Review: Journey Across the Four Seas

Journey Across the Four SeasThis is the second Veronica Li book I’ve been asked to review, and it fulfilled all the promise her first title. She describes this as a memoir dictated by her mother and transcribed and translated by herself. Li explains in the prologue that the genesis of the idea came from childhood:

One of my fondest memories of growing up in Hong Kong is listening to Mom’s stories on a winter night. I would be sitting in my parents’ bed, my feet tucked under a silk-stuffed quilt. Mom sat on a sofa chair close by, clad in a cheongsam, with the high mandarin collar turned down for comfort. It was after dinner. My tummy was warm and the air cold. The temperature in Hong Kong never went down to freezing; but when the apartment had no heating, the chill could be unrelenting.

“Tell about how you met Baba,” I implored.
“But you heard that last night already,” Mom said.

“Please, please, one more time.”

Mom smiled without parting her lips—only an angel could smile like that. The flow of her words, which had become my words, lulled me into a trance. I sank lower and lower into the bed. The comforter wrapped me as snugly as a cocoon. My eyes grew heavy. Then I heard Mom say, “You know what happens next?” Of course I knew, but I also knew that she didn’t expect me to answer. She was only testing to see if I was still listening. My eyelids fluttered, and she continued. I must have been about seven, still small enough to be carried to my own bed without waking.

Li says she had heard all these stories throughout her life, though never strung together chronologically. Having read the stories for the first time that way, I have to guess that there was more than a little editing and revision once the oral history recording sessions were completed. This is a polished pearl of a story. It hangs together thematically with some wonderful incentives to learn more about Chinese history. (I know I’m going to be looking for a good version of “Dreaming in the Red Chamber” based on the impact the protagonist ascribes to that story on her own life.)

For a memoir, it carries some very strong themes throughout the book: parenting, motherhood, relationships, and education. In an odd way, it confirms western stereotypes about typical Chinese values, though it does so in such a way that underlines western short-sightedness in not understanding the value inherent in these connections and goals. Even the guanxi that leads to opportunities ranging from school, to jobs, to housing, to an eventual husband is illustrated in a clear and easy-to-understand series of examples of Chinese cultural mores.

I had never previously heard of the Homa & Sekey imprint, either, but will be looking further into their catalog as well, if the quality of content from this book is representative of the rest of what they carry.

Having visited Hong Kong a handful of times in my life, and lived in Taiwan for an eventful year and a half myself, many of the locations were at least vaguely familiar to me. The new context for the KMT, and a clearer understanding of the history of 1940s China and the rise of communism on the mainland was an added bonus for the compellingly written tale. Even cross-cultural miscues interpreted through the eyes of children added to the flavor and authenticity of the story:

Being only two years apart, Ngai and I were best friends. As we had no toys to play with, we had to create our own games. One of our favorites was imitating our rulers, the British. I invented it after witnessing a scene on the street. While running an errand for Mother, I saw a British man dressed in a white suit. His pants hugged his legs, reminding me of Mother’s theory that when a gweilo fell, he couldn’t get up because his pants were too tight. The Englishman’s leather shoes made a loud clackety-clack on the pavement. The sight and sound mesmerized me. Everything about him was alien—we Chinese wore baggy pants to give us freedom of movement, and our cloth shoes would never create such a racket. Then I saw a beggar come up to him. The Englishman waved his cane and shouted something, his face turning as red as a monkey’s bottom. The scene made such an impression on me that I reenacted it to Ngai the moment I got home. Brandishing Mother’s duster as the Englishman his cane, I yelled, “Gid-a-wai, chop chop!” I had no idea that what I was saying meant “Get away, hurry up!” To complete my act, I marched off, clucking my tongue to mimic the noisy leather shoes. Ngai rolled with laughter on the floor. From then on, we took turns in playing the Englishman and the beggar.

I can thus enthusiastically encourage anyone with an interest in recent Chinese history to read this unique perspective on the impact of the Japanese invasion and the increasing destabilization of mainland politics on the lives of ordinary citizens who were nonetheless profoundly impacted by the greater context of the world around them. The bonus is that this is told from the perspective of such a strong female voice, who was able to pursue her goals despite the times and turbulence.

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