ethnic group--the room for misinterpretation or unfortunate repurposing is narrowed). Not everyone would agree with this, but it's a practical issue on some level, not a political one.

3. Being funny helps. Again, it's not a blank check, but at the least, if diverse audiences find what you're doing hilarious, at least there's some kind of utility to your shtick, right?

4. If it's a novel take on a topic or situation, well, again, no "get out of jail free," but at least you can stake a claim to breaking new ground. For instance, if someone were to do a sketch about how all Asian men are sexual dynamos, capable of incredible feats of sensual prowess--hey, I haven't seen that before. It's a caricature, but it's a new caricature. I personally would not be that offended.

5. Power matters. Sorry. It just does. It's not the same thing when a white, educated, upper-class person makes fun of a nonwhite, less educated, working class person as vice versa.

By these standards, where does the DP's "joke op-ed" stand?

On point 1., I'd give them a thumbs down. I can't for the life of me see what the larger point of the piece was, or how it's meant to interrogate or satirize stereotypes--I think most readers of any race would assume that the piece is if anything satirizing, you know, Asian people, and in particular, Jian Li, the Yale student who's suing Princeton for reverse discrimination. The broken English is a big, red X, for one. This dude Jian Li got a perfect score on his SATs, and he's going to frickin' Yale. Now, say what you will about Yale's quality of education, but no one's going there who doesn't have basic command of, like, articles and prepositions.

Point 2., also a fail. Sure, there are Asians who are part of the ed board, but that doesn't absolve the non-Asians, and if anything, it makes you kind of wonder what Anna Huang and Chanakya Sethi (and maybe Tom Senn and Ellen Young, who knows) were thinking. This is a piece that was going out under the banner of the Princetonian, and from there, the world. It should have been read from that perspective before publication--that's the responsibility of an editorial board. When we print this, how, objectively, will it be read and interpreted? What is our message? Is it getting across? If they wanted to satirize the Jian Li issue (and the larger notion of Asian "whiz kid" stereotypes), why not write a fake op-ed written by, say, a doped-out slacker Asian American dude who's spent the last four years smoking pot and surfing, got straight Ds and 800 on his SATs, but still claims to have been rejected from both Princeton and La Jolla Community College because of "reverse discrimination"? (Though naturally, Yale accepted him. Rimshot!)

Point 3. and 4., two more thumbs down. The gags they use are unfunny. Old as rice. And ultimately, at least from my perspective, lame.

Point 5. Well, Jian Li is far from a poor, uneducated, unable-to-defend-himself individual, but the way the piece is written, it has a distinctly anti-immigrant note to it. The bad fake accent, the "My mom from same province as General Tso. My dad from Kung Pao province" lines, Ugh. Who knew that Adam Carolla and Rosie O'Donnell went to Princeton?

As the puppets in Avenue Q say, "Everyone's a Little Bit Racist." But if you're smart and you put a foot in it, you admit it, you apologize, you learn something, you move on--you don't jump on a high horse and accuse others of being dense. And if you're not smart, and apparently there's a lot of dumb on Ivy League campuses, you do the Rosie Carolla thing, and turn a tempest in a teapot into Katrina 2.0.

Okay, enough of that...would love to hear your opinions and feedback.


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