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[417] All That Work and Still No Boys – Kathryn Ma

Ma’s short story collection probes the immigrant experience of Chinese Americans, in particular the conflicting aspirations and values that create friction between aging immigrant parents and their American-born (Americanized) children.

The title story, so right-on-the-dot, addresses the inveterate feudalistic values and favoritism of a male child that have defined Chinese culture. A chronically ill woman refuses to take her only son’s kidney, although he is the best medical match among the children—only to protect her only male heir from any complication, at the expense of insulting her four daughters. Girls don’t matter; her youngest son does.

Ma nods but doesn’t answer, another deft deception, the yes that’s really a no. Ma has no intention of letting him give her a kidney. She’s already made that perfectly clear to Barbara. She’s got four daughters but only one Lawrence. (1-2)

Second Child follows an American family on a “heritage journey” back to China with their adopted daughter. Ma tells the story from the perspective of the tour guide, a young Chinese woman with whom the white sibling of the adopted girl strikes up a friendship. The 12-year-old boy pulls stunts in order to spoil the trip to the orphanage. He wants to protect his sister from fear and turmoil. Although a different subject altogether, the story echoes the title story on favoritism on the male child, since most orphans up for adoption are girls

I don’t know why Sam is so worried. He’s not like this at home. He’s very good to his sister. In fact, I think he feels guilty that we’re his parents and Kate was adopted. (35)

The two old ladies in The Scottish Play remind me many a conversation I overheard at bakeries in Chinatown. The women live vicariously through their children and grandchildren, in reverent reminiscence of their late husbands. At the senior center, over lunch, they can’t help throwing verbal knives at one another when opportunity comes, however innocent they try to sound. But this outward camaraderie collapses at a Shakespeare play. What polite restraint they have maintained is quickly forgotten. Old feud has quickly resurfaced. In this story in particular, Ma’s wit is sharp and she is more than deft with the sharp repartee that the two old women lob back and forth to one another.

“But you are so lucky.” Mrs. Liang interrupts my dreaming, “that you have a daughter who is willing to take you in. My daughter-in-law said that I could have their spare bedroom, but I said no. I’d have to give up so much of my independence.”

“Oh,” I say innocently, “Mrs. Liang, did you finally learn to drive?” (43)

In For Sale By Owner, a family is getting out of the sketchy neighborhood in Philadelphia to move to Los Angeles only to reap the most ironic outcome. With some of the most delicate terms Ma probes the long-term impact of a quasi-incestuous relationship on a young woman, who can get over over what happened in Dougie. While the main focus may be the immigrant community, what Ma focuses on is the universal desire for happiness. In The Long Way Home, Joanna questions her younger sister about a tragic event–in which she set the house on fire–when they were young and the effect it has had on both their lives

This collection captures what it means to belong to a family, a community, and a country other than home. Sometimes it can be shocking to see the cultural divide within a family. Maybe the older, immigrant generation wants to hold fast to what they can relish in memory in order to pass these values down to the new generation. Some of the people in this collection are more Chinese than their counterparts back home. While some stereotypes live on because they are based, however tenuously, on truth, Ma has a keen eye on how these people strike a balance between duty, contradictory values, loss, and duty. It’s become a habit to re-read the stories to soak up on the sharp barbed dialogue. Ma is so right on.

147 pp. Soft cover. [Read/Skim/Toss] [Buy/Borrow]

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3 Responses

  1. I would love to read this collection of stories and gain more insight into the Chinese culture. I have always been fascinated by cultures that revere boys so much.

  2. Just got a copy now and about starting 🙂

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