When people first came to the West, particularly from the owned and fought-over farmlets of Europe, and saw so much land to be had for the signing of a paper and the building of a foundation, an itching land-greed seemed to come over them […] A man who might have been well-to-do on ten acres in Europe was rat-poor on two thousand in California. (3.2.1)
Okay, so we've got our first East-West contrast of the novel between the Old World and the New World. Actually it's more like the New New World, because the West in the United States was still being "settled" (that's in scare quotes because, you know, people had been settled there for a long time…) in the second half of the nineteenth century. But the West isn't looking so great and Edenic like one might have expected it to—most of the land seems to be shoddy. But hey, at least there's land to go around. So it's a place for potential.
The long Salinas Valley was part of the exploitation. Adam had seen and studied a fine color broadside which set forth the valley as that region which heaven unsuccessfully imitated. After reading the literature, anyone who did not want to settle in the Salinas Valley was crazy. (13.2.9)
Now we're talking Eden, and it has colored brochures directly comparing Salinas to heaven. A stretch? Maybe. But Adam sure buys into it. He wants his Eden, gosh darnit, so it looks like we're heading west
"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 choice of mixing."
"If you cut your queue, dressed and talked like other people?"
"No. I tried to. 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." (15.2.37-41)
Now Steinbeck is going to blow your mind: Bet you thought Lee was from China like Samuel did, didn't you? He sure had us fooled with that pidgin accent of his. But as it turns out, he is as American as apple pie, or Uncle Sam, or Memorial Day barbeques. But you know that whole melting pot thing? Turns out it doesn't really work that way. People still see Lee as a foreigner because American still means white in a lot of people's minds. So Lee has this Eastern (in the sense of Asian, which Lee is going to refer to as the Orient, because that term used to not be un-PC) identity imposed upon him.
Adam smiled. "We had a farm in Connecticut," he said. "For six generations we dug stones out. One of the first things I remember is sledding stones over to the walls. I thought that was the way all farms were. It's strange to me and almost sinful here." (15.3.26)
Wow—the East doesn't sound very fun, though it does sound super barren. Imagine if your first memory was of rocks. That's… awful. Compare this to the ridiculous breadbasket that is California, where orange juice flows from the kitchen tap and the roads are made of arugula and grapes are used for currency. We know where we'd rather be.
"It's two volumes by a man the world is going to hear from. You can start reading if you want and it will raise up your lid a little. It's called The Principles of Psychology and it's by an Eastern man named William James. No relative to the train robber." (17.2.40)
Future philosophers, take note. William James is what you might call a big deal. Ever hear of stream-of-consciousness? Or pragmatism? Those were both him. Note how Samuel specifies that James is an Eastern man. On the East Coast, the name James would evoke the philosopher, because that was the center of intellectual life in the United States, but in the West, where everyone starts brawls in saloons and rustles cattle, it makes people think of Jesse James. William James was actually related to another famous James, the writer Henry James, who lived even farther east, all the way across the pond in Europe.
How was Mrs. Trask?
Quiet, lackadaisical, like most rich Eastern women (Liza had never known a rich Eastern woman), but on the other hand docile and respectful. (17.4.9-10)
Hey there, preconceived notions—we knew you were hiding out here somewhere. Liza clearly sees herself as the opposite of a quiet, lackadaisical rich Easterner (as in the East Coast of the U.S.), which would mean that Western women must be loud, energetic, and poor. Think stereotypes: the East has cities of art and culture like New York and Boston, while the West has… farms, mainly. But Liza still manages to make it superior.
"Can you imagine four old gentlemen, the youngest is over ninety now, taking on the study of Hebrew? They engaged a learned rabbi. They took to the study as though they were children. Exercise books, grammar, vocabulary, simple sentences. You should see Hebrew written in Chinese ink with a brush! The right to left didn't bother them as much as it would you, since we write up and down." (24.2.68)
Talk about cross-cultural pollination—this is where East meets West, big time. In one corner we've got Hebrew and the Bible representing one of the major foundations of Western civilization and thought; and in the other corner we have the East, as in China, taking it on like it's no big deal because, really, it's not. Who says that Chinese people can only study Chinese things? This image of Chinese scholars learning Hebrew is supposed to jar our expectations and make us realize that categories like East and West aren't real categories so much as boundaries we set up ourselves.
"Now in the cold parts of the country, don't you think people get to wanting perishable things in the winter—like peas and lettuce and cauliflower? In a big part of the country they don't have those things for months and months. And right here in the Salinas Valley we can raise them all the year round." (37.1.64)
It's hard to imagine a time where you had to go through a fruit dry-spell just because you lived on the East Coast. In California? Not an issue. So we've got another scenario in which California is Edenic and lush compared to its eastern counterpart.
After Cal had gone Lee went back to his chair. He thought ruefully, I wonder what happened to my Oriental repose? (38.3.55)
Lee is being tongue-in-cheek here—he's fully aware of the stereotype of the wise old Chinese man who remains serene and quotes Confucius to solve any problem. That seems to be along the lines of what he means by Oriental repose. In reality he just threatened to break all of the bones in Cal's body, so we're going to say that he doesn't exactly fit the stereotype.
"We all have that heritage, no matter what old land our fathers left. All colors and blends of Americans have somewhat the same tendencies. It's a breed—selected out by accident." (51.2.54)
Lee is getting at one thing: inherently we are all the same. He is talking about Americans specifically and all the good and not-so-good aspects of the culture, but the point is that it has a culture and that culture is shared. Considering how this book is obsessed with East-West distinctions (and especially considering how Lee is arguably the most subject to those distinctions) it's really significant that his character is the one to speak this passage.