Small college towns provide an intriguing atmosphere for those that live it. I'm not talking about the bar scene that almost every student will flock to on any given day of the week. Rather, I mean the "mom-and-pop" businesses that line each block throughout the town - even more specifically, the small dose of independent bookstores that find their home in the nooks, crannies, and side streets that one might stumble across walking a new route to class. They are the places that give small towns more character than any corporate chain will, and are the ones that townspeople love to support. Cogitare Books was one is those places.
Cogitare (Coh-ji-tar-ee) Books in Menomonie, Wis., was a small bookstore that housed mostly first editions of various book genres. Unfortunately it closed in late 2013, but not before multiple visits and purchases made by me and other book lovers in the area. I discovered a novel called Eating Chinese Food Naked by Mei Ng at Cogitare Books, thanks in part to my innate ability to peruse the entirety of a bookstore from front to back, top to bottom. While it was hidden in the biography section of the store, it is actually considered realistic fiction. Even so, it pulls many details from Ng’s personal life and experiences.
Eating Chinese Food Naked, Ng’s authorial debut, begins with an all too familiar situation: the Chinese narrator and main character Ruby Lee has just graduated from college (Columbia, no less) and finds herself moving back to her parent’s home behind/attached to a laundry in Queens, New York City. It is only for the summer, or so she tells herself, but dealing with her parents - the tyrannical, cigar-smoking Franklin who bullies his constantly cooking wife, Bell - it seems like a claustrophobic lifetime.
As we read, we find ourselves discovering the generation gap between members of a modern Chinese family. From the traditional ways of her parents, to the modern, more American lifestyle of Ruby and her siblings, we as readers face Ng's words with familiarity and understanding. Although some of us do not have the same active sex drive as Ruby, we all know what it's like to battle our parents because they just don't understand how things are or how the younger generation functions. Despite their differences, Ruby's ever-strong love for her mother causes her to defend her on numerous occasions throughout the summer, as well as trying to get Bell out from under Franklin's persistently demeaning commentary and overall thumb. At the same time, Ruby herself is facing her own personal issues, including but not limited to her relationship with her (non-Chinese) boyfriend, her employment situation as a temp, and wanting to retain the independence and sense of self that she worked so hard to build while away at school.
Although entirely relatable, the story as written by Mei Ng is a bumpy one. Not only does the narrative jump from topic to topic throughout its entirety, which is understandably just how life progresses as well, it also bounces between various perspectives and sometimes even in chronology. Much of the story is told by Ruby and her adjustments to life at home; however, from time to time and most likely for back story's sake, we begin to read tidbits from Bell or Franklin's point of view. This does not make the story horrible by any means, but it can make it difficult at times to keep up with and/or it can be remotely disruptive of the current narrative at whatever point it is placed in the book. Back story is a great written tactic for fiction, but I feel as though the execution in Eating Chinese Food Naked didn’t improve the novel as well as it could have.
Sadly, Eating Chinese Food Naked is not a very memorable book. The only redeeming quality for me personally was that I am in the exact same situation as Ruby as a college graduate, and quite a handful of the interactions between Ruby and her parents are similar to those I have experienced myself. I was able to sympathize with Ruby, but I felt like I spent the majority of the novel waiting for something to happen. Not necessarily a fairytale ending or some epic climax, just... something that never took place. It can be explained as something that makes this novel entirely contemporary, in that not every story or experience has a life-changing zenith or a finalizing conclusion. Nonetheless, it is a novel that I am still able to draw inspiration and advice from despite its setbacks.
Eating Chinese Food Naked reminded me of my own quirks and how parents have the innate ability to not understand said quirks. Upon reading this book, I was able to better realize and appreciate my parents for being generally supportive of me and my endeavors, and I discovered, in spite of all the things I (or likewise, Ruby) have been through, even the smallest victories are still victories and a step towards something better. And that’s truly what matters in my experiences with this book.
Published January 1st, 1998 by Scribner Book Company
Genre: Fiction, Cultural
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