Immigrant narratives: On the line between weakness and strength

Above, left: Jenny Zhang's new short story collection, Sour Heart. Right: Author Jenny Zhang.

Above, left: Jenny Zhang's new short story collection, Sour Heart. Right: Author Jenny Zhang.

I was so enthralled by Jenny Zhang's short story collection Sour Heart that I tore through the book in two days. I couldn't put it down. Lena Dunham must have felt similarly -- she chose Zhang to be the first author published with her Lenny/Random House imprint.

The book is seven stories long, and each one centers on Chinese immigrant families living in New York. The narrators are, for the most part, children -- girls in particular. These 5-year-old, 9-year-old, 15-year-old daughters portray their parents’ struggles -- and goodness, do they struggle -- to build stable, happy lives for themselves in America.

Shortly after I finished Sour Heart, Google’s infamous anti-diversity manifesto leaked online. In one of its more disturbing passages, the author of the memo separates out the “weak” and the “strong,” professing that liberals are biased towards compassion for weakness, while conservatives believe in respecting strength. I know this Google employee wasn’t singling out Chinese immigrants, but I can only imagine he would use the word “weak” to describe the people Zhang conjures in her fiction: young parents speaking broken English, living in roach-infested apartments and searching for food in dumpsters.

But Zhang’s stories challenge this strong vs. weak dichotomy, and that’s what I love about them. Through the lens of immigrant families, Sour Heart shows that assigning labels like “weak” and “strong” is a pointless task. These qualities aren’t intrinsic in any human, and they’re hardly opposites. In fact, people who appear weak from one vantage point can seem quite strong in a different light. That’s exactly what Zhang’s characters drive home.

Contrary to what today’s White House cabinet might suggest, the immigrants in Sour Heart don’t arrive in the U.S. “without any beneficial skills.” In fact, the mothers and fathers who leave China are considered as bright and promising in their homeland as any incoming Google employee might be in Silicon Valley. They’re PhD-bound students at the top of their class, rewarded with admission to American universities.

Illustration of Jenny Zhang by the illustrator Joan Le May. Image from Lenny Letter. 

Illustration of Jenny Zhang by the illustrator Joan Le May. Image from Lenny Letter

Sold on the promise of the American dream, they come to New York and quickly find themselves dead broke, unable to keep pace with native English speakers, and confronted with racial bias. One dad in the Sour Heart story “Our Mothers Before Them” reminisces to his daughter Annie about his misconceptions:

“We thought an education was an education—the finest thing you could get! And an education in America? What could be better? We were clueless. I couldn’t get into my own studio once because they didn’t believe I was a student. They thought I was there to deliver Chinese food.”

This dad is hardly the exception to the rule. Later in the story, his wife bemoans to their daughter:

“Can you imagine? We were with the brightest and the best. These were people who placed number one and two nationwide in their subjects of study. And every single one of them dropped out.”

The fact that the immigrant parents in Sour Heart can’t finish school has far less to do with personal weakness than with the disadvantages of growing up during the Mao revolution and looking like delivery men to racist Americans. Of course, Zhang’s young narrators have their own perspective on their parents’ lives. The same “delivery man” whom a biased person would look down on is considered a superhuman by his daughter. In the story “The Empty the Empty the Empty,” fourth-grader Lucy says:

“My parents promised me everything was going to change once my father finished school and got his degree in business, which wouldn’t be long now because my father was a superhuman who broke world records in things that no one kept records for, like most accelerated course of study in business while also working forty-plus hours a week delivering Chinese food for this twenty-four-hour place that hired him because my father was a MACHINE who could ride regular bikes like they were motorbikes and he made record-breaking time delivering General Tsao’s chicken to people who lived on the Upper East Side and probably didn’t know there was never a General Tsao in China.”

The daughters in Sour Heart don’t only admire their fathers for their work ethic. In the opening story of the collection,  “We Love You Crispina,” the young narrator Christina speaks about her dad with a sense of awe. It’s his startling vulnerability that makes him god-like in her eyes:

“After my bout of pneumonia, I was terrible at keeping food down and there were times when my dad would spoon the food I had vomited up directly into his own mouth so that not a single morsel of food went wasted because back then we had strict daily portions of what we could afford and the only way to replace the food I had vomited up was for my father to give me his portion of breakfast or lunch or dinner while he had my regurgitated rice and vegetables and pork—that was how much he was willing to sacrifice for us.”

The image of a father eating his child’s retched-up pork will stay with me for a long time. Yes, it’s fiction. And yes, it’s exactly the kind of story that the author of the Google manifesto would condemn as encouraging “irrational and dangerous biases.” Perhaps he would suggest that my empathy here makes sense because “women are more empathetic than men,” and that the real solution to immigrant difficulties lies in looking at the cold, hard facts.

My answer to him: How many statistics have you seen about the number of dads who consume their kids’ vomit because they can’t afford to waste nutrients? How would you go about designing that study and interpreting its results? And would you define this behavior as a signal of weakness, or strength, or would you finally realize that you can’t really differentiate between the two?

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