[REVIEW] β€œLaughter of the Displaced: A Review of Gish Jen’s π‘‡β„Žπ‘Žπ‘›π‘˜ π‘Œπ‘œπ‘’, π‘€π‘Ÿ. 𝑁𝑖π‘₯π‘œπ‘›β€ by Emma H. Zhang

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Gish Jen, Thank You, Mr. Nixon: Stories, Alfred A Knopf, 2022. 272 pgs.

β€œA beautiful country full of beautiful coats, what could that be but evil?” ponders Tricia Sang, a young Chinese girl who spoke to Nixon when he visited China in 1972. Tricia, the narrator of Gish Jen’s short story β€œThank You, Mr. Nixon”, is a deceased Chinese coat manufacturer, now residing in heaven. In this title story that introduces Jen’s 2022 short-story collection, Tricia writes to Mr. Nixon, currently burning in hell, to thank him for changing the fate of the two nations. β€œThe more we thought about it, the more we felt that you were the best enemy we have ever had, Mr. Nixon.” β€œIf you ever draw up a petition to be moved to a cooler pit, I will sign it,” promises Tricia. Published in February 2022, during the 50th anniversary of Nixon’s visit to China, Gish Jen’s ninth book Thank You, Mr. Nixon is a collection of eleven short stories that cover the span of half a century and explore how the lives of ordinary people on both sides of the Pacific were transformed by Nixon’s fateful visit. The stories are full of cross-cultural wit and humour, though the subject matter is dark and heavy.

One of the most intriguing aspects of this collection is the cast of characters, compassionately crafted with unique voices, vulnerabilities, and perspectives. Minor characters in Tricia’s letter to Nixon become protagonists of subsequent stories. In β€œIt’s the Great Wall”, Grace and Gideon, an interracial New York couple, of Chinese and Jewish descent respectively, become conscious of their cultural and racial differences for the first time when they tour China following Nixon’s visit. In β€œDuncan in China”, a young Chinese American’s effort to pay homage to his cultural heritage brings him to a coal-mining town in Shandong. The China of noble scholars that he imagined is shattered when he meets his impoverished cousin who coughs incessantly and spits on his floor. In β€œA Tea Tale”, Tom and Tori, a couple who tour China in the story β€œGreat Wall”, launch a business venture to import tea from the newly opened Chinese market. They find themselves utterly outmatched by their shrewd Chinese American competitors, including Duncan, the protagonist from β€œDuncan in China”, and his Chinese wife Lingli. A Hong Kong woman named Lulu dates Duncan’s successful businessman brother in β€œLulu in Exile”. In β€œGratitude”, she reunites with her wealthy family in post-handover Hong Kong. Lulu’s parents anxiously search for her older sister Bobby, who rejects financial success in pursuit of freedom and self-determination.

The interlinked characters create a panorama of lives and networked communities between China and the United States over the past 50 years. They travel between the two countries, in and out of each other’s lives, and against the backdrop of history, including the Cultural Revolution (1966–76), the Tiananmen massacre (1989), the handover of Hong Kong (1997), the SARS pandemic (2003), the National Education Protest (2012), the Umbrella Revolution (2014), the anti-extradition bill protests (2019) and the COVID-19 pandemic (2020). These interlinked stories unfold chronologically, featuring different generations of people with diverse values and lifestyles yet deeply connected as families and friends. The geopolitical tension and conflicts form the harsh, brutal backdrop, where characters are tossed from country to country, their lives dictated by forces beyond their control. Still, the small intimacies of people from the two nations provide warmth, charm, humour, and irony, illustrating how human bonds can transcend geographical, racial, cultural, generational, and political divides, while remaining fragile enough to be broken by one untimely word.

Jen’s humour often makes the sombre stories about racial prejudice, broken families, state violence and other public and private pain, more palatable. In β€œGratitude”, the Koos fly from Hong Kong to New York for a brief visit with their beloved daughter Bobby, who has been deliberately avoiding them. Despite their wealth, they cannot find a single decent Cantonese restaurant in New York for their family reunion. β€œThey had noticed that the fish in the tanks were not like the fish in Hong Kong, jumping out of the water; and sure enough, this fish tasted half dead, as if it had been eating hamburgers.”

Tina Koo, whose motto is β€œno politics, just make money” cannot comprehend why her favourite daughter Bobby, with a degree from MIT and a job on Wall Street, would throw it all away. Upon hearing Bobby’s plan to enter academia, Tina warns her, β€œYou know, a lot of professors have to live in the middle of nowhere […] They have to do what the dean tell them. A lot of them cannot afford new clothes. I don’t know why they are so smart but decide to be slaves.” Bobby retorts, β€œWhy? Because they would rather think what they want than buy what they want.” When Bobby hops into a yellow taxi and vanishes into the city, Tina runs after her in squeaky, flashing sneakers. Moments earlier, Tina had Bobby’s hand in hers, recalling how little and damp her fingers had been when she was her little girl. Jen, who herself dropped out of Stanford Business School in favour of the writer’s workshop in Iowa, depicts this mother-daughter conflict with a wry humour that makes you laugh while breaking your heart.

The most appealing aspect of her book is Jen’s gentle and compassionate approach to human frailty. In β€œDuncan in China”, a well-meaning Chinese American man fails to find the moral resolve to help his destitute Chinese cousin. Though the consequence of his decision is later revealed to be devastating, the reader can understand and forgive his failure. In Rothko, Rothko, a principled university lecturer is tempted to help an art forger sell a fake Rothko painting. The reader can understand that the act is motivated by generosity. Although the Koos appear to be selfish creatures of material comfort, complicit to authoritarian domination, the reader can understand that they are also sincerely loving parents. Jen skilfully translates between the different cultures and polarising ideologies, making even the least sympathetic characters and the most morally questionable acts understandable and relatable.

Only occasionally does Jen’s humour misfire. In β€œThank You, Mr. Nixon”, Tricia expresses sympathy for Nixon because she knows Mao was a far worse dictator. β€œChairman Mao! Even here in heaven, no one can say how many people he killed, between his crazy ideas and his purgesβ€”whether it was 45 million or just 25 million. […] But let’s just say that no one claims Mao killed, say, 4 or 5 million. Because we need to be careful: if the angels laugh too hard, they can fall off a cloud and crack a halo.” After joking about the number of Chinese that died under Mao, Tricia goes on to declare β€œOur sweet Chairman Mao was unfazed even by the thought of nuclear war. […] I guess he was what today we might call an out-of-the-box thinker.” Jokes like these make one wonder how on earth a β€œlittle Red Guard” like Tricia gets to go to heaven rather than burn in hell with Nixon and Mao.

A conspicuous absence from the book is the lack of a single voice from Taiwan among the many various charactersβ€”Chinese, Americans, Chinese Americans, and Hongkongers. Nixon’s visit to China was also a political choice to betray the loyalty of the Nationalist Government who fought alongside the allied forces. But in this collection of stories, the voices and perspectives from Taiwan are entirely missing. Jen’s Thank You, Mr. Nixon is a work of fiction filled with carefully crafted, interwoven stories and populated with a network of sympathetic characters that live and love for generations. Her book, like the characters she created, is tinged with unavoidable human flaws but filled with deep and well-meaning human sympathy.

How to cite: Zhang, Emma. “Laughter of the Displaced: A Review of Gish Jen’s Thank You, Mr. Nixon.” Cha: An Asian Literary Journal, 09 Jan. 2023, chajournal.blog/2023/01/09/nixon/.


Emma Zhang.jpg

Emma Zhang teaches in the Language Centre at Hong Kong Baptist University. Her research interests include comparative literature and comparative mythology. Her doctoral dissertation Domination, Alienation and Freedom in Ha Jin’s Novels (2015) analyses Ha Jin’s novels in connection with contemporary Chinese society. Her other works include β€œFather’s Journey into Night” (2013), β€œNo End in Sightβ€”the myth of Nezha and the ultra-stable authoritarian political order in China” (2018), and β€œThe Taming of the White Snakeβ€”The oppression of female sexuality in the Legend of the White Snake”. She is currently working on translating ancient Chinese legends Nezha and The Legend of the White Snake.

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