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BOOK REVIEW

Place and displacement in ‘Thank You, Mr. Nixon’

Author Gish Jen.Kayana Szymczak for the Boston Globe/Kayana Szymczak for the Boston Globe/file

Richard Nixon’s visit to China in 1972 was heralded as a great opening, the tentative but monumental meeting between two previously alienated giant nations. The US President hailed his time there as “the week that changed the world,” and the subsequent resumption of diplomatic and trade relationships helped transform the lives of some people in China, particularly those who found themselves able to emigrate from their homeland to the West.

In “Thank You, Mr. Nixon,” Gish Jen’s new story collection, characters are all displaced in one way or another, generally by geography or history or politics, but sometimes by their own family dynamics or wayward desires. The stories span decades, beginning soon after Nixon’s visit and ending in the very present-day territory of COVID quarantine in a New York apartment. Along the way, we meet Chinese tycoons and immigrants, Hong Kong democracy protestors and Chinese Americans who visit the Old Country and must reckon with relatives who stayed there.

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There is humor here, some of it pointed. In the book’s title story, a woman who had met Nixon in 1972 as a little girl (“not the one in the famous picture,” she notes, “I was the other one”) writes him a letter, posthumously, noting that “I am in heaven and you are in hell.” She tells him that the China he visited was artificial, composed for his visit to present a picture of perfection and grace. She tells him how she adored his wife Pat’s red coat, and used it as a model when she began sewing coats as a business — a business that only took off when Arnie Hsu, a Chinese-American businessman, finagled a way to label them “Made in Italy.” She tells him she took the English name Tricia (his elder daughter’s name). “You let a big genie out of a bottle,” she writes. “Maybe it has ruined what was left of Chinese culture.”

That same Chinese-American businessman has trouble with his Hong Kong-born-and-raised girlfriend, Lulu. Pity Lulu. She’d grown up in a city “perfect for high heels” due to its vertical nature “easily negotiated by chauffeured car and elevator.” Now she’s dating Arnie, and she finds his home country entirely too blah, a land more enamored of parks than the glittering shopping malls she adores. And then there’s Arnie’s mother, who expects Lulu’s company at lunch, daily — a request that signals the end of that relationship.

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The Hsus and Lulu’s family, the Koos, are among the characters who reappear from different angles in these stories. The stories are linked ingeniously, with minor subplots returning to major effect as the book moves forward through time, and people who seemed marginal on one page appearing later to take center stage. In one story, a pregnant woman tries to navigate her in-laws’ moods as they worry about their immigration status. No one wants to upset her, because that would upset the baby, she says. “That is how Chinese people think. One thing always affects something else.” The same might be said for how this collection works (and, of course, how life works as well).

What it means to be Chinese, or to be Chinese American, is a question many of the characters grapple with. When Duncan Hsu, Arnie’s brother, moves from the US to China for work, he finds himself upset by the life his Chinese cousin leads. Seeing how different they are makes him think “there were too many truths here; he wanted to go home.” Home, for him, is where he grew up, not where his parents are from. Indeed, he senses his Chinese colleagues’ disdain: “There was one thing he had, being an American — not so much an unshakable conviction as a habit of believing in the happiest possibility. Truly it was a form of blindness. He understood why denizens of the Old World laughed at people like him.”

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Other characters are white Americans wrestling with how they feel about China and its people. A large, blond couple Tom and Tory, always obsessed with China, appear in one story as tourists and in another as business people (they own a coffee shop and are trying to branch out into tea) and adoptive parents of a daughter from China. “There’s China the dream and China the reality, Tory,” Tom tells his wife during a conversation about the Tiananmen Square protests.

A later set of protests, those in Hong Kong, become the setting of one of the book’s most heartbreaking arcs, a kind of authorial tour-de-force as we mostly understand it through hints and suggestions, culminating in the breathtaking final story, “Detective Dog.”

Throughout, the collection is concerned with parents and children, couples and their vexed communication — culture clashes writ small and large. Jen, whose previous fiction has often plied the territory of second-generation American children of Chinese immigrants, here creates a panoramic universe of deftly sketched tales both comic and tragic. Her prose sparkles with clarity and moves with deceptive simplicity toward profound conclusions. This is a collection to treasure.

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Kate Tuttle, a freelance writer and critic, can be reached at kate.tuttle@gmail.com.


Kate Tuttle, a freelance writer and critic, can be reached at kate.tuttle@gmail.com.