“Simple Recipes” is the first of the seven short stories that make up the identically named short story collection. As it deals with the difficulties that arise between members of the first generation of immigrants and their children, the second generation, it is one that I have classified as belonging to the type of the migrant story. As the characters are never explicitly named, the story represents not just one family, but can be argued to rise above the level of the particular, representing the globally recognised issue of migration and what this means for 11 families and home(s) in general. The story describes a family consisting of a mother, a father and a son. It is told from a fourth person’s perspective, the fourth member of the family, whom we presume to be a daughter, considering Thien’s own background as a secondgeneration immigrant daughter. The story is thus told from an autodiegetic perspective. Every member of the family represents a different attitude towards immigration and the cultural obstacles that occur in the process.
The different generations have conflicting norms and values, creating generational misunderstanding. This conflict between the first and second generation is conceptualised through different themes. First of all, the theme of food appears to be prominent, a theme that can also be found in the title of this short story and is described by Maria and Martin Löschnigg as “one of the most relevant markers of any culture, and a distinctive element of immigrant communities” (13). The father finds himself to be both hesitant towards as well as interested in the culture he is newly engulfed in, namely Canadian culture, in itself a very complex structure of cultural relations. He has mixed emotions towards the more modern way of cooking: he watches Canadian cooking shows, which he finds very entertaining, but he also “passes judgement on Yan’s methods” (Thien 6), which he seems to find too fast-paced, as they stand in contrast with his own slow, careful way of cooking. Yan is the embodiment of the exemplary Asian immigrant who has ‘made it’, considering he has his own cooking show on TV. The means of eating as well adds to this contrast between Asian traditions and the more modern, fast-moving society that is Canada.
Whereas the father “slams his chopsticks down on the table”, his son “grabs a fork, tines aimed at the father” (Thien 14). Here, the tension between the two cultures, materialised through the objects of cutlery, results in a conflict between father and son, representing the first- and second-generation immigrants. Another illustration of generational misunderstanding is the passing on of knowledge, in this case simple recipes and cooking skills. The father’s quiet, gentle way of treating the process of rice sifting and draining is contrasted with the daughter, who “went through the motions, splashing the water around” (Thien 4). The father wants to pass on his own rituals and traditions but they do not come across as well as he would have wished as his daughter, although trying, is unable to treat the rice with the same gentleness and serenity. The fatherdaughter relationship is characterised by a willingness to adapt to the Asian traditions and a forgiveness of possible failure. For example, the daughter tries to perform the ritual of rice making to the best of her abilities, but fails, as the rice becomes “a mushy gruel” (Thien 4). 12 The father’s response is characterised by acceptance of this failure because he realises that she puts in effort: “my father would keep eating, pushing the rice into his mouth as if he never expected anything different, as if he noticed not difference between what he did so well and I so poorly” (Thien 4).
This relationship is then contrasted with the father-son relationship, which is characterised by defiance of any such traditions and aggression from both parties. Even as simple a question as “Why do we have to eat fish?” (Thien 11) holds more than a first glance would suggest. In its context, the question can easily be interpreted as suggesting “Why do we have to hold onto our old Asian traditions and identity?”. “We”, here represents the (second-generation) Asian immigrants and is contrasted with “them”, the Canadians. The “fish” then represents the traditions that come with an Asian identity.
What this type of thinking demonstrates is “an “us” versus “them” dichotomy that ideologically sediments a notion of national identity that is clearly exclusionary” (Aujla 42). Later, the reader can perceive the son’s refusal to eat the fish. His father still tries to convince him by using one of the phrases he has learned from the Canadian cooking show he likes so much: “Take a wok on the wild side” (Thien 13). By doing so, he places himself in a position of accepting the new culture in order to constitute a connection with his son. His attempt fails, however, when the son, although he refused at first, tries the fish and spits it out again, and the whole situation ends in (physical) conflict. Yet another example of the differences between the generations is illustrated by the houses that they live in: in the parental home “the ceilings were yellowed with grease” (Thien 7), whereas in the narrator’s home “the walls” are being kept “scrubbed clean” (Thien 9) and “the air was dense with the smell of countless meals cooked in a tiny kitchen” (Thien 8) is contrasted with the child who states: “I open the windows and turn the fan on whenever I prepare a meal” (Thien 9).
By representing the two generations in two contrasting homes too, “the representation of space becomes a symbolic manifestation of individual or collective experiences” (Neumann 15). In this case the common experience of migration gets two different symbolic manifestations in space. In addition to this literal interpretation of ‘home’, there is also the metaphorical sense of feeling at home. In this respect, the father and daughter are also different: she frequently, yet indirectly, describes her father in metaphorical terms, as “a fish out of the water”. She first describes him when “he looks out of place” (Thien 4), standing in the parental home’s kitchen.
This thought is then taken further when they both watch a fish, fighting for his life in the sink: 13 “The fish in the sink is dying slowly” (Thien 8). It is this fish that is being prepared for dinner and which is ultimately the cause for the consequent conflict between father and son. This quote, however, can also be read as a metaphor for the immigrant, who, taken out of his familiar environment and placed into a foreign one, may feel like he is “dying slowly” (Thien 8).
A final item that requires attention is the language used throughout the story. This is especially relevant to memory studies, considering memories and identities are believed to be constructed through the use of language and narrative (Neumann 4). Choosing to speak or not choosing to speak a language is thus an essential part of self-identification. The son here wilfully chooses not to speak the Malaysian language that he learnt while he still lived in Malaysia. The father believes this is not because he cannot remember but because “the child chooses not to remember” (Thien 7). This stands in contrast with Thien’s remark in her autobiographical text “But, I Dream in Canadian”, where she says that “never do you forget the language in which your mother loved you” (2). The daughter, on the other hand, has been taught the language “but it never came easily” (Thien 7) so she does not speak the language either.
However, she feels a certain connection with the language. This connection can be linked to memory, which has often been described “as a form of language or narrative” itself (King 25): And then he replies, and I think his words are so familiar, as if they are words I should know, as if maybe I did know them once but then I forgot them. The language that they speak is full of soft vowels, words running together so that I can’t make out the gaps where they pause for breath (Thien 12). What is remarkable about this quotation is the use of pronouns: there is a particular insistence on “I” versus “they”, which implies how the “I”, in this case the autodiegetic narrator, does not count herself as belonging to this other group of “they”.
Because of this particular contrast constituted in the use of pronouns, the narrator can be perceived as an outsider to the language, and consequentially also the culture. What is at work here is what is described by Maria and Martin Löschnigg as the “double consciousness about languages which characterizes the situation of the juvenile protagonist, and her struggle between two languages may equally result in silence and alienation” (15). 14 A similar scene that reflects the importance of language in the process of remembering can be found a little later in the story, when the mother tries to comfort the father, after he has domestically abused his son for disrespecting his parents’ culture: My mother comes downstairs again and puts her arms around him and holds him, whispering something to him, words that to me are meaningless and incomprehensible. But she offers them to him, sound after sound, in a language that was stolen from some other place, until he drops his head and remembers where he is (Thien 17). Here, several frameworks are at work. First of all, there is language and memory. The father remembers where he is because he hears a familiar language. The words are comforting to him, whereas they are “meaningless and incomprehensible” to the second generation, illustrating a generational gap.
A second framework at work here is spatiality, linked to the father’s remembering of “where he is”. This reference can be interpreted as referring to ‘home’, both in the sense of Canada, the present, as well as his remembering that he is now also Canadian, referring thus to his new identity. It becomes clear that “memory blurs time and space, unmooring place from its present, earthly coordinates” (Krotz 144). Language and memory thus have the potential to take someone across factual or imagined boundaries, to spaces and places of the past, but also to bring that person back into the present, as illustrated in the story. Another example of the use of language as a motif can be found in the verbal conflict between father and son as they argue about him not wanting to eat the fish. In contrast with the rest of the story, where no one is ‘named’, the son here ‘names’ the father. However, rather than calling him a name he calls him “a fucking asshole chink” (Thien 14, my emphasis).
By using this racist term for someone of Asian descent, he identifies with the culture of his homeland Canada, distancing himself from, or even denouncing, his Asian heritage. The son is using a racist term that could easily be used for him too. Here, language becomes an instrument of identification or dissociation with a certain culture. It is in other words “one way in which we demonstrate our personal identities and recognize those of others” (Aujla 44).
These are “attempts to reject South Asian culture and assimilate”, displaying also the frustration of being “not quite Canadian” (Aujla 43). What is demonstrated here is one of the responses that is often used by the second-generation Canadian immigrant as a coping mechanism against the 15 racism and exclusion that he is confronted with daily: “the inferiorized group attempts to escape these feelings by “proclaiming his total and unconditional adoption of the new cultural models, and on the other, by pronouncing an irreversible condemnation of his own cultural style” (Aujla 44), even if that new cultural model includes racism towards his own heritage and his own family. Eventually, this generational gap can become impossible to overcome and the incomprehensibility of the language, culture and behaviour of the first generation can turn into hate for it, leading to an ultimate breach between the two generations. The generational gap is described entirely through the protagonist’s eyes, who finds herself in a state of inbetweenness, “walking the tightrope of culture” (Shariff 72) as it were, where she has to decide whether or not she will identify with the culture of her parents, or, like her brother, refute that culture all at once. Because of this, the reader is given a depiction of the difficulty of overcoming the gap between the two generations. Shariff describes this as a conflict where “there are often conflicting messages the children encounter in the hopes they will fit in, while at the same time staying true to their own cultural ideals” (70), and contrasted with the first generation who are “unaware of the significant contrasts” (70). Thien is thus aware of the fact that it is this ‘liminality’, or being in between two cultures, that is so interesting to discuss in the context of an increasingly diverse Canadian society, where boundaries continue being blurred and where ‘space’ and ‘culture’ are no longer self-evident concepts, but rather fluctuating constructs.