If you thought the Taobao in the title of this new collection of stories is that Taobao—China’s version of Amazon, except perhaps more so—you’d be right. The shopping website is mentioned throughout the collection, showcasing the unprecedented availability of consumer goods in China regardless of quality or practicality.
Dan K Woo’s family immigrated to Canada in the 1970s from Hong Kong. Three decades later, Woo had a stint teaching in Beijing and started writing the short stories that make up his new collection, stories which take place in different cities and smaller locales around China and all center around relationships.
The stories are arranged under the sections “chastity”, “courtship” and “conquest”. In the first section, the story “The Marriage Market” is about a young unmarried woman from Suzhou who leaves behind her new life in Shanghai because it no longer appeals to her. The job market is difficult, the men she meets are sleazy, and there’s a new garbage separation program in the city that seems confusing. But returning home to Suzhou is not easy. Her mother insists they visit the marriage market at a local park.
On each side of the paved path were groups of older women, mothers and aunties, grandmothers and uncles. Some crouched in the shade by the bushes, others fanned themselves under the sun. Rows of flyers and posters were on display, featuring photos and information about sons and daughters. The mother and daughter walked up to take a closer look. The mother held her daughter close by the arm. Amid the chatter and laughter, the daughter thought, I’ll try not to be so difficult. I’ll try to open up. If I force myself to smile, I’ll enjoy it.
In the courtship section, “The Professor and the Student” tells of the miscommunication between a young Chinese woman and her foreign English teacher named John. The student is young enough to be John’s daughter, but feels bored with her environment.
She had rejected all kinds of suitors, local men from average families. In all honesty, she had a secret that she often whispered to herself: she wanted to be a Taobao model. But she was too short, and when she looked in the mirror at her rounded face, even she knew that she was only kidding herself. Now she was sitting in a large classroom of fellow students, in the front row, in her college English class. She had spent the whole hour staring at the English professor, John.
When John asks her to come to his apartment, she thinks it’s because he likes her romantically but it turns out he’s just out to charge her more money for extra English lessons. Further misunderstanding ensues and the student ends up the one who is ostracized.
Another teacher-student misunderstanding occurs in “The Blond Teacher”, which involves a Chinese male art student and his foreign teacher, Elena, whom the students call Mary.
Everyone suspected she was from Russia because of the way she spoke, but the school declared she was from Britain. The art student felt she was his soul mate, the perfect muse for his work. He decided that the first thing he would do with her, when they were together, was pose her in his studio, with a backdrop of roses and sunlight. He wanted to make a real-life portrait of her, as lifelike as possible, to capture her essence.
Dating, like much else in this collection, is subject to many cultural differences and misunderstandings. “Mary” doesn’t take to the art student’s obsessive WeChat messages while he doesn’t get the message that she’s not interested in him. Like many of the stories in this collection, the ending takes an unexpected turn.
Some of the stories feature a Chinese Canadian teacher named Danny who isn’t viewed by locals in the same privileged light as the non-ethnically-Chinese foreigners. He is seen as an outsider by both the locals and the other foreign teachers.
While most of the characters are written with a sympathetic eye, not all are as seen in “The Brothers” in the final section, “conquest”. China’s gender imbalance often makes it difficult for men to find wives in China. Unlike the other stories, most written from a feminist perspective, this one seems more like a patriarchal fantasy, but it’s not hard to imagine that this was something Woo also came across during his time in China.