CHINA MEN by Maxine Hong Kingston
Let me just begin with the following statement: I don’t like immigration stories. I really, really don’t. If it were not for a class, I wouldn’t really have cared enough to pick up this book for myself. No offense really, it’s just that…well, all immigration stories revolve around one thing and it’s rather boring to have to read about something you’re already aware of.
But I don’t think I was wholly lost once I actually begin reading China Men. While it by no means became a favorite book or any such thing, China Men ended up being a rather unique and adventurous experience. There is a lot of exploration of the Chinese immigration history to the United States in the novel and even though I realize it is fiction, some of it echoes reality closely. As a dual English and History student myself, I observed that China Men is an excellent blend of myth, fiction, and fact—often all emerging as one. After reading an interview MHK (the author) gave, I assume that she does this on purpose. It’s sort of similar to when one participates in one of those study abroad programs, the three basic classes they usually offer are: language, history, and literature—each representing the bases of all civilizations and that is precisely the elements that MHK is commingling together in China Men. While I did not care for the major stories that much, the sprinkles of short stories in between each of the major stories were quite haunting. Some were factual, some retellings of Chinese myths, and some were introductions into the other major stories. But there were usually my favorite parts, particularly “The Ghostmate”—absolutely stunning.
MHK’s writing is hard to enjoy and yet it’s easy to appreciate. Let me explain. While she writes stunning prose, drawing simplistic words into beautiful sentences, the topics which she tackles are very hard to deal with. Her words are enchanting but they can also be a bit difficult to handle at times. If I knew a bit more about Chinese culture then I would be better equipped to deal with the subject matter but even though I wanted to read more of her writing, the things which chooses to get descriptive with were thoroughly disturbing. Here’s an example, a passage that comes right after a man attempts to sell his son in exchange for a daughter and his wife berates him for it,
“Perhaps it was that very evening and not after the Japanese bayoneted him that he began taking his penis out at the dinner table, worrying it, wondering at it, asking why it had given him four sons and no daughter, chastising it, asking it whether it were yet capable of producing the daughter of his dreams. He shook his head and clucked his tongue at it. When he saw what a disturbance it caused, he laughed, laughed in Ah Po’s irritated face, whacked his naked penis on the table, and joked, ‘Take a look at this sausage’” (21).
And another, as a Chinese immigrant worker tries to gain a little bit of freedom in a labor camp,
“One beautiful day, dangling in the sun above a new valley,…sexual desire clutched him so far he been over in the basket…Suddenly he stood up tall and squirted out into space. ‘I am fucking the world,’ he said. The world’s vagina was big, big as the sky, big as a valley” (133).
As it shows, while I can appreciate the symbolism of these actions, the imagery is a bit disturbing.
But as I mentioned earlier, this is still overall an immigration narrative and because I have little taste for those, I cannot rate it any less than an “OK” book. Because at the end of it all, I expected to learn nothing except that white America is blatantly racist but immigrants often still prefer America to their own countries because at least there is some honesty left in this side of the world. [I second this as someone who was also born in the East, but raised in the West] It’s often awful, having to deal with racist white Americans who consider themselves above “immigrants” (even though they are, of course, themselves immigrants), I still prefer this country to many, many others—including the one I was born in.
So while I liked Maxine Hong Kinston’s writing style and liked learning a bit about Chinese and Chinese-American culture, I did not care so much for the major stories themselves. I would highly recommend it if you are interested in this topic but if not, I am not going to attempt to convince you otherwise.
Rating – ★★★☆☆