Time: Migratory Patterns (April 17)

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Thursday, Apr. 17, 2008
Migratory Patterns
By Neel Chowdhury

The stories of Asian immigration to America have formed a genre of their own. In the novels of Bharati Mukherjee or Amy Tan (to take two of its superstar practitioners), or in the works of lesser writers, the narrative often goes something like this: an immigrant family lands in America, pursuing economic or political freedom. Its members are dogged by battles to secure permanent residency and jobs commensurate with their sense of self-worth. As these take place, nostalgia builds for Asian traditions, from which the family's younger generations have begun to drift. Cross-cultural and cross-generational misunderstandings multiply, but at the novel's denouement the family learns to ambivalently accept their new country.

It's neither an unsatisfying nor inaccurate story, but these days it sounds old-fashioned because globalization is rewriting the tale. Asians are still emigrating to America, but many are returning to Asia, pursuing the same wealth and advancement that America once exclusively offered. In fact, it's increasingly difficult to tell Old and New Worlds apart. With their coffee chains and street-fashion boutiques, malls in Mumbai and Beijing are polished facsimiles of those in the U.S., and when half the world is tuned into reruns of Friends, or The Simpsons, who actually suffers from culture shock anymore?

Singapore-born and San Francisco-based writer Wena Poon is nevertheless banking on the continuing appeal of émigré literature with a debut collection of short stories that takes as its theme the Singaporean diaspora. Given that the latter has been so infrequently explored, Lions in Winter has a greater chance of being fresh than a comparable Chinese or Indian work — but instead, it lapses, at least in part, into the clichés that bedevil stories of Asian deracination.

Consider the story "Addiction," about a gay Singaporean student in London named Alistair. Parts of it are smartly observed, but structurally Poon draws too crude a contrast between London and Singapore to power her plot of a young man's journey of self-discovery. Alistair's parents are caricatured embodiments of lowbrow, materialist Asia. Because she uses the abbreviation k to denote a thousand, we are asked to believe that Alistair's mother has "a barbaric attitude towards money — reducing something vast to a small, inconsequential syllable." His father makes bawdy comments about the breasts of "these Western women" while Alistair, rather prissily, feels his ears burn. London, on the other hand, is portrayed as a liberal haven, where artists are allowed to pursue their dreams with few worries of generating an income or conforming to social norms. If only that were the case.

Then there's Canada. Sylvie, the Singaporean daughter of an immigrant family, adores her new Canadian school uniform because it is "of higher quality ... nothing like the scratchy, polyester-mix affairs" of Singapore, which "dumb you down." Meanwhile her grandfather, a literary man, apparently thinks of Sylvie's Caucasian classmates as "big, strong, beefy ... like female Goliaths." In a crowd of them, we are told, an Asian student stands out like a "gazelle among elephants." But do Asian intellectuals really see Caucasian children this way? Such stereotyping may have occurred decades ago (although there is plenty of evidence to show that Western children were thought of as pretty), but these days, pretending that white schoolgirls are "female Goliaths" in the eyes of educated Asians is like claiming that well-read white people think of Asian schoolgirls as dainty-footed China dolls — a naive and anachronistic image.

Instead, Poon's stories succeed when she examines Singapore on its own terms. Take the love with which she describes a Singaporean-Chinese cook in Queens: "In Singapore, there were men like him who sat around hawker centers at night over a Guinness Stout and a cigarette — men who wore open-necked shirts and small gold chains around their neck. They would sit for hours at a time, then grunt an observation, tap the cigarette on the ashtray and then shake their heads." Images like this make the reader want to read Poon on Singapore, not London, Toronto or New York City.

In fact, by far the best story in the collection is about the very Singaporean dilemma of national service. So that their male scions may escape this obligation, some Singaporean families flee the country — like the family of Eddie in "Those Who Serve, Those Who Do Not." In this story, as in life, an absconder like Eddie can't return to Singapore without facing prosecution. But his sister Joanne returns from her comfortable, pseudo exile in Sydney to visit Uncle Sam and cousin Peter. They did not have the means of escape and instead relied on a powerfully Singaporean stoicism to get them through military duty, embodying qualities Joanne's family too blithely left behind. "She looked at the thousands of HDB [Housing & Development Board] homes that fanned out from either side of Sam's tiny flat," Poon writes. "She suddenly felt her heart open. These were the people who will protect the country, she thought ... Against such a solid breakwater the waves of cynicism would crash, but would fail." Here the exile returns to illuminate an intimate part of Singapore, and does so quite beautifully. One only hopes that Poon herself will make the return journey some day.