Reviews and essays / March 2014 (Issue 23)

In Quest of a Home: Karen Ma's Excess Baggage

by Emma Zhang


Karen Ma, Excess Baggage, China Books, 2013. 330 pgs.


Torn asunder by the weight of their nation's history and by devastating personal choices, a Chinese family struggles to preserve their bond across national borders and overcome a guilt that cuts deep. Depicting the quest of an immigrant family marooned in Tokyo, Karen Ma's first novel, Excess Baggage, is a pleasing addition to Anglophone literature written by members of the Chinese diaspora. Following the footsteps of Maxine Hong Kingston and Amy Tan, Ma examines the rootlessness and displacement experienced by transnational citizens, their unique quest for identity, belonging and their sense of home.

The novel begins on a fateful day in Dalian, China in the 1960s, when eight-year-old Pei is heading toward her friend's home for their routine after-school gathering; she is stopped by her mother, Yan, who hesitantly breaks the news to her: only two of their three children will be permitted to leave China and join their father in Hong Kong. Pei, as the oldest girl, will be left behind. Three decades later, when Pei finally rejoins her family, now located in Tokyo, the once cheerful and innocent child has become a 38-year-old woman, her childhood stolen by the turmoil of the Cultural Revolution. Like the ghostly Beloved in Tony Morrison's saga, Pei haunts her family with voracity and vengeance, turning their lives upside down, forcing each member to face the past they had tried to forget. Pei's intrusion on the lives of her family brings both destruction and renewal and, ultimately, growth and healing through pain and suffering.

"They cried out, shrilling cries, pulsing sharper than birds of prey—eagles, vultures with hooked claws—when farmers plunder their nest of young too young to fly." Thus sang Homer of the passionate reunion of Odysseus and Telemachus after their long separation. Can blood relations inevitably preserve a family's loyalty, faith and fondness for each other after decades of alienation? The following is Ma's description of her character's first family reunion in three decades, "No one spoke as they waited for the food. The room was quiet, and the only noise they could hear was the intermittent whines of a baby next door. Da Wei and Vivian tried to keep busy by cracking on seeds." Both tragic and awkward, the scene illustrates an escalating chill, the tension building between the members of this long-estranged family, creating a discomfort bordering on the need to flee. Here, Ma's tone is refreshingly frank, there is no overwrought sentimentality, no romanticising of family relationships. Unflinchingly exposing each character's weakness, self-deception and ability to inflict pain, she often writes with surgical precision, her unvarnished prose gaining strength from its authenticity.

Excess Baggage portrays the lives of three women: Yan, the mother whose fate-altering decision to leave Pei in China condemns her oldest daughter to three decades of abuse, loneliness and isolation; Pei, the abandoned child whose ambition and hunger for love and financial success motivates her to make the same mistake that caused her own irreparable damage, as she abandons her own twin boys in search of her original family and Vivian, the "fortunate" sister, who is forced to bear the brunt of her mother's guilt. Though superbly educated and perfectly capable, Vivian is paralysed by the sense of inadequacy her mother has unwittingly nurtured in her. She struggles with unsatisfying relationships and dead-end jobs, her potential wasting away.

Yan, a frail woman capable of loving others more than herself, could have been a nurturing mother and a devoted wife under normal circumstances, but life cruelly demands more than she can bear, burying her under guilt and grief, depleting her of love, until only a shadow of a woman remains. In its depiction of a woman having to live with the consequences of a decision no mother should have to make, Yan's tragedy brings to mind Sophie's Choice. Heavily weighed down by the guilt of abandoning her favourite daughter and the grief from the betrayal of her unloving husband, Yan is emotionally drained and becomes dependent on Vivian. In sharp contrast to the manipulative tiger mothers in Amy Tan's The Joy Luck Club, Yan is a meek and gentle woman, whose spirit is crushed by her husband's infidelity. Slaving away as a janitor in Tokyo, she is barely able to support herself. She endures her unfaithful husband's insults and injuries, accepting his occasional aid just to get by. Emptied of love and self-respect, she cannot pass on the "tiger spirit," but instead hands down the burdens of her weakness, vulnerability and dependency to her two daughters.

Even at the age of 38, Pei remains an abandoned child, her family's desertion having left her emotionally crippled, hungering for her mother's love and unable to establish a healthy family of her own. Leaving her husband and abandoning her children in Dalian, Pei embarks on an adventure in Tokyo, hoping to reap all the fortune that life has deprived her. From being a haughty student who tactlessly wounds her teacher's pride to a taunting sex-club hostess desperately fighting for the favour of a callous patron, Pei clumsily navigates the ever-changing terrain of life in a foreign city. Blinded by greed for love and money, she plunges into the depths of humiliation and disappointment. Pei's materialistic pursuits leave her empty-handed until a serendipitous encounter brings her a gift she had never dreamt of. Charles Dickens was right—suffering is stronger than all other teaching. Like Pip in London, Pei, in the profit-driven, competitive and discriminatory city of Tokyo, goes through successive disillusionments until she is bent and broken, but into a better shape. Pei's failed pursuit of wealth destroys the myth that many Mainland immigrants entertain. The lives of Chinese immigrants in affluent capitalist countries are not paved with gold, but often rather with tears, sweat and shattered dreams.

Jing-Mei Woo's tearful reunion with her long-lost twin sisters in Mainland China happily concludes Amy Tan's The Joy Luck Club. As Jing-Mei embraces her Chinese sisters, she embraces the Chineseness within herself. Her identity is affirmed; at long last, she has reconnected with her cultural roots. Not so for Vivian. As a Chinese girl brought up in a foreign land, Vivian doesn't have a place she can call home. Like Jing-Mei, she longs for a day when she can return to her homeland and embrace her sister, Pei, whom she thinks of as a link between her and her mother nation. When Pei cuts her own ties with the homeland and joins the family in Japan, Vivian is pained by a loss she cannot name. No tearful reunion takes place in Excess Baggage; instead, the sisters are seized by jealousy and are constantly at each other's throats. In Part II, Vivian finally visits Dalian and confronts her own delusions and allows her romantic imagination of the homeland to shatter. Vivian's search for her roots only brings her into contact with scheming relatives lusting after her money, and undesirable suitors longing for a ticket out of the country. Both tragic and hilarious, Vivian's journey continues where The Joy Luck Club left off, crushing the dream of reconnection that many overseas Chinese hold dear.

As globalisation becomes a part of ordinary life in the 21st century, Ma's novel offers a timely search for a new way of defining oneself. Once upon a time, a person's identity was intimately tied to a particular nation, culture and location. But as immigration has become a common practice globally, that need not be true. Vivian cannot understand or identify with her extended family in Dalian. Instead, her childhood memory and sense of home is intimately tied to the modest second floor apartment in the quiet neighbourhood of Higashi-Kitazawa, Tokyo, which her mother rented for years. When she returns and finds the place vacant and desolate, the sense of home that she had attached to the apartment vanishes. She flies to Seattle, where she attains a temporary position. A woman raised between cultures, Vivian accepts the fact that she will be an eternal outsider; any physical home she finds will only be a temporary abode, her true home must exist within her inner life. Like Dorothy, who discovers that she has always had the ability to go home by clicking her red slippers together, Vivian discovers that her home is a sense of peace and fulfillment she carries within herself. Family relations are not given but made; personal choices can maintain or destroy a relationship. Vivian chooses to establish and maintain her relationship with her nephews, thus creating a home reaching beyond borders.

In his 1993 essay, "E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction," David Foster Wallace wrote in anticipation of a new generation of writers who would endeavour to bring old-fashioned sincerity back into a literary scene overpopulated with ironic, perplexing, self-referencing postmodern prose. "The next real literary 'rebels' in this country might well emerge as some weird bunch of anti-rebels, born oglers who dare somehow to back away from ironic watching, who have the childish gall actually to endorse and instantiate single-entendre principles. Who treat of plain old untrendy human troubles and emotions in U.S. life with reverence and conviction. Who eschew self-consciousness and hip fatigue." Karen Ma's prose, with its brutal honesty and faithful portrayal of human strivings and failures, almost fits this description. Her painstaking frankness is the book's strength, but also, sometimes, its weakness. Ma occasionally makes overly explicit comments and remarks, leaving too little to the reader's imagination. In addition, there are grammatical errors scattered throughout the book, giving it an unpolished feel. These minor flaws, however, do not undermine the engaging and fast-moving plot, the convincing and relatable characters and the timely themes that Ma richly presents to her readers.


Editors' note: Read Rhiannon Jenkins Tsang's interview with Karen Ma here .

Website © Cha: An Asian Literary Journal 2007-2018
ISSN 1999-5032
All poems, stories and other contributions copyright to their respective authors unless otherwise noted.