Excerpt from At the Chinese Table by Carolyn Phillips, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

Summary |  Excerpt |  Reviews |  Beyond the Book |  Readalikes |  Genres & Themes |  Author Bio

At the Chinese Table

A Memoir with Recipes

by Carolyn Phillips

At the Chinese Table by Carolyn Phillips X
At the Chinese Table by Carolyn Phillips
  • Critics' Opinion:

    Readers' Opinion:

  • Published:
    Jun 2021, 304 pages


  • Rate this book

Book Reviewed by:
BookBrowse First Impression Reviewers
Buy This Book

About this Book

Print Excerpt

Another reason why Taipei's greatest dining destinations didn't exist until a quarter century or so after these chefs arrived was due to its less than robust economy, as well as the civil war between Taiwan and the Mainland that had providentially settled down into volleys of words, rather than bullets. Chiang's death in 1975 (and Mao's in 1976) gave the island's government a very timely excuse to loosen its grip on society just enough so that Taiwan could latch onto the same high-​tech revolution that was revving up near my mom's home in Silicon Valley. Even more important to my story is that not long after that, those suddenly wealthy and also very hungry entrepreneurs began convincing many brilliant private chefs to open culinary palaces in downtown Taipei.

In short, Taiwan's capital was in the midst of transforming itself into a food-​lover's paradise at just the moment I appeared on the scene, and I have to admit that I took full advantage of the situation.

Almost every American I know of has left for more familiar territory by the end of their second year, if not before. The reason given (usually accompanied with a deep sigh) is that living any longer as a foreigner in Taipei is just too exhausting. Finding myself now trapped in the strange existence afforded to second-​year language students, I am beginning to understand why.

Part of the problem is that I live alone in an apartment near the upper edge of town, so I no longer can rely on a handy American environment to swallow me up. Instead, I have what I thought I had wanted: total immersion. However, I remain unable to speak well enough to fit into society out here in the Songshan District. I also know for a certainty that I will never come close to mimicking the way the people here move and dress. I react to this by turning even more thin-​skinned and irritable, for I have a sneaking feeling that my presence is always being commented upon, laughed at, mocked. I have been doubling down on my ninja act, too. Umbrellas are popped open to shield me from stares, as much as from the sun and the rain. I don massive sunglasses à la Jackie Onassis. I wind my chestnut hair into a tight knot at my nape and shove it under a hat or scarf, the better to conceal its attention-​getting color. I cover my mouth when I laugh. I wear skirts and pumps. I strive to be a worker bee in this massive hive. Every day I have to navigate endless cultural landmines in those high heels, and I am clumsily tripping over them to an alarming degree.

Despite the undeniable lure that returning to the States poses to me on a daily basis, I'm still not yet ready to capitulate. My mother and I talk once a month, and she generally winds up the call with some variation on the theme of When are you coming back? And I counter with Later, and Give me time. I want to learn this language and somehow, someday fit in, but the problem is that I wrestle Chinese into my brain only long enough to take a test before it slithers right back out again.

But even if I did decide to give up, I have nowhere to go and no money to do it with. Mom and I, well, we tried our best, but the only time we ever spent enjoying each other's company was when we traveled around Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Japan at the end of my first year here. Because she was linguistically at my mercy for four weeks, our power dynamic was upended. We became equals of sorts, and for some strange reason this freed her up in ways I hadn't thought possible. I never saw her so alive or laugh so much. But by then it was too late—​she and I had grown too far apart, for I was turning into someone else on the other side of the world. Mom said ruefully, again and again in those long-​distance calls, that I wasn't her little girl anymore, that she didn't recognize me. And, as for me, I am painfully aware that I can never go back to her way of life.

Excerpted from At the Chinese Table: A Memoir With Recipes. Copyright (c) 2021 by Carolyn Phillips. Used with permission of the publisher, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.

Membership Advantages
  • Reviews
  • "Beyond the Book" articles
  • Free books to read and review (US only)
  • Find books by time period, setting & theme
  • Read-alike suggestions by book and author
  • Book club discussions
  • and much more!
  • Just $45 for 12 months or $15 for 3 months.
  • More about membership!

Beyond the Book:
  Hakka Cuisine

Join BookBrowse

For a year of great reading
about exceptional books!

Find out more

Top Picks

  • Book Jacket: The Golden Gate
    The Golden Gate
    by Amy Chua
    The Golden Gate is a highly entertaining page-turner that falls neatly into, but in some ways ...
  • Book Jacket: The Mysterious Case of Rudolf Diesel
    The Mysterious Case of Rudolf Diesel
    by Douglas Brunt
    Rudolf Diesel ought to be a household name. Like Thomas Edison, Henry Ford and Nikola Tesla, Diesel ...
  • Book Jacket: Move Like Water
    Move Like Water
    by Hannah Stowe
    As a child growing up on the Pembrokeshire Coast in Wales, Hannah Stowe always loved the sea, ...
  • Book Jacket
    Loved and Missed
    by Susie Boyt
    London-based author and theater director Susie Boyt has written seven novels and the PEN Ackerley ...

BookBrowse Book Club

Book Jacket
Fair Rosaline
by Natasha Solomons
A subversive, powerful untelling of Romeo and Juliet by New York Times bestselling author Natasha Solomons.

Members Recommend

  • Book Jacket

    All You Have to Do Is Call
    by Kerri Maher

    An inspiring novel based on the true story of the Jane Collective and the brave women who fought for our right to choose.

  • Book Jacket

    This Is Salvaged
    by Vauhini Vara

    Stories of uncanny originality from Vauhini Vara, a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in Fiction.

  • Book Jacket

    Alfie and Me
    by Carl Safina

    A moving account of raising, then freeing, an orphaned screech owl. Three starred reviews!

Who Said...

The dirtiest book of all is the expurgated book

Click Here to find out who said this, as well as discovering other famous literary quotes!


Solve this clue:

G O T P, B The P, F T P

and be entered to win..

Your guide toexceptional          books

BookBrowse seeks out and recommends the best in contemporary fiction and nonfiction—books that not only engage and entertain but also deepen our understanding of ourselves and the world around us.