Interviews / March 2014 (Issue 23)

One Country, Two Sisters?: An interview with Karen Ma about her debut novel, Excess Baggage

by Rhiannon Jenkins Tsang

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Rhiannon Jenkins Tsang: The crux of the plot of Excess Baggage lies in the story of the two Chinese sisters separated by their mother in early childhood. Where did this idea come from? How far is the story autobiographical?

Karen Ma: The story is semi-autobiographical. I have a sister raised separately from me who, much like the character Pei, was held back in China because of the Cultural Revolution. But the setting and details about other main characters and their circumstances are all fictitious. And all the minor characters are purely my creation.

RJT: For me, the strength of the book comes from the interplay of tension and expectation between the two sisters and their mother when they meet again in Tokyo. Can you tell us more about this; their bitterness, rivalry and unhappiness? What expectations do you think people have when they leave China for a life in the West today? How do you think the modern generation's expectations might differ from those who left China in the 1980s and 1990s?

KM: I want to point out first and foremost that in this story the family does not move to the West—they move to another Asian country, albeit a very modern and Westernized one. Excess Baggage is really my attempt to tell a different narrative about the Chinese diaspora, because I feel that most Chinese immigrant stories written in English have focused on immigrants moving to the West, with Amy Tan's books being a prominent example. The Chinese diaspora living in Asia is now so much larger—about 70 percent of the overseas Chinese live in Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines and other parts of Asia—yet there has been very little written about their experience. With Excess Baggage, I wanted to highlight this Asian diaspora and look at the Chinese immigrant story in a less stereotypical way.

Another focal point in Excess Baggage is the unrealistic expectations many people left behind (not necessarily Chinese) still feel about family members that departed and made it in the new world. The stereotype about overseas Chinese immigrants is that they are invariably wealthy and successful. This is so not true. There are so many immigrants who are failures as well, yet we don't hear their stories. In my story, Pei, the sister left behind in China, continues to hold on to this diehard image that all overseas Chinese, including her family, must be rich and wealthy. That's why, when she finally meets up with them in Japan, she's set herself up for huge disappointment, having imagined for decades that they'd shower her with their riches. What she doesn't expect is that her overseas family is dysfunctional, with her breadwinner father having run off with another woman and her mother now working menial jobs to make ends meet. These destroyed expectations fuel the tension and unhappiness between her and her younger sister, who cannot understand why Pei would give up a good job in China and abandon her family to migrate to Japan and become a second-class citizen. The crux of the story is about expectation gaps and cultural clashes within the family.

A lot of the Chinese immigrants used to be economic migrants, enticed by the promise of better pay and a more sophisticated lifestyle overseas. Ironically, the Chinese migrants of the 21st century will increasingly find that "the moon is not necessary rounder overseas," to quote an idiom. I've met a few Chinese expats living in India and elsewhere who say they're no longer the wealthy Chinese; that it's increasingly their family members who stayed back in China who are making better money. Perhaps in the future, the urge to move away from China will be less about materialism and more for spiritual and ideological reasons.

RJT: Having studied and worked in Taipei in the 1980s and 1990s, I was particularly taken with your superb evocation of student life on the margin for non-Japanese living in Tokyo, particularly women. The smell of Old Spice aftershave summed up an era! Can you talk a little bit about how you evoked the atmosphere of 1990s Tokyo, and how far is this part autobiographical?

KM: I lived in Japan for fifteen years, so I couldn't help but absorb a lot of the texture of everyday life. I was a student there, so I was able to draw on my experience to a certain degree as a foreign student. But I also did a lot of research about the new Chinese immigrants. I read a lot of local Chinese newspapers and books written by Chinese living in Japan. I also used some creative license—with, for example, the bar hostess and the restaurant and art gallery scenes that are fiction and were lots of fun to create. Being a journalist in Tokyo certainly helped my research.

RJT: Unlike a lot of China-related contemporary fiction, you chose a potentially benevolent and compassionate ending for the story, promising us that the daughters won't repeat their elders' mistakes. It could have gone the other way. Why did you do this?

KM: Yes, I ended the novel on a more positive note. I did this because I wanted to leave the reader with a more hopeful view of the characters' future. It may also be a reflection of my optimism about China's future. Chinese people have been through the wringer in recent times, "eating bitterness" in a way many of us outside the Middle Kingdom can't imagine. Although Chinese society is still far from perfect, the younger generation is now enjoying the kind of freedom their parents could only dream of, giving them a greater sense of control. On another note, it's also my hope that readers will recognise the simple fact that no matter how difficult our lives are, we'll always have elements of choice in how we see and cope with personal misfortune.

RJT: Why do you think contemporary Chinese fiction and China-related fiction is so bleak? Is there anything beautiful and compassionate coming out of Chinese literature these days?

KM: I think the bleakness has to do with the so-called "Scar" literature, which emerged after the 1980s, exposing the cruelty and destructive legacy of the Cultural Revolution, both physically and psychologically. Thirty years may have passed, but the upheaval left very deep scars on the Chinese human psyche, and writers are still trying to come to grips with this very painful past.

In terms of compassionate literature out of China of late, I have to admit I haven't come across that much. But one book I know of is Under the Hawthorn Tree by Ai Mi, published in English in 2012 by House of Anansi Press. While this story also has a sad ending, it's a love story that's sensitively and beautifully written; a gem.

RJT: Why do you think contemporary Chinese fiction is so preoccupied with stories about women? (I was interested in the motivations of the men in The Woman Who Lost China—paradoxically!)

KM: As Pearl S. Buck had said before, "Chinese women are the strongest women in the world." And it's not just women writers who tend to focus on stories about women. Many male writers do as well, including Mo Yan and Bi Feiyu. It may be that Chinese women, having been suppressed and having suffered more at the hands of their men folk and society, are an intrinsically more interesting subject and tell more about society.

RJT: You used to live in New Dehli. Can you offer some perspective on being a Chinese in India, how China is viewed from the Indian perspective and what kind of interest there is in learning Mandarin in India?

KM: Being Chinese is not always easy in India. The 1962 Sino-Indian war left a deep scar on the bilateral relationship that has yet to fully heal. The recent economic rivalry between the two giants and the border issues added to mutual distrust. Many of my Chinese friends complain that they have a hard time securing visas from the Indian government and the same thing may apply in the other direction. This, however, is not to say that the Indians, particularly younger Indians, are not interested in learning Mandarin. I think there is a rising curiosity about learning Chinese. But sadly, so far this curiosity is more driven by the recognition that knowing Mandarin will mean better jobs or business opportunities for them in the future. China and India still have a ways to go to improve their relationship.

RJT: What does it mean to be Chinese in today's world?! I know for example that people of nationalist origin in Taiwan are in some state of confusion about their identity today. Equally, Hong Kong Chinese are not entirely comfortable being part of the PRC.

KM: I think Taiwanese Chinese and Hong Kong Chinese are proud of their Chinese heritage, but they are suspicious of Beijing's political agenda. So when speaking of their Chinese identity, they like to emphasise the cultural aspects of it. Another side to this identity issue is that both the Taiwanese and Hong Kong Chinese consider themselves culturally superior to Mainlanders because the latter were economically weak for some time due to the extreme political climate. That explains in part why both Taiwanese Chinese and Hong Kong Chinese have been reluctant to link with Mainlanders. But having said that, I also know that more Hong Kong Chinese are increasingly open to saying they are part of the Mainland now that China is economically powerful, and their own well-being is increasingly tied to China. Money is power, I suppose.

RJT: Writing a novel and getting it published is a huge achievement. Congratulations! What has been the reaction of readers to the characters in Excess Baggage, who are not politically correct and don't always show themselves in a favourable light?

KM: I believe writing a novel that's relevant to the real world and that can help readers make sense of what's happening around them that is hugely important. China has emerged as a key player in the new order now, yet many people from the West are still grappling with what the Chinese are really about. In the novel, I have taken pains to describe why Pei, the older sister character left in China, comes across as so desperate and money-hungry to the rest of the family when she first arrives in Tokyo. One Chinese writer friend of mine says, "Through Pei, you have given the Chinese money-grabber a human face." I hope I have managed in some small way to demonstrate how materialistic Chinese, in many ways, are the result of what's been happening to them since the 1950s and the 60s, when many Chinese went through so many failed political campaigns and famines and, of course, the disastrous Cultural Revolution.

After China officially opened its doors to the West in the 1980s, people were forced to adjust to breakneck economic development as the country tried to catch up. I cannot stress enough here that China's economic rise happened in the span of just 30 years—about 10 years shorter than the time it took Japan to achieve its own economic miracle, and China's population is at least eight times bigger than Japan's. Over 1 billion Chinese people have been through so much in such a short time that you can understand why so many people have yet to find their feet in this fast-changing world.

Excess Baggage by Karen Ma, published by China Books, 2013.

Editors' note: Read Emma Zhang's review of Excess Baggage here.

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