The stories in this collection are about Chinese people who immigrated to
America, mostly to the West Coast. A few are poignantly humorous, more are bittersweet, and even more are just plain bitter, tragic,
and even pathetic, at least as we of the Western world would perceive it.
Sui Sin Far was the pen name of Edith Maude Eaton, the daughter of an English shipping merchant and his Chinese wife. She grew up in Canada, then settled in the U.S.. She lived from 1865 to 1914.
These tales are not about racial tensions between Americans and the Chinese, but are about tensions within the Chinese families and communities themselves—the struggle between those who wished to let go of the old customs and fully integrate into American life, and those who wanted to live here, but still retain their full identity as Chinese. Sadly, a number of the stories were conflicts between husband and wife—the husband a business man who spoke English, dressed in a Western style, and behaved with the social freedoms as an American. But the wife, who often came over after the husband was financially established, was shocked at the behaviors of Western people and their customs. Marriages in China, at least then, were arranged by the parents, so in many cases, there wasn't necessarily a foundation for a relationship that allowed sympathy toward each other's views.
In all honesty, these are very good stories, but difficult to process at the emotional level. We here in the States have nothing to compare to the customs of the Chinese—even back then, the differences must have been stark. Now, of course, all semblance of traditional family life and heritage, and the keeping of customs in everything but the trivial, is rather annihilated in America. I wonder if the Chinese people still adhere to this strict lifestyle in the age of global communications. In the little research I've done, it seems they have Westernized quite a bit, but there are still great differences, especially for those still in China. As far as Chinese immigrants in my area (and people from other Eastern lands), it seems that integrating into Western ways is nowhere near as difficult, and I have had lots of Asian friends over the years.
In all, there are seventeen short stories in this very short book, so I didn't mention them all, but chose those with contrasting messages. The first two star Mrs. Spring Fragrance, and her husband Mr. Spring Fragrance, who have fully integrated into American life. They are the lightest, emotionally, with a playful humor and happy endings. Mrs. Spring Fragrance, in both of the stories, Mrs. Spring Fragrance, and The Inferior Woman, acts as a match-maker, when she knows two people are in love, but cannot marry because the parents are following old customs of choosing their children's mates. It is Mrs. Spring Fragrance who gently helps the parents view marriage in a different light. The Spring Fragrances, by the way, as you may have guessed by their name, are happily married and very much in love.
The Wisdom of the New and The Americanizing of Pau Tsu are both about Chinese men who immigrate to America and become Westernized, but when their wives join them, the culture shock is too great. Both of the wives have been chosen by the parents. In the first story, Wou Sankwei decides to leave China for a better life in America. His mother finds him a wife, and they are married right before he leaves. When he finally sends for her and the son she bore in China, there is little affection between them. And even worse, she cannot understand that in America, it is okay for men to have female friends. She knows her husband does not love her, and becomes very jealous, then commits a terrible tragedy. In the second story, Wan Lin Fo also sends for the woman to whom he is betrothed, but they love each other very much. However, he pushes her to Americanize before she is ready, unable to grasp how difficult everything is for her. This one, at least has a happier ending.
The Gift of Little Me is a poignant story of the little Chinese children of Miss McLeod's class. It is the day before Chinese New Year, and all have brought gifts to the teacher they love. Some are dressed in traditional clothes, while others wear the latest fashions. Some give great gifts, but the poor give gifts of love: pebbles, wild flowers and pretty insects. Miss McLeod loves all her gifts. But Little Me has not brought an offering to the shrine of the teacher, and the other children are mad at him. He is very poor, but won't give a simple gift from his heart because he cannot give an expensive gift, and Miss McLeod understands. So she tells the children how all their gifts are valuable to her, then reminds them of the baby who was given to the people at Christmas, who was worth more than any amount of money. So when Little Me's baby brother disappears, we kinda know where he is and who took him.
In In the Land of the Free, Lae Choo had returned to China to have her son, but ended up staying there longer than expected to nurse her husband's dying parents. But now they are arriving back in San Francisco. Hom Hing is thrilled to see his wife and new little boy, but the customs officer will not allow the baby to pass, because he has no papers. When the papers were made out, the baby didn't exist. So they take the boy away from his parents. This one is a horrible story, caused by the stupidity and incompetence of the American Government.
The Three Souls of Ah So Nan is gently humorous. Here, Fou Wang's mother has just died, and his obsessed duty to her does not allow him the joy of marriage until his three years of grief have passed. Meanwhile, the father of his betrothed, O'Yam, has another man ready for her to marry. And added to that, Fou Wang will not give consent to his sister, Fin Fan, to marry her betrothed, Hom Hing, who is returning to China. She is resolved to go with him, no matter what. But a few female friends get together and decide on a plan. That evening, when Fou Wang goes to his mother's grave to minister to her three souls, the "souls" emerge from behind the trees, dressed in Ah So Nan's clothes, urging Fou Wang to stop grieving and get on with his life. He gets the message and hastens to O'Yam's house.
These stories are well worth reading, although I found that they haunted me for days. They are well-written and an easy read.
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