by Michael Tsang
Xu Xi, Habit of a Foreign Sky, Haven Books, 2010. 283 pgs.
In romance novels there exists a "career girl formula," in which the heroine chooses career over romance, but in the end discovers that love is what she truly needed all along.
The heroine of this book, mixed-race Gail Szeto, is portrayed according to this formula but with a twist. Two years after losing her young son Gu Kwun, Gail now loses her mother. The tragedy of losing the last member of her immediate family coincides with a turning point in her career, which would mean moving to New York from Hong Kong. In the course of picking herself up again, she reminisces on past episodes in her life, and faces head-on issues pertaining to her mixed-race identity and her romantic insecurities. Meanwhile, she meets Xavier, a single father, and gradually falls for him. She also forges ties with Gordie, her American half-brother, and begins to establish a new familial attachment.
Xu Xi's strength has always been her delicate, meticulous depiction of charismatic characters, and this book is no exception. Attractive and charming, but cold with a no-nonsense attitude (she is nicknamed "cold fish" by another character), Gail Szeto is an example of a particular kind of elite, independent and professional woman. Her mother's death, however, decomposes her life and blurs her future. A central question explored in the book, then, is "who do you live for, especially when you are a career woman?" This is a tale about learning to believe in love and family, after you have lost everyone and been left alone within the four walls you call home. But it is also an examination of personal identity, a theme which is explored through Gail's ambivalent attitude towards her Chinese-American background and through her childhood insecurities arising from a largely absent father and a low-class mother who works in a dance hall. Set in the period after her mother's death but before her career relocation (an excellent choice of setting which allows Xu Xi room to develop her characters and investigate her chosen themes), Gail is provided with the luxury of time to clear her mind and focus, probably for the first time in years, on what she wants for herself.
Obviously, Gail cannot rebuild her life without the help of people around her. Xu Xi excels at creating rounded, witty supporting characters with distinct personalities. Whether it's Gordie, the slick brother who never takes up a "proper" job but still insists on doing housework, or Persey, another single mother-cum-career woman who provides Gail with constant support, or even Conchita, the adorable and compassionate Filipino maid who I wish I could have read more about, every one of these characters has their own flair and flaws, and thus an unmistakable verisimilitude. Xu Xi's eloquent narration also helps with her portrayal of these characters. We see everyone's actions, and hear their thoughts; we know their pasts, feel their emotions. One moment, we are gripped by two characters holding a sarcastic, biting conversation, and at the next we chuckle at their inner regret.
Yet after all the compelling events and well-crafted chapters, it is the ending which proves particularly intriguing, probably because it does not have the feel of a resolved finale. Instead, we leave off just as Gail has begun to regain her life—her romance with Xavier is uncertain and may still face opposition from friends and she has just learned to accept her half-brother Gordie as her new immediate family. Breaking away from the traditional story model, this book does not even have a formal climax. Instead, Xu Xi leaves her story open, suggesting that Gail's change is gradual, with each incident—both those which occur in the book and those which will occur after it has finished—contributing to her life experience.
The ongoing process of reflection, personal development and the difficult negotiations necessary for establishing an independent self are themes which are much appreciated in many feminist circles. It is Xu Xi's treatment of these concerns which separates the novel from the clichéd career girl formula. Gail, as the author describes her, is a feminist: "Gail, a pioneer, wore the name, feminist, comfortably, and with pride." Xu Xi herself spoke of the relation between the book and feminism at the book's Hong Kong launch. Strictly speaking, feminism refers to a collective effort in establishing equal rights for all classes of women, and is thus more than the empowerment of a relatively small number of elite, career women who are able to more openly explore their sexuality and assert their position within society. For this reason, I wished to have seen a more apparent and intimate improvement in Gail's relationship with Conchita at the end of the novel, because Conchita too deserves an expressed respect from Gail.
The novel's ending does, however, shine light on the transitory nature of Gail's future. The transient and shifting nature of this path offers a good explanation for the large number of supporting characters in the book and why the story is divided into four parts, each featuring a brief itinerary with airport codes, such as "Hong Kong to New York but sort of via Shanghai Paris (or HKG-JFK OW OJ SHA CDG)." The metaphor of flying and travel appear repeatedly in the last chapters and not only suggests Gail's reconciliation of her Chinese and American identities, but also highlights the idea that life is always changing, with multiple possible routes which can be taken at any point. As opposed to her old life where she travels routinely between New York and Hong Kong, at the end of the book she reconnects with her old acquaintances in a refreshing and authentic way, and she is presented with many new flight plans, including a new life in unfamiliar part of New York and a vacation in Paris.
Well-controlled and wonderfully written, Habit of a Foreign Sky brings out many issues surrounding a mixed-race woman's endeavour to move forward with her life. One of the finest writers from Hong Kong, no one but Xu Xi could have produced such a brave, balanced and tensile work.