Lisa See’s new novel, “The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane,” will be published this month .
In her new book, “The Girl at the Baggage Claim,” Gish Jen turns her novelist’s eye to the exploration of the centuries-old enigma of why people in the East and the West see themselves, others, society and culture so differently. As she tells it, people of the West have a perspective of a “big pit self” dominated by individualism and independence. The Eastern perspective, by comparision, is collectivistic and interdependent, creating what Jen calls a “flexi-self.” “Take a lion on a savannah,” Jen writes. “The big pit self will focus on the lion while the flexi-self will focus on the savannah and its relationship to the lion.” Jen asks us to think about how these two ways of perceiving might play out in art, education, families, politics and science.
Jen is uniquely suited to explore this topic. As a novelist, she is perhaps best known for “Typical American” and “Mona in the Promised Land,” which feature themes about immigration, identity and culture. She has delved into these issues in her short stories, essays and nonfiction books as well. A graduate of Harvard, she lectures in the United States and in China, and has an aptitude for exploring scientific studies in refreshing ways.
In this book, she has once again taken the universal and made it personal, and vice versa. Her emphasis is on the United States and China. In many ways, the source of our cultural gap can be traced back to education. Historically, education and becoming an imperial scholar was the way to move up in Chinese society. Today, it’s through a college admissions test called the gaokao. The test comes after years of hard work, beginning with 12-hour days for first-graders and moving up to 16-hour days for high schoolers. The day of the test is a major event across China, and everyone participates. Public transportation systems are not allowed to beep their horns or run sirens. Construction sites are shut down. Proctors don’t wear high-heeled shoes or perfume, which might be distracting.
Asian immigrants brought this belief in the transformative power of education to our shores. China is now the largest sender of immigrants to the United States, and the source of a third of all foreign college students and half of all foreign elementary and high school students in America. The title of the book refers, in part, to this phenomenon. Jen writes about a young Chinese woman who was accepted into a private academy in New England based on her great test scores, application essay and Skype interview. But when she was picked up at the baggage claim, it turned out she didn’t speak English. She didn’t seem to be the same girl at all. It turns out that her sister had done the Skype interview. While we might see this as copying or cheating, those sisters — with their parents’ obvious support — were operating as flexi-selves, with one helping the other for a perceived greater good. One sister receiving an education in America would help the family now, while who knows if times would change and the second, younger sister might not have the same opportunity?
American-born sons and daughters of Asian immigrants have in many cases proved themselves to be good at taking tests and getting into the best colleges. Jen uses data from the Census Bureau’s “Quick Facts” to point out that Harvard, Yale, Princeton and Stanford are more than 20 percent Asian American, though Asian Americans make up less than 6 percent of the population. The hurdles to entry are high, Jen asserts. She cites a complaint filed by the Asian American Coalition for Education that Asian Americans applying to Harvard must score an average of 140 points higher on their SATs than white students, 270 points higher than Hispanic students and 450 points higher than African American students to gain admission.
You’d be hard-pressed to find American parents who would want their 6-year-olds to devote 12 hours a day to classwork. Kids are encouraged to play an instrument, be on a soccer team or join a dance program.
A Western-style education is sometimes depicted as promoting innovation, while Eastern flexi-selves prefer imitation. But such cultural conclusions are not always so clear-cut. In 2011, Apple found faux Apple stores in Kunming, China, that had been copied, as Jen puts it, in “painstaking detail, from the expansive blond-wood counters to the floor-to-ceiling glass front wall.” Even more brazen are the stores that sell the counters, logos, employee T-shirts and shelving to create even more fake Apple stores. It’s all illegal, but in China, “copying is not only a tradition but a great tradition,” Jen writes, that dates back millennia. But, she also suggests, the question of what is “original” is complicated in the West as well, pointing out that studio artists have helped name artists — sometimes by copying the masters, filling in background scenery or helping with monumental sculptures — from the Renaissance to today. She quotes recent Nobel Prize winner Bob Dylan on the creative process behind his work and the many influences that go into the art of invention: “These songs didn’t come out of thin air. I didn’t just make them up out of whole cloth.” Other writers, artists and composers in the West have also said that they, too, have borrowed, copied and reinvented work that’s come before them.
As President Trump butts heads with China over jobs and the loss of U.S. manufacturing, and proposes a revision of our corporate tax code in hopes of shifting the trade balance, it might behoove us to consider just how shallow is our understanding of China. Jen lays out the facts via economist and writer David Goldman: “What matters is that 500 million Chinese have moved from countryside to city in the past 35 years — the equivalent of the whole population of Europe from the Ural Mountains to the Atlantic. Uprooted from traditional life and placed in new and more promising circumstances, the Chinese as a people are more prepared to embrace change than any people in the history of the world.”
Trump was elected on his promise to “make America great again,” but the transformations that China has undergone — lifting more than 800 million people out of poverty in a matter of decades — seem to shore up what pundits and scholars have been saying for years. This is shaping up to be China’s century, which makes this book both timely and extremely important.
By Gish Jen
Knopf. 336 pp. $26.95.