The Role of Food in the Social, Cultural, and Political Landscapes of Paradise of the Blind

May 26, 2019 by Essay Writer

One of the most striking elements of Paradise of the Blind is its constant discussion of food. Through imagery and description of traditional foodstuffs, the novel emphasizes the Vietnamese’s deep cultural connections to and love of food. These descriptions serve to describe family and cultural dynamics of Hang’s childhood as well as highlight the differences between the culture of Hang’s Vietnamese homeland and the emptiness of the Soviet Union and the communist regime. The detailed description of Vietnamese food not only increases the already vivid imagery in the novel, it drives the story forward by highlighting Hang’s deep, entrenched love of her homeland. Her memories of Vietnam are as full of gustatory recollections as interactions with people. It shows that, for the Vietnamese, food is a powerful form of expression—socially, culturally, and personally. When giving gifts or showing hospitality, for instance, the offers come through food. The Vietnamese connection with traditional foods shows that, despite the overreaching conformity brought by the communist regime, the people of Vietnam did not lose their traditional culture, indeed, they held onto it stubbornly. Throughout the novel food dynamics are also used as a method of social interaction between friends, family, and enemies. During the great festivals, such as Tet, the actions of giving and receiving food reveal social status and familial devotion. These holidays bring families together, which also brings out family tensions. In Hang’s family, specifically, the lunar festivals are times when both Tam and Que go out of their ways to give gifts of food—Tam to Que and Hang, and Que to Uncle Chinh and his family. Que gratefully accepts these gifts; Chinh, though, views them as both charity and an insult. Yet he still accepts them because of greed and need, due to his illness. The festival foods, such as New Year’s cakes, pate, and sweet puddings, are generally more expensive. People must save extra money from hard work to buy them. The expense adds to both the generosity and insult of giving such a gift; it shows more charity, or condescension, towards the receiver of the gift.The novel further showcases the significance of food in relationships through Hang and her mother’s cyclical relationship. At the beginning of the novel, when Que is always attentive to Hang’s needs, their relationship is loving and close. “The air was fragrant with the aroma of the anise-and ginger-flavored beef soup. I grabbed my mother’s shirt. ‘I’m hungry, Mother.’ She was flustered. ‘Oh, how could I forget? We haven’t eaten anything since noon…” (109). Their relationship only begins deteriorating after Uncle Chinh becomes another factor in their lives, putting a new burden on their food resources. Their continually degenerating dynamic is almost always a result of a food shortage, usually because Que ignores Hang’s needs in order to satisfy her brother’s. When Chinh is diagnosed with diabetes, Que uses all her resources, both monetary and food, to provide for him. “Our meals started to shrink by the day. The few slices of roast pork or fried fish disappeared and were replaced by bean curd…in the end, even these were replaced by small fried dishes…the vegetables went next….most days, all we ate were cheap greens” (179). Que tries to justify these changes in diet by telling Hang they are “very nourishing vegetables. Wonderful for skin problems”(179) and tries to hide the truth of where their sustenance is going. Eventually, however, the rift that this shortage and neglect drives between mother and daughter can no longer be surmounted and they part. The fact that Que withholds food from Hang as well as money and adequate shelter deepens the reasons for their continuing conflict.Huong uses the juxtaposition of situation and gustatory imagery to highlight cultural and political differences between different parts of Vietnam, as well as differences between Vietnam and the Soviet Union. In the bleakest areas of Vietnam, such as the Commune K residence where Hang’s uncle Chinh lives, Huong shows eating as a joyless, even boring matter. When Hang visits her uncle’s family with her mother she observes a meal that has lost all meaning: “The woman rapped one of the boys on the head with her chopstick. ‘Eat. I forbid you to speak at meals.’…I examined the platter: there were three portions, each with fifteen silkworms. Next to them, there was a platter of river spinach and a tiny bowl filled with a bit of minced meat” (107). This description exists in sharp contrast to the one showing a lively village feast given by Hang’s aunt Tam: “Aunt Tam brought out a huge tray heaped with bowls of sticky rice, a pork pate, a pile of white porcelain bowls, ebony chopsticks, and a basket of ripe bananas….’Oh, my, this is a real feast you’re offering us,’ exclaimed of the women. ‘Bon appétit, sisters. Everywhere else, the host eats first. Only at Aunt Tam’s do the guests start first’” (146). This feast scene at Aunt Tam’s shows the enduring cultural significance of food in the country, where strict communist values collide with traditional customs. It also exemplifies the social importance of food as a gift, reward, and offering of friendship. Likewise, the differences between Vietnam and the Soviet Union can be seen in the contrasting descriptions of food. Hang’s attitudes towards food capture her homesickness and sense of displacement. The connotations that come with the descriptions of Vietnamese food are comforting, pleasurable, and familiar. The descriptions of food in Russia, however, suggest eating for necessity rather than pleasure. Nostalgia for the food, and the cultural meaning of the food of Vietnam, occupy a major place in Hang’s mind and soul. When she tries to find similar meaning and tradition in the food of the Soviet Union, she finds only emptiness and necessity—an alien concept to Hang, who grew up surrounded by the rich cultural significance of food in her homeland. This only serves to further alienate her. Looking for the familiar comfort of food amidst the foreign landscape, Hang finds nothing, only more disparity between her culture and this new, strange land. Unlike in Vietnam, where descriptions of food are as much a part of the story as the dialogue between characters, food description in the Soviet Union is scarce. This serves to create an overall colder, less hospitable atmosphere. More so, the food descriptions present are less than appetizing: “When we arrived, he was plucking hair off a pig’s foot, the cheap kind sold to people eager to save money. He stuffed it in a casserole when we arrived” (36).These attitudes toward food in areas where communist regimes have fully taken hold highlight one of Huong’s greatest criticisms of communism: How it leeches the individuality and vibrant culture out of an area. The idea of collectivism equality shows quite clearly in the bleak descriptions of food in the Commune K and Soviet Union. Everyone receives the same amount of the same food, usually plain and bland, as in Hang’s description of the Commune K meal. The cultural contexts and social mechanisms of the foods are discounted, which creates androgynous people and attitudes. This might be one of the overreaching goals of communism, to foster identical equality, but the loss of a vibrant cultural tradition is mourned in Paradise of the Blind. This loss is not only felt on the level of the nation, in the contrasts between the city and the country and Vietnam and the Soviet Union, but also in Hang’s sense of loss and alienation as she experiences the unemotional landscape of Russia.The treatment and descriptions of food in the novel vary sharply depending on the setting, and fully reflect Hang’s feelings, of both isolation and alienation, as well as of contentment and happiness. Additionally, the use of food accentuates and adds to the social, cultural and political situations in which the characters live. The way Huong treats these descriptions adds to the richness of imagery and characterization of the settings in Paradise of the Blind.

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