In Elaine Mar’s critically understudied memoir Paper Daughter, narrator Elaine’s mother insists that, despite her husband’s heavy consumption of the drink to stay awake in the kitchen where they work, “Chinese don’t drink coffee!” The mother’s insistence about what kinds of consumption are appropriate for her family forms one of the key insights of Roxanne Rashedi’s (2011) article in this publication, “Disordered Eating, Agency, and Social Class: Elaine Mar’s Paper Daughter.” This article remains one of the only scholarly works to explore this important work of literature, and consequently one of the only guides for teaching the work. In the following pages, I hope to offer a suggestion of how Paper Daughter might be used as a vehicle to explore a crucial element of working class experience, that of liminality. I hope to suggest some ways we can reframe our thinking on liminality by looking at the foodservice spaces in the text. I want to suggest that by looking at the way food is prepared and served in the text – and by looking at the way the workers who prepare and serve the food experience liminality - we can gain important new insights into both class liminality and Paper Daughter. First, a few words on liminality. Liminality is used to refer to spaces on the edge, spaces in between, and spaces in transition. The concept, and its closely-related cousin interstitiality, have a wide range of applications across biology, engineering, architecture, cultural studies, and critical pedagogy. The concept itself, you might say, exists the edge of a lot of different fields. It allows thinkers to talk about the areas in between well-defined areas of knowledge. The
This kind of position, markedly different as it is from the work in manufacturing and industry that has come to define a white, male working-class world, is much more typical of contemporary working-class experience. And this position is, almost by definition, a liminal one. It requires, figuratively speaking, the worker to be constantly present for coffee breaks, on the other side of the table, helping lubricate the crucial, super-productive small talk of middle-class work. In Elaine's father's case, it means that, much to his wife's chagrin, he starts drinking coffee. Even if, as mom insists, “Chinese don't drink coffee,” her husband gulps it down in large quantities to stay awake in the kitchen. As working-class work in the United States continues its long shift from the factory to the service industry, it is important that we consider the way service workplaces function. This means seeing coffee breaks not just as a place where academics talk shop or business people make side deals, but where work of a different kind occurs. By thinking of liminal spaces not just as productive spaces to pass through, but also as productive spaces to work in, we can begin to change the way we think about service industry work. While upwardly mobile “scholarship girl” narratives like that of Elaine Paper Daughter will no doubt continue to occupy some of the most explicit (and permanent) in-between position on the class hierarchy, it's important that we start looking at these narratives in more complex ways. We can do that by considering liminal spaces as spaces that must be constructed, maintained, and serviced by working-class people. We can do that, as Dave Matthews suggests, by looking at the space between.
This article offers a reading of the foodservice spaces in Elaine Mar’s memoir Paper Daughter in order to suggest changes in the way we think about class liminality. It argues that by focusing not just on the way the socially-mobile narrator experiences liminality, but also on the ways her working-class parents and co-workers experience it, we can begin to consider some of the complexities and nuances the idea of the liminal offers. In so doing, the article suggests a slightly new approach to thinking about and teaching Paper Daughter.
"“’Chinese don’t drink coffee!’”: Coffee and Class Liminality in Elaine Mar’s Paper Daughter,"
Asian American Literature: Discourses & Pedagogies: Vol. 6
, Article 6.
Available at: https://scholarworks.sjsu.edu/aaldp/vol6/iss1/6