Swimming in Hong Kong by Stephanie Han
Swimming in Hong Kong
Author: Stephanie Han
Stephanie Han’s collection of short stories, Swimming in Hong Kong, conveys a series of realistic portraits—detailed and not always flattering—of mostly women narrators. Contained in these voices, from locals to expatriates, old women to children, narrators leaving or arriving in Korea, Hong Kong, or the U.S., there is a sense of displacement, of not quite knowing how to belong. Close to this is the even more poignant feeling of exile and rejection from family and peers for not fitting the cultural mold. Han’s ability to establish setting in these stories and populate them with realistic and believable characters further grounds us in a sense of otherness that many of the narrators experience.
Han’s collection contains paradoxes, intimate struggles to conform and rebel at once. In “The Body Politic, 1982,” Sabrina negotiates control in her life, cutting her hair to represent the Asian Sisters for Action cause—which dictates that “Long hair is a racial stereotype” and a means of objectifying Asian women—but at the same time wanting to explore her sexuality. Twelve-year-old Debbie in “My Friend Faith, 1977” wants to cling to her American-ness after being sent to Korea for the summer, but later embraces the Korean part of her identity when challenged by white missionaries. In her thirties, Miss Lee in “Languages” experiences pressure from her parents to get married before her father’s sixtieth birthday, but is drawn not to the aging bachelors chosen by her matchmaker, but to the young American student she teaches in her Korean language class. The stories in Swimming in Hong Kong share separate but related tensions, a cultural push and pull that challenges the characters’ identities.
Migration and borders hang in the peripherals of each of these characters’ lives, whether they are expatriates, immigrants, or natives. They navigate and traverse lines that forbid them access to different forms of love and opportunities. For example, “Canyon” is a story of exile as teenaged Hana is sent to the U.S. after giving her illegitimate child up for adoption. American high school is nightmarish because of the language barrier and the cruelty of peers who taunt and abuse her relentlessly. She hopes for better things for her future children because of what she has been denied and what she has worked extra hard for, but the “American Dream” is not and cannot be the same for her as it is for her American boyfriend: “He wants money; his fantasy is to wade through a field of dollars, full glorious blooms, the flower of America.” For Hana, the dream is simply possibility: “When no one is with me, I speed, bravely flying up the freeway, looking out and seeing the blue green water and for a moment, I am living my American dream; anything is possible.” Set in the Grand Canyon, such a notable American attraction, Hana also relates differently to the land, the canyon itself, realizing she does not belong to it as intimately as non-immigrants might. The story forces us to ask the question of who owns the American dream and whom it was designed for, because oftentimes immigrants are barred from it, their unique experiences as Americans not accounted for.
Han also focuses on women’s issues in her collection, emphasizing the need for intersectional feminism because of how women of color are treated and objectified in American society and elsewhere. Women’s work, bodies, and power are interwoven concepts that influence a woman’s position in society. For Sabrina in “The Body Politic, 1982,” power comes in the form of being involved in political groups on campus that combat Asian stereotypes, but it also manifests in her sexual identity. This creates a rift: “My skirts were short. I wore fishnet stockings. Guys stared. I liked it, although I wasn’t supposed to, especially if it was a white male.” The dangers of not conforming are engrained, but Sabrina’s identities are varied and conflicting—rejecting her sexuality has the potential to be just as isolating as rejecting the Asian Sisters for Action.
The women characters in Han’s collection are refreshingly imperfect—they are realistically flawed and trying to find their places in the world, challenging notions of the submissive and well-behaved woman. “Invisible” puts the reader directly in the shoes of a Korean woman at a bar in Hong Kong who waves to her husband’s friend, only to have him look past her, unseeing because she is not with her husband. Her laughter over this later and the man’s uncomfortable reaction to being called out resonates as a victory but also feels hollow. The problem is bigger than the man at the bar. The second-person point of view makes this issue closer, and the narrator’s struggle is a thread that seems to run through the collection: “You would like to find a country to belong to. A continent. You think of small tropical islands and crowded cities. You hope to find The Place to Live but have started to believe it doesn’t exist.” Other narrators in the collection seem to struggle with this phenomenon as well.
We know the time period many of these stories take place because of the years included in the titles, but these stories are not bound to isolated points in time or space. They are universal and transcend time, forcing us to look at their relevance today, to look at issues of race and sexism that remain unsolved.
Reviewed by Abbie Lahmers for the SFWP Quarterly and 2040 Books.
Abbie Lahmers is a fiction MFA candidate at Georgia College and State University. She is a managing editor of Arts & Letters and associate editor of 2040 Books, an imprint of SFWP. Her fiction has appeared or is upcoming in Flyway: Journal of Writing and Environment (winner of the 2016 Sweet Corn Contest), Beecher’s, Lime Hawk, Pif Magazine, and SLAB.