Pets and non-human representations in narratives of immigration

I think that pets in the narratives of immigration are extremely meaningful because they allow the immigrant character to think about his/her human condition. Being outside the hegemonic culture is also being outside what’s been defined as “normal”. I consider that pets and non-human beings are a strategy for representing the immigrant as an in-between condition that does not feet completely into the human category. Consequently, pets in immigrant narratives allow the reader to place the question about what’s missing in the immigrant performance in order to be perceived as a human being by the hegemonic culture. For example, dogs in The good Ana don’t have a proper house, they are always moving to provisional places, as the protagonist does. For this text, being a human is a synonym of having a home, a private place where you can live, love and die according to your own ethical system. Another example is the cat in And China has hands. The protagonist makes a comparison between his cat and Pear Chang trying to know who is more intelligent. For this text, being human is fitting into a notion of what’s “pure” in Chinese culture.

In The arrival, there is a defense of a speechless empathy that is linked with the idea of a pet. The protagonist meets immigrants that narrate their story even though they don’t share the same language. Affection and empathy transcended the boundaries of language. I think this is a way of arguing that, even though a speechless being is “less human” than somebody who is able to speak a language, it does not interfere with the capacity of recognizing and empathizing with the immigrant-other.

I think that this idea is extremely meaningful in a book that also represents displacement as a consequence of human extermination. The giants with big vacuums, the corps in the soldier’s history, even the act of separating “damaged” pieces at the factory, are showing that a fixed notion of what’s human can be used to eliminate anyone that does not feet the category. This is the logic that supports national discourses based on racial differences that lead to genocides. If this is not a man (paraphrasing Primo Levi’s writings about the Holocaust) then it doesn’t belong to public space and civic rights. The arrival introduces non-human figures and proposes the immigrant as an in-between stage in order to negotiate the limits of what’s human and what’s not. The practice of empathy goes beyond the limits of the human because of the representation of the pets and beyond the limits language. In this sense, this book can be read as a defense of the immigrant’s role in a new society.

Tsiang- And China Has Hands

First of all, what do we think about the title? I haven’t finished the story (I’m almost done), but I have no idea what to make of it. I noticed throughout the story the use of the same sentences, “Wong Wan-Lee was working in his laundry. While he was working, he was thinking of Pearl Chang” and “Pearl Chang didn’t come”.  Why do we think the author purposely repeated these sentences throughout the text/what does the repetition do?

When the old Chinese man comes into the laundry place and begins to converse with Wong he states, “America is an evil land and once you sink in you can never get out” (p 55).  At what point in the story does Wong perhaps begin to agree with this statement? It isn’t until later on he states, “I, Wong Wan-Lee—the descendant of the first Emperor, the great Huang Ti, the great- greatgrandson of the Han Dynasty, the great-grandson of the T’ang Dynasty, the grandson of the Sung Dynasty and the son of the Ming Dynasty—was exiled to a savage land, first as a waiter and then as a laundryman” (p 99). What do we think about this?

I can’t help but laugh at Pearl Chang and her almost naive-like behavior towards Wan- Lee Wong at times. She is convinced at one point that Wong was a prince; her prince.  “And she was thoroughly convinced that Wong Wan-Lee was a prince of certain validity, and she wished that she had a Five-and-Ten grandfather, for then she would be able to buy ponies for Prince Wong Wan-Lee as a wedding present so that he might ride them in polo games” (p 99). What can we take from this passage?

Another thing I found to be interesting was when Pearl Chang lost her job in the Chinese restaurant in Chinatown because she was not purely Chinese, but she got a job in the cafeteria because ‘the owner thought that as long as Pearl Chang looked like a Chinese, that the Americans would not know whether she was genuine or not’ (145). Also, I find it ironic that when Wan-Lee Wong and Pearl Chang went to the Chinese New Year celebration in Chinatown that they saw more Americans than Chinese (73).  I find it rather comical that Pearl Chang is Chinese (and would you say, proud to be it?) when she can’t even read the language, doesn’t know how to use chopsticks, and thinks Chow Mein and Chop Suey are authentic Chinese dishes.  Lastly, what can we take from the passage where she takes a look at herself in her pocket mirror, is glad she is Chinese and then throws away a small picture of a white movie actress? (97). I think the character of Pearl Chang definitely adds a lot of depth to this narrative and creates an important dynamic between Chinese immigrants and American-born Chinese. 

Immigrant Narratives

What is an immigrant novel? As I read And China Has Hands I was constantly struck by the idea that I was reading two immigrant novels that were reflected through a great deal of irony. One story was  Wong Wan-Lee’s and the other story was Pearl Chang’s, yet both immigrant stories were very different. Wong Wan-Lee’s immigrant story was one of someone who had just arrived to the United States. He came with the hopes of striking rich; however, his inability to assimilate to American culture and his overall marginalization as a Chinese man ultimately led to his demise. As I read And China Has Hands I felt as though some information about Wan-Lee’s experience was getting lost in translation. With further reflection, I thought this may be the point. Throughout the book Wan-Lee never gets a full understanding of the situations he is faced with. These situations range from personal (his relationship with Pearl-Chang) to business (his relationships with the loan sharks and possible mafia related men.) Wan-Lee took on the form of a traditional immigrant novel, talking about the strife and struggle he faced.

Although Pearl Chang is an American citizen, seeing that she was born in the South, I still read her story as though it were an immigrant novel. Even though she was biracial she felt a closer connection with her Chinese heritage due to her ability to speak the language. In fact, Pearl Chang tried to appear Chinese rather than Black to her community. This may be due to a variety of reasons, but one of them may have to do with the assimilation of Chinese people into white culture (as narrated by the novel.) Pearl Chang’s story was ironic because she was obsessed with fame and in the end of the novel the spotlight is on her, as Wan-Lee says in his final words. I find it ironic that movies are at the root of Pearl Chang’s story. The only things she knew about China and Chinese culture was through the cinema and she assumed these things to be true. Throughout the novel she makes references to the movies and she is shocked when Wan-Lee explains to her that her knowledge is not how Chinese life works. I still consider Pearl Chang’s story to be an immigrant narrative even though she is a US citizen, because she still suffers from the plight that immigrants faced at that.

A Question of Authenticity

In reading the first half of Tsiang and China Has Hands, I was struck by the negative tone and language used to describe the people and lifestyle in America. Americans are often referred to as ‘foreign devils’, savage-like creatures with no understanding of or appreciation for authentic Chinese culture. The narrator, whose identity is unclear, portrays the American as manipulative, with their only intention to take advantage of inferior immigrants. For example, the narrator describes Wong Wan-Lee’s dream of returning to his original place of work if he ever becomes successful and bossing around the people who had once been his demanding superiors. This situation is described as the perfect revenge, which shows his disgruntled and bitter attitude toward the structure of social hierarchy in America.

Furthermore, throughout the novel, there is a recurring theme of authenticity of culture. In many scenes, readers sense a struggle between Wong Wan-Lee’s desire to maintain authentic Chinese culture and the reality of ‘Americanized’ Chinese traditions. In a discussion about food, Wong Wan-Lee claims, “We Chinese eat not Chop Suey. We Chinese eat no Chow Mein. We eat genuine Chinese food” (100). On the Chinese New Year, after Wong Wan-Lee leaves the club intended to be a haven for the ‘real Chinese’ from the swarms of Americans crowded in Chinatown to witness a cultural experience, Wong Wan-Lee comments on the swarms of tourists crowded around a building advertised as a Chinese Temple, but was really a Metropolitan Museum of Oriental Art in Chinatown. Throughout the novel, there is also a tension between American born Chinese people and Chinese immigrants. An interesting question that this novel provokes is: how can foreign cultures be vibrant in America but not be somewhat influenced or changed by American society? Isn’t it inherent that traditions will be ‘Americanized’ if practiced in America?