"Thank You, Mr. Nixon," Gish Jen's first collection of short fiction in more than 20 years, is a jewel box of creativity and a joy to uncover.
Across 11 synergistic stories about interconnected families, Jen creates a sort of episodic epic spanning 50 years, from Nixon's historic visit to China in 1972 through the umbrella protests in Hong Kong early in the pandemic. Most characters are Chinese American, first-, second- or third-generation, but Chinese play parts, too, as do white Midwesterners. Marriage and friendship forge enduring bonds while travel and business lead to transient ties, yet all persist to some degree, passed between generations like genetic traits.
"It's the Great Wall!" introduces several central figures, including Opal, who returns to China for the first time in 40 years with her daughter and son-in-law. When she left Shanghai for graduate school in the United States, Opal never imagined that she would get stuck there, unable to go home due to China's 1949 revolution and subsequent upheavals, "like one earthquake followed by another, followed by another and another."
She starts helping the Chinese translator for her American tour group, hoping to facilitate a meeting with her sisters, and realizes that neither political upheaval nor the passage of time can erase her relationship to her homeland.
Twentysomething Duncan Hsu — dropout from military school, med school, and more — goes to Shandong in the early 1980s to teach English at a coal mining institute in "Duncan in China." A meeting with his Chinese cousin and a crush on an older student help open his eyes to a type of blindness he carried as an American, "a habit of believing in the happiest possibility."
In "A Tea Tale," the action moves stateside, to suburban Cincinnati. Tom and Tory, "an enormous blond couple" from Opal's tour, have maintained their interest in China, even adopting a daughter from there, but the former linebacker and the onetime Miss Ohio also retain their prejudices, which intensify when Duncan and his Chinese wife open a tea shop near their coffee shop.
Throughout, Jen subtly draws attention to all these perceptions of difference, those based on race as well as on age, values, class and immigration status. Some contrasts occur within families, as with the ultra-rich, Hong Kong–based Koo family. In "Gratitude," their oldest daughter, Bobby, who works in New York City, has stopped answering her mother's calls. Her story line finds bittersweet resolution in "Detective Dog," which suffers a bit from platitudes trying to capture the pandemic — "COVID. COVID was making people crazy." (Yes, authors, we know.)
Perhaps the most touching connection forms between two of the most disparate characters — Opal's 40-year-old granddaughter, Amarylis, and Duncan's 89-year-old father, Ed. Despite differing in almost every way, Amarylis realizes "no one can survive alone." Ed's take is less philosophical, boiling down to "Chinese, not Chinese, makes no difference."
These stories offer valuable insight into our world, which feels increasingly divided in countless ways. Surely everyone — us and them, whoever they are — would benefit if together we read what Jen has to say.
Cory Oldweiler is a freelance writer and editor.
Thank You, Mr. Nixon
By: Gish Jen.
Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf, 272 pages, $28. (In bookstores Feb. 1.)