Swimming in Hong Kong by Stephanie Han (Willow Springs Books, 2016)
Stephanie Han’s debut short story collection Swimming in Hong Kong, her protagonists dwell in liminal places, whether because of race, nationality, age, or location. Han’s exploration of these in-between states is distinguished by its complexity and unabashed embrace of the political, most notably what it means to both enact politics in one’s actions and to live in an inherently politicized body, particularly for women of color in the United States or majority-white expatriate circles abroad.
In the first story, “Invisible,” the narrator is a Korean-American woman married to a white Brit in Hong Kong, who grapples with the anonymity of resembling the Han Chinese people around her while struggling with a language she does not share. In “My Friend Faith, 1977,” the young Debbie yearns to be as American as her white neighbors in California until a summer she spends in South Korea when she meets a white missionary’s daughter who has lived there since she was five and is comfortable with the language and culture in ways that Korean-American Debbie is not. In “The Body Politic, 1982,” Sabrina is desperately trying to shake off her Wisconsin deli-owning parents’ expectations and become the sophisticated revolutionary in New York she dreams of being. The protagonists of this collection are mostly women but range in ethnicity, age, and class from an elderly cardboard collector to a twenty-something Korean immigrant on the American West Coast to a black woman training for a triathlon in Hong Kong. All of them, though, grapple with transition, loneliness, an inability or lack of desire to fit in or settle.
I did think there was a story or two in the collection which didn’t handle sociopolitical ideas with the concreteness and subtlety that characterized the best stories of the book. For example, in “The Ki Difference,” which presents two people formerly in an interracial relationship reuniting in Seoul, there is a character who is the very definition of the “Ugly American Tourist” and the “Fetishizing White Guy With Yellow Fever.” He talks more loudly in English to a waitress who can’t understand him, romanticizes the citizens of the Asian countries he visits, and is shamelessly materialistic, making it difficult for me to understand why the Korean-American protagonist would have ever dated him in the first place, much less choosing to meet up with him again.
Still, it’s refreshing to see the book tackle subjects I haven’t seen much in mainstream fiction, such as the complicated relationship between foreign expatriates and the citizens of the countries in which they live. In “Invisible,” the Korean-American protagonist does not belong with either the Han Chinese locals nor the mostly white expatriates; “Hong Kong Rebound” explores how affluent expatriates ignore or mistreat the poorer locals who serve them; and one protagonist in “Swimming in Hong Kong” is navigating living abroad as a black American woman. Furthermore, “The Body Politic, 1982” tackles the complex gender politics of many ethnic solidarity organizations. The more radical Asian-American groups protagonist Sabrina participates in initiate her political awakening but also police how she conducts herself as a woman and in romantic and sexual relationships, particularly when she is assaulted by a white man she was initially attracted to and feels unable to tell anyone, even her new Asian-American boyfriend: “But I kept my silence after the AMW-Asian Media Watch meeting. Sam spoke of Asian sisters who sold out their people to white men and I could feel Matt squeeze my hand as I disappeared in his palm. I wasn’t a sellout, he was saying to me” (34).
Overall, the collection firmly dedicates itself to the lives of Asian women and other women of color. Too often, women like these characters are peripheral and flat in mainstream English-language fiction, if they show up at all; Han’s women characters are complex and human with secrets, pain, and joy, whether it’s a young woman finally revealing to the man she loves in America that she left a son behind in Korea or a Korean spinster finding love with a younger white American. The title of the story that opens the collection is “Invisible,” but as the stories unfold, these women are rendered anything but: “You listen to the rise of his voice carefully as if to memorize it all, because slowly in front of you he is fading. His words are drowned by the clink of glasses; the haze of tobacco rises and his presence recedes, swallowed by the dim amber light” (19). In Han’s hands, these women are flesh and blood, alive, triumphant.