When I was fifteen, I had several pen pals. Claire from Australia, Veronica from Russia, and Giselle from the Philippines. “My family’s from China,” she wrote me. “They had left when the communists took over.” Her letters were vibrant, expressively contrasting her family’s culture to that of the one which surrounded her. She described herself as “non-Chinese speaking,” mentioned the absence of exact birthdays, and discussed the stringency of familial expectations when it came to dating. Interpersonal regulations were written along guidelines of ethnic purity, features that made one beautiful, and a mission to maintain original customs while assimilating with traditions not typically Chinese. I sensed confusion in Giselle’s many narratives.
Xin-Mei’s Afraid to be Chinese touches on similar points of ambivalence. This modest, though eloquent collection of short stories not only reminded me of letter-writing nine years prior, but also left me increasingly attentive to the dissimilarities in cultures that seem so close, if one looks to geography as a sufficient attribute. Xin-Mei’s fictionalized accounts are among few that I’ve encountered concerning transplantation within the same continent, as I’ve only previously read several short story collections of Asians immigrating to North America.
The writing reads like a soft murmur. Familiar, concise, though vivid. Especially memorable are the scenes of relatives cooking, family chatter over an ever-spinning lazy Susan, the wisdom and toil appreciated in spotted hands and young lamentation over veiny ones as wedding days draw near. Readers may smile at recollections of childhood crushes and the concealing of an admirer’s flowers, while sighing at conversations regarding epicanthal fold correction decades before plastic surgery became so commonplace.
The stories are rich and relatable, each chapter readable during a standard coffee break. One may finish the book in a little more than two hours, possibly wishing the author could have elaborated on the more double-edged aspects of Tsinay life in the Philippines. A daughter strives to comply with commandments and morality learned through the Catholicism of her private education while respecting the wishes of her parents so guided by gods at the temple. We see her consulting with a Catholic priest, who shares his presence with those deferring to Buddhist traditions and superstitions concerning the afterlife. Embalmment, burial, and cremation are practices worrisomely debated, and duties to please the in-laws aren’t so readily received. While the accounts I allude to are lush in emotional involvement, I felt more was needed to supplement the author’s illustration of an ambiguous culture. Particularly, Chinese notions of marital incompatibility sparked my interest, in addition to the actualization of nightmares I was too well acquainted with, growing up half Filipina.
Afraid to be Chinese, while minute in length, provides a winsome, musical, and sometimes mournful perspective on cultural confrontation, compromise, and preservation of identity. Through artful weaving of dialogue and eye-popping descriptives, Xin-Mei effectively seals gaps in my pen pal’s stories that so left me confused and curious. The collection may be light, though kaleidoscopic conflict intrigues, perhaps prodding us to explore divergences, nonconformities, and preservations within our personal histories.