Fluid Gazes: Narrative Perspectives and Identity Construction in Chinese Canadian Writers’ Stories

作者 吴华 07月05日2021年

Hua Laura Wu

Huron University College


In his seminal study on cultural identity, Stuart Hall presents two different ways to construe cultural identity. The essentialist position thinks about cultural identity “in terms of one, shared culture, a sort of collective ‘one true self,’ hiding inside the many other, more superficial or artificially imposed ‘selves,’ which people with a shared history and ancestry hold in common. Within the terms of this definition, our cultural identities reflect the common historical experiences and shared cultural codes which provide us, as ‘one people,’ with stable unchanging, and continuous frames of reference and meaning, beneath the shifting divisions and vicissitudes of our actual history” (Hall 2003: 234). This notion of identity refers more to the commonalities of a particular diasporic group. For instance, all the Chinese people residing all over the world form a homogeneous group because of our shared ancestry, place of origin, historical experiences, cultural codes and practices, skin colour and physical features, etc. “This ‘oneness,’ underlying all the other, more superficial differences, is the truth, the essence” of “Chineseness” and of the Chinese experience (Hall 2003: 234). It, therefore, defines “who we are.” However, this essentialist “who we are” can “just as well be a strait-jacket” (Ang 2002: vii), confining, limiting, and reducing. We intuitively sense that we are “one people” with all the Chinese, but we are also different from other Chinese living else where because “the cultural context of ‘where you’re at’ always informs and articulates the meaning of ‘where you’re from’” (Ang 2002: 35), and those “critical points of deep and significant difference”, due to changes in time and place, “constitute ‘what we really are’, or rather… ‘what we have become.’” So identity is “a matter of ‘becoming’ as well as of ‘being’” (Hall 2003: 236).

To contemplate this “becoming” in identity construction, Hall puts forward his second conception of cultural identity. “In this perspective, cultural identity is not a fixed essence at all, lying unchanged outside history and culture. It is not some universal and transcendental spirit inside us on which history has made no fundamental mark. It is not once-and-all. It is not a fixed origin to which we can make some final and absolute return” (Hall 2003: 237). Accordingly, Hall believes that identities are “‘framed’ by two axes or vectors, simultaneously operative: the vector of similarity and continuity; and the vector of difference and ruptures. … The one gives us some grounding in, some continuity with, the past. The second reminds us that what we share is precisely the experience of a profound discontinuity” (Hall 2003: 237). And “difference…persists in and alongside continuity” (Hall 2003: 238), therefore, identity construction is actually an ongoing process of “positioning and repositioning” (Hall 2003: 240).

So, as Hall and many other scholars of diasporic study proclaim, identity is never transparent and fixed; on the contrary, it is projected and “grounded in the shifting space between the past and the future through the subject’s present agency” (Walter 2003: 26), and thus “interrogative, shifting, unstable, and heuristic” (Davis 2002: 174). Identity construction, in theory as well as in reality, is an involving and evolving process.

This paper examines two Chinese Canadian writers’ stories on the diasporic experiences of the Chinese immigrants in North America since the 1980s. The stories under study are Yuanzhi’s novel Of Different Skies and short story “Jia Na Da/Canada” and Zeng Xiaowen’s novellas “The Kilt and Clover” and “Deportation”. Yuanzhi’s and Zeng’s stories try to explore the life of Chinese immigrants at various stages in their cross-cultural and transnational migration. Changes in time and status engender different constructions of identity, and so the stories under study present a trajectory of identity changes. Through the representations of shifting identities, these literary texts also delve into how the migrating subjects perceive the host country and how the dominant social groups in the host country treat the newcomers.


A Self-gaze at the Chinese Enclave and A Hesitant Gaze at the Host Country: Yuanzhi’s Stories

Let us first examine Yuanzhi’s stories. The novel Of Different Skies is autobiographical in nature. The author herself acknowledges it, stating:

In Of Different Skies, I tell the stories of about twenty wives of Chinese students and their families. The names and families are fictionalized, but 99% of these stories are based on real events that took place in the recent past [i.e., the 1980s and 1990s]. Let me use a simile: if Of Different Skies were a necklace, the stories of these twenty or so wives were the individual pearls of the necklace and the female protagonist Lin Mengyu were the thread that linked up those pearls. Chapter Twenty-five is one of those pearls and this story is a fusion of life stories of a few real persons.1


Also the subtitle, Peidu shinian jishi or An account of the ten year experiences of a Chinese international student’s wife, confirms the autobiographical essence of this work. Consequently the novel is intended as a thinly veiled, faithful record of real life experiences.2 Here we witness a curious phenomenon of what Betsy Huang (2010: 11) calls the “autobiographic imperative,” that is, “an interpretive disposition of readers who habitually read fiction by ethnic writers as autobiography, as testimonies to lived experiences, typically assumed to be those of immigrants.” This “autobiographical imperative” reflects “the popular audience’s fetishization of ‘the true story’ and preference for an ‘authentic’ sociohistorical account,” and so “[e]ven in a work of fiction, then, the ethnic writer is expected to ‘tell the truth,’ to posit her own perspective as an authentic and reliable episteme for individual and collective ethnic identities” (Huang 2010: 13). Huang (2010: 15) further postulates that in contrast to “autobiography of Americanization,” the “immigrant autobiography” is “indifferent to the ‘mythos’” of Americanization and “attends instead to the autobiographer’s place within a particular community or social sphere, whether that community is the culture of origin or destination.” Yuanzhi’s Of Different Skies is typical of the “immigrant autobiography” in the sense that in this work the “mythic individual” who exemplifies the “conversion from alien to American” is “not the narrative object of desire” (Huang 2010: 15), on the contrary, the novel devotes the entire narrative space to create a Chinese enclave in Canada. In this enclave inhabit international students from China and their families, and since the stories are told by the female protagonist, wife to a Chinese international student whose social sphere is mostly confined in the family and the community of fellow Chinese students and their spouses, especially the latter, the “alien” Canadian society and its members seldom make an appearance in the novel. The fictional characters that populate this Chinese enclave live out their daily life, interact with one another, and believe in and behave according to the Chinese cultural codes, just like ordinary Chinese people do back in China. Take Chapter Twenty-five “The Scientific Way to Cultivate the Land” as an example. In this chapter, Lin Mengyu, the female protagonist, gives birth to a baby daughter and is recuperating in the hospital and then at home. Many of her family friends, especially female ones, visit her, bring her gifts, and help her out with tips for how to nurture the new-born. Chapter Twenty-five also communicates typically Chinese cultural values and social codes, especially in the character of Lu Ruixue, Lin’s new acquaintance from her hospital stay. Lu also gives birth to a daughter, her second one, as a matter of fact. Lu and her husband are depicted in the story as representing Chinese culture of the past. They, although trained scientists, believe in fortune-telling, fengshui, and traditional practices, some of which verge on being superstitious. Foremost, they firmly believe in the value of a male child who will carry on the family line. The primary purpose for them to come to Canada is, reportedly, to have the opportunity to give birth to a son. Lu informs Lin that they name their daughters Jiajia/Jessica and Nana/Liana, and are determined to have a son. They have already chosen a name for that yet-to-be-impregnated son and he will be called Dada/Davie. So they will give birth to Jia Na Da/Canada. The stories narrated in the novel demonstrate that members in this enclosed community of wives of Chinese students seem to have very little contact beyond their own small, and somewhat isolated, social sphere. The only “foreign” element that manages to infringe upon this Chinese enclave is the exchange of Christmas gifts and this foreign practice is deemed by the protagonist as incomprehensible, stressful and thus extremely frustrating.

If Of Different Skies offers an inward gaze that directs unswervingly towards a Chinese enclave in a foreign land, Yuanzhi’s short story “Jia Na Da/Canada” switches to an outward glance at the social environs beyond the Chinese community. “Jia Na Da/Canada” is actually a rewrite of Chapter Twenty-five in Of Different Skies. The basic storyline remains: a Chinese couple relocate to Canada so that they can have a son. Important motifs and details are also kept but further developed in the rewrite: the couple are under pressure from their relatives and from the society, represented by their neighbours, back in China to produce a son for the extended family (Yuanzhi 2008: 753, 755); they also name their daughters, one born in China and one in Canada, Jiajia/Jessica and Nana/Liana, and the husband is keen on having a Dada/Davie so that they can have Jia Na Da/Canada (Yuanzhi 2008: 755). To get that precious son, they have tried various “scientific” ways, including a special, low-sugar diet, a daily soda rinse of the wife’s private parts before going to bed or the so-called “scientific way to cultivate the land”, and the “comprehensive scientific way to cultivate the land” that combines the diet, the soda rinse, and a chart that takes into account of the couples’ birth days and the wife’s monthly days of ovulation to dictate “the most opportune dates to conceive a boy” (Yuanzhi 2008: 753-754, 756). However, the author makes a number of skillful maneuvers and most of them involve in bringing the protagonists into contact with the outside world, that is, the non-Chinese groups in the host country. Such narrative twists facilitate to enrich the theme of identity construction in this diasporic story.

One of the maneuvers is to give the fictional characters a new status. Instead of casting them as international students and their wives from China as in the source story, i.e., Chapter Twenty-five in Of Different Skies, the author makes Feng Jian and Sheng Jiqi, the couple in “Jia Na Da/Canada,” immigrants to Canada. This change in social status is significant because, as immigrants who voluntarily relocate in Canada, Feng and Sheng are no longer sojourners like their prototypes in Of Different Skies. They are settlers and Canada is now their chosen home and homeland, and so to give birth to Jia Na Da/Canada in this story is not just a joke as in the source story, but indicates a strong intention to “own” Canada, figuratively. Another narrative twist is to remove this new immigrant couple from the closely knit, homogeneous Chinese community. In “Jia Na Da/Canada”, narrative focus is on Feng and Sheng, their Chinese connections make much fewer appearances than in the source story, and also fewer than appearances of characters who are either clearly marked as non-Chinese or their ethnicity is not specified. These characters tend to be professionals, for instance, police officers, doctors, and Feng’s colleagues at a high-tech company. Obviously “Jia Na Da/Canada” positions its protagonists in an in-between space so that they can interact not only with their fellow Chinese but also with people outside the Chinese community.

From the interactions with groups outside the Chinese community depicted in “Jia Na Da/Canada,” we can detect meaning bearing signs that inform us of how this short story has its Chinese characters see themselves and other ethnic groups in the host country, that is, how “Jia Na Da/Canada” draws self-image of the Chinese immigrants and images of the “Other” in identity construction. The Chinese in this story are portrayed as family-centered, hard-working, fiscally responsible and very conscious of saving money, and thus highly respectable. “Jia Na Da/Canada” has Sheng Jiqi worry about the family’s wellbeing and the impact of having a third child on the family’s fragile financial security. She twice voices her concerns: when Feng tries to persuade her into having a third child, she bursts out, “Look at you. You have been in Canada more than a year, and you still do not have a permanent job, just part-time jobs or contract work. Your income is as meagre as a labourer’s and we have to use our savings to pay bills. And you still want another child!” (Yuanzhi 2008: 755) When she is informed that she is carrying twins, “she began to feel weighted down again. Feng Jian was still doing contract work and since he was certainly not a giant with three heads and six arms, how could they manage to raise so many children?” (Yuanzhi 2008: 759-760) Vis-à-vis the Chinese family established as “a model of productivity, savings, and mobility” (Lee 1999: 11), some ethnic groups in Canada are perceived in quite a negative light. Feng Jian, the male protagonist, says:

As for our life here, we can manage. Even if we did not work, our savings could still support us for a year or two. Haven’t you heard the saying that Canada (Jia-na-da) means “da-jia-na,” “na-da-jia,” and “da-na-jia”?3 That is, “everyone dishes out from the big communal pot”. If you have more children, you are entitled to more benefits; if you have fewer, you are entitled to fewer; and if you have none, you are entitled to nothing. So why not have more? If we have another child, we are simply taking a bit more from the big pot! Look at those refugees from all over the world. They all seem to have a big brood of kids, and are they poorer than we? No. They can eat and drink until their bellies are full, and they can have whatever fun they fancy. Remember what our Prime Minister Jean Chretien once said about those people: they just take welfare money and drink beer at home. They felt offended and went out to protest. That is truly “na-da-jia”, the big takers!4


The contrast between the diligent and conscientious Chinese and the shameful and shameless advantage-takers from some other ethnic groups reveals that “Jia Na Da/Canada” presents a self-image of Chinese people as the “model minority”5 and that although the story has the Chinese begin to look beyond their own community, their gaze is a very tentative, and at the same time condescending one that is directed mostly at other under-privileged ethnic groups in the host country. Moreover, this ethnic Other is caricatured stereotypically.

“Jia Na Da/Canada” also has its male protagonist come into contact with the dominant group in the host country. In the beginning and end of the story, the author introduces two episodes that are thematically similar but of mirror images. The opening episode has Feng Jian speed back home to prepare food for his wife who just gave birth to a daughter; he is pulled over by a white police officer and gets a speeding ticket. In the closing episode, Feng is on his way to his wife who just informed him that she was pregnant with twins, a boy and a girl. He is elated and fails to notice he is speeding again. He is pulled over by a black police officer and is about to receive another speeding ticket. In the first episode, the white officer expresses his envy because he is the father of three sons and really wants a daughter while Feng, who is very much disappointed with the birth of another daughter, cannot understand why the other man would be jealous of him. In the second episode, both the policeman and Feng are puzzled, the former feels perplexed by why Feng is so excited with the news of the twins while the latter simply cannot understand how the officer isn’t jealous.6 This framing device, to me, actually throws into bold relief the theme of misunderstanding and lack of understanding between the Chinese and other ethnic groups embedded in the main body of the story. It also emphasizes that this lack of understanding is mutual and wide-spread.


A Reciprocal Exchange of Gazes and the Gaze of the Other: Zeng Xiaowen’s Stories

Zeng Xiaowen, a prolific Chinese Canadian fiction writer, takes over the theme of lack of understanding and scrutinizes it in her stories. Moreover, in her works, she does not stop at exposing the lack of mutual understanding between the ethnic minorities and the dominant mainstream but also tries to explore the possibility of reaching out for understanding and acceptance through interracial romance. The two stories penned by Zeng and studied here, “The Kilt and Clover” and “Deportation”, both feature a love relationship between a Chinese woman and a white man, and both begin with the female protagonist in a position of inequality and disadvantage, progress into an uneasy mutual identification of the Chinese woman and her white lover, and end with the underprivileged member evolving into a survivor and saviour.

The female protagonist in “The Kilt and Clover” is Lei, a new immigrant from China. She is an alien “Other” in Canada at the beginning of the story. As a newcomer in Canada, she tries very hard to make a meagre living in Toronto first and then relocates to small town St. Catherines, so she is literally twice uprooted, first from her home country and then from the Chinese community in Toronto. Although she is a university instructor teaching psychology back in China, in Canada she has to work as a labourer in a factory and then as a cleaning lady in a retirement home because of her faulty English and lack of training at Canadian universities. In a Canadian small town whose residents are predominantly white middle-class, Lei is doubly alienated because of race and poverty. Lei starts to do cleaning job for Sean, a white sailor, and gradually the two develop a romantic relationship when they start to discover herself and himself in the other, or it is more appropriate to say that it is when Lei starts to see herself in Sean that she begins to identify with him (Zeng 2012a: 146-166). Leslie Bow (2001: 59) adeptly points out the importance of identification in identity formation:

Psychoanalysis has theorized identification as a means of restoring a lost love-object and … it is a process intrinsically tied to the formation of identity, “the detour through the other that defines a self.” Identification … is “the play of differences and similarities in self-other relations” that brings identity into being, the point “where I become other.” …Identification is … “a question of relation, of self to other, subject to object, inside to outside”.


Indeed Lei goes through a detour of identifying the “Other” in Sean to know herself. When she first meets Sean, she notices some odd features that set Sean apart from the archetypical hero in romantic fiction:

Sean was far from the image of a sailor that I had been entertaining. He was not tall and slim, with blue eyes and blond hair. Rather, he had brown hair and brown eyes. The arms sticking out of his blue-grey T-shirt were not really sinewy. His skin was not tanned a radiant bronze, it was just dark because of his olive complexion. For whatever reason, he avoided looking squarely into my eyes. His expression was hard to read, a mixture of humility and shyness.

Right away I smelled loneliness in him. Perhaps loneliness transcended borders and cultures (Zeng 2012a: 148-149).


Intuitively Lei senses that, just like herself, Sean is a loner. Later Lei also discovers more similarities between her and Sean. They both love reading books and enjoy literature. They are both, to a certain degree, “social outcasts” and have uneasy relationship with their own family, particularly with their mother. Lei suffers from offspring’s “feeling of guilt, rejection, and doubt” (Ghymn 1995: 24) and her mother takes advantage of the daughter’s guilty feeling to squeeze hard-earned money out of Lei.7 Sean’s feeling towards his mother is more of bitterness, resentment and rebellion. His mother expects him to go to university to become a lawyer or a doctor, but Sean never enjoys school. He chooses to be a sailor, and an unconventional one who loves to comb through second-hand bookstores wherever the ship docks. He believes that in his mother’s eyes, he is “forever a loser, a pathetic drowning dog” (Zeng 2012a: 152). More importantly, Lei and Sean both suffer setbacks in love relationship. With her “long and narrow eyes, low and flat nose, thick lips … not a single feature met the conventional, Chinese idea of beauty,” Lei is a homely woman and thus she is neglected by Chinese men. The only romantic relationship she has back in China ends in failure and so she is in her thirties but is still unspoken for (Zeng 2012a: 153, 155). When the relationship between Lei and Sean becomes physical, Lei is willing to nurture it. She reaches out to Sean but he withdraws into his emotional cocoon; to Sean, Lei’s gestures of intimacy represent a threat and he reacts with “the fear of an intruder” (Zeng 2012a: 159). On the surface, Sean’s fear for intimacy seems to come from his failed marriage; however, it is only after his death, Lei finds out the more profound trauma Sean is inflicted with. Sean is obsessed with his unfaithful ex-wife and his obsession has developed into a phobic fascination with pornography “featuring beautiful women of blond hair and blue eyes, of huge breasts and wide hips” (Zeng 2012a: 164), or blond beauties who resemble his ex-wife. Lei and Sean both realize that they are the “Other” not only to each other but also among their own people, and this sense of “Otherness” makes them click and become emotionally attached.

What is also significant of “The Kilt and Clover” is that this story contests the literary, as well as social, convention of making the ethnic “Other”, especially the non-white woman, the object of the white gaze. In an interracial romance between a white man and a Chinese woman and its literary representations, the relation between the gazer and the object of the gaze highlights a power structure. The Chinese woman is usually the passive object of the white man’s sexual fantasy and the romantic courtship is more a quest for subjugation and conquest. A more radical critique of the literary norm calls it a sell-out that “turns the Chinese woman into a prostitute for the voyeuristic gaze” of the West.8 Zeng Xiaowen turns the gaze in her story into a mutual scrutiny at the “Other” and at the world the female and male protagonists inhabit. Lei’s gaze discloses “Sean’s self-confined emotional world and his pathetic/pathological obsession with his ex-wife while Lei’s ‘obsession’ with sacrificing herself to please her family is exposed through Sean’s gaze. They are both fully aware of the other’s weakness that originates from their respective cultural upbringing but do not see their own cultural vulnerability.”9 The reciprocal gaze favoured in “The Kilt and Clover” indicates a new positioning in identity construction: the normally and normatively underprivileged Chinese woman is no longer cast as the absolute suppressed or weaker sex and race. Instead of being the helpless object being gazed at, fantasized, pitied or despised, the Chinese woman begins to look back at the Western gazer or voyeur. Or we can say that the subject position of the Chinese woman in the power structure embedded in the interracial romance discourse has switched from absolute subjugation to reciprocity and equality, or even triumph.10

“Deportation,” another story authored by Zeng Xiaowen, contains many thematic similarities with “The Kilt and Clover”. It also narrates a love relation between a Chinese woman, Xia Han, and an American man, Benjamin. Like their counterparts in the earlier story, both Han and Benjamin have emotional burdens. Han is jilted by her first lover and then separated from her husband while Benjamin is first abandoned by his father and then by his wife; but the story has a happy ending: Han and Benjamin, after going through some seemingly insurmountable obstacles, are reunited (Zeng 2012b: 176-207). But, unlike the earlier story that focuses on Lei, the Chinese woman, “Deportation” is told entirely from Benjamin’s perspective and thus is more about his quest for his self. It is also from Benjamin’s eyes that Han as the “Other” is presented and represented.11 To use the author’s own words,

Han does not look like any of the Chinese women in American movies: she does not accept humiliation compliantly, nor does she plea and beg humbly. However, she certainly isn’t the dragon lady in gongfu movies who fights with a sword or a spear and who flies to the rooftop or runs on the high walls. Han completely changes the image of the Chinese woman Benjamin held, and through her, he understands better the Chinese culture.12


So “Deportation” perceives the Chinese through the eyes of the “Other”. Then, if Han does not fit the stereotypes of the Chinese, especially the Chinese woman, created by the white popular culture, what is the new image she conjures up?

Benjamin recalls his first sight of Han:

Benjamin arrived at the former 88 Chinese Restaurant. He saw a pretty and graceful Chinese woman walking back and forth on the weed-infested lawn in front of the restaurant. She did not seem to be contemplating on the business prospects of the property but was savoring the desolate milieu.

She tied her hair into a casual ponytail, wore an off-white tank top and a pair of beige khaki shorts, and her hands were in the pockets. She looked serene yet aloof, surprisingly compatible with the Texas desert. Benjamin recalled seeing a painting in Tedgeton’s Chinatown; that painting was titled “Spring of the Lower Yangzi Valley” and the girl featured in the painting looked just like Han, of fine complexion, pretty, a character who seems to have lived in a remote place and remote time; yet she had big and beautiful eyes, eyes that could bewitch a man in a blink of the eye and make him lost in them… Han smiled, and her smile immediately added a touch of intimacy and intelligence that the Chinese girl in the painting lacked (Zeng 2012b: 182).


To Benjamin, Han is a young woman of graceful demeanor, refined taste, and with an innate melancholy. She looks extremely distant yet very intimate all at once, and so she poses to him as an enigma. This sense of unfathomable mystery deepens when they meet again:

Han told him that the Chinese character han stood for water lily, a flower that became purer and prettier when growing out of filthier water… He noticed that Han had a pair of lovely and delicate hands. She wrote one stroke after another and surprisingly a flower emerged; he felt intrigued. Apparently writing han was much harder than spelling out “water lily”. How could the Chinese invent a writing system that was so complicated? Their scripts were not the only mysterious thing, there were many other mysteries about the Chinese.

“The four dots, what are they?” He asked out of curiosity.

“The buds, rain drops, dew droplets, tears… whatever you take they for.” Han replied.

What did the four dots stand for? Benjamin still wondered (Zeng 2012b: 177).


Han embodies the mysterious Chinese but she is also knowledgeable of the West and seems to have an innate appreciation of the true spirit of Texas and the Texans, who, Benjamin believes, “more than the New Yorkers, are the true embodiment of the American Spirit” (Zeng 2012b: 181). However, it is Han the foreigner who recommends Paris, Texas, a quintessential Texan film to Benjamin the proud Texan. Strangely, both Han and Benjamin, culturally apart, identify with Travis the character in the film and the images of Texas, the lonely wanderer and the bleak, dry, alien landscape of the Texas desert. Benjamin finds “his shadow merged into that of the male protagonist. After his wife disappeared, he often dreamed the same dream: wandering aimlessly in the desolate desert ...” And Han believes, “Flowers and grasses will wither while the desert will not; intimacy is a flighty sentiment while alienation is forever; roaming, wandering, and trying to escape… these are eternal.” She also tells Benjamin, “I have been trying to escape… I feel I am like a little mouse, with a cat, a white one or a black one, lurking behind it and chasing it… I thought that if I fled to the desert, the chase would end and I’d be safe…” (Zeng 2012b: 185-186).

Through decoding the enigma of Han, the author lets Benjamin identify with Han.13 “Blue-eyed Benjamin” (Zeng 2012b: 177) the immigration police officer is made into the “Other,” just like Han the ethnic alien who is being deported by Benjamin. To the diasporas and under-privileged races, Benjamin is the “Other.” Socially, he is a member of the “main stream” society and the power establishment. Politically, he is a supporter of the right-wing conservatives. The idol he lives up to is his immediate boss Charles, a bureaucrat who believes in iron-fisted policies in immigration and is a descendent of Old South plantation owner lineage. Ideologically, Benjamin supports most of Charles’ dogmas and views. He thinks that he is “the son of the lone star” representing the real Texas and the true American Spirit. Against non-whites, he holds prejudices a “pure-blood” American has, so when coming across a young woman of Chinese descent who speaks non-accented English, Benjamin alleges that she “must be an ABC (American born Chinese). She just assumes she has all the rights an American citizen enjoys since she is born here” (Zeng 2012b: 189). That implies that he believes ABCs are second class citizens, not deserving all the rights an American citizen is entitled to. For the Chinese immigrant workers he deals with in his investigation of human trafficking, he is convinced that they are all members of a human smuggling ring, though his wife Jennifer, who is the only non-Chinese staff member in the restaurant that Benjamin investigates, knows that her co-workers “work fifteen or sixteen hours a day and seven days a week in the restaurant. How could they find the time to commit the crime they are charged with?” (Zeng 2012b: 196) So Jennifer’s misgivings contest the objectivity, reliability, and impartiality of Benjamin and his views.

Benjamin is one of “them” and he is also the “Other” among “them.” In racial terms, “Blue-eyed Benjamin” is the son of a white father and a Latino mother, so according to the American rules of the game of the races, he is a “colored person” to the whites, yet to the non-white people, including his partner who is of Mexican descent, he is a white person.14 In terms of social belonging, he is an agent working for the immigration bureau, thus a member of the power establishment and a protector of “law and order;” however, he is the son of a father who rebels against the social and political establishments, the son of a single mother who herself is a colored person, and the husband who is abandoned by his wife. In terms of political beliefs, although he idolizes President Bush and “the Spirit of Texas” that President Bush and his own boss Charles represent, he is truly proud of his own profession and thus an excellent officer, he does not fully believe in the effectiveness and legitimacy of deporting people who for various reasons live in the United States “illegally”. Consequently, he is not fully trusted by his boss (Zeng 2012b: 178). “Deportation” lays bare the complexity and ambiguity of social belonging found in Benjamin. Such complexity and ambiguity highlight the themes of a person’s personal identity in conflict with his social identity and the resultant identity crisis: the deporting agent is the deported and the abandoned at metaphysical and emotional levels.

As Zeng Xiaowen the author adeptly points out:

Immigration police officer Benjamin and Han are “perfect strangers”. Racial prejudices dividing whites and visible minorities, gap in social status separating a law enforcing policeman and a prisoner, and cultural differences between the West and East necessarily cause tensions between the two protagonists. Such tensions can lead to conflicts and they can also create mystery… Because of the constant and subtle transformation in the two protagonists’ positions and postures, the two “perfect strangers” become “perfect soul mates”. Benjamin is the agent who executes the deportation act and the person who suffers from acts of abandonment (first by his father and later by his wife) all at once… The deportation agent sends himself into [spiritual] exile when he carries out the very act of expulsion … Han is the character who is being deported, yet at the very end of the story she becomes Benjamin’s spiritual salvation.15


Zeng Xiaowen calls the reader’s attention to the multiple roles Benjamin and Han play, the frequent switches of their roles, the inherent power structure in their respective roles, and the displacement of the power balance. Thus, “Deportation” not only examines but also complicates and enriches literary representation of and reflection on identity construction in ethnic literature.


Conclusion: Fluid Gazes

All four stories under discussion here deal with identity construction in their individual ways, however when they are examined together, a pattern begins to emerge. These stories present a continuum of evolving positions of identity formation. In Of Different Skies, Chinese students and their spouses are portrayed as a closely knit and ethnically homogeneous group of people who are in transit. They live temporarily in Canada and are aware of the temporality of their stay, so they pay very little attention to the host country and its social and cultural practices. The Chinese are portrayed as sojourners and ever ready to leave. As settlers in Canada, characters in “Jia Na Da/Canada” begins to show interest in “Others” in the country they choose to live in, however they look “up” or upwards at the dominant “mainstream” but look “down” or downwards at other ethnic groups. Their biased inspection of the “Others” engenders perplexities and prejudices. “The Kilt and Clover” features an intense look at the “Other” and an equally intense look-back at oneself; moreover the two gazers, one from the underprivileged Chinese and the other from the dominant “mainstream,” are positioned at relatively equal footing, consequently their examination of the other and their self-inspection are reciprocal but not hierarchical. “Deportation” adopts an external perspective, having an outsider look at the Chinese. Moreover this external viewer does not take the usual orientalist stance that fantasizes, pities, or demonize the Chinese “Other,” so this new point of view reflects a change of self-positioning in the character, as well as in the ethnic writer, who is more comfortable and also confident in her in-between status and can withstand the focused gaze of the “Other,” even when the “Other” is a member of the “mainstream” society and power establishment.

The four stories examined here posit different gazes of the migrating subjects: a self-gaze completely directed to the Chinese themselves, a hesitant gaze of the Chinese immigrants looking at the host country, a reciprocal exchange of gazes between the Chinese and members of the “mainstream” society, and an external gaze zeroing in at the Chinese diaspora. These evolving and fluid gazes also embody the continuous process of identity constructions, and thus reveal that identity is unstable, evolving, and always “somewhere-in-between.” (Bromley 2000: 3) Moreover, identity does not only define “who we are” but also projects “who we have become” and “who we are to become.” So identity construction is essentially a self-journey that leads to wider and widening horizons.

This article is included in the book Crossing Between Tradition and Modernity: Essays in Commemoration of Milena Doležalová-Velingerová (1932-2012) edited by Keith Denton.


Hua Laura Wu (吴华) studied comparative literature and Chinese literature at the Centre for Comparative Literature and the Department of East Asian Studies, University of Toronto, where she got her Ph.D. degree. She is now Professor Emerita at Huron University College in London, Ontario. Her current research interest is the Chinese diaspora in Canada and Chinese Canadian literature.

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----. 2012b. “Qiansong” 遣送 (Deportation). In Sugelan duanqun he sanyecao: Zeng Xiaowen zhongduanpian xiaoshuo jingxuanji (The kilt and clover: selected stories by Zeng Xiaowen). Beijing: Jiuzhou chubanshe, 176-207.

----. “‘Qiansong’ chuangzuo tan: bei qiansong de he bei liqi de” 《遣送》创作谈: 被遣送的和被离弃的 (The deported and the neglected: on writing “Deportation”). http://blog.sina.com.cn/s/blog_534c13120100ia7g.html.


Bu yiyang de tiankong: peidu shinian jishi 不一样的天空:陪读十年纪事

Cai Yuanzhi 蔡远智

Da najia 大拿家

Dajia na 大家拿

Feng Jian 冯建

Jianada 加拿大

Jia-Na-Da --


Lin Mengyu 林梦雨

Lu Ruixue 鲁瑞雪

Na dajia 拿大家

Qiansong 遣送

Sheng ge Jia-Na-Da 生个加拿大

Sheng Jiqi 盛季琦

Sugelan duanqun he sanyecao 苏格兰短裙和三叶草

Yuanzhi 原志

Xia Han 夏菡

Zeng Xiaowen 曾晓文

1 Cai Yuanzhi, “From Of Different Skies to ‘Jia Na Na/Canada’: Reflections on Women, Marriage, and Family,” guest lecture at Chinese 2243G The Chinese Diaspora and Its Literary Representation, on March 12th, 2013 at Huron University College, London, Ontario, Canada. Yuanzhi is Cai Yuanzhi’s pen name. Translation is mine except otherwise identified.

2 In this particular case, the author confesses that the publisher actually urged her to strengthen the autobiographical elements and suggested the title. This information comes from a private conversation with the author.

3 Literally “da-jia-na” means “everybody takes”; “na-da-jia” means “taking from others”; and “da-na-jia” means “the big takers”. These terms pun on Jia-na-da/Canada.

4 Yuanzhi, “Jia Na Da/Canada,” 755. Emphasis added.

5 For studies on “model minority myth”, see Lee, Orientals: Asian Americans in Popular Culture (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1999), David Palumbo-Liu, Asian/American: Historical Crossings of a Racial Frontier (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1999), King-kok Cheung, Articulate Silences: Hisaye Yamanoto, Maxine Hong Kingston, Joy Kogawa (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1993), Tseen Khoo, and Kam Louie, eds. Culture, Identity, Commodity: Diasporic Chinese Literature in English (Montreal & Kingston and Ithaca: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2005).

6 Yuanzhi, “Jia Na Da/Canada,” 753 and 760. Even though the second police officer is a black person, I still put him as a member of the dominant group or the “mainstream” society because of his profession and membership in the law enforcement force.

7 Lei tells Sean: “When I save money, I save one dollar at a time. When I send money back home, I send by the hundred.” She takes up the new job of cleaning at a retirement home because the job pays $15 an hour, almost twice as much as the wage of her previous job in Toronto. She needs the money since her mother has asked her to send more money home. See Zeng Xiaowen, “The Kilt and Clover,” 154 and 146.

8 See Kong Shuyu’s insightful analysis of the gaze in Yan Geling’s Fusang (The lost daughter of happiness) and Pan Wen’s discussion of “miscegenation” in American popular literature. Kong Shuyu. 2012. “Jinshan xiangxiang yu shijie wenxue bantu zhong de Hanyu zuyi xiezuo: yi Yan Geling de Fusang he Zhang Ling de Jinshan weili” (Imaging gold mountain and Chinese-language ethnic writing as world literature: taking Yan Geling’s The lost daughter of happiness and Zhang Ling’s Gold mountain as examples). Huawen wenxue no. 5: 10-12; Pan Wen. 2012. “Wenxue yu zhengzhi: Meiguo Yayi wenxue zhong de dongfang zhuyi piping jiqi ‘Huaren huayu’ jiangou” (Literature and politics: the orientalist criticism in Asian American literature studies and its construction of “Chinese discourse”). Huawen wenxue no. 5:19-33, especially 26-27. Translation of the two titles is from the journal’s table of contents.

9 Xu Xueqing. “Ping ‘Sugelan duanqun he sanyecao’” (Reading “The kilt and clover). http://blog.sina.com.cn/s/blog_49ead5370100h417.html.

10 For studies on this change, see Wang Lieyao and Li Peipei. “‘Yizu hunlian’ yu ‘hou liuxue’ jieduan de Beimei xinyimin wenxue: yi Zeng Xiaowen weiyi” (“Inter-racial romance” and North American new immigrant literature of “the post-international students” period: reading Zeng Xiaowen’s stories). http://blog.sina.com.cn/s/blog_49ead5370100rgza.html; and Wang Lieyao. 2009. “Beimei xinyimin wenxue zhong de ‘linglei qinqing’” (A “different kind of love relation” in North American new immigrant literature). Wenxue pinglun no. 6:194-198.

11 I have examined the narrative mode (narrative perspective and focalization) in a previous essay, see Wu Hua. 2010. “Yong ‘tamen’ de yanjing kan ‘women’: du Zeng Xiaowen de ‘Qiansong’” (Seeing “us” through “their” eyes: a study of Zeng Xiaowen’s “Deportation”). Huawen wenxue no. 5: 92-96.

12 Zeng Xiaowen. “‘Qiansong’ chuangzuo tan: bei qiansong de he bei liqi de” (The deported and the neglected: on writing “Deportation”). http://blog.sina.com.cn/s/blog_534c13120100ia7g.html.

13 The following discussion is a rewrite of the relevant section in “Yong ‘tamen” de yanjing kan ‘women’”.

14 “Blue-eyed Benjamin” is the nickname his non-white colleagues give him. See “Deportation,” 177-178.

15 Zeng Xiaowen, “The Deported and the Neglected: On Writing ‘Deportation’”, http://blog.sina.com.cn/s/blog_534c13120100ia7g.html.


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