Kitty Tsui, the forefront pioneer in Asian-American lesbian literature, wrote “fire-breathing poems”, such as the “A Chinese Banquet” (Aguilar-San Juan 937). The poem is a description of the author herself among a family reunion dinner. She progressively describes what happens around her. In addition, Tsui gives accompanying commentary on what she observes. Interspersed within the general recounting of the dinner’s conversation, is inner dialogue from Tsui’s mind. This leads the reader to develop a better comprehension of why the poem was written and for whom it was written. Because “Tsui’s writing reflect[s] her discovery that, as a matter of survival, she must assert her multiple identities as a Chinese American lesbian”, one must recognize her personal amalgam of cultures to understand the full meaning of her poem: “A Chinese Banquet” (Aguilar-San Juan 937).
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Tsui does not only mention previous conversations between her mother and her, but also of a lover who is only vaguely insinuated. We as the audience only clearly perceive that she is a woman and has not been invited to the dinner. Tsui notates this in the beginning of the poem as “for the one not invited” (Tsui 554). In the opening two verses of the poem, lines 1-8, Tsui seems casual in describing it as an informal affair but that her female relatives, older than twelve years, all “wore long gowns and a corsage.” However simple, this makes a subtle allusion to her female relatives whom already know and have confirmed their identity and self-image, all which has been approved by the family, welcomed even, compared to the narrator’s own (Tsui 554). Tsui presents even her relatives’ dress as symbols, in particular, of their sexual orientation. “Anyone whose age” is over twelve means that, they are coming of age or past (Tsui 554).
The point that the dinner is not formal is brought again in line 5. This establishes a motif of repetitiveness that is evident throughout the poem. Each repetition is only manifested twice, whether consecutively or not. It makes a point to describe that only “the family [is] getting together” to point out her lover has not been included. The listing of a few relatives in her natural language, spelled in pin yin, gives the poem furthers the cultural setting of Tsui’s poem. Following the line 7,the parentheses give a reason for her aunt’s absence from the dinner (Tsui 554). The author utilizes “this year” in the declaration that her aunt is not present with her uncle alludes to possible familial strains, not only between her and her family (Tsui 554).
Relatives are listed again in English as Tsui strives to give representation to her American culture as well. Chinese people esteem children who have achieved high-income positions. The narrator labels “the grandson who is a dentist” by his occupation and by his wealth-“the one who drives a mercedes benz-” because socially, the more wealth one has, the greater respect one commands (Tsui 555). Shark’s fin soup is a common cultural sign of wealth in Mandarin culture. As it is an expensive dish, its presence also adds to the importance of wealth Tsui’s family upholds. Shark’s fin soup is usually consumed at formal social gatherings for a display of the host’s monetary affluence. But because Tsui indicates the informality of the event, a contradiction between what her family’s ways and what she thinks begins to manifest in the poem. With that said, the conversation’s mentioning of the “buying a house” and “travel to Beijing” indicates that the family is of upper middle class and can afford these luxuries (Tsui 555). The narrator does not join in with her relatives with the small talk. The simple mundane action described by the line-“i suck on shrimp and squab,” continues the sense of simplicity Tsui had begun the poem with by the equally humdrum observation that all of her relatives were gowns beside herself (Tsui 555). She is either ignorant or considers the subjects of the talk of her relatives insignificant, instead she dreams of the beauty in her lover’s eyes. This juxtaposition clearly presents the contradiction between her and her family increasing.
In the fifth verse, Tsui’s mother turns to speak directly to her, “her voice beaded with sarcasm” (Tsui 555). The poem takes a turn at the very line (line 17) and the beginnings of what many Asian American lesbians face is gradually revealed: “discrimination and homophobia from within their families and ethnic communities, but they must also contend with racism, sexism, and homophobia in the larger society” (Yung, Chang, & Lai 340). Her mother reprimands by telling the author she is “â€¦twenty six and not getting younger”, a line that is repeated again in the next verse at line 21. Tsui’s mother also rebukes her that she should get a “decent job” by now (Tsui 555). In Chinese culture, as one ages, greater things are expected of one. It is clear that Tsui has not impressed nor received approval for the occupation she has chosen. This is because “Tsui chose to come out to her family when she was twenty-one” and took up “bodybuilding, writing poetry, and becoming an activist in the Third World and gay communities (Yung, Chang, & Lai 340). It is obvious, even as an Asian American, brought up by Taiwanese immigrants, that none of the professions Kitty Tsui chose would bring in good income-thus little respect-and no approval from any parental figures that was a native Chinese. The greatest impact of “A Chinese Banquet” comes when Tsui notices her mother “no longer asks when i’m getting married” (Tsui 555). This supplements the motif of repetition as it can be seen again in line 25. Tsui’s mother’s disapproval of her continues when she lectures the narrator that with questions of what she is doing with her life, that she’s “got to make a living,” and that she should “study computer programming.” Because Tsui is of Asian, specifically, Chinese ethnicity, emphasis in general academics is placed on what earns a steady, wealthy income-mainly math and logic based skills. Thus, the narrator’s mother suggests computer programming.
Starting from the seventh verse, the author departs from declaring physical and tangible things and happenings. Tsui describes her estranged sentiment, “wanting desperately to/bridge the boundaries that separate” her mother and her (Tsui 555). The gap between her and her family is now plainly stated. She dreams of telling her mother that she’s gay and happy as so, but her mother, as if recounting a past occurrence, when she was twenty-one, that her mother “will not listen, /she shakes her head” (Tsui 555). The break widens as Tsui describes her mother’s stubbornness even when “emotions [are] invading her face./her eyes are wet but/she will not let tears fall” (Tsui 555). Even as Tsui tries to help her mother close the distance between them by giving an analogy that she loves a man, and the narrator herself loves a woman in the tenth verse, the gap between them stays just wide because “it is not what she [Tsui’s mother] wants to hear” (Tsui 555).
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The dinner progresses, and the author returns to describing ordinary occurrences from the starting line of eleventh verse with a repetition of “aunts and uncles and cousins/very much a family affair” and most notably, Tsui emphasizes the line before the poem starts with the remark “but you are not invited” but that it is because the “you,” she describes is “neither [my] husband nor [my] wife” (Tsui 555). Dinner guests attempt to engage her in their small talk, such as asking if she has “sold that old car of yours yet?” yet she is only envisioning of telling them what she really wants to say (Tsui 556). The small talk that is present in many lines of the poem provides a picture of common simplicity that is missing from Tsui’s own life in which she desires in a different sense. In this instance, it is as though she is pointing these examples out, due to a sort of unvoiced envy of their simple, uncomplicated lives. Oblivious to the obvious intolerance she suffers or otherwise consciously ignorant of her, Tsui’s relatives drone on with their everyday conversation. The metaphors described in the last verse imply her ideal living of an open homosexual relationship without any complications. The gap that the audience has seen the author, throughout the poem, try to lessen as much as possible is described through Tsui’s “dream of dragons and water” (Tsui 556). Because dragons in the Chinese mythology are of fire and cannot mix with water, she imagines being able to-the dragon standing for her Chinese culture and heritage, the water-the American and lesbian culture she is proudly of. “Our bedroom ceiling the wide open sky,” sends the massage of the need to not hide their love any longer (Tsui 556). Because the suppression of discretion of her relationship, she aims to reduce the misunderstanding between her parents, whom are firmly rooted in Chinese culture, and herself. Therefore, she sees that if she is able to traverse the gap between her parents and her, she will achieve a sort of reconciliation that translates easily to a simpler life uncomplicated by matters of ostracism and inequity. “A Chinese Banquet” does not use any capitalization at all. This reinforces the feeling of conscious ignorance of her family of who she considers herself to truly be as there are uppercase letters and lower case letters. It can also be noted that in many cultures that homosexual relationships are not accepted nor condoned that many members of the societies look degradingly on those who are of different sexual orientation, an effect only pronounced when members of family do so.
Tsui deftly contrasts the two differing contexts of her family and herself. She paints a vivid picture of the inhibition that she suffers by the feeling of being overlooked on purpose because of stubborn misunderstanding thus prejudice from her own family. The poem she writes for “the one who was not invited,” plainly juxtaposes the day-to-day lives of these family members against the desire to share her own. The significance and implications of Tsui’s “A Chinese Banquet,” understanding her personal culture, a hybrid of American and Chinese, and the issues she faces as in striving to make a sort of accepted unification between lesbian, and Asian-American.
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