If you could afford to live anywhere in the world, where would you like to be ? If only teleporting were possible and does not only exist in science fiction.
It was the year we were leaving secondary school when our class teacher talked to us about sense of belonging. You may struggle to find the connections at home or at work or wherever you are and you have to find out where you belong. It is about identity, fitting in and wanting to be loved and accepted as who you are. Where you end up living is often determined by familiar ties, expectations and economic reasons. It is about what matters to you and what you will have to give up if you choose to move away from where you originate from.
We know choices are made for you even before you are born. For some of us, as we grow up, we yearn for adventure so we look for opportunities to leave home. I set my mind to study abroad as soon as I completed my secondary schooling. After graduating, I had thought it was a good idea to come home for a couple of years and I ended up staying . Decades later, I occasionally think about the path not taken and mull about what it might have been like. I figure that ultimately you are who you are and you are where you are meant to be.
In Edge Case, Y Z Chin writes superbly about one woman’s feeling of alienation working in a tech start-up as the sole female employee in New York. After another stressful day , Edwina comes home to find that her husband, Marlin, has left and she cannot file a missing person report as they hope to secure their green cards as a couple. As Edwina looks for clues and reasons for Marlin’s disappearance by searching through his papers at home, she also sifts through her memories and realises that Marlin has a personality change after attending his father’s funeral. Marlin was close to his dad and he is reeling from the death of his father.
As Edwina searches the city for Marlin, she recalls what she has been told by Marlin. Unlike her, Marlin was brought up by two parents. She imagines that Marlin’s father was the one who indulged and spoiled her husband. From what she understands, Marlin’s father had brought home Lego kits and radio- controlled cars that turned Marlin on to engineering. His father would let him do anything in the name of learning including taking apart a brand-new watch. He has his mother’s dark brown skin tone. He learned from her the necessity for care and caution. ‘He saw how she adopted different tones and styles when she talked to different people. Because of that, he began to pay attention to social interactions , noticing the power dynamics and hierarchies at play. He picked up from her a barbed humour, deployed often in irony and against the powerful.’
The story is narrated in Edwina’s voice.
Edwina has unresolved issues with her mother who had brought her up singlehandedly after her father died at a young age. But her mother is always critical about her weight and appearance.
‘In Malaysia, I shop for clothes in size XL, whereas in America I am a medium. The “ all clear” given by American doctors during annual health checkups translates to “not yet have kids already so fat” in Malaysia and “better don’t eat so much” during mealtimes with my own relatives.
It is ridiculous, and I know it, which is why I can’t confess it to anyone but you. “Fewer people body-shame me” is not a legitimate reason to emigrate.’
As Edwina and her colleagues test out AInstein on its text-to-voice generator . She has been given the task to offer user feedback. In Edwina’s voice, she muses,
‘What would be next for me , if I didn’t get a green card? My mother wanted me to go home. I, like anyone else, had been dropped onto certain tracks at birth. Class, sex, race, physical and mental limitations ,nationality, native language -we don’t get a choice. To feel in control, I did the opposite of whatever my mother urged on me, though wasn’t traveling backward along the tracks just another way of following them?
The day I came across applications for scholarships in America, I was thunderstruck. For the first time, I imagined : What if I could change one of my fundamental characteristics, a major way in which I was sorted, pinned down , and judged?‘
In the story, Edwina is thinking of becoming American or more precisely, she is thinking of not being Malaysian anymore.
‘ Was it not relatable? Wasn’t this precisely the point of Sleeping Beauty and Rapunzel, whose stories are about our struggles to overcome fates sealed at birth, or before we are even born?’
Edwina questions her own intention in trying so hard to blend into the culture at work and her sense of ambivalence about wanting to live in America. It is an engaging read about marriage, identity and immigration.
Edge Case by Y Z Chin is a smart read. It captures the sense of displacement, loneliness that diaspora experience. It is about finding your place in the world away from where you originally come from.
In Counterfeit by Kirstin Chen, Ava Wong, aged thirty-seven, is a rule- abiding lawyer who seems to have ticked all of life’s boxes. She is married to Oli, a successful surgeon and she is taking a break to raise their toddler, Henri who is two going on three. Growing up, Ava was one of those kids who had excellent grades and even at thirty-seven with her mother gone, she still obsesses over what her poor mother would say if she lived to learn that she has decided to become ‘a yoga teacher or an interior designer or a baker’. She is certain that she will not return to tax law and work those billable hours. She also realises that she is not able to take care of her toddler without their hired nanny, Maria.
Enter Winnie Fang, her old college roommate who hailed from China and had left Stanford in a shroud of scandal. Winnie contacts Ava as she needs a favour to help an ailing business partner. It has been almost twenty years when they last saw one another and from what Ava remembers, Winnie looks nothing like her freshman-year roommate and she also does not even sound like her.
In Ava’s narratives,
‘ The first thing I noticed was the eyes. They were anime-character huge, with thick double- eyelid folds, expertly contoured in coppery tones, framed by premium lash extensions, soft and full as a fur pelt. Then there was the hair – sleek yet voluminous, nipple- length barrel curls — and the skin, poreless and very white. And the clothes – sumptuous silk blouse, patent Louboutins. And finally, the bag – an enormous Birkin 40 in classic orange. ‘
Winnie knows that beneath her friend’s picture perfect life is a woman who is at a breaking point. She only has to hang out with Ava a couple of times before she sees her opening.Of course Ava’s Harvard-educated doctor husband is absent and neglectful and Ava will not admit that she hates being a lawyer. Winnie knows that Ava’s life is only great on paper and she feels sorry for her friend. They need each other. Winnie reveals to Ava that her new- found success is courtesy of a shady business involving counterfeit luxury bags. She justifies her misdeed and argues that the corporations are the real villains and they abuse their workers, paying them pennies and then hawking the fruits of their labour for thousands but Ava is aghast. As it happens, Ava’s husband blocks her credit cards when she takes a trip to Hongkong to visit her family against his wish , she is pushed to take a peek into Winnie’s world. Before long, Ava is fully aboard and two not previously close friends in college become partners in crime.
The story is narrated in two versions. One of them is in Ava’s voice as she narrates her version to Georgia Murphy ,the detective. Kirstin Chen has masterfully weaved a tale involving two compelling female characters with twists and turns peppered with dark humour.
Counterfeit by Kirstin Chen is multi-layered. It is a con artist story about how near-exact replicas of luxury handbags get imported into the US from Guangzou, it is also a caper about consumerism and an examination of womanhood, class, survival and culture.