Monday, January 14, 2013


In author Ann Mah's first novel, Kitchen Chinese, the main character  gets fired from her job
and dumped by her boyfriend of eighteen months--all in the same week.

A hip and savvy New Yorker, Isabelle Lee is an independent, fashionable, modern young woman
who works for Belle magazine.  After being fired, Isabelle follows her mother's advice and
moves to Beijing, where she shares an apartment with her sister, Claire.

In Beijing, Claire arranges for an interview so that Isabelle becomes "the dining
editor at Beijing NOW. . . an English-language magazine for expats."  

The Kitchen Chinese of the novel's title is Isabelle's rudimentary Chinese--which she defines
as "Just basic conversation. . . .  Simple words I picked up in the kitchen, spending time with
my mom."  Throughout the book, she struggles to fully understand what people are saying to her.
In one scene, she overhears two women in the community bathroom talking about her.
She flees the room.

Though she looks like everyone else, in Beijing Isabelle regards herself as American.
She is constantly having to confront this issue: as she chats in the cab, with her
date Charlie, the cab driver realizes she is a "laowai" or a foreigner.  When Isabelle is introduced
to Kristin at a restaurant, and Kristin compliments her on her English, Isabelle's companion
explains, "Isabelle is American.  She grew up in New York."

Isabelle wonders, "Though I've only been in China for a few months, has my Americanness
been erased?"  This leads to an identity crisis--for Isabelle, all of China is a social experiment
that elicits themes worthy of existential philosophers and posits the question:
Are we who we perceive ourselves to be?  Or are we whomever others perceive us to be?

“As Isabelle, I am articulate, confident, even sometimes, witty; as Li Jia [her Chinese name]
I feel . . . slow, able only to understand the edges of a [Chinese] conversation."

Ann Mah, the author, is adroit and expert in her use of English.  I loved savoring the language,
the information on Chinese food, the sense of living in contemporary Beijing.  Kitchen Chinese
feels authentic (especially if you've always wanted to visit China).

Each chapter opens with a quote that references Chinese food or history, and is sprinkled with
Chinese phrases  and an eclectic vocabulary.  Of the handful of recipes at the end of the book not
one is for Chinese food.  And despite the Chinese phrases, Isabelle seems so American.

Moreover, I liked that the novel rendered the inner dynamic of a Chinese family--mother to
daughter, sister to sister.  (As a reader, I’d like to see what happens to Isabelle and Claire
in a novel sequel.)

Kitchen Chinese  is a wonderful first novel, suffused with the ambience of Beijing,
and I eagerly await any second book author Ann Mah publishes.

---Yolanda A.  Reid

Check out Ann Mah's blog at

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