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The Prairie Schooner Blog

Briefly Noted: Swimming in Hong Kong by Stephanie Han

by Jennifer S. Deayton

The weight of expectations is the common thread in the engaging short story collection, Swimming in Hong Kong, by Stephanie Han. Her characters, both local and expatriate, tourist and immigrant, are constantly assessing: not only themselves, but also the people around them. How should a Korean lady act in Hong Kong?  What does it mean to be Asian in America? American in Asia? What did I ever see in that guy? And the universal conundrum: is this love?

In turn, the mostly Asian protagonists must grapple with other people’s often-warped perceptions and categorizations. Han tackles the eternal East-West culture clash with sly humor and a sharp eye. Conflicts that could easily devolve in to cheap shots and stereotypes are rendered in living, breathing, hilarious color. Consider this passage from ‘The Body Politic, 1982’, the story of a Korean-American college student falling for a sexy, would-be revolutionary:

I was a member of ASA-Asian Sisters for Action, but participated in the new tri-college offshoot AFCAC-Asian Feminists for Central American Change rally upon the suggestion of Donna Chong, ASA’s president. She had told me I demonstrated potential as a political leader: “You have a loud voice. It’s great for rallies.”

The standout read in the collection is ‘Languages’, which unfolds as a series of diary entries written by a 32-year old Korean singleton. Set in Seoul, the story begins with Miss Lee’s humble observation, “Once again, I am without prospects.”

Suffering awkward attempts at matchmaker and her mother’s constant humiliations, the modest Miss Lee rebels by learning Italian and indulging in a chaste romance with one of her language students, a much younger American named Matthew. Her simple observations and outsider status – at 5’8” she’s too tall by Korean standards - mark Miss Lee as a beguiling, heartbreaking voice. A woman who yearns for so much more but will accept what she can:

I am trying not to show my worries about my unmarried state as I feel that to do so is unattractive. I read that one should take up hobbies and activities and that men, if unable to find a beautiful woman, will content themselves with one who will establish a comfortable home and a stimulating academic environment for their children.

More observational than plot-heavy, Han’s stories revolve around characters who find themselves at breaking points both large and small. And though the protagonists in Swimming in Hong Kong struggle with weighty issues of identity, alienation, consent and mortality, Han strikes a balance between light and dark by varying points of view, changing tone and above all infusing her stories with moments of real levity. Hopes become burdens. Hopes become wings.

It’s fair to speculate that this equilibrium springs from Han’s own experiences. She’s an Asian-American expatriate, a writer and educator, and she divides her time between Hawaii and Hong Kong.

With her first short story collection, Han pushes beyond the typical expat/immigrant narrative of dislocation and discovery to explore universal truths with humor, depth and heart.