intense sensations

How it feels to be Chinese

Posted on: January 7, 2012

The Same MoonThe Same Moon by Junying Kirk
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I read this book more than a month ago and let it settle in my mind before writing this review. I did this deliberately because I think few readers could have the same response as me to this book or read it with the same appreciation. I do not know the author exactly but I feel I know her through our shared experiences.

Like me, she is originally from China, has an academic background and was steeped in English language and literature before coming to England and continuing her studies here. In The Same Moon, she documents her experiences in these two vastly different cultural environments with painstaking honesty and care. Almost every sentence resonated with me in a special way as I recognised something I knew to be true, or had seen, or had felt somewhere on my own journey to the west.

This morning, having not looked at the book for a few weeks, something strange happened as I prepared to write this review. I couldn’t remember if the book was written in the third or the first person. This never happens to me. Even if I forget a plot (which happens often), I never, ever forget this technical aspect of the narrative.

I reached for my Kindle to check but the battery was dead. It was so dead that even when I plugged my Kindle in, I couldn’t yet use it.

While I was waiting for it to recharge, I came to the conclusion that the book must have been written in the third person, despite its intensely personal subject matter.

Why is this important, you might think? Well, to me it is very important indeed because it determines how readers engage with the story, the characters and the narrator.

The book itself contains the seed of this confusion. Is it a novel or a memoir? Is it a diary, a chronicle or a fiction?

There are diary extracts in it. At times it reads like a meticulous reconstruction. There are details in it that are not necessary for the exposition of the story. There is no plot powering the narrative along. There are often lengthy asides, thoughts, and observations that, while interesting and sometimes moving, are Tolstoyan in their irrelevance.

After reading this book you will be an expert in how to go about securing a place in a Chinese university in the late 1980s, for example. There is a little disquisition on the power and importance of dreams. Late in the novel, under the sub-heading “Fun flat-mates” there are convincing and thoughtful character sketches of four or five people who play no part whatsoever in the story.

These irrelevancies are not without merit. It must be interesting for readers to know, for example, that people from Hong Kong look down on those of us from mainland China and that they have to talk to us in English because we can’t understand their Chinese and they can’t understand ours, even if, instead of our barbaric local dialect, we speak perfect Mandarin. This is because they speak Cantonese and are too proud and stubborn to learn the official language of the Mainland.

But these many asides lead to a disjointed narrative and cloud the story’s perspective.

When my Kindle finally came to life, I discovered that the novel is actually written in the first person. Oh, so I was wrong!

But I think I was right to feel confused.

The peculiar distancing of the first-person narrator is compounded by dialogue that at times seems stiff and formal. The Chinese dialogue has been translated into very correct English sentences and the English (and Scottish) dialogue appears to have been cleaned up by an academic hand.

The narrative itself is exceptionally well written. There is none of the sloppiness you find so often in books written by native speakers of the language in England and America.

The only section I found a little disconcerting was the prologue, which is written in the first person, present tense, and describes a dream. Probably the worst sentences in the whole novel can be found here. The language is intense, creative, symbolic and, at times, clumsy.

If you can get past these slight imperfections, you will come to writing that is crystal clear in its dissection of motives and emotions. It is uncompromising in its honesty. The descriptions of romance, friendship, academia and family life are concrete, meticulous, accurate and moving.

You will learn a lot about how it feels to be Chinese, and particularly how it feels to be a Chinese woman living in the west.

I am sure it cannot have been easy for the author to set down some of these details. I understand how painful it must have been for her to recollect events that, however much they have been fictionalised, have more than a ghostly resemblance to things that actually happened.

Lastly, I have the greatest respect for her achievement in bringing to life these people, some of whom must once have actually lived and died and left a permanent and very deep impression in the author’s heart, and many of whom must be living still. They will go on living now for all of us in this remarkable book, which is, by the way, the first part in a trilogy.

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10 Responses to "How it feels to be Chinese"

Thanks Vanessa for another incredible review. Like you, I have read The Same Moon but have not sat down to review it as yet.

Your words echo some of my thoughts. I knew the book to be fiction deeply steeped in the experiences of the author, and I quite enjoyed reading it from that perspective.

As a Canadian born Chinese, I don’t have the same experiences as you or Junying, but growing up Chinese in a very traditional home in French-speaking Quebec certainly had its challenges. Though I cannot speak Mandarin, I do speak Cantonese and Toisan. Funny, how the Cantonese look down on those who speak this dying language as well.

eden

Hi Eden, thanks for your comment. How lovely of you to drop by! Haha! Everybody finds a reason to look down on someone else.

Wow, Vanessa, I’m speechless! This is the most in-depth, through review I have ever had for my book, and I’m so touched by your first-rate critique and review. Coming from someone like you who share a great deal of my cultural background and experiences has made it more special, and I’m delighted with your candid and positive response.

Eden, thanks for sharing it on Twitter which has brought it to my attention while on holiday :).

As for your confusion about the voices of the narrative, Vanessa, it’s quite reasonable – you know I did initially use the 3rd person during the previous drafts and only changed it all to the first person at the latter stage. I intend to address some of the issues you mentioned when I do my next edit. Thanks again for such a detailed, thoughtful and intelligent review.

Hi Junying. I think this is the longest review I ever wrote on my blog. :) I’m delighted you are delighted. I worry over details. I wanted to say that I gave it 5 stars because this book attempts much more than most of the books I review and it succeeds on so many levels. But I forgot. Hahaha!

Vanessa, I really appreciate the time and efforts you put into reading and reviewing my book – I was a little worried that you might not enjoy it and stopped reading it at some point :). So it was a huge relief when I read your response -5 star or no star, I am geniunely grateful!

It was an ambitious undertaking, as it covered so much of one’s life, as well as trying to educate some western readers about certain things that we Chinese people take for granted :) it’s not always easy to draw the line.

I’d love to write a review like yours one day, with so much depth and breadth, accurate assessment of the book’s merits and limitations. It’s an amazing skill and talent!

Another excellent review. I visited Hong Kong, and recall someone saying that people from Hong Kong couldn’t understand the official language of the Mainland. I understand more now why. Thank you for the clarification. :) x

Hi Sheryl! You are welcome!

[...] She shares my cultural heritage and a ‘common language’. Be sure to join me when I speak with Vanessa Wu – she goes behind the surface and asks the most challenging [...]

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