BackArts & Culture » Literature » Loạt Soạt » Thuận’s Novel 'Chinatown' Targets the Tedium of Migration

Thuận’s Novel 'Chinatown' Targets the Tedium of Migration

Vĩnh, born in Hanoi to a Vietnamese mother who studied in the Soviet Union and teaches English in France, and an ethnically Chinese father raised in Hanoi but now working in Chợ Lớn, dreams of the day when China dominates the world and he can parachute into America-occupied Iraq with the Chinese army to create another Chinatown in Baghdad. Such culture and continent-spanning details suggest extravagant thrills and intrigues, but Thuận’s Chinatown reveals the monotony endured by the diasporic individuals.

Chinatown begins during an unexpected delay in a routine public transportation commute, and the 158-page, single-paragraph book then leaps around in time with Vĩnh’s mother, the unnamed protagonist, narrating her Hanoi upbringing with degree- and title-obsessed parents in an affectionless marriage; her awkward courtship and brief cohabitation with Vĩnh’s father, Thụy; and her move to Soviet Russia and later France for higher education.

Cheese sandwiches eaten beneath ever-updated office bulletins between classes for dispassionate students in France’s outskirts, bikes lugged up tight stairwells in Hanoi apartment blocks, malnourished ducks sold off to make meager porridge during the scarcity era, and immigration department procedures for processing temporary residency paperwork appear ad nauseum as Chinatown provides a catalog of the cramped monotony that constitutes the life of the narrator.

Purposeful tedium

Underscoring the dreary repetitiveness of the characters’ lives is Thuận’s circuitous writing style. She revisits phrases, replicates scenes and repeats blasé images and phrases like the layering of off-white paint on an empty wall to reinforce the narrator’s boredom with a world others would express a fascination for. Thuận described the repetition of lines in an interview as “small waves that come in every now and again, disappearing into the rock and sand” as part of her overall style’s efforts to “challenge and encourage the reader’s patience.”

If one aim of literature is to transport readers into the minds of realistic, multi-faceted characters, one should be prepared to inhabit the thoughts of a disaffected, dour and alienated individual. In that way, the at-times-exhausting prose is congruent with the narrator’s confession: “I now knew enough to make people bored, and to understand that when people are bored they leave me alone.” But perhaps it's often the ones shying away from attention who have the most interesting stories to tell.

Perhaps it's often the ones shying away from attention who have the most interesting stories to tell.

For all its purposeful tedium, Chinatown contains interesting depictions of various historical and geographical particulars, especially Chinese-Vietnamese relations in the 1980s, the interplay between individuals and states in post-war Hanoi, and daily life during Vietnam’s most economically fraught period. Growing up, Thụy suffers great discrimination from teachers, peers, school administrators and, later, occupational opportunities as his heritage before, during and after the Sino-Vietnamese war makes him a “problem” and “being a problem is not only useless but actively harmful. Being a problem closes all the doors leading to that brilliant future.” Readers can conjecture about the impact of this discrimination on the couple’s ability to remain together in the same way they can wonder if the economic perils that encouraged migration lie at the core of the protagonist’s isolation and unhappiness.

The "brilliant future," defined by a clear career trajectory from top school marks to foreign degrees to a position in a ministry or university, is an obsession for the narrator’s parents. It gives their suffering an easy purpose and allows them to ignore their own unhappiness. Their dream shifts effortlessly between Russia and France in tune with political realities as her parents “don’t give a toss about politics, about how to tell capitalism from socialism, or if Putin and Chirac are even the same guy. The only toss they give is about the word ‘future’.” Yet the protagonist’s misery and far-from-glamorous life reveal the flaws in this vision far sooner than readers encounter characters who emphasize that government connections and overseas capitalist pursuits, rather than brightly colored degrees, are pathways to prosperity.

A novel within a novel

In the time-worn tradition of writers writing about writers who write, Chinatown contains two large sections of I’m Yellow, the novel the protagonist is working on. Its plot contains reflections of the narrator’s own insecurities and obsessions regarding relationships as contractual forms of confinement, accessible art as industry, and migration as insufficient means of psychological escape. The painter at the center of the story within a story earns his living by producing clichéd images of exoticized Vietnam for tourists and Việt Kiều which seems to comment on Thuận’s own literary efforts to avoid catering to international readers’ preferred tropes of “Vietnamese landscape is beautiful, Vietnamese cuisine is delicious, Vietnamese women are gentle, Vietnamese men are brave.”

The historic elements Thuận does provide do not function as a “crash course in Vietnamese history and culture, the way most literary works seeking to present themselves to an international audience as ‘the Vietnamese novel’ do — fulfilling a checklist of war and re-education camps, communist iron grips and prosecuted intellectuals” — as translator Nguyễn An Lý explains in her Translator's Note. Familiar aspects of diasporic lives indeed appear, such as the propensity for all Asians to be lumped together as a singular mass, but the satirical, overly analytical narrator provides a refreshingly singular set of cultural touchpoints, allusions and sly jokes that readers will either grasp or not.

Chinatown avoids catering to international readers’ preferred tropes of “Vietnamese landscape is beautiful, Vietnamese cuisine is delicious, Vietnamese women are gentle, Vietnamese men are brave.”

It’s interesting that none of the book actually takes place in Chợ Lớn, one of the Chinatowns alluded to in the title. Perhaps it's fitting that the protagonist can only imagine it based on a single photo of Thụy beneath red lanterns as a juxtaposition to the very real, specific and unromantic depictions of Paris and Hanoi; places that often are presented in books and film as romantic sites of adventure and fulfillment. Moreover, for many western readers, the concept of Chinatowns act as exotic morsels sealed inside already strange places. Their significance, however, means something very different coming from an author who so thoroughly deglamorizes travel and foreign locales and we don’t need the narrator to travel there to predict what her experiences would be.

Chinatown is a rich addition to conversations about migration, isolation, identity, drudgery and emotional endurance. It provides an important addition to Vietnamese works translated into English, particularly for its uncompromising structure and style. The fact that its last sentence returns readers to its very first and the train the narrator sits in remains unmoving belies the journey readers are taken on. The book also reminds readers that not all journeys are thrilling, some are simply the necessary three-hour commutes people all around the world must endure every day.

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