Book Reviews and Highlights

Interior Chinatown

Charles Yu

  • Asian American
  • Cultural Heritage
  • Family Life
  • Fiction
  • Literary
  • Take what you can get. Try to build a life. A life at the margin made from bit parts.
  • Act I: Generic Asian Man | Page: 6
  • In the world of Black and White, everyone starts out as Generic Asian Man. Everyone who looks like you, anyway. Unless you’re a woman, in which case you start out as Pretty Asian Woman.
  • Act I: Generic Asian Man | Page: 10
  • The new thing everyone is excited about is called the lychee margarita- tini, which seems like a lot of flavors. Not that you’ve had one. They’re fourteen bucks.
  • Act I: Generic Asian Man | Page: 10
  • The apologies, the true sign—that this was not the man you once knew, a man who would never have uttered that word to his son, sorry, and in English, no less. Not because he thought himself infallible, but because of his belief that a family should never have to say sorry, or please, or thank you, for that matter, these things being redundant, being contradictory to the parent-son relationship, needing to remain unstated always, these things being the invisible fabric of what a family is.
  • Act I: Generic Asian Man | Page: 18
  • No one in Chinatown able to separate the past from the present, always seeing in him (and in each other, in yourselves), all of his former incarnations, the characters he’d played in your minds long after the parts had ended.
  • Act I: Generic Asian Man | Page: 20
  • The reality being that they’d lost the plot somewhere along the way, their once great romance spun into a period piece, into an immigrant family story, and then into a story about two people trying to get by.
  • Act I: Generic Asian Man | Page: 21
  • Poor is relative, of course. None of you were rich or had any dreams of being rich or even knew anyone rich. But the widest gulf in the world is the distance between getting by and not quite getting by.
  • Act I: Generic Asian Man | Page: 21
  • You don’t grind the day—the day grinds you. With the passing of every month your embarrassment compounds, accumulates with the inevitability of a simple arithmetic truth. X is less than Y, and there’s nothing to be done about that.
  • Act I: Generic Asian Man | Page: 21
  • To call oneself master, to hold oneself out as a source of expertise, to have had the courage and ability and discipline that added up to a meaningful, perhaps even noteworthy life, built over decades from nothing, and then at some point in that serious life, finding oneself searching for calories.
  • Act I: Generic Asian Man | Page: 22
  • Nothing like an empty stomach to remind you what you are.
  • Act I: Generic Asian Man | Page: 22
  • But easy cases make bad law, and Bruce Lee proved too much. He was a living, breathing video game boss-level, a human cheat code, an idealized avatar of Asian-ness and awesomeness permanently set on Expert difficulty.
  • Act I: Generic Asian Man | Page: 24
  • Not a man so much as a personification, not a mortal so much as a deity on loan to you and your kind for a fixed period of time. A flame that burned for all yellow to understand, however briefly, what perfection was like.
  • Act I: Generic Asian Man | Page: 24
  • There was a ceiling. Always had been, always would be. Even for him. Even for our hero, there were limits to the dream of assimilation, to how far any of you could make your way into the world of Black and White.
  • Act I: Generic Asian Man | Page: 29
  • There’s just something about Asians that makes reality a little too real, overcomplicates the clarity, the duality, the clean elegance of BLACK and WHITE, the proven template and so the decision is made not in some overarching conspiracy to exclude Asians but because it’s just easier to keep it how we have it.
  • Act II: Int. Golden Palace | Page: 39
  • The second floor is where your folks live. You should stop in. It would make her happy. Not that she would show it. Not that she would smile. More likely a scowl. You should be a better son. For a moment. But it won’t be a moment. It’ll be more. It will be guilt and that heavy feeling, it will be a deep sigh, it will be heavy and unspoken and you don’t know if you can do that right now.
  • Act II: Int. Golden Palace | Page: 47
  • She crouches by the narrow strip that passes for counter space, assembling a small pian-tong, a kid’s lunch divided into neat compartments: in the main section, three boiled dumplings filled with ground pork and bits of ginger and chopped-up scallions. In the two smaller sections, a dollop of soft rice with yam, and a handful of slightly bruised grapes.
  • Act II: Int. Golden Palace | Page: 51
  • You’re so deep in the background, you’re almost out of frame. The script doesn’t give you anything to say, your only action to sweep the floor. And watch your father get talked to like that. It’s his reaction that breaks something inside of you. Or his nonreaction. That this is who he is, Old Asian Man. Nothing more.
  • Act II: Int. Golden Palace | Page: 72
  • Old Asian Man looks at you, a look of disappointment flickering across his features with each accented word. You playing this part, talking like a foreigner. The son who was born here, raised here, a stranger to his own dad for what. For this. So he could be part of this, part of the American show, black and white, no part for yellow. The son who got As in every subject, including English, now making a living as Generic Asian Man.
  • Act III: Ethnic Recurring | Page: 91
  • The two words: Asian Guy. Even now, as Special Guest Star, even here, in your own neighborhood. Two words that define you, flatten you, trap you and keep you here. Who you are. All you are. Your most salient feature, overshadowing any other feature about you, making irrelevant any other characteristic. Both necessary and sufficient for a complete definition of your identity: Asian. Guy.
  • Act III: Ethnic Recurring | Page: 94
  • Average GPA in this room is probably north of three point seven, and now look at them, pretending to be tough, doing a good job at it, as they do. They’re all A students, striving immigrants, still hoping for their shot.
  • Act III: Ethnic Recurring | Page: 104
  • I know, Will. I know. I wish it didn’t have to be like this, but you know how it is. You’re an Asian Man. Your story was great, while it lasted, but now it’s done. I hope our paths cross again. Maybe somewhere else.
  • Act III: Ethnic Recurring | Page: 120
  • To be yellow in America. A special guest star, forever the guest.
  • Act III: Ethnic Recurring | Page: 120
  • “Asian Men aren’t the only invisible people around here, Willis. Look around.” You see what she means. A bunch of Asian dudes and Black women, nibbling on bear claws, stirring powdered creamer into paper cups.
  • Act IV: Striving Immigrant | Page: 128
  • Some of the happiest times of your life were when your mother was dead, because you knew it meant she would be home for six weeks, you would have her all to yourself in the afternoons.
  • Act IV: Striving Immigrant | Page: 130
  • A life they could have together, if only they could figure a way out. Could rent a home or even, dream of dreams, own one. Find a job, new costumes, have names other than Asian Woman, Asian Man.
  • Act IV: Striving Immigrant | Page: 132
  • Dorothy rides the bus through miles of highways, perhaps nondescript to some, but to her, this is grandeur. The countryside she pictured, in the country she long imagined. The panoramic scenery, the flatness of the landscape, the rivers and lakes, the gray and blue and silver and pink skies.
  • Act IV: Striving Immigrant | Page: 135
  • The sole book now in Dorothy’s possession is a copy of Hamilton’s Mythology. A book she has loved since childhood, when she spied the tattered paperback in a bin in her local library, passed over by all the other kids for its ruined state.
  • Act IV: Striving Immigrant | Page: 136
  • And when she becomes an authority someday, an expert in her own right, she thinks that maybe she might be able to make her own entry in the book. To create a tiny god from scratch. She has not named it yet.
  • Act IV: Striving Immigrant | Page: 137
  • Perhaps the god of bus rides. The god of sponge baths, or maps, or minimum wage. The god of immigrants.
  • Act IV: Striving Immigrant | Page: 137
  • Later, Wu will learn what was inside the box: a piece of paper. The deed to the family plot of land. This land will be very valuable in the future. His father risked burning to death for his children’s well-being, the chance at a better life.
  • Act IV: Striving Immigrant | Page: 142
  • Also watching were two Nationalist soldiers, a private and a corporal, who wait until Wu’s father emerges, then calmly shoot him through the back, the bullet exiting from his throat. The box, along with the deed, is casually scooped up by the corporal, and the two walk off, leaving Wu’s family there, without a father, or a house, or a future.
  • Act IV: Striving Immigrant | Page: 143
  • But the one that Wu can never quite get over was the original epithet: Chinaman, the one that seems, in a way, the most harmless, being that in a sense it is literally just a descriptor. China. Man. And yet in that simplicity, in the breadth of its use, it encapsulates so much. This is what you are. Always will be, to me, to us. Not one of us. This other thing.
  • Act IV: Striving Immigrant | Page: 146
  • All of the housemates realize: it was them. All of them. That was the point. They are all the same. All the same to the people who struck Allen in the head until his eyes swelled shut. All the same as they filled a large sack with batteries and stones, and hit Allen in the stomach with it until blood came up from his throat.
  • Act IV: Striving Immigrant | Page: 147
  • Allen was Wu and Park and Kim and Nakamoto, and they were all Allen. Japan, China, Taiwan, Korea, Vietnam. Whatever. Anywhere over there. Slope. Jap. Nip. Chink. Towelhead. Whatever. All of them in the house, after that, they should become closer. But they don’t. They don’t sit around the table anymore, comparing names. Because now they know what they are. Will always be. Asian Man.
  • Act IV: Striving Immigrant | Page: 148
  • The reason no one will rent to them is the color of their skin, and although technically at this point in the story of America this reason for not renting to someone is illegal, the reality is, no one cares.
  • Act IV: Striving Immigrant | Page: 152
  • There are a few years in a family when, if everything goes right, the parents aren’t alone anymore, they’ve been raising their own companion, the kid who’s going to make them less alone in the world and for those years they are less alone.
  • Act IV: Striving Immigrant | Page: 157
  • I have to talk with an accent because no one can process what the hell to do with me. I’ve got the consciousness of a contemporary American. And the face of a Chinese farmer of five thousand years ago.
  • Act IV: Striving Immigrant | Page: 166
  • You have been a father for approximately ten seconds and you know for certain that you will never be the same.
  • Act IV: Striving Immigrant | Page: 176
  • No Karen here to share the moment. You’re alone. You got exactly what you wanted. Didn’t you? Or did they give it to you. The thing you thought you wanted. The role of a lifetime is one you can never bring yourself to quit. Karen was right: you are trapped. Doing well is the trap. A different kind, but still a trap. Because you’re still in a show that doesn’t have a role for you.
  • Act IV: Striving Immigrant | Page: 180
  • I have two parents and they love me just as much. Now I have two homes instead of one.
  • Act V: Kung Fu Dad | Page: 194
  • Like all kids before they forget how to be exactly how weird they really are. Into whatever they’re into, pure. Before knowing. Before they learn from others how to act. Before they learn they are Asian, or Black, or Brown, or White. Before they learn about all the things they are and about all the things they will never be.
  • Act V: Kung Fu Dad | Page: 202
  • When the sun is all the way down, you rouse her for the nightly routine, following the music cues, learning to be a parent on the fly, out of necessity, winging it, getting help from imaginary beings and strange neighbors who are weirdly judgmental but ultimately helpful
  • Act V: Kung Fu Dad | Page: 208
  • She lives here, without history, unaware of all that came before, and who are you to say that this isn’t the end point, this wasn’t the goal all along, that Chinese Railroad Worker and Opium Den Dragon Lady and Kimono Girl and Striving Immigrant and Honorable Dead Asian Guy and Kung Fu Guy weren’t all leading to Xie Xie Mei Mei? To this dream of assimilation, a dream finally realized, a real American girl.
  • Act V: Kung Fu Dad | Page: 208
  • This is the dream. Sustainable employment. Some semblance of work-life balance. Talk white. Not a lot. Get contact lenses. Smile. They will assume you’re smart. The less you say, the better. Try to project: Responsible, Harmless. An unthreatening amount of color sprinkled in. That’s the dream, a dream of blending in. A dream of going from Generic Asian Man to just plain Generic Man. To settle down. To stay here. But you can’t stay here forever. This isn’t real. It’s just another role.
  • Act V: Kung Fu Dad | Page: 209
  • I never left. Not really. Not in the way that counts—inside. In my mind. Another part of me is in a different place now. Interior Chinatown isn’t the whole world anymore. I had to leave in my own way. Just like you tried to do.
  • Act VI: The Case of the Missing Asian | Page: 218
  • That while your community’s experience in the United States has included racism on the personal and the institutional levels, including but not limited to: immigration quotas, actual federal legislation expressly excluding people who look like you from entering the country. Legislation that was in effect for almost a century. Antimiscegenation laws. Discriminatory housing policies. Alien land laws and restrictive covenants. Violation of civil liberties including internment. That despite all of that, you somehow feel that your oppression, because it does not include the original American sin—of slavery—that it will never add up to something equivalent.
  • Act VI: The Case of the Missing Asian | Page: 232
  • That the wrongs committed against your ancestors are incommensurate in magnitude with those committed against Black people in America. And whether or not that quantification, whether accurate or not, because of all of this you feel on some level that you maybe can’t even quite verbalize, out of shame or embarrassment, that the validity and volume of your complaints must be calibrated appropriately, must be in proportion to the aggregate suffering of your people. (then) Your oppression is second-class.
  • Act VI: The Case of the Missing Asian | Page: 233
  • Instead of co-opting someone else’s experience or consciousness, he must define his own.
  • Act VI: The Case of the Missing Asian | Page: 235
  • This is it. The root of it all. The real history of yellow people in America. Two hundred years of being perpetual foreigners.
  • Act VI: The Case of the Missing Asian | Page: 238
  • Chinatown and indeed being Chinese is and always has been, from the very beginning, a construction, a performance of features, gestures, culture, and exoticism.
  • Act VI: The Case of the Missing Asian | Page: 238
  • Figuring out the show, finding our place in it, which was the background, as scenery, as nonspeaking players. Figuring out what you’re allowed to say. Above all, trying to never, ever offend. To watch the mainstream, find out what kind of fiction they are telling themselves, find a bit part in it. Be appealing and acceptable, be what they want to see.
  • Act VI: The Case of the Missing Asian | Page: 239
  • But at the same time, I’m guilty, too. Guilty of playing this role. Letting it define me. Internalizing the role so completely that I’ve lost track of where reality starts and the performance begins.
  • Act VI: The Case of the Missing Asian | Page: 246
  • If someone showed you my picture on the street, how would you describe it? You might say, an Asian fellow. Asian dude. Asian Man. How many of you would say: that’s an American?
  • Act VI: The Case of the Missing Asian | Page: 250
  • Who gets to be an American? What does an American look like?
  • Act VI: The Case of the Missing Asian | Page: 251
  • Take what you can get. Try to build a life. Sometimes, things happen. Mostly they don’t. Sometimes you get to talk. Mostly you don’t. Life at the margins, made from bit pieces.
  • Act VI: The Case of the Missing Asian | Page: 256
  • Chinatown, like the phoenix, rose from the ashes with a new facade, dreamed up by an American-born Chinese man, built by white architects, looking like a stage-set China that does not exist. Philip Choy
  • Act VI: The Case of the Missing Asian | Page: 262
  • Testing, testing, he says, and he clears his throat, ready to sing about home.
  • Act VII: Ext. Chinatown | Page: 268
  • Like many indie productions, making this book was a labor of love. There were many moments of frustration and self-doubt.
  • Acknowledgments | Page: 269
  • As evidenced by the epigraphs, certain books were invaluable resources to me in the writing of this novel (in addition to The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life by Erving Goffman, a book I will keep rereading until I can’t read anymore): American Chinatown…………………Bonnie Tsui San Francisco Chinatown…………………Philip Choy
  • Acknowledgments | Page: 270