[Review] “A Cool Fish: Xu Xi’s This Fish is Fowl: Essays of Being” by Kate Rogers

{Written by Kate Rogers, this review is part of Issue 45 (September/October 2019) of Cha.} {Return to Cha Review of Books and Films.}

Xu Xi, This Fish is Fowl: Essays of Being, University of Nebraska Press, 2019. 320 pgs.

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In her new essay collection, This Fish is Fowl: Essays of Being, transnational Hong Kong/American writer Xu Xi struggles with identity as well as her emotional commitment to Hong Kong, where she grew up. She has left Hong Kong for good and is now completely established in New York State with long-time love “Bill,” whom she has finally married. She is teaching at Vermont College of Fine Arts, where she has worked part-time for decades. It seems like a good landing; nevertheless, quite understandably, Xu Xi needs to de-brief her departure from Hong Kong. She spends most of This Fish is Fowl processing her personal and family history, her relationship with her mother and her feelings about Hong Kong. At times, she appears to grieve for the city, as well as mourn her mother, whom she helped to care for during her final years. However, too often for my liking, the fish in This Fish is Fowl can be a cool one. I experienced Xu Xi’s use of the second person to describe her various selves as quite distancing (one fifth of the thirty essays uses the second person). It seems at times almost as if she is circling the deeper feelings she has about her past life. Fiction might be an easier genre for Xu Xi in which to be vulnerable.

In many of the essays, she isn’t sure that her hometown of Hong Kong deserves to be called home. Now in her 60s, she says she is happy to have finally settled down after decades living the transient life of a marketing executive in Asia and the US (where she went to university and worked on and off). In “The Crying City,” she says she isn’t fleeing an oppressive regime to live in the US (although she does express concern for Hong Kong’s protesting youth and their ongoing struggle for democracy). And she also relates the difficult demise of the successful Master of Fine Arts Program she created at the City University of Hong Kong. Yet throughout much of the rest of the collection, Xu Xi downplays the personal loss she experienced when the MFA folded after losing the university’s financial support. The students flourished: they produced more than 100 individual publications in literary magazines and won awards and published books quite quickly. Many protested the closure of the MFA program, but the university would not be moved. In her recent memoir, Dear Hong Kong, Xu Xi is more forthright about the impact the MFA closure had on her. And she does suggest that in leaving Hong Kong, she has fled a kind of silencing—especially by City University.

I would expect an essay collection like This Fish is Fowl to be nostalgic and for the author to struggle with ambivalence about leaving Hong Kong—as well as her identity—because Xu Xi has led a transnational life. However, this is often not the case. Take, for example, the essays that focus on her parents, particularly her mother. Her parents were migrants to Hong Kong and had their own struggles with identity. In the essay “My Mother’s Story: The Fiction and Fact,” she narrates the story of her mother’s childhood and flight from Indonesia only to arrive to study in Japanese-occupied Hong Kong during World War II. (Xu Xi’s father arrived in Hong Kong after fleeing the Communists in Shanghai in 1949.) Here we learn that her mother rejected certain aspects of her heritage, “Don’t get so dark—she yelled at me and my second sister,” Xu Xi relates.

We see a similarly tricky relationship with her mother in “Mum and Me,” where she describes herself as “the difficult one, the dark-skinned one.” Xu Xi recounts how her mother never acknowledged compliments from friends, who said her daughter looked “pretty” in the photo in the newspaper which accompanied one of Xu Xi’s prize-winning stories.

Xu Xi has her own questions about her identity as a jan nei, or Indonesian Chinese, but for different reasons. In her essay, “Citizenship,” she explores the roots of her quest for identity. She wasn’t registered with a Chinese name in Hong Kong as a child, so the Hong Kong government wouldn’t call her Chinese. As a result, she got an Indonesian passport at age sixteen in order to travel. However, the Chinese also didn’t see her as British, although she lived in a British colony. She was given a stamp in her Indonesian passport stating she had unlimited right of abode in Hong Kong, but when she travelled for work, on return, Hong Kong immigration could never locate the stamp in her passport—which had been expanded with extra pages due to all the work travel she did in marketing for an airline. When she became a US citizen in 1987, she writes it was “easier to be an American than an Indonesian.”

As part of her own process of enculturation as a new American, Xu Xi learnt many American idioms. She uses them often in the essays in this collection and makes frequent American popular cultural references. Perhaps she felt she had to try extra hard to become an American and that is why her use of American slang and cultural references is so frequent.

She also describes the influence of music on her Americanisation. Piano music, which she learnt to play herself as a girl, was very important to her enculturation and was the musical backdrop of her marriage to a jazz musician—until it went “silent.” Tunes like “Stardust” and “Lazy River” were the soundtrack of her youth as well. She asks herself, “Was Hoagy Carmichael your America? By now you can’t be sure because by now his music is mashed up with the soundtracks of memory. Didn’t you always know ‘Stardust’ or ‘Lazy River’ or ‘Two Sleepy People’, or yes! ‘Heart and Soul’ which every ivory tickler knows from her tiny person time?”

When Xu Xi first lived in the US in the 70s, she studied at the University of Minnesota. Not long after, she found work at an airline, where she created one of the first Asian frequent flier programs. During the “dog days of summer”—a cliché recycled from her creative non-fiction essay, “Et Tu Mon Pere”—she did research on ethnic groupings for a diversity consultant, discovering that Asians were only 1.97 percent of population in the US during the 70s. This discovery greatly impacted her sense of identity.

Xu Xi’s essay, “Why I Stopped Being Chinese,” describes China as a repressive nation and asserts her need for freedom of expression. She declares herself a hybrid who has never quite fit in anywhere. She learnt English and French first as a child, and her parents didn’t speak Chinese until adulthood. Xu Xi says she prefers her freedoms and not to be burdened by some Chinese cultural traditions, stating that “it’s too complicated”—tuk jaahp in Cantonese; fu za in Mandarin—to be Chinese.

I chose to read (and review) this essay collection because I already knew Xu Xi’s work and wanted to learn more about her. I have consistently enjoyed her writing over the years. As a college lecturer at the Community College of City University (in a bridging program at the same school where Xu Xi ran the Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing), I used her essays and short fiction with my literature students. They responded well to her writing—particularly the creative non-fiction piece, “Et Tu Mon Pere” about Xu Xi being pushed into science over her beloved arts by her ambitious mother. My students also responded to the introduction to her creative non-fiction collection, Evanescent Isles (the source of “Et Tu Mon Pere”). They also loved her story “To Body to Chicken”[i] about a Hong Kong massage girl and “All About Skin“—speculative fiction which cleverly uses “skin upgrades” to talk about the racism and self-loathing implicit in the cosmetic surgery so popular in Asia. I have read and enjoyed Xu Xi’s novels That Man in Our Lives, Habit of a Foreign Sky and History’s Fiction.

However, in addition to the frequent use of distancing second person, I found the amount of unnecessary repetition off-putting (she needed a good editor). In many of the just over 300 pages of the collection, details of Xu Xi’s life such as the name of her long-time love Bill, are repeated unnecessarily. Place names and names of major people in her life are also repeated often, especially in the essays devoted to her mother and to travel. I think this collection would have flowed better as a single narrative because its structure and titles suggest chapters rather than independent essays.

The essays which work best are those about her mother, and the impact of Alzheimer’s on their relationship (although these essays are at time repetitive). It is perhaps because in these pieces Xu Xi dares to use first person, some of the time at least, and invites us into her personal pain.

In the group of essays about her mother entitled, “Mum and Me,” Xu Xi says her mother’s Alzheimer’s hit her as hard as any typhoon. Her mom’s first reaction to Alzheimer’s was rage, and it took Xu Xi and her siblings a while to realise their mom was trying to get control and was afraid underneath her anger. Xu Xi was very conflicted about moving back to Hong Kong to help with her mother’s care, as she had finally been able to stop working in marketing to write full-time and planned to settle permanently in the US with Bill when her mother got sick. She was also ambivalent about the move because she had rarely got along with her mom in the past. In the essay, “Maternity Leave,” Xu Xi goes on to explain that being the eldest child meant there were lots of pressure and expectations.

Even after moving back to Hong Kong, Xu Xi was in denial about the seriousness of her mother’s illness until her mother began getting lost in their old neighbourhood. Her mom kept climbing the spiral staircase to the guest room where Xu Xi stayed searching for people. (She even took Xu Xi’s jewellery when she was staying up there and hid it.) Xu Xi writes that she had to play “bad cop,” as she had during corporate days, but also had to assist her helper, Maryam, with coping with her mother’s erratic behaviour.

In the most moving part of “Mum and Me,” Xu Xi acknowledges that she found herself being, for first time in her life, a mother—to her own mom—and she was shocked and frightened by the degree of responsibility. She says that Alzheimer’s is deceptive. It seemed like her mom was strong, yet she was losing her physical and mental balance, and Xu Xi struggled with her mother to try to prevent her from climbing the dangerous spiral stairs because she knew that once an elderly person falls and loses independence then there is no going back and often death comes quickly. She was finally forced to have a metal cage installed around the stairs and have it locked.

I could relate to many of Xu Xi’s struggles with her mother and within herself, having an elderly mother myself. However, Xu Xi switches back and forth between the distancing use of “you” to narrate her reactions to caring for her mother, then back to “I.” As a reader I do not feel invited into the narrative by the second person, although I can understand the impulse for Xu Xi to distance herself from the difficult experience of caring for her mother.

In spite of their painful history, Xu Xi tried to accept her mother’s limits as an Alzheimer’s sufferer, saying that as her disease progressed, her mom only lived in the present. Xu Xi stopped worrying about being away in New York to visit Bill because her mother forgot that she was gone. She showed her mom affection whenever she saw her, as if no time had passed. In touching moments, she kissed her mother and hugged her, as if none of the resentment and hurt which had flared between them lingered. That section of the collection was often very moving.

The other moving section of Xu Xi’s This Fish is Fowl: Essays of Being is her reflection on the 2014 Occupy Protests (otherwise known as the Umbrella Revolution) in response to the Hong Kong government’s withdrawal of promised universal suffrage. In the essay entitled “The Crying City (Occupy),” Xu Xi states that “[w]e cry over Occupy … Will continue to cry over it. HK’s Happiness rating is 72 below Taiwan (38); Singapore (24), but not as bad as China (84).” She was impressed that the deadline to clear the protest site was met by protesters. She loved the protesters’ earnest commitment and dedication as they slept on asphalt and did homework there, and she wished there’d been such persuasive numbers of protesters at the Handover in 1997. However, she thinks some youthful Occupy protesters were misguided about Britain and flew the colonial flag wearing rose-coloured glasses, seemingly oblivious to the opium wars, gunboat diplomacy and the unequal treatment of Chinese residents for more than 100 years.

In the brief summary of the history of Hong Kong which follows in that essay, Xu Xi refers to 1857 when poisoned bread from a Chinese bakery made many Brits sick as an expression of discontent by the local Cantonese. Other highlights include the leftist riots in 1967 about housing, insanely long working hours and the lack of a minimum wage. Xu Xi also believes that the British attempt to guarantee full democracy in the Joint Declaration agreement with China came too late for Hong Kong after more than a century of inequality.

However, Xu Xi also sees the protests as having had a social effect on the city. At one point she writes that “no narrative can assuage the schism” in society and within families from Occupy. (She could be writing about the impact of the current anti-extradition bill protests in Hong Kong!) Police did their best (she says), but violence on both sides shattered trust in formerly orderly, law-abiding Hong Kong.

Xu Xi declares herself in mourning for the city’s “transnational, transcultural, multilingual reality that welcomed myriad voices and ethnicities, desires and dreams in a civil society under rule of law.” She says the people are crying about the “one-party, one perspective, our way or no way, shift in the governance of the city.”

After reading This Fish is Fowl: Essays of Being, I believe Xu Xi mourns Hong Kong the way she mourns her mother—with love and ambivalence. For someone who has at times felt she did not belong in Hong Kong and was alienated by its colonial (and post-colonial) pecking order, by the end of her essay collection, I believe Xu Xi has made a kind of peace with Hong Kong. In spite of her often glib, ironic and distancing narrative style, she does express her love for this troubled city which was her home for longer than anywhere else. In spite of my criticisms, I do recommend this book for its intelligent, cosmopolitan view of Hong Kong. I also enjoyed the glimpses it offers into the life of one of the city’s most influential writers.

[i] From “Access: Thirteen Tales”, published by Signal 8 Press, 2011.

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Poetry by Kate Rogers has appeared in World Literature Today, Tamaracks: Canadian Poetry for the 21st Century, Algebra of OwlsVoice & Verse Poetry Magazine, Twin Cities: An Anthology of Twin Cinema from Singapore and Hong Kong, Juniper, The 2017 Montreal International Poetry Prize Anthology, The GuardianAsia Literary Review, The Goose: a Journal of Arts, Environment and Culture, and Kyoto Journal, among other publications. Her poetry won second place in the 2019 Big Pond Rumours Contest. Kate’s latest poetry collection is Out of Place (Quattro/Aeolus House, Toronto, 2017), and her reviews have appeared in CV2, Canadian Woman Studies, Arc, and Prism International. [Cha Profile]

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