Title/Author: Thank you, Mr. Nixon by Gish Jen
Publisher: Knopf Publishing
In a nutshell (Publisher): The acclaimed, award-winning author of The Resisters takes measure of the fifty years since the opening of China and its unexpected effects on the lives of ordinary people. It is a unique book that only Jen could write—a story collection accruing the power of a novel as it proceeds—a work that Cynthia Ozick has called “an art beyond art. It is life itself.”
Beginning with a cheery letter penned by a Chinese girl in heaven to “poor Mr. Nixon” in hell, Gish Jen embarks on a fictional journey through U.S.-China relations, capturing the excitement of a world on the brink of tectonic change.
Opal Chen reunites with her Chinese sisters after forty years; newly cosmopolitan Lulu Koo wonders why Americans “like to walk around in the woods with the mosquitoes”; Hong Kong parents go to extreme lengths to reestablish contact with their “number-one daughter” in New York; and Betty Koo, brought up on “no politics, just make money,” finds she must reassess her mother’s philosophy.
With their profound compassion and equally profound humor, these eleven linked stories trace the intimate ways in which humans make and are made by history, capturing an extraordinary era in an extraordinary way. Delightful, provocative, and powerful, Thank You, Mr. Nixon furnishes yet more proof of Gish Jen’s eminent place among American storytellers.
Candid yet intelligent, this collection of short stories should be read in succession and shouldn’t be left lying around for a long time before you pick it up again, like I did, for wanting to savor it. Definitely wrong move on my side, simply because these 11 stories are interlinked and involved quite a number of characters. I had trouble recalling the characters and their connection to one another, hence lessening my enjoyment of the collection. Thus, I re-read some of the stories, and sure glad I did!
So, the stories revolved mainly around 3 families. First – The Chens that consisted of Opal, Grace (Opal’s daughter), who was married to Gideon. Second – The Hsus – Marge and Ed whose sons, Duncan (who recognized himself as the failure of his family) who married Lingli had children Tara and Andy, and Arnie (Duncan’s more successful brother) whose relation with his girlfriend Lulu didn’t last long. The last family, the affluent Koos – Johnson, Tina, and their 3 daughters, Bobby, Betty and Lulu.
These stories swept across five decades, from Nixon’s 1972 visit to China, to the 2003 SARS epidemic, to present day, a lot touched on the relationship between US and China. The title story, which was one of my favorites, appeared first in the book, written as a letter from a young girl named Tricia, who was in heaven, to Nixon who was in hell. She was all praises of Nixon and told him the China he saw on that historical day, “was a tailor-made China” – from the streets that had been cleaned up, the two girls who ran into the park in beautiful orange-pink color coats, to the “background students in the park”, were specifically picked for this event. They were all told what to and not to understand when interviewed by American journalists, “even if the translator spoke perfect Mandarin.”
It is just so depressing to know that even as China started to open itself to the rest of world, that the people are still being watched and listened, and told how they should act (“neither humble nor arrogant, neither cold nor hot”) and that they should know what they could or couldn’t say like the mention of Red Guards destroying their homes, beating them to death, and young people being sent to the countryside to be reeducated.
Tricia also expressed how much she loved his wife’s red coat, which later inspired the design of the coats she designed when her mother started a small coat business. The business was successful. But when foreigners brought their coats back to their countries to sell, it didn’t do well because “it turned out people in America did not like coats that said “Made in China”, according to one of their customers.
Another story that stood out to me was ‘It’s The Great Wall!’. Husband and wife, Gideon and Grace, were about to take a trip to China, which “had been a no-go for so long that it was difficult not to think of it as a movie backdrop for tragedy and perfidy but as a place about which enticing travel books were written.” Gideon said, “It’s like going to Narnia. Oz. The Shire. The moon.” Along with them on their trip was Grace’s mother, Opal, who had not been back for almost forty years and would be meeting her sisters. Gideon thought they should take “a tour tour” i.e the American tour, and not a “bargain tour” (Overseas Chinese tour), because “everything will be better”, “the rooms, the food, everything.” Moreover, Grace was American and not Overseas Chinese, and that he thought Grace’s mother shouldn’t be treated like a second-class citizen.
During the tour, the family and tourists experienced the brunt of racism. The tourists were yelled, pointed and stared at, “some looked as though they might well be spewing something like foreign ghosts or capitalist running dogs.” At one point, the locals got so loud that one of the tourists exclaimed, “Am I the only one who always thought the Chinese were quiet?”
This wasn’t the first time that topic of Chinese being quiet was brought up in this book. Another in ‘Mr. Crime and Punishment’, where Arabella Li, a lawyer student, was “being judged “too quiet” and was potentially disasterous”, to which her friend thought, was an unfair judgement.
It really isn’t surprising that many think of Chinese as being quiet and acquiescent, especially those born during the Mao era, who had been taught to keep their thoughts to themselves. “Mind your own business” is what many of us have been taught since young. As what Tina said in ‘Detective Dog’, the last story in the collection, when it came to China: “See nothing, hear nothing, say nothing.” Her motto? “No politics, just make money.”
But social media and technology are changing that. As it did with Theo, Tina’s grandson, also Betty’s 16-year-old son, who played Liberate Hong Kong on his computer during his Zoom classes, he accused his parents of not speaking up, of looking the other way no matter what was going on, making them complicits, even saying, “I bet you don’t care about the Uighurs either.”
He wasn’t that different from his parents either according to Robert, his 9-year-old brother, who accused him of being an armchair supporter of the umbrella protest in Hong Kong, and that he was “The kind who shouts ga yau from the couch,” which of course Theo disagreed vehemently. The ending of this final story was shocking and heartbreaking at the same time.
Besides racism, there were also themes of home and nationality in the book, as shown in the stories of the Chens and Hsus. In America, they felt as foreign as they were back in China. In the case of Amaryllis in ‘Amaryllis’, who despite living a modern American life, still yearned for a sort of connection to her roots, and was in a way, grateful to have found Tara, her only friend whose family had come from outside Shanghai. ‘No More Maybe’ was painful to read. It showed what racism can do to us and how it can destroy what could be potentially turn into a friendship.
Overall, I thought this was a very powerful collection of interlinked short stories, touching on themes of family, home, racism, identity, wealth, class and nationality. It was written with so much wit and candor, and yet it was also provocative and reflective, and relevant to our times.
This book is going to be one of my most treasured short stories collections.
Thank you Knopf Publishing for a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. All opinions are mine.
Have you read this book? If you have, what did you think? If you haven’t, do you intend to? Please share with me your thoughts!