Theory, Like Fog on Eyeglass….

There are two literary quotes from fictional Chinese characters from early 20th century literature.  The first is from Lee, in Steinbeck’s East of Eden.

“What’s your name?” Samuel asked pleasantly.

“Lee. Got more name. Lee papa family name. Call Lee.”

“I’ve read quite a lot about China. You born in China?”

“No. Born here.”

Samuel was silent for quite a long time while the buggy lurched down the wheel track toward the dusty valley. “Lee,” he 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 my affair. I hoe 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 expect, and pidgin they’ll listen to. But English from me they don’t listen to, and so they don’t understand it.”

“Can that be possible? How do I understand you?”

“That’s why I’m talking to you. You are one of the rare people who can separate your observation from your preconception. You see what is, where most people see what they expect.”

“I hadn’t thought of it. And I’ve not been so tested as you, but what you say has a candle of truth. You know, I’m very glad to talk to you. I’ve wanted to ask so many questions.”

“Happy to oblige.”

“So many questions. For instance, you wear the queue. I’ve read that it is a badge of slavery imposed by conquest by the Manchus on the Southern Chinese.”

“That is true.”

“Then why in the name of God do you wear it here, where the Manchus can’t get at you?”

“Talkee Chinese talk. Queue Chinese fashion—you savvy?”

Samuel laughed loudly. “That does have the green touch of convenience,” he said. “I wish I had a hidey-hole like that.”

“I’m wondering whether I can explain,” said Lee. “Where there is no likeness of experience it’s very difficult. I understand you were not born in America.”

“No, in Ireland.”

“And 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.”

“If you cut your queue, dressed and talked like other people?”

“No. I tried it. To the so-called whites I was still a Chinese, but an untrustworthy one; and at the same time my Chinese friends steered clear of me. I had to give it up.”

Le pulled up under a tree, got out and unfastened the check rein. “Time for lunch,” he said. “I made a package. Would you like some?”

“Sure I would. Let me get down in the shade there. I forget to eat sometimes and that’s strange because I’m always hungry. I’m interested in what you say. It has a sweet sound of authority. Now it peeks into my mind that you should go back to China.”

Lee smiled satirically at him. “In a few minutes I don’t think you’ll find a loose bar I’ve missed in a lifetime of search. 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.”

“I’ll have to believe you because it’s reasonable. You’ve given me things to think about until at least February twenty-seventh. Do you mind my questions?”

“As a matter of fact, no. The trouble with pidgin is that you get to thinking in pidgin. I write a great deal to keep my English up. Hearing and reading aren’t the same as speaking and writing.”

“Don’t you ever make a mistake? I mean, break into English?”

“No, I don’t. I think it’s a matter of what is expected. You look at a man’s eyes, you see that he expects pidgin and a shuffle, so you speak pidgin and a shuffle.”

“I guess that’s right,” said Samuel. “In my own way I tell jokes because people come all the way to my place to laugh. I try to be funny for them even when the sadness is on me.”

“But the Irish are said to be a happy people, full of jokes.”

“There’s your pidgin and your queue. They’re not. They’re a dark people with a gift for suffering way past their deserving. It’s said that without whisky to soak and soften the world, they’d kill themselves. But they tell jokes because it’s expected of them.”

Lee unwrapped a little bottle. “Would you like some of this? Chinee drink ng-ka-py.”

“What is it?”

“Chinee blandy. Stlong dlink—as a matter of fact it’s a brandy with a dosage of wormwood. Very powerful. It softens the world.”

Samuel sipped from the bottle. “Tastes a little like rotten apples,” he said.

“Yes, but nice rotten apples. Taste it back along your tongue toward the roots.”

Samuel took a big swallow and tilted his head back. “I see what you mean. That is good.”

“Here are some sandwiches, pickles, cheese, a can of buttermilk.”

“You do well.”

“Yes, I see to it.”

Samuel bit into a sandwich. “I was shuffling over half a hundred questions. What you said brings the brightest one up. You don’t mind?”

“Not at all. The only thing I do want to ask of you is not to talk this way when other people are listening. It would only confuse them and they wouldn’t believe it anyway.”

“I’ll try,” said Samuel. “If I slip, just remember that I’m a comical genius. It’s hard to split a man down the middle and always to reach for the same half.”

“I think I can guess what your next question is.”


“Why am I content to be a servant?”

“How in the world did you know?”

“It seemed to follow.”

“Do you resent the question?”

“Not from you. There are no ugly question except those clothed in condescension. I don’t know where being a servant came into disrepute. It is the refuge of a philosopher, the food of the lazy, and properly carried out, it is a position of power, even of love. I can’t understand why more intelligent people don’t take it as a career—learn to do it well and reap its benefits. A good servant has absolute security, not because of his master’s kindness, but because of habit and indolence. It’s a hard thing for a man to change spices or lay out his own socks. He’ll keep a bad servant rather than change. But a good servant, and I am an excellent one, can completely control his master, tell him what to think, how to act, whom to marry, when to divorce, reduce him to terror as a discipline, or distribute happiness to him, and finally be mentioned in his will. If I had wished I could have robbed, stripped, and beaten anyone I’ve worked for and come away with thanks. Finally, in my circumstances I am unprotected. My master will defend me, protect me. You have to work and worry. I work less and worry less. And I am a good servant. A bad one does no work and does no worrying, and he still is fed, clothed, and protected. I don’t know any profession where the field is so cluttered with incompetents and where excellence is so rare.”

Samuel leaned toward him, listening intently.

Lee went on, “It’s going to be a relief after that to go back to pidgin.”

“It’s a very short distance to (your) place. Why did we stop so near?” Samuel asked.

“Allee time talkee. Me Chinee number one boy. You leddy go now?”

“What? Oh, sure. But it must be a lonely life.”

“That’s the only fault with it,” said Lee. “I’ve been thinking of going to San Francisco and starting a little business.”

“Like a laundry? Or a grocery store?”

“No. Too many Chinese laundries and restaurants. I thought perhaps a bookstore. I’d like that, and the competition wouldn’t be too great. I probably won’t do it though. A servant loses his initiative.”

The other is from Charlie Chan, from a movie, actually (Charlie Chan in Egypt, I believe)

Dr. Anton Racine: You have a theory about this, of course?
Charlie Chan: Theory like mist on eyeglasses – obscures facts.

It took me a while to track down the full extended version of the former to copy and paste. There, Steinbeck is making a twofold observations that are often interlinked, which unfortunately, seems to get missed.  Usually, those who quote Steinbeck focus on how Lee has to speak pidgin to meet the expectations, in order to be understood, and generally segue into a commentary about racism and prejudice.

But the next part of the passage, about the power of the servants, is an extension of the same argument.  People see what they see because they have a “theory” about the world–including what to expect from a Chinese circa 1900.  What fits within this theory is easy to process–thus the Chinese man with pidgin and a queue.  A Chinese man without an accent and a queue, however, does not fit the theory and takes an effort to make sense of–provided that the person in question is willing to exert that effort.  Here, the pidgin story blends into the servant story:  a theory is, in principle, a servant, a tool through which to understand the reality.  But people are often lazy and are unwilling to understand the reality, with its messy variances, beyond the theory (and its means).  So arranging spices, folding laundry, or whatever it is that the servants do, they hold absolute power.  If the reality that the master sees is at odds with the comforts of his theory-servant, he would rather hide behind the servant and become dependent, rather than confront the facts.  Indeed, we’d rather have misty eyeglasses rather than see things straight.

Lee recognizes this, at the end of the passage, how he himself falls to the comforts of being a servant and its predictable universe:   “The trouble with pidgin is that you get to thinking in pidgin. I write a great deal to keep my English up. Hearing and reading aren’t the same as speaking and writing.” and “a servant loses his initiative.”  You need to break out of the routine where everything fits into the theory, or you become the servant of your own theorizing.  Sam Hamilton is a welcome distraction, someone who breaks Lee’s theory of how every white behaves, a “deviation” away from the theory, a welcome bit of variance from the monotonies of mean.  We need occasional bits of variances.


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