Eight years ago, I reviewed a debut novel by a Chinese Canadian author, Judy Fong Bates, who was born in China but came to Canada with her mother when she was twelve years old. The name of that novel was Midnight at the Dragon Café, and I’ve been hungry for more of her writing ever since. Lately, I ran across a book of short stories she published in 2002, China Dog and Other Stories from a Chinese Laundry. With the same direct, and deceptively simple language as in her novel, Bates writes about what it was like to grow up straddling two cultures—what it was like for the children, and also what it was like for the parents.
She tells us that in typical small Canadian towns there was a Chinese restaurant and a Chinese hand laundry, and usually these were the only Chinese families in those small towns. Growing up among the lo fons (white ghost people), the children had to balance the demands of their current lives with expectations of their parents that they stick to old ways. While the Chinese saw Canada as a land of opportunity, referring to it as The Gold Mountain, they feared that their children would abandon traditional values. As the young girl in one of her stories says: “Although both of my parents were proud I had learned English so quickly, I knew they were concerned that I was becoming too Canadian.’”
While Bates pays special attention to the dilemmas faced by the children caught between cultures, she also shows great compassion for the parents of these children who, often enough, see their own lives as essentially over. The mother in her novel exclaims to her daughter, “I’d be better off in China fighting for my life, here I just die a slow death.” The children can, although at great emotional cost, carve out a new life, but the parents, many of whom never really learn to speak understandable English are caught in a kind of limbo, saying to themselves, “This is not my real life,” but are unable to return to that real life or to adjust to the new one, suffering “…the loneliness in this land of strangers,” nurturing a “silent dream of returning home to rest, to die.”
Like the young girls in her stories, Bates is almost a hoo sung (Canadian-born), able to think in English, and to understand the values and desires of the white ghosts. While the girls’ parents long for them to be more Chinese, often enough they wish their parents were more Canadian.
Still, while Bates sees and understands “a bottomless depth of sadness,” in so many of the older Chinese Canadians, her stories are filled with humor and insight. She gives us a picture of rural life in Canada in the 50s and 60s. As I read her stories, I often thought of the similar stories written by the Canadian writer Alice Munro.
While Bates paints a vivid picture of the racism directed at the few Chinese families in the small Canadian towns, she also shows in much subtler ways what have to be called the racist attitudes of the Chinese towards the white Canadians. Given the economic and political clout behind the racism of the Canadians, it is easy to sympathize with the Chinese immigrants, but Bates seems intent on pointing out how the suspicions of the Chinese parents towards the majority culture make it so difficult for their children to decide how to act, how to succeed, how to balance the often contradictory expectations of their parents. In one story, “The Ghost Wife,” a young girl is confused by the reactions of her mother to the upcoming marriage of a Chinese cousin. While there is great excitement in the preparations for the upcoming marriage, there is an undercurrent of hostility.
In a way I feel sorry for Gladys. She’s not going to be able to talk to her big shot son-in-law, you know. She can’t speak English and he can’t speak Chinese. And when they have children, the children won’t speak Chinese, you know. They won’t know anything about being Chinese. They’re going to be able to say anything in front of her. They won’t even want Gladys around.
But Mah, just because Jean’s getting married to a lo fon, doesn’t mean she’s going to forget about her own family.
Oh, it’s not that Jean doesn’t care about her mother. But once she’s married to a gwei loh, she’ll be spending all her time with lo fons. She’ll forget about being Chinese. I know. Jean will want to spend all of her time with her lo fon family. She’ll forget all about being Chinese. I know.
The mother concludes that her own daughter would never marry a gwei loh, because she has too much respect for her mother. Caught in a new way between the vice of contrary expectations.
This is a wonderful collection of short stories; I predict that once you pick it up, you won’t be able to put it down.