[REVIEW] โ€œEmpathy is Key: Ada Zhangโ€™s ๐‘‡โ„Ž๐‘’ ๐‘†๐‘œ๐‘Ÿ๐‘Ÿ๐‘œ๐‘ค๐‘  ๐‘œ๐‘“ ๐‘‚๐‘กโ„Ž๐‘’๐‘Ÿ๐‘ ” by Susan Blumberg-Kason

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Ada Zhang, The Sorrows of Others, A Public Space, 2023. 160 pgs.

Empathy. Itโ€™s a simple word and one that doesnโ€™t need much explanation. Yet in recent years, it seems to have become a difficult concept for many to grasp. It could be because of the prevalence of social media in peopleโ€™s lives, where itโ€™s easyโ€”and consequence-freeโ€”to act cruel to others all while hiding behind a screen. This brashness has also spilled into face-to-face interactions with strangers, family, colleagues, and acquaintances. Politics has become divided, xenophobia is on the rise, and common decencyโ€”and empathyโ€”seem to be wanting. So it comes as a relief to read Ada Zhangโ€™s new book, The Sorrows of Others. Itโ€™s rare to come across a collection where every story draws the reader in; each of Zhangโ€™s stories is captivating and shows empathy in ways that could teach the general public a thing or two.

The titular story, โ€œThe Sorrows of Othersโ€, is an endearing tale of older newlyweds. Songhao is a widower in his early sixties, who has, till recently, lived alone in Xiโ€™an. His adult daughter Xiao An lives in Shanghai and worries about her father, all alone in his apartment. So she arranges a match with a woman named Yulan, younger than Songhao by seventeen years, but each are at a stage in their lives when the age difference is hardly noticeable. Yulanโ€™s parents are both deceased and she has never previously married. Each of the newlyweds is used to living alone, but they find commonality through their hometown.

He and Yulan were both from Changwu, that was true, but his daughter had overlooked the more compelling coincidence that they were also both from Yaertou, a compound within the village. It was this detail, discovered on their first and only meeting that had brought his old superstition back. Heโ€™d agreed to the marriage, wondering if it wasnโ€™t fate at work after all.

As the newlyweds get to know one another, they find a comfortableโ€”if platonicโ€”rhythm to their daily lives. And as it turns out, Yulan remembers Songhao from her childhood when they were both still living in Yaertou. She seems so enthusiastic about these memories, finding a bond with her husband, that he doesnโ€™t have the heart to reveal that he doesnโ€™t remember her from the old days. As in many of Zhangโ€™s stories in this collection, Songhao tells a little white lie to save Yulanโ€™s feelings all for the sake of empathy.       

It was a lie. He had no memory of her at all, had trouble even conceiving of her as a child, but the least he could do was try to match her sense of their familiarity. He kept on lying.

โ€œOne Dayโ€ is another story centred on empathy. Helen is in kindergarten and lives with her father. Itโ€™s around Thanksgiving because her classroom is decorated with pictures of turkeys she and her classmates have created with their handprints. When her father surprises Helen for lunchโ€”driving more than half-an-hour either way from his workplaceโ€”he teaches her a lesson in empathy. Her teacher Ms Evans goes out of her way to help Helen feel accepted at the predominantly white school, but when she finds herself in an embarrassing situation at lunchtime, the other children do not extend her the same empathy. Helenโ€™s father, on the other hand, treats Ms Evans the way he would want to be treated.

Ms Evans gasped. She let the breath go in a soft, choppy laugh, exposing sometime fragile, and I got the sense that for Ms Evans, life had turned one way, the wrong way, a long time ago and now could not find its way back.

When her father tells Helen that itโ€™s best to think of othersโ€™ feelings, Helen wonders โ€œif he suspected then that I was beginning to detect weakness and to feel repulsed by itโ€. She would go on to remember this way decades later when she is married and a mother herself.

In the final story, โ€œCompromiseโ€, Sui is a widow with three grown-up children. When  the kids were very young, Suiโ€™s husband, Huayu, left the family in the US and returned to China to be with another woman. But decades later Huayu returns to his first family because heโ€™s dying of cancer and hopes to get treatment in the USโ€”and care from Sui. In the ultimate act of empathy, Sui agrees to care for her dying husband even though they havenโ€™t seen each other in nearly two decades and he never bothered to stay in touch with their children.

But Sui is quick to tell her children that taking care of their father doesnโ€™t mean she forgives him. Thereโ€™s a difference and she can live with herself by extending care to her husband in his final days while preserving her self-respect. When it comes to her children, though, she is determined to protect them. Her son asks if his father apologised about leaving and Sui replies, โ€œyesโ€. But he never in fact did. Once again, a character tells a white lie to save the feelingsโ€”and provide empathyโ€”to those she hopes to protect.

I lied to my children that night, and it was not the only lie I told over the entire ordeal. There had been an unspoken agreement between me and Huayu that we would not discuss his eighteen-year absence. With those years struck from our history, there was nothing to be sorry for. I was the one feeding him and washing him, and later, dispensing his medicine to relieve his pain. If I wanted to talk about it at any time, he wouldโ€™ve had no choice but to listen, being as he was captive to these needs and therefore captive to me. But I wasnโ€™t interested in moving backward in that direction. 

Many of the stories in the collection take place in cities and towns around Texas, the state where Zhang grew up. She also includes a touching story of two friends who have a falling-out after they graduate from college; neither can understand how the other didnโ€™t view their friendship with more empathy. Perhaps both are unable to see things beyond their own perspectives. These universal issues are part of human nature and Zhang doesnโ€™t write characters that are good or bad, but rather complex with conflicting viewpoints. Her stories are important because they show that at the end of the day we are really more alike than we are different.

Also see the following review on the same work in Cha:

How to cite: Blumberg-Kason, Susan. โ€œEmpathy is Key: Ada Zhang’s The Sorrows of Others.โ€ Cha: An Asian Literary Journal, 18 Apr. 2023, chajournal.blog/2023/04/18/sorrows-of-others/.

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Susan Blumberg-Kason is the author of Good Chinese Wife: A Love Affair With China Gone Wrong. Her writing has also appeared in the Los Angeles Review of Booksโ€˜ China Blog, Asian Jewish Life, and several Hong Kong anthologies. She received an MPhil in Government and Public Administration from the Chinese University of Hong Kong. Blumberg-Kason now lives in Chicago and spends her free time volunteering with senior citizens in Chinatown. (Photo credit: Annette Patko)

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