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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]

[213] The Joy Luck Club – Amy Tan


It’s hard to keep your Chinese face in America. At the beginning, before I even arrived, I had to hide my true self.” [294]

Through the stories of four immigrant women in the first half of 20th century, Amy Tan weaves a myopic tapestry that details their struggle to preserve the Chinese heritage while gingerly assimilating to the American society. The Joy Luck Club revolves around these four friends, or at times secret rivals who boast about their daughters’ talents, at the mah jong (a Chinese tile game that mandates four players) table who share stories of their lives in China and the journey to America. Woven in their narratives are their daughters’ recollection of the problems growing up in two cultures.

Why do you have to use me to show off? If you want to show off, when why don’t you learn to play chess? [101]

But somehow, when you lose something you love, faith takes over. You have to pay attention to what you lost. You have to undo the expectation. [140]

These interlocking stories evoke tension that is rooted in the misunderstanding between the two generations separated by geographical barriers. Mothers work hard to instill in their daughters the remnants of the native culture and heritage, while the first generation Chinese-American girls are “too busy chewing gum, blowing bubbles bigger than the cheeks.” While mothers worry their daughters’ not being the own person, having the best of the two worlds—American circumstances and Chinese character, the daughters are embarrassed at their mothers’ old ways.

I smile. I use my American face. That’s the face Americans think is Chinese, the one they cannot understand. But inside I am becoming ashamed. I am ashamed she is ashamed. Because she is my daughter and I am proud of her, and I am her mother but she is not proud of me. [291]

The versatility with which the older Chinese women, who have respectively escaped pre-arranged marriage, survived war, and left behind babies in China, switch their Chinese face to American face is remarkable. This flexibility, although at times inevitable, is interpreted as means to protect their children. Like the ambivalent nature of the club’s name (joy luck in Chinese means happiness by chance), whose meaning is lost when translated from Chinese to English, one realizes that the mothers’ experience and values are also not to be fully translated to their daughters. Throughout the novel Amy Tan reminds us that an understanding of Chinese culture is a prerequisite to understanding of its meaning. The novel as a result captures the struggle of Chinese-American immigrant experience through an examination of the historical legacy and the problem of the immigrant identity. It poignantly captures that bittersweet contradicting desire to foregoing non-American attributes and embracing ethnic root and identity.

332 pp. [Read/Skim/Toss]