Saturday, July 18, 2009

Visiting Harry Kim

We went to San Diego for a memorial service for my wife’s older brother this week. He had served in the Coast Guard in the early seventies so my wife and her sisters arranged to have his ashes placed at a military cemetery that overlooks the harbor. I never got many chances to talk to my brother in law. He just wasn’t much of a talker, so I knew very little about his world which consisted of selling military surplus items and working swap meets. Other than that, he was a very good uncle who always showed up at all family gatherings and who always seemed to be available to help with his nieces and nephews who lived in Southern California.

We had a short memorial service, the military give you a little less than half an hour for a ceremony that included two full dress coast guardsmen who unroll a flag, fold it, present it to a family member and someone playing taps on a trumpet. Apparently, they do ten to fifteen services a day there so it’s actually someone’s job to move the services along so the next set of bereaved ones get their memorial service on time.

During the service, my sister in law told the story of Harry Kim. Harry Kim was an army specialist who died at the age of 20 in Vietnam in 1968. My brother-in-law never knew Harry Kim. He had only heard about him through one of his friends, someone who had served with him in Vietnam. Apparently, Harry Kim had gone out on a mission in place of the friend and that was Harry Kim’s last mission. The friend couldn’t bear to visit the grave. Since he was local, my brother in law took on the job of visiting Harry Kim’s gravesite regularly for the friend. Whenever he would visit, my brother in law would gather pine cones from a pine tree that shaded Harry Kim’s cemetery plot and send them to the friend who lived up in Northern California just to show him that someone had visited Harry’s grave and to give him something to literally hold onto.

At the end of the service, we went to visit Harry Kim’s gravesite to carry out the ritual one more time, though perhaps fittingly there were no pine cones to be found on the ground. I’m not sure we would have known who to send them to. Forty one years later, people 3 times removed were seeking out Harry Kim, a very young man who died thousands of miles from home.

A few years ago, my brother in law asked his sister to hold onto his high school leather jacket, an orange thing with leather sleeves and metal snap buttons. The sisters took turns wearing it and on it there was the year of his graduation. When Harry Kim died, my brother in law was still in high school.

It’s such an odd combination of small and big gestures that tie moments like this together. It’s a bit that I never knew about my brother in law, yet it’s something that will help me to remember him as the guy who always tried to be there in some small way for family and others.


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Wednesday, July 15, 2009

My Day at Angel Island

Because of confusion about times, I missed the ferry to Angel Island from Tiburon that had my mother and stepfather and their group of seniors from Sacramento on it. I left a message on my mother's cell phone, then realized that the Island might not have cell phone coverage. That and my mother is forgetting things like her cell phone from time to time. Angel Island's not very big, a few square miles. I think the majority of people who come there go to hike, bike, or picnic, but for more than thirty years the island was used as an immigration processing center for the west coast. It has a special place in Chinese-American history because this is where the Chinese Exclusion Act played out. Angel Island is currently controlled by the state park service and they’ve turned what remains of the old intake center into an “Immigration Memorial”.

I’m like a native New Yorker who somehow never went to the Statue of Liberty. I’m not sure how it happened, but this was my first time there. It’s also possible that I went once and totally forgot about it. They didn’t start making a big deal of Angel Island until the seventies when they re-discovered poetry carved into the wooden walls of the immigration center. At the time the poetry was written, the government saw it as grafitti and painted over all of it.

I spent my first forty five minutes on the island trying to find my mother and stepfather. I couldn’t find a map and naturally I walked in exactly the wrong direction, stopped for lunch, then walked towards the immigration center on the Eastern side of the island. My cell phone wasn’t working and I figured my best chance of finding them was by heading there. For most of the forty five minutes, I was convinced that I wasn’t going to find them.

I hadn’t exactly come prepared for a long hike, the first part of which was up stairs carved into the hill. I was wearing Crocs and it hadn’t occurred to me to bring a coat. I didn’t exactly feel like an immigrant longing to reunite with his family in America, but I got a vague hit of melancholy along those lines. I found the Immigration Center, took the self-guided tour. It wasn’t much. It’s a big room with facsimile’s of the very tight bunks used in the sleeping quarters, several posters, and then views of the poetry carved on the walls. The problem is that the poetry was painted over several times and it’s in Chinese. I don’t read Chinese. They spent 15 million dollars on the most recent rennovation, while it’s nice I’m not sure it showed.

After a few minutes of acting more interested in the poems than I really was (I know that sounds incredibly crass, but I was totally dependent on the translations which the park service provided via laminated placemats), I went to see if there was anything else to see beyond this early version of “blogging”. In the back area, I found a room used for presentations that I initially thought might be hosting my parents. Instead, there were about sixty Hispanic students sitting reasonably attentively to a presentation by female park ranger. She repeatedly tried to impress on them the parallels between Chinese exclusion and current debates about Hispanic immigration legal and illegal. At one point, one of the kids mentioned that the place looked like a park and maybe wasn’t so bad. The ranger parried with, but you can’t go anywhere or see anyone. Eventually, she mentioned that they would someday grow up to vote and they might have to vote on creating some modern equivalent of Angel Island.

The kids nodded. A teacher asked a question about Native Americans being granted citizenship and when that happened. The ranger didn’t know.

Was the ranger being the Sonia Sotomayor of the park service by sliding into political advocacy? The thought crossed my mind, but it also strikes me that certain historical events speak for themselves. I’m not sure what you’re supposed to say about the slave quarters at Mount Vernon, Tule Lake, the site of the Haymarket Massacre, Wounded Knee. Of course, these were horrible things and we have memorials in these places to remind us that the past was not perfect and that we’re supposed to be beyond such moments. What are you supposed to say as a tour guide at say Dachau? Well this was a Jewish perspective, but to be totally fair here’s the Nazi perspective on this place and why they did these things?

I left slightly before the 60 high school students and started to head back to the trail and maybe the ferry. Just before heading down the covered stairway to the Center, I glanced in a room and spotted my stepfather. Naturally, the “cool” tour of Angel Island isn’t the public self-guided version. This one had a room set up that replicated the women’s barracks. On each of the very narrow bunks, they had suitcases set up to show what the detainees might have brought with them. At that point, my mother broke down a little. Her eldest sister came to California alone at age 8 and spent a few weeks stuck on Angel Island. My grandmother had initially brought over my Uncle with her because he was a boy. My aunt had to wait until there was more money, so she had to stay with relatives for several years. My great grandparents died during that time, so she was left to stay with strangers for some of those years. The strangers didn’t treat her well. Eventually, my grandparents sent for her, but she came over alone by boat and for her stay on Angel Island. It ends well, my Aunt made it to San Francisco, eventually married, and they got quite wealthy. She’s still around at age 91.

I think some of my mother’s sadness was also due to the fact that she hasn’t had much contact with her sister in the last 10 years. In any case, the guide brought us into a small room with a genuinely well preserved example of the poetry carved on the walls written in scholarly Chinese. He talked one of the tour group, mostly older Chinese, into reading it in Cantonese.

Afterwards, we went back to the big room where my mother handed me an extra bag lunch and two books she had gotten for me, one about Cantonese Immigrants in Sacramento (had a photo of my Dad’s family) and one about the rise and fall of the Chinese Supermarket Business, by Alfred Yee. Alfred was the guy who helped to organize the excursion for my mother and her group. Once down the stairs, she made sure that I got to meet Alfred, because I’d e-mailed him once with some questions about Locke. We then walked back to the ferry together (maybe a mile and a half) as he filled me in about various myths of Chinese-American history and the history of Locke.

It’s rather amazing what my mother remembers sometimes. Ever since I tried to get in touch with Alfred, she’s made a point of getting me his e-mail, getting me these books, and making certain that I met him. There are days when she can’t remember her own social security number or if she’s asked me in the last half hour about how my daughter, her only grandchild is doing. I think she knows that my writing project is important to me and this is her way of showing that she cares about it. It’s odd sometimes how older parents demonstrate these things.

It’s also odd to think that my mother is 79, was born in San Francisco, and had never been to Angel Island either. My aunt who was there has a daughter who recently moved to Tiburon, the very wealthy town nearest the island. All these distances of time, place, memory got bridged briefly and in some ways I felt it all the more because I missed the ferry that afternoon and happened to glance inside an open door on what I thought was my way out of the immigration center.


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Sunday, July 12, 2009

Jhumpa Lahiri- Unaccostumed Earth (book review)

A few months ago I got into a conversation with a work acquaintance about Jhumpa Lahiri’s Interpreter of Maladies. The friend’s reaction was “I read it and that was me, that was exactly my family.”

It happens that the friend is Bengali, grew up on the East Coast, and is very well educated. Jhumpa Lahiri has been extraordinarily successful critically and commercially. How many other writers get short story collections on the best seller list? With that success has come a certain amount of blowback. The complaint being that Lahiri doesn’t much venture out of her comfort zone. It goes something like this. “She’s really good at writing about upwardly mobile Bengalis in America, but there are Bengalis who don’t go to Yale or Bryn Mawr and shouldn’t a great writer deal with a broader range of experience?

I counter with the fact that I’m Chinese, male, and live on the west coast, but my first reaction to Lahiri was “That’s my story too.”

Lahiri’s Bengalis aren’t exactly universal, but they’re certainly not the only group where one generation has committed to living in exile from its own children. The formula for most Lahiri stories is pretty basic. A Bengali goes to American schools, gets a professional job, then struggles in unexpected ways to reconcile those changes with his/her own sense of cultural tradition. In this sense, the cultural value of “career ambition” becomes a kind of paradox. The good Bengali pleases his/her parents by succeeding in school, but that’s exactly what creates a sometimes unbridgeable gap with the very parents and elders he or she is working so hard to please.

Non-writers often get into this mode of why can’t Lahiri (or name some author) write about revolutions in Africa, gay men in Italy, or mall rats in the San Fernando Valley the way she writes about Bengalis in the northeast? I suspect they don’t understand that most fiction writers draw on a set of core materials or experiences. Most of us need to understand a world at a very deep level to be able to identify the rich way the different currents in those waters affect what the rest of us see on the surface. It’s not so much that a great fiction writer needs to write about multiple and wildly different worlds, it’s really more a matter of showing that you can find the depth and range of human experience within your chosen material/culture.

One of the reactions to Lahiri’s third book and second collection of short stories Unaccustomed Earth is that it’s just more of the same. I disagree. Where, Lahiri often explored the price of “success” for Bengalis living in America, Unaccostumed Earth looks at the “failures” in greater depth. More often than not, it’s the men who have fallen short in some way. In Only Goodness, there’s an alcoholic brother as seen through the eyes of a sister who may have inadvertently started him down that path. In a Choice of Accomadations, it’s a thirtyish prep school graduate who gave up Med School and who should probably have been a journalist. In the title story, a female attorney stays home to be a mother while she wrestles with her decision to ask her recently widowered father to move in with them. In the meantime, her father encourages her to stay in the loop with her career. The collection ends with a trilogy of stories devoted to Kaushik, a man who never emotionally turns the corner after the death of his mother.

In reality, Lahiri is extending her territory to another generation and set of problems. In many cases, the children from Unaccostumed Earth essentially grow up, marry out (virtually all of the characters wind up with white mates), and face problems of their own. Rather than attempting to cling to traditions, they’ve frequently turned their back on the protections of Bengali customs and find themselves unable to navigate. The sister with the alcoholic brother is uncertain how to cope with the resulting “hole” in the family. A young woman (Nobody's Business) who eschews both graduate school at Harvard and various offers of arranged marriage finds herself adrift in a relationship with a philandering Egyptian scholar and confused about the ambiguity of her friendship with a male housemate. Kaushik gives up the interconnectedness of Bengali life and finds himself grasping for Hema, the one person he knew before his life changed. Inevitably, the stories in this collection are bittersweet or deeply sad and lonely.

In the Namesake, after all of his emotional wanderings Gogol comes home to the realization that his father’s values were less Indian than he imagined. In Unaccostumed Earth, characters of the same generation frequently lack that comfort and become more fully-exiled from their ancestral culture. They occupy an emotionally more dangerous world than say the young academic in Interpreter of Maladies who takes a room in the home of a hundred year old woman or the Bengali family that befriends a Bangladeshi man just before war breaks out over independence. While there are divorces and various breakdowns in Lahiri’s earlier collection, the characters stay connected to their identity as Bengalis. This greater sense of emotional risk in Unaccostumed Earth also seems to result in a pulling in of plot and the situations themselves. In Interpreter, at least two of the stories are set in India, with one not being about the diaspora at all. In one story, the theme isn’t Indian at all except for the fact that the wife and husband begin cooking dinner together during a regular power outage. In Unaccostumed Earth, the settings and family situations are arguably more familiar and more self-consciously Bengali to heighten the sense of loss and inevitability.

The writing remains beautiful. Lahiri has a remarkably sharp eye for household objects, clothing, and food. Two weeks after reading the book, I found myself jumping up one day and proclaiming to my wife that I wanted to make Bengali fried eggplant (I very rarely cook). I realized later it was just the way Lahiri’s descriptions often linger. You don’t just smell and taste the food, she describes so lovingly. You have to taste it for real. While there are some differences between the Cantonese diaspora and the Indian, both cultures have had their greatest success in maintaining a sense of identity through the persistence of food. You live apart from your extended family, you marry people outside your ethnicity, you stop going back to the native country (or never do), but you still define yourself through food.

More significant, Lahiri’s characters maintain their own way of speaking and establish distinct identities quickly. Still, I’m not sure that Unaccostumed is quite as successful artistically as Interpreter, though I think both work better than the Namesake (the movie was actually better than the book in some ways). For one, the trilogy of stories at the end felt vaguely unsatisfying at least partly because Hema never became a full partner in the unfolding of the story and thus lacked the subtle and beautiful plotting of the best of Interpreter of Maladies. In the brother/sister story, I found myself wondering if she’d chosen the less interesting point of view of the two and the references, as beautifully done as they are, to a Van Eyck painting felt forced. My take though may be affected by two things. First, my favorite story was Unaccostumed Earth itself, about the globetrotting father and the homebound daughter, which builds beautifully around the symbol of a misplaced postcard. In any case, as fine as the stories that followed were, I felt inevitably let down. Second, Lahiri this time wasn’t new to me. It’s hard to match the joy of “discovering” a writer about whom you can say “that’s me” “that’s my life”.

But none of that has anything do to do with Lahiri failing to venture outwards. In fact, I see this as a very gentle spreading of the wings of her fictional world. She remains very much a writer I love and one whose next flight I’ll track closely.


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Tuesday, July 07, 2009

He's Just Not That Into You (2009) movie review

He’s Just Not That Into You (2009) is one of those movies that you watch and tell yourself “This should have been a lot better.” On the other hand, what should you expect from a romantic comedy based on a self-help book of the same name (Greg Behrendt, Liz Tuccillo). Even less promising, the authors of the eponymous book got the title from a line from Sex in the City. It’s not like I didn’t know better. I just happen to like romantic comedies, partly because my wife will pretty dependably watch them with me (the fact that she didn't because she'd seen this one in the theater with our older daughter probably should have been my clue). To be honest, I also wasn’t going to pass up a movie that included both Jennifer Connelly and Scarlett Johansson.

The formula for romantic comedies is actually pretty simple. The audience has to fall in love with and root for at least one of the stars. If you manage that, the movie-going public will forgive a wide range of shortcomings in the script. It’s one of the reasons that once you score in one of these things, they’ll never stop casting you in them. Meg Ryan, Julia Roberts, Sandra Bullock, and Drew Barrymore (the creative force behind He’s Just Not That Into You) have built careers on exactly this. On the guy side, Hugh Grant and Tom Hanks have done the same, though Hanks actually makes serious movies too. Drew Barrymore got together a monster cast for He’s Just Not That Into You. In addition to Connelly and Johansson, you get Drew Barrymore herself, Jennifer Anniston, and Ben Affleck. The only problem is that none of these stars do the heavy lifting in the movie. The bulk of the screen time actually goes to Jinnifer Goodwin, Justin Long (Dodge Ball, the Hangover), Bradley Cooper (Wedding Crashers), and Kevin Connolly (The Notebook). Unfortunately, you just don’t wind up all that charmed by any of the characters, established or not.

Let’s do the math. Jinnifer Goodwin plays a ditz. Justin Long is a jaded bartender. Bradley Cooper is a cheating husband. Kevin Connolly fakes being gay to sell real estate. Scarlett Johansson seduces a married man. Jennifer Anniston spends most of her onscreen time being annoyed because her longtime boyfriend (Affleck) won’t marry her. Jennifer Connelly is a cigarette nazi. Now, there’s a group that I’m really going to sympathize with. And which one of them do you want to make the emotional heart of your movie? Actually, the bigger question is where was the heart in any form?

To me, it looks like they tried to use Crash (best picture 2006) with its interlinked plots tied together by either a single setting or oblique connections to a single event as the blueprint for a romantic comedy. This, of course, has been the vogue, and it’s done quite effectively in movies like 21 Grams, Babel, and The Air I Breathe where the jigsaw puzzle ultimately serves to underscore the mystical connection of all things in a world spinning into incoherence and alienation. Unfortunately, this one didn’t just copy Crash, it crashed. It’s worth mentioning that the mosaic plot was done well long before Crash. It goes back at least as far as Grand Hotel (1932) and was used very effectively in a romantic comedy in Richard Curtis’s Love Actually (2003). The difference being that I still remember how charming Colin Firth was as an awkward writer who falls for his Portugese housekeeper or how poignant Emma Thompson was when she realizes that her husband bought diamonds for his mistress and a Joni Mitchell album for her for Christmas. And no, it didn't help He's Just Not that In to sprinkle in some of those man on the street interview across the movie a la Reds, Harry Met Sally. Does anyone in Hollywood get that a movie is not made to feel original by copying original touches from other peoples' movies?

Sadly, He’s Just Not, simply lacks those kinds of moments. This was Scarlett Johansson’s 47th turn as a sexually-overripe but essentially lonely woman, but I honestly can’t say she’s as good here as she was either in Match Point or Vicki, Cristina, Barcelona. Whatever happened to the little girl from the Horse Whisperer or the confused but chaste young adult in Lost in Tokyo anyway? She’s plenty sexy, but I’m pretty sure she can play other roles. Drew Barrymore gets about three minutes of screen time as the only straight employee of the Baltimore Blade. Half of Anniston’s scenes look like outtakes from when they cut out the serious parts of Wedding Crashers. I think Jennifer Connelly’s a terrific actress, but it strains credibility that she’d be married to a guy who’d want to cheat on her.

What are we left with? There’s a bit about a pen between Goodwin and Justin Long. Minor mechanical note. Connolly and Long’s characters supposedly know one another from childhood, but somehow they never get a scene together. Instead, the various links between the characters are bookmarked then forgotten. All the women work together, Bradley Cooper and Ben Affleck are pals, but nothing really comes of it. Instead, we just get this message “Hey everyone, these miniatures we stuck together, they’re connected somehow!” The one really romantic scene in the movie with Affleck ultimately fails for the simple reason that we just haven’t seen enough of him in the script to care much.

It may come down to this. While the self-help publishing industry may have only recently caught up with the notion of learning to read the signals of mismatched desire, it’s actually been a romantic comedy theme since pre-Jolson. It’s just that no one ever told the producers of this movie that. At one point, they homage John Hughes ( not my favorite director), but it’s like they had no clue how a John Hughes movie or any good romance actually works.


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Wednesday, July 01, 2009

Water Ghosts- Shawna Yang Ryan (review)

If you’ve ever been to Locke, California (sometimes known as the last self-contained Chinatown in America), it’s an easy place to miss from the roadside partly because the town’s buildings are so unremarkable. More than anything, you remember the combined sensation of heat, fog, and the persistent presence of mildew from being so close to the Sacramento River. One result is that the place has an ethereal quality that photographers and painters often pick up. Thousands of Chinese passed through this refuge, yet they remain just a bit out of our reach. Locke is more felt than seen.

First and foremost Shawna Yang Ryan’s novel Water Ghosts (formerly Locke 1928) gets this right. Her vision of Locke stands outside of time. She describes buildings, plants, a church service, a celebration in a gambling hall, but they feel less than permanent. Ryan achieves this by focusing her energies on literally writing from inside her characters’ skins. She describes in great detail what they hear, see, how they bleed, cough to the point where the novel frequently feels claustrophobic. You don’t just see and hear what they hear, you are seeing and feeling what they see and hear intensely. It wasn’t until the middle of the novel that I noticed how little conventional narration there is to provide “perspective” about time, place, or events within the town in the broader sense. Not many writers can manage this and even fewer can sustain the “unsettled” mood that soaks the pages of Water Ghosts.

The second interesting choice Ryan made was to take the fact that Locke the town was a place where men generally outnumbered women 20 to 1 and to look at it though the lens of the 1. Richard Fong, the manager of the Lucky Fortune, one of the town’s gambling halls, who either escaped to California or stays to support his Chinese family, serves as the nominal “hub” of the plot. Despite that, Ryan’s real focus is on the various women who see Richard (Fong Man Gum) as Locke’s alpha male. These include - Chloe, a white prostitute who is a favorite of Richard’s and whose family is just a few miles away in Sacramento - Poppy, the Chinese madame of the local brothel who worked for her position after being the victim of a disastrous arranged marriage– the minister’s wife and daughter – and Ming Wai, Richard’s Chinese wife who suddenly appears in Locke on a raft with two other mysterious women. Ryan explores the capacity of these women to endure and survive in a town where few intact families existed, but birth and death go on.

Water Ghosts is beautifully and hauntingly written. At the same time, it’s not a breezy read nor was it meant to be one. It seems intent on getting the feel of Locke right. Ryan stayed there for some thirty days to absorb the place. I suspect it was time well spent and was critical to her ability to catch Locke. It never was a simple place. Instead Locke was the sort of American town where dreams, ghosts, and forgotten promises coexisted on equal footing with what most of us think of as day to day life. Water Ghosts makes certain that we get the town’s essence.

I look forward to Ryan’s next book which I understand focuses on Taiwan in 1927.

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