Reviews / July 2011 (Issue 14)

It Is Not That I Don't Love You: It Is Just That Your House Is So Far Away

by Emily Walz


Steve Noyes, It Is Just That Your House Is So Far Away, Signature Editions, 2010. 286 pages.

Man travels to China, falls in love, goes home and must decide how much he is willing to give up to reunite with his beloved. On the surface, it looks like the stereotypical story of an older white man with a beautiful young Asian woman, except she isn't after his money (he has none) or a chance to live overseas (she's not really sure she wants to leave China). The story moves quickly beyond stereotypes to describe a complex intercultural relationship, illustrating the difficulty of connecting across cultures and continents, while painting a vibrant picture of a foreigner's life in China.

The book explores the emotional displacement of someone who has spent a long time away only to come home and find himself lost, unable to explain his experiences. It proves just as tiring to counter  his friends' and neighbors' preconceptions of life in China as battling Chinese preconceptions about foreigners.

Jeff Mott, his first marriage behind him and without a job, has left Canada for China. Working as a teacher near Beijing, he struggles to learn Mandarin and gain a foothold in Chinese society.  Alternatively bewildered and enchanted, Jeff discovers that going to China is "like stepping onto another planet." He becomes involved with a young woman, Bian Fu. In what seems like a whirlwind courtship, they move quickly from stilted conversations by the riverbank to talk of the life they will have together. But complications arise and Jeff returns to Canada. He holds on to the idea of marrying Bian Fu through the return trip and back again, while waiting for her to extricate herself from her former relationship. But the mysterious Bian Fu has not been completely honest, and she frustrates Jeff with her deference to tradition and unwillingness to upset her family. And so he is left trying to gauge how much to trust her, how much to trust his own feelings and how to judge the reality of the situation amidst a jumble of cross-cultural expectations.

The already complicated relationship is made more so by Bian Fu's conventional Chinese family, Jeff's obligation to his young daughter in Canada and Bian Fu's expectations that he will provide for her even though he is barely able provide for himself.

Jeff also faces cultural barriers, exacerbated by his limited Mandarin, and he develops a sense of isolation from Chinese society. He is desperate to connect with the local people he meets, striking up conversations with vendors and policemen, but most consider him a curiosity or an opportunity to practice their English. He must endure the disapproval of the general populace in China, who look askance at a Chinese woman with a foreigner.

These constant reminders of his status begin to wear on him, especially when Bian Fu's family proves reluctant to accept him. In rare moments, Jeff seems to be coming to terms with his isolation, where he sees beyond the family's reservations and strangers' desire to keep him at a distance to realize there are large parts of their lives and culture that he does not understand. He learns to recognize the country's own internal divisions, illustrated by the way Jeff's students treat Bian Fu with diminished regard when they learn that she has a rural instead of urban household registration.

After many months of waiting, Jeff again returns to Canada, his heart divided—missing China even while remembering the rules that infuriated him, the constant scrutiny and the unspoken insinuation that as a foreigner he could never understand the culture. He often thinks of flying back to be with Bian Fu, but knows his presence in China will have no effect aside from draining his bank account. Instead, he practices the art of wu wei, or doing something by doing nothing, letting the world swirl around him. His life becomes a mix of dreams and waking fantasies, imagining Bian Fu and Confucius. The moment of truth comes when he will have to tell either Bian Fu or his daughter that he will not be coming back.

Noyes is a poet, and some of the lines perfectly evoke the lively, dirty, crowded chaos of Beijing and its village-like hutong communities. There are paragraphs that are wonderfully descriptive, giving the reader a 360-degree view of the streets, the people, the feel of the city:
Beijing sparkled as he rode through the Kick Fish crossroads to pick her up. People's eyes shone with the foreknowledge of snow. Old couples walked together laden with baixin and bok choy in net bags. Garbage can lids brimmed with pistachios and peanuts. The vendors sat cross-legged on their carts and weighed their goods with the funny tippy scales that they held in one hand and tapped with the other until they balanced or until their patter convinced the buyer. In huge parked trucks there were bales of children's clothing being picked over by mothers, the kids climbing onto the flatbed to roll and shriek in the multicoloured nest.

These are the vivid moments of everyday life in China, as Jeff lives them. But there are other sections that lose the reader—flowery paragraphs so thick with images and words that they slow the momentum of the story.

Noyes includes beautiful descriptions that seem like they connect to threads running through the story, but they turn out to be unrelated loose ends, strings that promise more significance than they deliver. One such is a description of Jeff's Muslim faith: "In fervent surges, he would still practice Islam, then fall away. Spending time with Chinese Muslims was an entirely colonial experience; for Jeff, it was a daguerreotype of lattice-sunlit mosque interiors among bearded and turbaned men kneeling in a circle and reciting by turns the Qur'an." Yet this potentially interesting strand is not fully developed, and readers are left with more questions about Jeff's faith than answers.

The story is told in an awkwardly close third person, never far enough removed from Jeff to get a complete view. Save for the few remarks his friends make about his habit of hopeless romanticism, there is not much to explain what lays behind his reluctance to work, his habitual pot-smoking, constantly thin finances, how and why he became a Muslim or when he decides to marry Bian Fu. The story focuses instead on Jeff's uncertainty and the distances (both physical and cultural) keeping him and Bian Fu apart. Characters are introduced and fall away: the women Jeff meets and leaves, the friends and other expatriates with whom he doesn't keep in touch. In this life, only Bian Fu and a few people from Canada remain constant. 

Many of the experiences in the novel seem to be drawn from real life, from the experience of someone who has been a foreigner in a country as homogeneous and culturally proud as China, where being Chinese is to belong, and being foreign is to always in some sense be on the outside. Noyes captures the difficulty of building a relationship across that cultural gap, as well as the geographic gap between continents. In the end, the reader is never quite sure what dooms their relationship—if it is the distance, the cultural differences or if Jeff has finally removed his rose-colored glasses and stopped seeing the world through the eyes of a romantic.

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