Raffles Reads: The Heartsick Diaspora

Reading Time: 7 minutes

By Huang Beihua (20A03A) and Mah Xiao Yu (20A01B)

A piece of toast held between two chopsticks. It is perhaps an awkward image, but certainly an appropriate cover for The Heartsick Diaspora: this is a book with an appreciation for subtle humour—and certainly much involvement of food. More significantly, however, is the cover’s underlining of the friction, and loneliness, at the core of the book, both of people struggling to come to terms with cultures so foreign to them, yet ones they are bound to pick up.

The collection—the first by Singaporean writer Elaine Chiew—unites 14 short stories across time and space, from World War II Singapore to a high French restaurant in New York City. For all their diverse settings, each one—in its unique way—captures the trials and tribulations of the Malaysian-Singaporean diaspora, caught in the eddies as they navigate the confluence of distinct identities towards love, family, and ambition.

For a piece of diasporic literature, we can often expect some touch of regret in the face of diminishing identities, of cultural roots diluted by the unfamiliar place in which the characters find themselves. The Heartsick Diaspora focuses on a particular subset of this concept, one of children moving far overseas and settling in while their ageing parents remain home. It is, then, an especially potent documentation of cultural rifts, manifested tangibly and vividly in the breaking apart of familial love. Tensions soar to heights heart-wrenching and dramatic on equal proportions as the elderly mother of Run of the Molars finds her trip to London embroiled in one quarrel after another, clinging onto a culture her expatriate daughters no longer understand. The longing of a Malaysian grandma in Face for her home away from an England of prejudice, of isolation, and, above all, where she feels out of place evokes pathos all too palpable—and only compounded by a confused son who cannot grasp her desire for home. Chiew never veers into explicit commentary, yet crafts her narration to thrust the reader into the scene itself and all the emotions that come with it. As the daughters in Run of the Molars struggle to explain the London Eye to their mother:

[T]he language they shared in common from birth had failed them. Neither of them knew the Hokkien words for backstay cables, and neither did their mother. She didn’t look like she ever envisioned she’d need a language to transcribe all that she was seeing for the first time.

Language is a foundation of identity, giving form to thought in unique, different ways that mark one culture from another. That a shared native language should both be too unfamiliar and wholly inadequate to describe what they are seeing is, then, a reflection of how fundamentally estranged their Hokkien identity (or parts of their identities) is in the face of a foreign reality. It is a sombre idea, and it is one Chiew weaves into much of the collection as the rawest experience of cultural loss, rightfully and masterfully. The visual impact is direct and jarring, for example, when she faithfully preserves terms specific to the Chinese dialects used in a sea of English words. In the case of Chinese Almanac—a coming-out story of a gay man to his father while struggling to stay true to Confucian ideals—the father’s speech is rendered often in Mandarin characters and phrases, only occasionally explained by bracketed English. This is not so much a lapse in consistency as much as it is a blunt parallel to the relationship between the generations, where both grasp to understand the increasing alienness of the other bound by blood only to intermittent success. The difficulty in communication means secrets hidden from each other, and over time, their mutual failure to understand evolves from semantic technicalities onto a more fundamental, personal level.

“I want to talk to him in our cross-intentioned languages, but I don’t know how. How do I say, ‘It’s time for you go home’ in Chinese without sounding like I’m throwing my old dad out of my apartment, like I’m that second run on the hierarchy of sin, right beneath being traitorous to one’s country—unfilial?”

The son of the Chinese Almanac

Elsewhere and just as much, food can feature as a symbol of identity. That eating is essential for the definition of a culture in the context of another is not an unfamiliar notion, yet here it is refreshing and pleasant to see the subtlety and nuance with which Chiew instrumentalises food to convey characters’ differing attitudes towards their ethnic culture. In Face, the traditional Chinese dining table being a boisterous, communal affair (where family members look out for and help one another pick up dishes others cannot reach) binds to an overarching, intense longing for the sense of community the grandmother so sorely lacks in London. The Run of the Molars mother’s indignation at a steamboat soup missing key ingredients like goji berries, jujubes, and liquorice root—she would rather chew on two slices of white bread—is best understood as a gallant, perhaps, refusal to compromise on her own culture when the practices around her are decidedly western and therefore hopelessly alien, to the point where even a family dinner intended to please her could involve such unacceptable faux pas. “You have?” She asks for the bread in defeat, no longer trying to voice her anger. 

Yet, these stories are ultimately hopeful as love proves to transcend barriers erected by language and custom. In Chinese Almanac, after a week of eating Chinese food with his father every night and trying to understand not only his father’s Chinese but also the sudden changes in family dynamics, a son finally comes out to his father. In doing so, the son uses Mandarin characters and references to Chinese lore which remain unexplained, symbolising the first time the son and father have a true mutual understanding of each other—the father now understands a crucial part of his son’s identity and the son now recognises the ways his father loves him, “without ever using the words”. Similarly, the confession of a long-held secret in Run of the Molars finally reveals to a daughter the burdens her mother has carried almost her entire life and gives her a glimpse of her mother’s true feelings, concealed under criticisms and what seemed like unreasonable demands. It is reassuring, certainly, to see love hold up against the seismic forces of cultural rifts: a comforting testament to the endurance of love in situations that can, perhaps, hit very much close to home between us and the elderly generations.

The diasporic experience is far more than just strained familial ties, however, and The Heartsick Diaspora rightfully presents far more aspects of it than just complicated families. Using food once again as a central theme, Chronicles of a Culinary Poseur details the ambitions of a Singaporean chef in the world of high French cuisine, yet discovers food critics are only impressed when they are convinced a white male is behind the stoves. It is delicious, certainly, as we follow Chef Kara’s quest to create the perfect tasting menu, peppered with descriptions that reflect animatedly and convincingly the passion one would expect in a chef (that Chiew spent weeks in a kitchen to research). In between dishes she offers recollections of her determination to succeed—blend in, perhaps—in the cooking world dominated by white men, yet it is one ultimately made more complex by her attachment to her own ethnicity. She faces the glass ceiling of a minority female chef and, when difficulties arise, chooses above all a loan from “The Woon Leong Benevolent Chinese Association (benevolent, my ass)” to finance her restaurant.

“Ever since then, loose-limbed, scary-looking thugs came by once every week to eat and ‘keep an eye on things’. What did Bernard know about any of it, but the gossip-monger he no doubt was, he’d probably heard that Kara couldn’t pay her seafood supplier this week and had to resort to Chinatown garoupa.”

Kara, Chronicles of a Culinary Poseur

Such richness of meaning from such animated language peppered with fun makes for a tantalizing read in any case; to see it sandwiched between other stories equally as strong and wielding a more solemn disposition testifies only to the versatility and skill of its author. In Rap of the Tiger Mother, Chiew weaves together prose and verse through the point of view of a single Chinese mother, who struggles with not only raising her four-year-old son but also the strong sense of inadequacy born from being surrounded by “tiger mothers”. While the vernacular used in her bars already presents the narrator as an atypical Asian woman, the story can be seen as almost anti-tiger mother, flipping over the stereotypes that tiger mothers are exclusive to only Asian cultures and that Asian mothers all want to be tiger mothers.

For all its potency documenting characters’ relationships to their cultures, The Heartsick Diaspora fumbles somewhat over the very culture it references. The Malaysian- and Singaporean-Chinese culture it depicts seems, at times, no different from a generic picture of a traditional Chinese one. Indeed, apart from references to Singaporean places or cuisine, characters’ concerns and values are often applicable to the Chinese community worldwide, with little specificity to the group on whom Chiew elects to focus. Certainly, nothing inherently wrong is with this portrayal—it is neither inaccurate nor inauthentic—but one could not help but regret at the missed opportunity to explore the unique flavours of a Singaporean/Malaysian Chinese story happening in the United Kingdom. A diaspora within a diaspora, if you will.

In comparison, stories that took place in Singapore, such as The Coffin Maker, A Thoroughly Modern Ghost of Other Origin and Mapping Three Lives through a Red Rooster Chamber Pot, managed to highlight the unique Singaporean experience and culture much better. For instance, A Thoroughly Modern Ghost of Other Origin references not only Chinese ghosts and the tradition of burning joss paper for the dead, but also Malay and Indian ghosts (“I ask, What were you before you died, C, M, I, O—Chinese, Malay, Indian, or Other?”) as well as other typically Singaporean sights: old men doing tai chi in the void deck, HDB eateries and chilli crab, and 7-Elevens and slushies.

“It gives me the creeps, looking at all these things for the dead, but I guess the Chinese dead are also particularly enamoured of progress, because there’s an iPad, the latest iPhone and Samsung Galaxy, even a Google Glass. Not to mention a red Ducati, and, [redacted] me, a Joe Rocket leather motorcycle jacket to go with.”

The Narrator, A Thoroughly Modern Ghost of Other Origin

Overall, then, The Heartsick Diaspora is an emotional—even intimate and relatable—account of the complicated realities behind living across cultures, in a setting familiar to many of us. It could, of course, be made satisfying in ways, but that does not make it any less fascinating than it is. So, if you ever see the distinctive cover on the shelves, it is certainly worthwhile to pick up the chopsticks and savor the stories.

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