Christopher Hill reviews Stephanie Han’s new collection of short stories exploring the nature of identity and the concept of home.
Stephanie Han, Swimming in Hong Kong, (Willow Springs Books, 2016) 132pp.
‘You would like to find a country to belong. A continent. You think of small tropical islands and crowded cities. You hope to find The Place To Live but have started to believe that it doesn’t exist.’
This excerpt from Invisible, the opening narrative in Stephanie Han’s new short story collection Swimming in Hong Kong, describes the perpetual movement and displacement of a transnational couple who have become estranged from the idea of home and belonging. Despite the location of the title – Swimming in Hong Kong – the geographies of the stories in this collection span Nantucket, New York, Seoul, Hong Kong and California. Han, in exploring these diverse locations, reflects upon the dynamics of East and West; local and foreign; colonized and colonizer; center and periphery; visible and invisible. What makes this collection so engaging is how Han exposes the diverse ways in which these tensions play out in the everyday experiences of her protagonists. The social construction of reality and the experience of one’s identity connecting and disconnecting with the people and places it encounters is a central theme that binds the stories together and is one that will appeal to expatriate readers of all ilks.
Stephanie Han is a Korean American writer who divides her time between Hawaii and Mui Wo, Hong Kong, and her travels have clearly informed and inspired these stories. Han’s published work includes fiction, non-fiction, poetry and literary criticism. Swimming in Hong Kong brings together 10 accomplished short stories and was the sole finalist for the AWP Grace Paley Fiction Prize and the Spokane Prize.
Over the last few decades a number of Asian American writers have written stories describing encounters between East and West, and have pondered themes concerning invisibility and displacement. What is most striking about this collection of stories is the breadth of characters and the unique viewpoints that Han conjures in her narratives. Many of the protagonists are Korean or Korean American woman and the stories explore through the prism of their identities the frequent alienation imposed upon them by the people and places that surround them.
I found the collection insightful because Han relates dry theoretical concepts about race, transnationalism and post colonialism and renders these ideas with great poignancy into the fictional lives of everyday people. The Body Politic describes the traumatic confession of a young university student in New York who is seduced at the hands of a ‘Marxist film maker’. The story scrutinizes political identity and the fragile line between rape and consent. The Ladies of Sheung Wan narrates two elderly destitute women as they collect rubbish on the streets of Hong Kong, the story reverberates between the class discrimination and ageism the women suffer and the hope and determination of their friendship. My friend Faith, 1977, is the fascinating narrative of twelve-year-old Debbie, a Korean American tween, who is sent to Seoul for the summer by her family to connect with her Korean cultural roots. During her stay Debbie finds friendship with the red-headed daughter of a missionary and the story describes the negotiation of the girls’ friendship and Debbie’s feelings of alienation from both her new friend and her Korean relatives as she attempts to free herself of the labels imposed upon her and make sense of herself. The women in each of these stories have in common experiences of isolation, loneliness and detachment, nevertheless, as individuals they are also diverse in age, circumstance and location, and it was this assortment that kept me reading on.
Swimming in Hong Kong deals with a number of difficult and traumatic encounters, but the stories are also varied in their tone and style. In The Ki Difference the Korean American protagonist Eunice finds herself in a Seoul restaurant with her older American partner Dan, who is on a business trip, ‘“Bringing a little American style to Asia.”’ While the couple eat, Dan boisterously describes his enthusiasm for the restaurant in English and repeatedly questions the waitress, despite Eunice telling him over and over that the waitress doesn’t speak English. The Ki Difference describes white hegemony and cultural appropriation in action as Dan daydreams of packing up the restaurant for a Beverly Hills location. He goes on to objectify Eunice positioning her as an ornament that ‘“fits right in”’ next to a vase in the restaurant. In doing so he reduces her to an object to be packed up with the restaurant and taken home. The story lampoons Dan, and had me laughing out loud at him in places, as it lays out his cringe worthy conceptions of ‘Zen’ Asia and his shallow desire for ‘exotic’ younger Asian women.
The story Body Language is notable for its narration via a series of diary entries. Set in Seoul, it describes Miss Lee, a single Korean language teacher in her early thirties who is burdened by the traditional marriage expectations of her family. She finds freedom in the possibility of falling love with an American. However, Han diverts from stereotypical romances between older white men and young Asian women. Miss Lee’s object of affection is her younger American student Dan. The narrative is punctuated by Miss Lee’s disdainful critique of Dan’s age, physical appearance, personality, along with his insights into Korean culture. Han also reverses common dialogue strategies in English so that when Dan speaks in Korean his speech is broken and full of errors. This technique amplifies his outsider status in Seoul and helps convey the characters’ cultural dynamics in inventive fashion.
The collection finishes with the remarkable title story, Swimming in Hong Kong, a narrative that successfully departs from convention by employing two narrators – Ruth an African American architect and Froggy a retired Hong Konger. As a story it is also distinguished by exploring the African American experience of Asia. The two characters’ encounter each other at Hong Kong’s Victoria park swimming pool when Ruth decides to learn to swim as she prepares to transition from marathons to triathlons. The narrative dovetails between Ruth’s job and relationship issues and Froggy’s fraught relationship with his son. The two characters are from disparate social and cultural milieus, nevertheless, their experiences offer surprising resemblances – a fitting closure to a collection that swims between human bonds and gulfs.
Han explores a number of engaging political, social and cultural subjects in her collection but she does so with great pathos. The characters are unique and well-wrought and their emotions palpable. The stories in Swimming in Hong Kong describe estrangement and alienation, but they also reveal in hope and determination.
Asian readers can get a copy here.
Christopher Hill is a New Zealander who has spent the last decade teaching, writing and researching in Singapore, Hong Kong and Indonesia. He has a passion for the histories and cultures of Asia, which form the inspiration for his writing. He holds a PhD in Literature from City University of Hong Kong, and his research focuses on music and literature in the contemporary novel. He currently works as a lecturer at the Communication and Language Centre at Nanyang Technological University, Singapore.