Thank You, Mr Nixon, Gish Jen’s latest work of fiction, comprises eleven loosely linked short stories essentially about people in the flow of a modern Chinese diaspora.
The book was published last February, the golden anniversary of Richard Nixon’s carefully stage-managed visit to Mao Zedong’s China in 1972. The sweep of the separate narratives traces the lives of mostly Chinese characters over the last fifty years. Moving between greater China and the West, they pursue education, love, money, refuge and/or freedom. How those goals are defined, achieved and—sometimes—regretted once attained gives these tales their sting.
Jen’s passel of stories can be read separately. Consuming them sequentially, however, gives the book the feel of a cohesive novel. Perhaps it’s because all the characters are trapped in the same march of history. By the final page of the final story, the world is struck dumb by the covid pandemic, Hong Kong is in the grip of China’s protest response, America is in disarray and loved ones are missing.
The title story is a wry, darkly humorous letter to the 37th US president
The author opens the book with the title story, a wry, darkly humorous letter to the 37th US president. Nixon has been banished to Hell, specifically Ninth Ring Road, Pit 1A. Tricia Sang, one of the scarf-wearing Little Red Guards he talked to by Hangzhou’s West Lake, is writing to the disgraced former leader from Heaven. She recounts what really went on during his visit to “Potemkin China” and illustrates how the red coat First Lady Pat Nixon wore—its style and otherness—was responsible for opening up the Middle Kingdom to the rest of the world. Stranger theories than this one exist:
“The history books say that China opened when you shook hands with Chairman Mao,” she writes to Nixon. “But I think it began with that coat. Because if on the outside we were neither humble nor arrogant, neither cold nor hot, on the inside we were torn. We loved our country, but it was not red flags we wanted. It was red coats.
“Thank you, Mr. Nixon, for bringing that coat.”
The letter describes how a coat, or its image, could spawn a China-centered international garment industry, one that would become a cornerstone of the mainland’s eventually ascendant economy. The trick (old news by now) is to make most of a garment inexpensively in China and to finish it, adding buttons, for instance, in a factory bought in Italy. A “Made in Italy” label can then be affixed (somewhat) honestly, Sang tells Nixon, obviating a “Made in China” label that prejudiced American consumers won’t tolerate.
The themes and characters set out in the letter pulse through the remaining stories. Sang learns much about the garment business from Arnie Hsu, who himself consults the Hong Kong-based Koo family to learn how to buy an Italian factory. Members of the Hsu and the influential Koo families populate the book, where characters take on questions of authenticity and identity more substantive than clothing labels.
Her best stories delve into vagaries of identity—national, ethnic, familial, whatever.
This is familiar territory for American Jen, the daughter of Chinese immigrants, who has published eight other books, including novels Typical American and Mona Lisa and the Promised Land and nonfiction Tiger Writing and The Girl at the Baggage Claim.
It’s natural that her best stories in this work would delve into vagaries of identity—national, ethnic, familial, whatever. “It’s the Great Wall” depicts a Chinese-born woman, Opal, returning to her homeland decades after she left for graduate school in the US. Her mother has died there a year before the story begins. Opal’s American-born daughter and son-in-law are along for the trip.
All the sentimentality implied by this set up, however, meets its perfect foil: Americans abroad. Opal and family (after some debate about national identity) decide to take the “regular American tour”, rather than the one for Overseas Chinese. The decision makes all the difference.
Playing the role of translator and sometime tour guide for the group of well-meaning but often comically tactless foreigners tests more than Opal’s patience.
The title character of “Duncan in China”, Arnie Hsu’s brother, gets a harsh dose of reality when in the early 1980s he goes to teach English in a Shandong coal mining institute. He’s accorded initial respect for simply being born in the US, a place where he’s actually better known for being a dropout (military academy, med school, computer class, etc).
Yet it doesn’t take long for his porcelain image of “the China of the scholar-officials, the China of ineffable nobility and restraint” to be shattered. Duncan himself becomes broken to the point of looking back fondly on how the relative comforts of the US, namely the warmth, afforded him the energy to rail against the things about the US he didn’t like, from the DMV to voting procedures.
The relative chill of Shandong sets him up poorly for the challenges he faces, including a nosy English-language department head, the fallout from an intensifying relationship with a student, and run-in with a sickly cousin and his beer-swilling nine-year-old son.
Jen expands on the life of the Koos in “Gratitude”, the sixth story. Wealth aside, there’s nothing very interesting about superficial Tina, who seems to compare birds’ unsubtle movements in a park to stock market gyrations, and Johnson, a rather uninspiring philanderer. They are almost redeemed by their obvious love for their three expensively educated daughters.
However, it’s about 2003, and the oldest and most esteemed Koo daughter, 25-year-old Bobby, won’t answer her mother’s calls. Worse, they find out that she has put up for sale the Manhattan apartment they bought for her, and she is instead living with a blue-eyed, hairy knuckled drummer named Zeke. This from the daughter they practically considered a son. A plan is hatched that brings Tina and Johnson to Manhattan.
“Rothko, Rothko” explores the question of authenticity most directly. Rich Lee is considering pursuing an absurd scheme to sell fake Rothko paintings, a scheme that includes the Koos. Meanwhile, one of Rich’s favorite students, a Chinese immigrant who goes by Mary Ann Evans (aka George Eliot), gets caught plagiarizing. Rich and his immigrant lawyer wife Arabella discuss the legality and morality of both.
There’s only so much money, distance and wise words can do.
In the final story, “Detective Dog”, which appeared in the New Yorker in November, Betty, the middle Koo child, turns out to be the “good” daughter. She followed mom’s dictums: “No politics, just make money” and, related to China, “See nothing, hear nothing, say nothing. Do you hear me?”
She, her husband and two boys have been fortunate enough to be able to live in Vancouver “when umbrellas took over Hong Kong” and move to New York, specifically her older sister’s apartment, when “racism took over Vancouver”.
But there’s only so much money, distance and wise words can do.
It is on this Manhattan’s apartment’s “lilac leather couch” that the family sat with their computers, “lined up like ladies in a hair salon”, and watched the Hong Kong police storm the universities. Amid Covid, her sixteen-year-old, Theo, watches clips of the protests online to see if he can recognize friends, and fights with his adopted nine-year-old brother Robert about his own authenticity:
“I am so a real protester,” Theo says.
“The kind who shouts ga yau from the couch, you mean,” Robert sarcastically responds, referring to the Cantonese phrase that is a common chant of encouragement.
Theo’s behavior reminds Betty of older sister Bobby, who also didn’t obey the “no politics” rule and hadn’t been seen in years. Theo then hits the road, leaving Betty to wonder if he will suffer the same fate—the fate of a “real protester”. She eventually tells Robert what that actually means.