LZ: Ann Mah, you were born in California, won a James Beard Culinary Scolarship to study in Italy, worked in Beijing and now live in Paris. Who are you?
AAM: I've been lucky to live in places where good food is a key element of the local culture. My husband is a diplomat and we move often. Living in different cities has certainly shaped me, as has the experience of being a trailing spouse. But at the end of the day, I'd describe myself simply as someone who thinks about dinner while eating lunch.
LZ: “In Bejing, my Chinese appearance means that I can pass as a local as long as I keep my mouth shut.” Is this what make you a “banana”?
FOR OTHER PARIS WRITERS NEWS INTERVIEWs http://www.laurelzuckerman.com/2010/04/laurel-zuckerman-talks-with-ann-m-mah-on-food-identity-and-humor-in-kitchen-chinese.html
AAM: I first heard the term "banana" in high school (another word is "twinkie"). It refers to someone who is yellow on the outside, white on the inside; in other words someone who has assimilated so fully to Caucasian-American culture, they're oblivious to their ethnic identity. Growing up in the suburbs of Southern California, being a banana felt like a survival tactic. But after living in Beijing for four years, I'm not sure I could describe myself that way.
LZ: The fabulous mother and Aunt Marcie pressure the heroine to undergo blepharoplasty (surgery on the eye-lids), bribing her with handbags and saying such horrors as “I know you want to look pretty.” (She finds it easier to go to China than to confront them.) Where did you find the inspiration for these wonderful passages?
AAM: Obviously the characters of Aunt Marcie and Isabelle's mother represent an extreme, but I think many cultures put pressure on young women to adapt to a certain standard of beauty. I have Jewish friends who've told me similar stories about mothers encouraging their daughters to get nose jobs. Ultimately, these passages are about perception, the way we view ourselves versus the way others see us, whether it be cultural identity, or physical appearance.
LZ: “Just because you visit China doesn’t mean your life is turning into an Amy Tan novel.” What do you have against Amy Tan?
AAM: To be clear -- I love Amy Tan's books. I first read the Joy Luck Club in 8th grade, and it was a formative experience. But when you have an Asian-American background, I think there can be this expectation that somewhere, somehow, you will yearn to discover your heritage, your roots. Amy Tan spoke for many Chinese Americans by writing about this in the Joy Luck Club. Unfortunately, Asian Americans are still woefully under-represented in literature, TV and film, so stories like these remain the few that are told. I wanted to show that there are also Asian Americans who don't yearn for this experience, who may visit the country of their ancestors without having a cultural epiphany.
LZ: China and France have produced two great cuisines. Yet Chinese women are even thinner than French women. Why?
AAM: I don't know, but I must say I've noticed a lot of diet pills in both countries!
LZ: Kitchen Chinese is a very easy book to read, with a lot of humor and sly observations. Tell us about your process as a writer to this seemingly effortless result.
AAM: Thank you -- I'm blushing! I've always admired stories that appear to very simple on the surface but become more complex as you peel back the layers and that's what I tried to create with this book. Writing is a very laborious process for me as I am far too easily distracted. Step one is definitely unplugging the internet. Then I have to sit on my hands to make sure I don't plug it back in.
LZ: Are there special rules of etiquette for Chinese restaurants that we should know about? What is the worst mistake we’re all making right now?
AAM: You're never supposed to stick your chopsticks upright into a bowl of rice as it looks like incense at a funeral. But other than that, Chinese restaurants are pretty casual.
LZ: What’s next?
AAM: I would love to write something set in Paris, maybe about wine and a female sommelier. At least, the research would be fun.