West of China, reading ‘East of Eden’

I’m in California for a rest at the moment, so technically I’m East of China – but I think West is less confusing and more accurate in every sense except the literal.

I’m also reading Steinbeck’s East of Eden for the first time. I can’t resist quoting this passage, a conversation between Samuel Hamilton and the American-born Chinese help of the Trask family, called ‘Lee’ (“Got more name. Lee papa family name. Call Lee”). This is set in early twentieth century California.

“Lee”, Samuel said at last, “I mean no disrespect, but I’ve never been able to figure why you people still talk pidgin when an illiterate baboon from the black bogs of Ireland, with a head full of Gaelic and a tongue like a potato, learns to talk a poor grade of English in ten years.”

Lee grinned. “Me talkee Chinese talk,” he said.

“Well, I guess you have your reasons. And it’s not your affair. I hope you’ll forgive me if I don’t believe it, Lee.”

Lee looked at him and the brown eyes under their rounded upper lids seemed to open and deepen until they weren’t foreign any more, but man’s eyes, warm with understanding. Lee chuckled. “It’s more than a convenience,” he said. “It’s even more than self-protection. Mostly we have to use it to be understood at all.”

Samuel showed no sign of having observed any change. “I can understand the first two,” he said thoughtfully, “but the third escapes me.”

Lee said, “I know it’s hard to believe, but it has happened so often to me and to my friends that we take it for granted. If I should go up to a lady or a gentleman, for instance, and speak as I am doing now, I wouldn’t be understood.”

“Why not?”

“Pidgin they except, and pidgin they’ll listen to. But English from me they don’t listen to, and so they don’t understand it.”

No point here, I just think it’s a fun section. Here are two more tit-bits from Lee, one discussing how the Irish immigrant Samuel wasn’t born in America but is white, so

“… in a few years you can almost disappear; while I, who was born in Grass Valley, went to school and several years to the University of California, have no chance of mixing.”

And another which rings truest of them all in terms of overseas Chinese today:

“I did go back to China. My father was a fairly successful man. It didn’t work. They said I looked like a foreign devil; they said I spoke like a foreign devil. I made mistakes in manners, and I didn’t know delicacies that had grown up since my father left. They wouldn’t have me. You can believe it or not – I’m less foreign here than I was in China.”