American Visa (1994)
Wang Ping (1957-)
The day after finishing the book American Visa by Wang Ping, I suddenly found myself transported straight back into the stories by an interview I heard on the radio. A psychology professor was discussing the different approaches to education and learning in Eastern versus Western cultures, and he stated that in Eastern cultures the focus is on the importance of struggling and overcoming obstacles as part of the learning process. Deep into the book I had just read the main character, Seaweed, comes to a shocking realization that precisely validates the professor’s observation.
Although the cover of the book describes it as a set of ‘Short Stories,” in reality Ping has written a series of connected vignettes on the life of a girl who grows up in China during the Cultural Revolution. Seaweed is fourteen in the first story, and living with her parents and one of her two sisters. The subsequent stories follow her from her parent’s home to a distant village deep in the Chinese heartland where she goes to learn to work like a peasant --- and hopes to earn the right to go to college. Eventually making it out of the village and into a university, she earns her degree and then moves to New York City, where she struggles both to make a life for herself, and to help her family back in China. (Wang Ping having been born in the same year as Seaweed, and having emigrated from China to the U.S., it is hard not to imagine that there is an autobiographical aspect to the stories.)
The first story sets the pattern for Seaweed’s experiences in these stories: she discovers something forbidden --- in this case a used tube of lipstick that has been lost in a hidden crevice where she hides her books --- and tries to make sense of it in the context of her life. The Cultural Revolution has made the lipstick (and her books) taboo, and she wonders to whom it had belonged and how it had been missed in the round-up of such things that had occurred. When she then rubs the lipstick across her hand to see the color, we feel with her the bright flash of red that contrasts so deeply with the grind of cooking, cleaning and school work that we have learned fill her days.
This vivid scene is characteristic of Ping’s writing throughout the stories. The tension in the family when the mother suffers an insult that Seaweed is expected to avenge makes the pages crackle with energy. The back breaking work and desperate living conditions that Seaweed experiences as an ‘educated youth’ working among the peasants in rural China highlight for the reader the intensity of her desire to attend university. And later, when she has settled in New York, we experience with her the confusing contrasts she finds between the difficulties of her life in the U.S. and those of her family back home.
Ping’s ability through her rich descriptions and pointed dialogue to place us directly into Seaweed’s struggles make these stories wonderful to read, and provide a western reader with a window into life during the Cultural Revolution as well as that of an immigrant trying to make it in a truly foreign land. We experience with Seaweed her sudden insights, staggering disappointments and profound frustrations; in short we experience what we look for when we read a story.
Other reviews / information:
Link to the interview I mentioned above on approaches to learning in Eastern and Western cultures here.
Other of my book reviews: FICTION and NON-FICTION