by Jen Lin-Liu, 2013
When “read a travel memoir” came up as one of the Read Harder Challenge tasks, I knew I was going to have some difficulty finding one. Although Bill Bryson was the author who immediately came to mind, I quickly revised my thinking to try to include some diversity in this genre. I didn’t really want to read about the rugged adventures of another white man or read about how some white woman found herself by co-opting another culture’s spirituality. It seems like travel books are overrun with this sort of narrative and I wanted to find something to break it. When I found On the Noodle Road, I thought it would be the perfect fit. Written by a Chinese-American woman on a quest to trace the history of the noodle on the Silk Road, from China to Italy, while reconciling the east-west divide of her own identity, it would fulfill not only the travel requirement, but also my diversity requirement and be about something I love: food. Sadly, it came up severely undercooked. (Pun 100% intended.)
Lin-Liu’s objective is interesting and grand. We spend so much time differentiating ourselves by country and culture that to find ourselves united by food would be something of a salve. Despite her best intentions, Lin-Liu falls short in this respect, as she spends much of the time eating food other than noodles. Although she does find some similarities in dumplings and tortellini and the way pasta is made amongst different cuisines, the bulk of her travels outside of China and Italy are spent eating rice, which she complains about tirelessly, and sampling animal parts that we Americans accustomed to packaged and skinned chicken breasts would find off-putting. That’s perfectly fine, as an unproven hypothesis reveals just as much as a proven one does, but where Lin-Liu fails is where she digresses from food onto the topic of her marriage.
I would like memoirists to know that your book doesn’t have to be about your romantic relationship for it to be valid. However, if you are going to write about your romantic relationship, it should be with some sort of purpose. I would have been perfectly happy reading about Lin-Liu’s travels along the Silk Road and reading about the different food she samples. Instead, she attempts to make this something of a commentary on the meaning of marriage. Although she asserts that she is in love with her husband and married her best friend, she has major qualms about the idea of being a wife and what wifehood means for her. Consequently, she spends a lot of her time as a voyeur into other cultures’ marriages. “Uzbek women live selfless lives, thinking about their husbands and their families before themselves,” she’s told. She learns in Turkmenistan that it’s a sign of respect for women to cover their mouths whenever in the presence of a man she is not related to or is not her husband. “You know, women should learn to shut up,” the son of her Turkmen host says, then attempts to cover this as a joke. She learns of a practice where the marriage ceremony involves a literal kidnapping of the bride. After agreeing that her husband would accompany her to Iran, Lin-Liu is awfully flippant about what could possibly happen to her, saying, “if I was going to be detained, tortured, and imprisoned, my loving husband would be there for the memories.” This is serious patriarchal shit, yet, her main concerns continue to be whether the two of them could run her cooking school together or if following her husband in support of his career would be too much of a compromise.
I couldn’t help but think of Reading Lolita in Tehran while reading this. In Lolita, Azar Nafisi is ostensibly discussing books, but is truly using the subject as a jumping off point to discuss politics, religion, and the subjugation of women under a totalitarian regime. She does a brilliant job of giving the reader insight into the horrors and microaggressions of her students’ lives and I finished that having a new understanding of and appreciation for the privilege I possess living in the US (however in peril that may be, it is currently still there). Lin-Liu, however, seems merely content with the idea that if these women are trapped by the effects of staunch patriarchy, well, at least it isn’t happening to her. She had a unique opportunity to learn about marriage across the globe that she absolutely squandered. Indeed, had this book ostensibly been about food and wound up discussing the meaning of being a wife in these countries, it would have been far more effective and compelling – I wanted to know so much more about these women than she presents here. As it was, I felt about it the way I feel when a chef combines four different cuisines and triumphantly calls it “fusion”: it was a befuddled mess.
[Book Riot Read Harder Challenge: read a travel memoir.]