Reviewed by Keith Cadieux
Narratives that deal with a minority or immigrant experience can be tricky. Is the focus on connecting to that minority audience, presenting a narrative to which they might more fully relate? Or is the intent to illuminate those experiences for the majority audience, in Canada’s case the middle-class white audience? A combination of the two, perhaps? Or maybe neither of these possibilities.
Trying to seek out such lofty ideals or purposes in a text may actually undercut the ability to see that text’s situations and conflicts as simply depicting human experience. Lauralyn Chow’s debut collection of inter-related stories, Paper Teeth, brought all of these ideas to my mind. But more than that, it was an engaging and insightful look into the many connections—cultural, religious, interpersonal, professional—of the Lee family and their experiences as a Chinese-Canadian family living in Edmonton.
Paper Teeth opens with a cryptic description of a familiar-enough Chinese restaurant: a paper calendar with a Chinese ink drawing of an orchid; round tables covered with tablecloths and topped with Lazy Susans; fish tanks; and chrome napkin dispensers. But then the description begins to turn more particular with the mention of different menus. The first is “a multi-page English menu (sometimes bilingual with Chinese writing), plastic laminated, offering forty-seven, eighty-eight, one hundred and twenty-nine, different Chinese dishes, all listed by number.” The next is “a Chinese language menu (never bilingual), written on pink paper, sometimes in a plastic pocket inside the English menu.” And finally, there is “an unwritten menu of non-replicable Chinese dishes, food that no other table is served, after Dad goes into the kitchen, only with his son, to visit with his friends, the cooks.” It may seem simple enough at first glance, but the preface is actually packed with meaning, particularly to those who go back and reread it after having finished all the stories.
In the table of contents, something that appears in virtually every story collection, the stories are all titled after Chinese dishes, complete with a number, much as one would see on a Chinese menu. However, the numbers are out of order and the individual titles offer no hints as to the content of any particular story. This remains true even after reading them all; a few may have tangential or minor connections between the food mentioned and the narrative of the particular story, but the mystery remains. The numbering, too, is a mystery. The stories do not appear to be in numerical order. The numbers don’t work well as a chronological order for the stories because within one story there are often jumps between two different time periods. Perhaps they are a suggested or preferred reading order? Or maybe they’re meant to be confounding, to emphasize the difference in experience, much like the preface’s mention of the various menus depending on the circumstance.
This certainly isn’t the first Canadian novel to examine the Chinese immigrant experience. The basic premise of an immigrant family story anchored around food—or a restaurant—is reminiscent of novels such as Sky Lee’s Disappearing Moon Café. Linked story collections are also quite common in Canadian literature but where Paper Teeth differs is in reflecting the Chinese-Canadian experience. Readers who enjoyed Lives of Girls and Women by Alice Munro or Agassiz Stories by Sandra Birdsell should have no trouble with the disjointed structure of Chow’s collection.
Food stands in as an important source of community, something that manages to transcend other cultural barriers. In one story, Jane (one of the children) volunteers to serve food at church, a place normally fraught with awkwardness and discomfort since none of the children can speak Chinese, but the parents don’t want any of the congregation to realize this. Chow describes the experience here:
No discussion, no, “I’m sorry I don’t speak Chinese,” no, I don’t know how to do that, no need for Mumma to make three-decade-old excuses for Jane not talking to people. Suddenly, Jane stood on the serving line, dishing up Chinese broccoli to a stream of hungry people, holding their plates in front of her. Just dishing up greens, no language barrier, only smiling and serving and nodding, then dishing up the next scoop of guy lan. For the quickest moment, she bent forward and looked down the line of steamer trays at all the cooks and all the women who were wielding steel spoons like hers. Jane felt a sense of kinship and belonging that she had never felt before. One of the cooks came up behind her and replaced her almost empty pan, a fresh hot pan of guy lan slipped into the rim of the steamer tray. “C’mon, Moi Moi, people are hungry,” he said.
That individuals experience the same places or events differently is a preoccupation of these stories, which bounce through the minds of the members of the Lee family. The father, Wing, came to Canada as a teenager and manages a small grocery store where he goes to great lengths to help new immigrants adjust to life in Canada. Mumma is also Chinese but born in Canada, and we are never given her first name. There are four children: Lizzie, Tom, Pen, and Jane. There are a few other members of the extended family who play into a handful of the stories. As in any family, each person has a distinct experience of any one occurrence, but this is exaggerated in the Lee family. None of the children can speak or understand Chinese. This is a deliberate choice by Wing and Mumma, both of whom speak Chinese (particularly when they don’t want the children to understand), despite the fact that they take the children to a church with only Chinese-speaking congregants and where the children must simply smile and nod, not allowed to reveal that they cannot understand the elderly ladies speaking to them and pinching their cheeks.
This is one of the puzzling details whose reasoning becomes clearer as one reads more of the stories, which brings me to the fragmented structure. As well as being in a seemingly random order, individual stories deliberately confuse the chronology of events and scenes. This is an elegant way to highlight the fallibility of memory; not only does each member of the Lee family have a distinct experience, but each of their memories of that experience are prone to all the flaws and imperfections of a remembered experience. With this in mind, the fragmentary structure becomes a wonderfully nuanced and important choice. Enjoyment comes from understanding the whole rather than each story in an ascending order. The first few stories, for me, were difficult to penetrate until I had read enough of the stories and learned enough of the different characters’ personalities and experiences to be able to re-evaluate elements I had initially found to be strange or out of place. This isn’t a collection that demands to be reread in order to understand its complexity; instead it is surprisingly enjoyable and revealing to reread it with more complete understanding, once she or he can recognize new details, see new meaning, and feel new empathy for the characters and their choices.
Because of this, the stories don’t work as well on their own. They are part of a whole, a narrative that is more than the sum of its parts in many ways.
NeWest | 240 pages | $19.95 | paper | ISBN# 978-1926455631