Beatitudes: An Exploration of Z.Z. Packer’s “Geese” and Xu Xi’s “Famine”
Two contemporary authors I recently discovered through exploration of The Bedford Introduction to Literature, a doorstopper of a textbook intended for AP high school and college English, are Z.Z. Packer and Xu Xi. “Famine,” a short story by Xu Xi, is about a Chinese woman who travels from Hong Kong to New York to escape from, and somehow compensate for, an entire lifetime of famine by indulging in one week of extreme opulence in five-star restaurants in New York, mainly in the iconic Plaza Hotel. “Famine” culminates in an orgiastic feast, in which the protagonist has a kind of blissful vision. In “Geese,” the protagonist is a young African American girl who also undergoes near starvation over an extended period of time, but ends up discovering a new way of seeing and being through a Japanese cultural perspective, ending in a state of contented bliss. She also has a kind of beatific vision.
It occurred to me that these two stories, written one year apart, but about 500 pages apart in Bedford, parallel each other in interesting ways, with one character migrating from East to West, the other West to East, both confronting extreme circumstances around cultural alienation and starvation, and both ending in a contented state. It also struck me that these stories would make a good compare-and-contrast paper assignment for my Freshman English class. Despite winning the O’Henry prize for best short story, “Famine” has never been analyzed or Schmooped, and for that reason would likely defy AI paper generators (a sad reality of teaching Freshman English in 2023), another plus; I have learned that Open AI can generate student papers complete with MLA citations, even write compare and contrasts essays, so the relative obscurity of “Famine” and paucity of lit crit on it was also appealing to me, since there is nothing to feed AI engines. And I liked the story, finding it relatable, because like the protagonist, I too, studied English Literature and am in my 50s, living in a world that has changed.
In the last few years, the short stories of ZZ Packer (from Drinking Coffee Elsewhere) seem to have made their way into high school and college classrooms everywhere. Papers on short stories from Drinking Coffee Elsewhere available for purchase online and digital download attest to Packer’s ubiquity in the Freshman English curriculum, and to a lesser extent, serve as evidence the fact that students in these classes struggle to comprehend the meaning of her works. Three short stories students are assigned are “Brownies,” “Geese” and “Drinking Coffee Elsewhere.” Dina, the protagonist of “Geese,” reappears in “Drinking Coffee Elsewhere.”
I believe Z.Z. Packer and Xu Xi embody what Arianna Dagnino theorizes as a new generation of “transnational” (Xu Xi) and “transcultural” (Z. Z. Packer) writer, reflecting a “new cosmopolitanism” where their protagonists are at home in two or more cultures, and are free to “embrace the opportunities and freedom that diversity and mobility bestow upon them”(Dagnino 2). This is not the experience where one migrates to a new country and imports, or clings to, customs, value systems and ethnicities, but rather what Dagnino describes as a new kind of cultural “dispatriation,” where culture and identity are more fluid and people are free to “live on the border of one’s ‘inborn’ culture or beyond it.’” They are free to shed their identities, and may find it liberating to do so.
These “transcultural” or “transnational” writers (there is a difference, Dignino suggests, even though these terms are often used interchangeably) often create complex characters who are not necessarily determined by their inherited ethnicity or identity. A Chinese person may no longer want to be culturally “Chinese,” or identify herself as Chinese (as Xu Xi explains in her essay, “Why I Stopped Being Chinese”); an African American woman is free to embrace a new identity, or at to assimilate into a new culture, become Japanese. It isn’t a matter of not wanting to be “who they really are,” but simply, that it may not be the case that, for whatever reason, “it” (however their native culture is defined) isn’t necessarily “who they really are.” The characters in newer fiction are free to embrace new identities and cultures. Cultural identity is fluid, a choice.
Indeed, authors and characters both may be moving toward brand-new and complex transcultural identities, free to choose both where they live and their cultural affiliation, provided that society allows them to break free. Both ZZ Packer and Xu Xi tend to write from a transcultural perspective where characters have fluid identities not easily summed up by a single cultural framework or value system. This is what makes their characters and stories interesting.
While people will always see what they want to see in a story or work of art, one Chinese reviewer in an Asian journal based in Hong Kong writes of “Famine” that it is a story about “eating”:
The story draws on a central concern of Chinese culture and family life—eating. Most of the heroine’s memories of her father are related to food and eating and thus they are closely linked with her Chinese background within the narrative. The irony of the story, then, is that although the daughter longs for a completely Western emancipation, this escape partly involves indulging herself at Michelin-starred restaurants, a fact which makes the reader wonder if she has really freed herself from her food-filled past (Tsang).
I love the ambiguity of that word concern in this context, especially when placed in proximity to eating.
To me, Xu Xi’s story is neither about eating nor about being Chinese. In fact, it is really about the opposite, the protagonist’s losing her Chinese self, to the extent that she can, even going thousands of miles away from home to end up at the Plaza Hotel in New York, admittedly to do exactly what she might have done in any five-star hotel in Hong Kong. It is also about famine, both real (as in, not having enough money for food or to support oneself with dignity) and metaphorical (seemingly having no options left on the menu of life, despite having “studied the literature”). It is also about her attempt to distance herself from her Chinese past and all that has to do with it, which in her mind is associated with famine, starvation both real and emotional. If anything, the protagonist’s memories about her ignorant, controlling Chinese father and passive obedient mother, survivors of the Great Famine of the late 50s and early 60, are related to what most Westerners and even her educated associates in Hong Kong would see as starvation, ignorance, extreme cruelty and child abuse (“starvation of affection,” people said of her).
Her Chinese past is not food-filled at all, except for some rice and tofu. Never meat, even what she describes as “the most Chinese of all meats,” pork. It simply wasn’t allowed in her household—why? Not because of money, even though they were poor, but because of her father’s ignorant philosophies about hungry people in the world, coupled with his own equality ignorant ideas of what constituted a healthy diet. Famine in her household was like the Great Famine in China, entirely man-made by an evil dictator wielding a dangerous and evil philosophy. Her father puts communist ideology, the needs of the collective, an abstract concern about the hungry people in the world, above the physical and emotional needs of his own flesh-and-blood daughter. Now that her parents are dead, her future in Chinese Hong Kong, a Hong Kong that is increasingly becoming just a colony of mainland China, isn’t going to food-filled, either, which is certainly part of her current dilemma, and why she flees to New York for a week of self-indulgence in five-star restaurants.
Is it really “Western emancipation” the daughter in seeks, as this Chinese reviewer states, or as she put it in the story, greater “gastronomic variety”?
Somewhere in the middle lies the truth, but of course. I must remind myself again and again that this character in “Famine” is not a real person, as much as I feel I have gotten to know her sitting with her over the course of a few dinners.
We know that Hong Kong is increasingly a colony of mainland China. The takeover is already well underway. I have no idea if this reviewer is some kind of propagandist for the CCP, just trying to avoid a spoiler, or he didn’t bother to read the story. However, like with the uprising in Tiananmen Square, the Great Famine, caused by Mao’s efforts to modernize and industrialize China, has been officially erased from Chinese historiography. Maybe he cannot say what Xu Xi’s story is about in this Asian journal without facing political repercussions.
Nonetheless, this review gives one reason to think that someone reading “Famine” from a Chinese cultural perspective—the philosophies and value system of the protagonist’s father—might have a different interpretation of the story, possibly thinking that had the daughter not pursued “Western emancipation” from a young age, studied English Literature in school and aligned herself with Western bourgeois cultural aspirations and tastes, she might have learned from her parents to find value in that single grain of rice that clung to the side of the rice bowl, which her mother, even with dimming eyesight, always looked for; and then the daughter might have been more appreciative of her “rice bowl” as an adult, instead of being so dissatisfied with her life that she would think it not worth living.
Her mother and father tried to teach her, tried to “educate” her, but the daughter stubbornly refused to learn that lesson, rebelling against her father, choosing death (hunger strike) over life itself. Of course, it never occurred to me, and would not occur to any of us, to read “Famine” from that Maoist Chinese cultural perspective, through the lens of the daughter’s Chinese parents; and no, of course, I do not think we as readers are supposed to, either. The story is entitled “Famine” for a reason. We readers want the daughter, who sees with Western eyes, with our own eyes, to escape from her hellish existence in Hong Kong, which in the end she does when she comes to America, even if her future is uncertain.
ZZ Packer’s acclaimed short story collection Drinking Coffee Elsewhere features stories about African American girls and young women (“coffee”) who travel outside of their comfort zone and familiar settings often into foreign cultures and settings (“elsewhere”).
Dina, the protagonist of “Geese,” is drawn to Japanese culture. This has nothing to do with a rejection of who she is or escaping the neighborhood where she is from. She isn’t concerned about making money or pursuing a more comfortable life. That was made clear from the outset. That she grew up in an inner-city black neighborhood (boarded up row houses, corner grocery / liquor store, etc.) does not define or impose limits on her, at least in terms of cultural identity. She is not “running away” from her old life. She has good memories of the neighborhood. She is just inexplicably drawn to Japanese culture, based on what she knows about it. Dina is moving toward something new, not escaping from, as the protagonist in “Famine” is doing. Japan speaks to Dina, to her heart, and she wants to follow this dream, which apparently has been a constant in her life since childhood—there was that children’s book mentioned at the end. She even wants to learn to speak Japanese. We know this from context when her neighbor Miss Gloria says, “You go’ head and learn that language. Find out what they saying about us at Chong’s” (194).
Many consider “Geese” a coming-of-age story, since the young protagonist naively boards a plane and goes to Japan, not knowing that Japan sucks (I am paraphrasing the first page of fake student papers) especially for young black women who do not know Japanese. They focus on Dina’s bad judgment, her naivete. I guess she learned her lesson, stupid her, going to Japan and nearly starving to death, experiencing discrimination, almost getting raped/murdered by some crazy Muslim roommate, then having to prostitute herself for money. She suffered bad things and had sex for money, and we all know what that means: Her innocence is lost!
Now, I can see where the last line of the story may throw some people off, because it is written from the perspective of what a younger, less mature version Dina would think of future Dina, but I am not sure that mature Dina is critical of herself or regrets her decision to go to Japan. On the contrary, the vision of the geese at the end of the story (one of my students called it a “meme” and another an “infographic”–how about “symbol“?) allows her life to come full circle, to be fully present in the moment. She would have done it all over again, in exactly the same way: it was promise she made to herself. That is the meaning of the geese, isn’t it? Like the geese, she has migrated, driven by some internal desire, a feeling. Like the geese, she was like the Japanese kamikaze pilots, who risked their lives for a promise.
Dina does not, in fact, regret her decision to go to Japan. No, she is not disillusioned. No, she has not lost her innocence. If anything, at the end, she is now full of child-like, wide-eyed wonder and innocence, able to perceive nature and the world in a new way. Yes, she has matured, she has grown, but her eyes are now opened to the beauty all around her. She sees things differently now. That is what she went for, to experience the “loveliness,” right? And she has.
If you do not get this, well, sorry, you missed the climax and the point of the story.
“Loss of innocence” based on her sexual encounter is a Western / Christian read of the story. It will lead students down a blind alley. You will have projected your own gaijin value systems and ethnocentric attitudes onto Dina and her setting of Japan, and completely overlooked the spectacular ending, the shift in style which occurs before the point that she is “shaken” by the sarariman.
Although Dina is a black American, her soul or her heart, her very way of perceiving the world, has been utterly transformed. She went there to experience the loveliness and she has. Dina’s own fluid identity is very much a part of the story, if not the main point. She has learned the Japanese language (note, at the end she is conversing with the sarariman in Japanese), and her way of perceiving and understanding is Japanese. All of her life experiences up until that point have been leading up to that moment of the geese.
Read and reread the ending and my analysis below, and you will see I am right.
These two stories share so many interesting thematic similarities surrounding personal identity, food, travel, escape, isolation, marginalization, exile, etc., I decided to write a kind of compare-and-contrast—I know, I sort of have already. . .
And now, for my more formal study.
Crossing Over to the Other Side: Cultural Transmigration in Xu Xi’s “Famine” (2004) and ZZ Packer’s “Geese” (2003)
Xu Xi’s “Famine” (2004) and ZZ Packer’s “Geese” (2003) are two short stories featuring complex female protagonists who leave home for foreign destinations without any thought of what to do for money when they get there. For both, death by starvation (“Geese”) and/or suicide (“Famine”) seems imminent, although the self-possessed and more mature protagonist of “Famine” appears to act with greater forethought and deliberation, referring to a “plan,” even if hastily implemented. She is sarcastically apologetic about booking business class to catch a last-minute flight from Hong Kong to New York (“I didn’t mean to fly in dignity, but having never traveled in summer, or at all, I didn’t plan months ahead, long before flights filled up” (668)), but we soon realize that luxury and opulence are part of her plan, indeed, the very point of it.
In contrast, young Dina, the protagonist of “Geese,” does not have any sort of plan, except for some internal drive to go from Baltimore to Tokyo; but she underestimates what it takes for a young African American woman to survive in Japan. This is not a completely unreasonable or unforeseen consequence, since making money was never her motive for going there in the first place, despite what she told her neighbors back in Baltimore. In “Geese,“ Dina’s realization that she had been on a kind of suicide mission not unlike Japanese kamikaze pilots comes only at the very end of the story, when she sees the geese she has seen before flying in formation in the air. In “Famine,” the suicide mission is intentional, but disguised as a pursuit of “opulence,” which is confusingly presented to the reader as an alternative to famine, or starvation, which the protagonist has experienced in different forms over the course of her lifetime. Opulence is a façade. She is pursuing dignity in the face of impending death.
With the nameless persona of “Famine,” a 51-year-old Chinese teacher of English Literature from Hong Kong, we perceive her craving for dignity, and to be left alone with extravagant meals and painful memories, a clue which leads the reader to consider that perhaps she is not exactly looking forward to experiencing the delights of New York, nor open to the sort of experiences that visitors to New York with her cultural aspirations and educational attainment typically enjoy.
What she is refusing to do, the reader comes to realize, is to go on further demeaning herself by living as she has for the entirety of her existence, hand to mouth, just subsisting on rice, dependent on generosity of others, which is all she will be able to do with her tiny “rice bowl” pension as a retired English teacher in Hong Kong. Now that her parents are dead and she has been prematurely relieved of a job, she is able to escape from her dreary and uneventful life, one which has entailed living in the shadows of affluent friends and successful peers (like her schoolmate Veronica and rival Kwai-sin Ho), and in a world which no longer shares her passions or endows her with any sense of self-worth.
She doesn’t want pity, but dignity; so her plan is cleverly disguised from her friend and even the reader much of the way through the tale.
Her perceptions of her own limited choices in life are only revealed subtly, though innuendo, symbolism, and anecdotes, which typically occur while lingering too long (even her waiters do not want to “wait” for her) over disappointing restaurant menus in five-star hotel restaurants. Her disappointment over the menu choices is a veiled metaphor for the predicament she now finds herself in life. In her own mind, at least, she takes back control over her own life, no longer being lazy, and “moving the cookie wheel.” But what’s the plan? When she tried to take back control over her life as a child, she did it by a hunger strike. Her parents had threatened to starve her, and she took back control by starving herself. Now, she is going to starve, so she is going in the other direction, it seems, to try to take control of her life by self-indulgence or “opulence” as she describes it. Opulence is the opposite of famine.
In “Famine,” the downward trajectory of the protagonist’s life is so profound that we can only surmise that near starvation (living on a “rice bowl”), suicide, or actual starvation, are her only options as she continuously tries, though a weeklong orgy of food and extravagance, to “vanquish her fear of death and opulence”(670). Premeditated demise at her own hand is most definitely implied here and toward the end of the story, since her “fear of opulence” has obviously already been overcome; this retired teacher is knowingly spending thousands on food and hotels each day, and of course, the pairing of “opulence “with “death” is in itself auspicious (fear of “death and famine” makes sense, but not “fear of death and opulence”), making the attentive reader ponder how exactly her fear of death and expensive meals are correlated to each other in the protagonist’s own mind.
While her plan is never explicitly stated the story—we are initially led into the tale believing that is it is her parents’ irrational fear of famine which she is escaping from—the text implies that she will have knowingly, deliberately, gone through her life savings at the end of week’s stay in the Plaza Suite (where one night is the equivalent of four years of pay as a teacher, we are told). The suite is 900 square feet, three times the size of the house she grew up in. Why does she need that much space?
At the end of the story, almost as if to compensate for all of the famine in her life, she is ordering endless meals and wine via room service for herself and her imaginary guests, which include the one friend she left back in Hong Kong, all her former students and colleagues, her former suitor and his wife and children, her deceased parents who are miraculously restored to health, and even for complete strangers who crowd into the room to partake in the feast.
Since through the course of the story, she reveals here and there that she doesn’t believe in debt, has no credit cards, has even forfeit her pension—perhaps to take what we call “a lump sum distribution”—and so we are left to conclude only one thing: that she is living as if there is no tomorrow because for her, there isn’t going to be one. That’s just my take on it anyway. Even as the plane to New York lifts off she says, “There is no going back now,” ominously referring (upon rereading) not just to the plane flight, but to the course of the plan she has set in motion by purchasing such an incredibly expensive ticket.
Travel as a form of escape resulting in a kind of exile and even possibly death thematically unites both “Famine” and “Geese.” The characters in both stories are freed up to travel by lack of family ties, any close friends back home, lack of employment, coming into a small inheritance from the death of parents, and the desire to experience what they have always only been able to read about or seen in movies.
In “Geese,” Dina’s socio-economic circumstances are conveyed by the setting of her impoverished Baltimore neighborhood (the boarded-up row houses across the street which the city had been promising to renovate for years (194); and the fact that where Dina comes from, the “only good reason for leaving” is “money” (194), even if that wasn’t Dina’s own reason for wanting to visit Japan. The reason for the absence of parental figures to guide young Dina and keep her from making foolish life choices, or coming to her rescue sending money to Japan, is not initially explained, but later on, when the food has been depleted, Dina describes the “salmon croquettes her mother made a week before she died”(198). Dina has no one coming to her rescue.
Back in Baltimore, Miss Gloria seems to be the only person in Dina’s life, just as Veronica is the only person in the protagonist’s life in “Famine,” but these people do not appear to be close friends. Veronica doesn’t know what her friend’s plan is for going to New York, nor does she have any clue how irritated her friend is to be offered a bland and inexpensive meal of rice porridge on their last night together, just because Veronica, who always pays, is currently dieting. Veronica lives in a different world and does not see her friend’s dire situation, or even know that she cannot stand rice, as she has eaten it every day her whole life except for when Veronica takes her out to eat (which she does to complain to about her family, without sensitivity to the fact that the protagonist has no family to complain about). Veronica also thinks her lifelong friend is finally treating herself to a much-deserved vacation, just as she herself has gone away on vacations many times before. Veronica means well, but she “doesn’t get it.” We see the irony of the situation and feel the protagonist’s frustration.
Likewise, Miss Gloria, Dina’s neighbor, knows nothing about Japan. She is not curious to understand why Dina wants to go there (Miss Gloria doesn’t even know the difference between Japanese and Chinese. “Same difference,” she says, just as Japanese people in “Geese” do not bother to learn the difference between Africans and African Americans). We might surmise that the two protagonists really have no one in their lives back home who really understand them. This is emphasized in “Famine”: “Starved of affection is what people whispered” about her whole life, but “why they felt the need to whisper what everyone could hear I failed to understand” (670).
Dina’s desire to go to Japan is motivated in part by an idea of what Japanese culture is like from movies, a children’s book, her study of kanji characters and visiting Japanese restaurants, such as where she went to celebrate her 20th birthday. She goes to Japan with the idea that she will experience a beautiful way of life with rituals, a culture which places value on small, delicate things, like sake cups and flowers. She is drawn to the aesthetics of it:
The plan was not well thought-out, she admitted that much. Or rather, it wasn’t really a plan at all, but a feeling, a nebulous fluffy thing that had started in her chest, spread over her heart like a fog. It was sparked by movies in which she’d seen Japanese people bowing ceremoniously, torsos seesawing; her first Japanese meal, when she’d turned twenty, and how she’d marveled at the sashimi resting on its bed of rice, rice that lay on a lacquered dish the color of green tea. She grew enamored of the pen strokes of kanji, their black sabers clashing and warring with one another, occasionally settling peacefully into what looked like the outlines of a Buddhist temple, the cross sections of a cozy house. She did not want to say it, because it made no practical sense, but in the end she went to Japan for the delicate sake cups, resting in her hand like a blossom; she went to Japan for loveliness (194).
While finding a job to make money was not on the forefront of Dina’s mind when she goes to Japan, she was ill equipped for survival there. Not knowing the Japanese language (she needed Ari’s help even to read the want ads at first), not anticipating their cultural prejudice against foreigners (with additional prejudice against dark-skinned people—although right off the bat some Japanese men seem to think Dina is verrrry sexy—an economic downturn which obligates employers to hire Japanese; their sexist attitude that women around Dina’s age will quit an office job to marry; all make it highly unlikely that Dina will succeed finding legitimate employment after her seasonal work at the Summerland amusement park comes to an end. (The reader surmises that Summerland is like Disneyland, where being an American and speaking English contributes to the perceived entertainment and cultural value of the American theme park.)
While Dina had imagined what the Japanese were like based on movies, she now finds herself stereotyped by the Japanese, both by how black people are depicted in American movies and their confusing Dina with people from Africa (who are distrusted). At the end of summer, she finds herself socially isolated in an increasingly desperate situation: unemployed, broke and starving, with an expired work visa, thrown together with a group of dislikeable, unemployed social misfits, foreign outcasts from their own places of origin, with whom she comes forced to reside in a tiny (six-tatami mat) room. Ari, the young man who holds the lease, provides a lifeline for fellow foreigners, imagining that each person might contribute like the fingers on a hand; but these people, each with their own narcissistic or psychopathic personalities—indeed, they are a bunch of total losers—are unlikely to ever find employment in Japan, nor contribute to the well-being of the group. Dina sees this. Ari does not.
For weeks, Dina is stuck in this precarious situation, this close communal living and sleeping on mats, with Ari feeding the group from a divided employee lunch he brings home at night, supplemented with some slices of fruit, cheese or crackers. They are slowly starving to death in darkness (I say darkness, because after a while, they do not go outside), and when they do eat, they savor every small morsel of food to make it last, developing their own kind of bizarre rituals around consuming tiny portions of food. They create variety through stacking various combinations of the same ingredients, adding strange toppings (paprika), and politely taking turns to eat to make the meal last. The highly refined aesthetic sensibilities of the Japanese, their rituals around food and eating small portions may have developed out of food scarcity and people living in desperation in crowded conditions like this. Packer is suggesting, more importantly, that through this experience of privation, Dina is growing in her appreciation for small things, e.g., a piece of grapefruit or plum, or slice of color, even the experience of sunlight.
One night after she goes to sleep, Dina is attacked at knife-point by Sayeed, a Muslim man who is Ari’s former acquaintance. Dina seems to have been the object of Sayeed’s misdirected anger and hatred since he first moved in with them. She does not understand what has happened, but clearly it isn’t rational. It seems to be an attempt at rape fueled by hatred because he is described as on top of her “panting,” yelling in Arabic and holding a knife to her throat. Ari (who apparently speaks Tagalog, Japanese, Arabic and English) is incapable of articulating to Dina in English what has just occurred or why. Ari also fails to stand up for her against Sayeed, telling Dina that it “probably won’t happen again” and telling her that she should wear more clothes (she was sleeping in her bra), as if she were to blame for the assault. The others do nothing to protect her, and without the protection of a man or the group, Dina must from that point forward become deferential to get along and survive, not speaking to Sayeed when he asks the group a question, and retreating to the opposite corners of the room to make herself as inconspicuous and invisible as possible.
The addition of this detail in the storyline not only provides additional motivation for Dina to get out, but also adds an additional layer of symbolic meaning as Dina, the reader may infer, is in the role of a submissive Japanese woman, with this perhaps a result of the abusive men with whom she has been forced to cohabitate. Understandably, Dina is miserable living this way, and she doesn’t feel safe.
Dina’s own story is not so much about escaping from her past life in Baltimore, which she comes to appreciate even more during this ordeal, but escaping Ari’s apartment and starvation in Japan, how she might find her way in the world without anyone or a supportive community to fall back on. It all feels a little surreal, on purpose I believe, because we are supposed to interpret events literally as well symbolically. Through her experience of extreme privation, Dina is being transformed, evolving, able to perfectly fit in into Japanese culture, despite the fact that her roommates are not Japanese. Dina will be able to assimilate into Japanese society: they will not. One clue comes at toward the end of the story, when Dina casually observes that the son of the Japanese family closest to them in the park is as “bronzed” as Dina from a summer tan (201). She will blend in, she will assimilate. It is an idyllic park and a scene of domestic tranquility. She perceives the beauty all around her even though their situation seems dire.
At least on the surface of things, travel as escape is much more pronounced in “Famine,” as the story opens with the unequivocal lines, “I escape,” a line which is repeated later on in the story when the protagonist nearly trips over the body of a man who appears to be dying of starvation on the streets of New York (673). Despite her relating the experience of famine on her Chinese parents and in her household, where the subject of famine and hunger was a constant drumbeat (and a rational for a bland, restricted diet in their home), her response to this hungry man on the streets of in New York is not empathy, but indignation. She is shocked, not so much to encounter a dying man, but that the city does not remove him. “It cannot be a corpse! Surely, cadavers are not left to rot in the streets . . . . But this body moves. . . Startled, I move away. I think he’s saying he is hungry” (673).
Choosing to remove herself from the unpleasantness of the experience rather than showing the hungry man charity, she retreats to the sanctuary of the five-star hotel restaurant, the Oak Room of the Plaza Hotel, where her table is waiting.
There, she contemplates the height of the ceiling, the somewhat disappointing ambience (“not as seductive as promised by the Plaza’s literature”), and unimaginative “menu of many steaks” (it is a man’s restaurant). She lingers too long over the menu, taking her time ordering, much to the waiter’s irritation, just as she had done the day before at a different five-star restaurant. Interwoven into her grumblings about the restaurants she attends, the menu, the quality of the wait staff (who do not want to “wait”), people she has known, anger toward her parents, and descriptions of food, are commentaries the invisibility of hunger in the modern world; that people will choose to see what they want to see (they change the subject, they try to insulate themselves), because it is just easier that way.
Despite the horrors of famine which her parents endured, she has had her own experiences with famine throughout her lifetime which gradually unfold as the story progresses: forced at home to eat only a spare diet of rice and tofu, even though they were not impoverished; literally being starved as a child, even being threatened by her own parents with starvation simply because she had wanted to attend school after the age of twelve; of her retaliating against them by then starving herself (a hunger strike), twice, both times over being allowed the freedom to pursue her education; being prevented from marrying because her only suitor, a successful dentist, because he was too fat; and now having nothing to look forward to in retirement but a tiny “rice bowl”—here comes famine again—what choices does she have at her age?
She never comes out and says that, but her entire life has been an endless famine, being starved of affection and food. (Dina, on the other hand, thinks back with fondness to her home and the comfort food that her mother made, Chong’s and the local BBQ joint.)
“Famine has no menu!“ (671) the protagonist of “Famine” exclaims angrily to herself while staring at a restaurant menu, suggesting not just the obvious that famine’s victims can’t just walk into restaurants to order a meal, but there seems no obvious solutions for her. There seem to be no good options to pick from for the protagonist of “Famine,” and it is not insignificant that she finds herself in a “man’s restaurant,” another source of disappointment and irritation (read: it is a man’s world, which further limits her menu options in life), despite the fact that she “studied the literature.”
You should be getting it by now.
Initially, and for a while into the story, we are led to believe the protagonist is simply escaping from her late parents’ own fear of hunger and poverty and not her own fear of it. That ambiguity is what makes this story work. The train wreck slowly unfolds. It is understandable that someone who teaches literature but has never left home would want to travel to New York and take in some good meals. The protagonist thinks for the first time her rich friend Veronica envies her. Initially, we, like Veronica, envy her and enjoy with her the luxury of the flight and the fantastic food which she is served, which does seem like something “out of the pages of a novel.” We are happy for her “escape.” Like Veronica, we think it is just a getaway.
But as the story progresses, and the bill continues to rise, and as we look over her shoulder at meal after luxurious meal, we do wonder and worry about her strategy of extreme opulence. It isn’t even clear she is enjoying or tasting the food she is served anymore (She says of Lutece, “The meal must have been good because the bill is in the thousands.”). She eats, throws up, and eats more. She spends days holed up in her hotel room eating. It is all she thinks about, along with the tragic course of her own life.
She seems to have come to New York from Hong Kong without a plan to do anything but eat, even though by her own admission, she could get the same food at a five-star hotel in Hong Kong. Why cross over to the US just to do this, one might wonder.
She has, the careful reader will detect, brought nothing with her but almost empty luggage “foisted on her” by Veronica, whose family owns a garment enterprise. It takes almost no time to unpack, because either she owns no clothes or brought nothing with her. That Veronica gifts her with a set of Spanish leather luggage to take with her for her trip to New York seems absurd, but also illustrates that this friend really does not know her well enough to know that she doesn’t have any use for luggage sets, since she owns nothing. The empty bags are brought up on a trolley. She tips the porter. It is all a show to add to the experience of opulence.
In both stories, one does sense some futility in either of the protagonists searching for legitimate employment when the chances seem slim to none that they will find one. We can infer that employment opportunities for the protagonist have dried up in Hong Kong as English is no longer the official language and the culture has changed; but there is no thought to looking for work in New York, either. She has come to New York determined to escape from life, not start anew. Her mind is made up. It never seems to cross her mind that she might actually be a better fit in New York. She closes herself off to new experiences and possibilities, preferring to hide in her hotel room, order room service and eat endless meals until her money runs out, which at her burn rate, will be in a few hours. She will be marooned in New York City without money.
In “Geese,” after Dina’s summer job at the amusement park ends, she decides, inexplicably, to take a break from looking for work to take in the sites and flavors of Japan, supporting herself by living off the sale of her return ticket home, effectively marooning herself in Tokyo.
In “Famine,” the protagonist’s options are also limited, as mentioned above. She is 51, a lifelong teacher of English Literature (32 years) in Hong Kong, which has been turned back over to the Chinese. When she started teaching English literature as a young woman, there was demand and social status in knowledge of English and the study of English Literature in Hong Kong. Under British rule, English was the language of business, culture and political influence. Western culture was favored by wealthy elites, and teaching English not only supported herself and her parents, but occasionally gained her entre into elite social circles and access to Western delicacies, such as buttered scones. At home, she was forced by her illiterate parents to live like an extremely poor person, eating a bland diet of only rice and tofu, not permitted to speak during meals, turning all of her earnings over to her parents, and enduring her father’s rage.
Literature had been the protagonist’s own mental escape from a life of supporting parents who starved her both physically and emotionally, even preventing her from marrying. As Hong Kong increasingly became “a colony of China,” people became more materialistic and practical (concerned only about eating), her employment options evaporated. The subject of English Literature was eliminated everywhere except for at the largest universities, where even there, it was little more than “a linguistic requirement.” There was little demand for her talents or her literary imagination. We might assume from her age and the context of the story that early retirement was forced upon her, and with it, an income that was insufficient to retire on, years before retirement age.
Just as Dina pursues her passion and goes to Japan, the protagonist of “Famine” is ostensibly pursuing her dreams by visiting New York. And yet, when she arrives there, she spends no time sightseeing, as one might expect her to do, especially one who knows and appreciates that Hemingway and Fitzgerald actually ate at that hotel restaurant. She places herself into “sweet exile” not leaving the hotel for days. She ventures out once, only for a walk “to aid digestion.”
Both protagonists are complex characters who become trapped in poverty and starvation by circumstances beyond their control, who both leave home without giving serious thought to money or making a living. However, this is an act of rebellion in “Famine” and perhaps a consequence of youthful naivete in “Geese”; but just as the protagonist of “Famine” “escapes” twice, Dina in “Geese” makes a decision not only to go to Japan without a plan for making money, but she decides after she is there that she isn’t going to go back home. Dina is young, but naivete only goes so far to account for her actions, as she will have sided with “Japan” twice seemingly against her own best interests:
She decided what she needed, before resuming her search for another job, was a vacation. At the time, it made a lot of sense. So she sold the return part of her round-trip ticket and spent her days on subways in search of all of Tokyo’s corners: she visited Asakusa and gazed at the lit red lanterns of Sensoji Temple; she ate an outrageously expensive bento lunch under the Asahi brewery’s giant sperm¬shaped modernist sculpture. She even visited Akihabara, a section of Tokyo where whole blocks of stores sold nothing but electronics she couldn’t afford. She spent an afternoon in the waterfront township of Odaiji, where women sunned themselves in bikinis during the lunch hour. But she loved Shinjuku the most, that garish part of Tokyo where pachinko parlors pushed against ugly gray earthquake-resistant buildings; where friendly, toothless vendors sold roasted unagi, even in rainy weather. Here, the twelve-floor department stores scintillated with slivers of primary colors, all the products shiny as toys. The subcity of Shinjuku always swooned, brighter than Vegas, lurid with sword-clashing kanji in neon. Skinny prostitutes in miniskirts swished by in pairs like schoolgirls, though their pouty red lips and permed hair betrayed them as they darted into doorways without signs and, seemingly, without actual doors (195).
She takes it all in. This is not youthful ignorance, but someone who knows what she wants, even if we may think it foolish.
In “Famine,” the protagonist is aware of the consequences of her actions, starting with her first class ticket to New York. She intentionally stays in five-star hotels and eats in five-star restaurants, after having “studied the literature.” She orders meal after meal, “disgorges herself,” and eats again, like the Romans. She is living like there is no tomorrow because, obviously, the reader must eventually conclude, for her there is no tomorrow. Her staying in the hotel in isolation, rather than being out in the world, precludes any possibility of redemption through chance encounter with a stranger, falling in love, caring for others, a new career, or envisioning some new and exciting role for herself.
She drives away other people who come to her table to make casual conversation, even when someone at the table next to hers mistakes her for someone she knows and went to school with back home. What are the odds? She isn’t going to socialize, even then when the uncanny happens. She is closed off to the world and cannot, or will not, be saved. In exile, she is in control of her life, or what is left of it.
In contrast, Dina finds herself in exile against her will in a one room apartment with foreigners who are also strange people, and who have no hope of finding employment in Japan nor of returning home. Ari, also a foreigner, is the only one with a job, but it barely pays, and then he loses the job because, “They found out.” Found out what? That the group had turned to stealing groceries to live? The group stops going out, giving up, because whenever they go outside they see people eating.
And then they simply gave up. Some alloy of disgust and indifference checked the most human instinct, propelling them into a stagnant one-room dementia. It was a secret they shared: there were two types of hunger—one in which you would do anything for food, the other in which you could not bring yourself to complete the smallest task for it (201).
Toward the end, they do venture out for a picnic of grapefruit with hard cheese and crackers, all they have left. They sit in a park under yellow-leaved gingko trees, each of the foreigners sitting “Buddha-like,” slowly and delicately consuming their last morsels of food, almost in a ritual, the group surrounded by Japanese families and their children picnicking and enjoying the park.
As a form of protest, Dina decides that she is going to “eat like an American”(203). She bites and quickly swallows eats her piece of grapefruit and then asks if anyone is going to eat the last piece, then seeing no response, reaches out and takes it for herself, even though this is a violation of the rules established by the group. In that moment, she has made herself an outsider: “She ate the last piece, wipes the grapefruit from around her mouth, looked at the semicircle of foreign faces around her, and knew she had done the wrong thing” (203). Note that their faces are foreign, even though she has lived with them in one room for weeks. She is now estranged from the group.
It isn’t clear that Dina can return to the apartment, having asserted her own needs and independence above the needs of the group.
The Japanese are not depicted as callous people, but they are oblivious to the dire situation of the foreigners in their midst, believing them to be strange and have odd customs in the first place. When Zoltan tries to chase the geese who have landed, hoping to catch one to eat, the people in the park laugh and think it is a comic act, a show he is putting on to entertain them. They do not see it for what it is, an act of desperation.
In both stories there is also some nostalgia and longing for home, but it the case of the protagonist of “Famine,” it is more a sense of nostalgia for a world which no longer exists. The protagonist’s home was with a certain cosmopolitan culture which existed in British Hong Kong over thirty years ago. That strata of society which valued the language and culture of the West was her home, her escape from home. Now, with Hong Kong becoming a “colony of China,” as she puts it, there may be nowhere for her to go.
Dina, on the other hand, begins to daydream about the comfort and familiarity of her old neighborhood in Baltimore, with its own unspoken rules and customs:
. . . The corner grocery stores back home were comforting in their dinginess, packed high with candies in their rainbow-colored wrappings, menthols, tallboys and magnums, racks of chips and sodas, but best of all, homemade barbeque sandwiches, the triangled white bread sopping up the orange-red sauce like a sponge. Oh, how she missed it. The men who loitered outside playing their lottery numbers and giving advice to people too young to take it, the mothers who yelled viciously at their children one minute, only to hug and kiss then the next. How primping young boys played loud music to say the things they could not say. How they followed the rules of the neighborhood: Never advertise your poverty. Dress immaculately. Always smell good, not just clean (200).
In the end of “Geese,” Dina prostitutes herself to obtain money. We can anticipate this because prostitution was mentioned a few times in the story. While sexual encounters in stories with young protagonists often signal a loss of innocence, this encounter doesn’t take anything away from Dina. The crisp, clean sheets of the sex motel even remind her of home. But something interesting happens in the writing. It becomes unusually “poetic” or aesthetic in the way Dina is now perceiving reality:
The inside of her closed eyelids were orange from a slit of sunlight that had strayed into the room. The sarasariman shook her. She opened her eyes. . . . She touched the sarasariman’s freshly cut Asian hair, each shaft sheathed in a sheer liquid of subway sweat. The ends of the shortest hairs felt like the tips of lit, hissing firecrackers.” (204)
The “slit of orange sunlight,” the “sensation of hissing firecrackers,” contribute to a sense of an altered state of perception. It is almost animated, abstract and beautiful. The loving attention to strange detail and use of metaphor signals that Dina is now perceiving her reality in a new way, in a distinctly lovely Japanese way. The Japanese businessman also found her dark skin attractive (no rejection of Dina there) and was quick, apologizing to her in English, and “no problem” back to him in Japanese (note that Dina is now conversing in Japanese). She reaches out to touch his hair, with an intimacy and connection she couldn’t get even from Ari. She leaves with a wad of cash.
Is she going back to help the group? It isn’t clear, but frankly, we don’t care. We don’t care for any of them.
Dina is going to be fine, mentally and emotionally, from here on out, even if she chooses to do this again until something better comes along. The important thing is that Dina is experiencing the world as a Japanese person, no longer a foreigner. She has not “lost her innocence,” or anything else, but rather transcended the limitations of her own language and cultural identity to embrace a new one. After she leaves the sex motel, she hops on the subway and takes in the sights and sounds passing by.
On the train, Dina suddenly becomes intensely aware of the natural beauty which surrounds her and the sites of Japan. The scenery is described, as Dina sees and experiences it, through a series of sentences written almost in the style of a Japanese haiku (I have separated the lines to emphasize this point):
When the train ran alongside a park, yellow ginkgo leaves waved excited farewells as the train blazed past them.
Fall had set in, and no one was picnicking, but there were geese. . .
as the train passed, they rose, as though connected by a single string.(204)
Far from being disillusioned with Japan or regretting her decision to leave Baltimore, Dina suddenly experiences the loveliness she came for.
But one must pay close attention to the writing to get this.
She spots the geese again flying in formation in the sky and reflects that as a child she once thought, after reading a book on Japan, how could anyone be a kamikaze pilot, board a one way plane with just enough fuel to get to the other side and crash because of a promise made to the Emperor? How could anyone do such a thing? As a child, she thought she could never do that. As a child, we think we would never do many things which a mature person does when the circumstances arise, or a sacrifice needs to be made. “It is only in the all knowing arrogance of youth—she’d been certain that given the same circumstances, she would have done something different” (204).
But the mature Dina has no regrets.
At the end of “Famine,” the protagonist is throwing a huge party for people she has loved in her life as well as colleagues and rivals. Veronica is back in Hong Kong, so we know that none of these people are actually there in the room with her. Some suggest the protagonist is drunk (she has ordered a lot of wine and champagne), or gone crazy, but the vision is of her feeding people, her ability to entertain as she has never been able to do her whole life. It is a party, with endless steams of people coming in the doors. Everyone is happy and talking. She has always been on the receiving end of other’s generosity and pity; at last, she is able to feed others. In her vision, which seems to be happening before her eyes and ours, her parents are no longer suffering and unhappy as they were in life. Her father, who has been crippled, leg amputated and castrated from a crane accident, has been completely restored to health. “It’s not so bad here,” he says approvingly, and gestures her mother to come eat.
With that line is her father referring to the hotel room and buffet, or the afterlife? Her dim-sighted mother can see again. They are proud of her. Her mother, who rarely smiled in life, smiles at the vast quantities of food her daughter has set out for them to eat. Her mother says to her, “Not like lazy cookie man, hah?” referring to an anecdote in the story about a mad who was so lazy, he would not lift a hand to eat. In return, the protagonist smiles benevolently at her parents, no longer angry with them. Everyone who has hurt her is forgiven. Strangers crowd into the room and they are welcomed to eat. No one goes hungry because food is in infinite supply, all one need do is pick up the phone and order more. There is closure of the story on an emotional level, that the past and present have reconciled: at last, there is no more famine and no more animosity.
“This is bliss,” the protagonist says. However, her vision of bliss, the reader infers, could be a result of her own death, her final escape from life itself. For it all seems very much like a vision of Heaven.
While I am happy she is in a better place, maybe she should have been more content with her rice bowl?
I don’t think Xu Xi wants us to see it that way, however. Her protagonist went out with a bang I think, went to heaven without actually “tasting death,” as they say. However she died, it was in dignity. But it is sad to me that there was no place for her in this world. I think she could have been saved in New York, perhaps as an editor for a literary publication.
“Geese” is in some ways is an antidote to “Famine,” or the antithesis of it.
The image of the geese is the gift that comes out of nowhere, one which provides a renewed appreciation and affirmation for the course of one’s own life, even if one is not in complete control of it.
Not that “appreciation for small things,” Eastern philosophy or Zen state of mind can ever compensate for lack of food, shelter and basic income—there is a hierarchy of needs, a threshold below which one simply cannot live in society—but it can alleviate a certain world-weariness which comes from only looking backward and inward (like the protagonist of “Famine”), or comparing oneself to others, and not forward and outward (the protagonist of “Geese”), being grateful for what one has.
Despite all that she has been through, Dina is not disillusioned at all about Japan. We must stop saying that, and stop teaching that, telling students that this is what the story is about. Yes, she had sex for money. Big deal. She had some rough times. So what. If one reads the text carefully, Dina has not experienced any “loss,” loss of innocence or anything else that mattered to her. She doesn’t think twice about it. We aren’t supposed to either.
The vision of the kamikaze geese at that moment endows her life with beauty, significance and meaning. Dina took decisive action to avoid what was going to be sure death or arrest with that bunch. She escaped, first the self-imposed limitations of her Baltimore neighborhood, then the self-imposed limitations of that group. Dina could be more, and was not going to be defined by any group with whom she does not choose to identify.
Dina isn’t a gaijin anymore.
Dagnino, Arianna. “Transcultural Writers and Transcultural Literature in the Age of Global Modernity.” Transnational Literature Vol. 4 no. 2, May 2012. http://fhrc.flinders.edu.au/transnational/home.html.
Meyer, Michael, ed. The Bedford Introduction to Literature. 10th ed. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2013. Print.
Parker, Z.Z. “Geese.” Meyer, 193-204.
Tsang, Michael. “Giving Reader Access: Xu Xi’s ACCESS: Thirteen Tales.” Cha: An Asian Literary Journal, Mar. 2012, https://www.asiancha.com/content/view/1124/115/.
Xi, Xu. “Famine.” Meyer, 667-676.