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A Girl Like Me and Other Stories

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By Xi Xi, Various translators
Afterword by Stephen C. Soong
1996. 134 PAGES.

These ten stories by Xi Xi, the pen name for Zhang Yan, are explorations of settings, themes, and characters which should be of interest to students of Asian literature, culture and society. The back cover states, “There is in these stories a haunting . . . lyricism, an intense feminine sensitivity, reacting to the unique environment of Hong Kong . . .” the city where this contemporary writer, born in Shanghai, has lived since 1950. Xi Xi (pronounced Si Si) was a primary school teacher, and her simple, clear style conveys a childlike simplicity which will appeal to high school students. Yet her themes and content are provocative and informative, and so in these stories high school as well as college students can study the fusion of East and West in universal themes that are treated from an Asian perspective, and flavored with the author’s English-style education. Stephen Soong writes in the afterword, “Building a House: Introducing Xi Xi,” “[She] is very much a writer in ‘Made in Hong Kong.’ . . . Xi Xi grew up in a free society, a society with its own unique pattern of development. . . . But the problems Xi Xi touches upon are those most Chinese are concerned with: the causes of political order and disorder, the relationship between ruler and people, etc.” (133–34).

The first two stories in this volume, “A Girl Like Me” and “The Cold,” are examinations of self and society through the theme of love. The teacher can draw parallels between personal feelings about love portrayed here and Western concepts of love, but the situations here are inherently Eastern. Family pressure and sensitivity to convention can be examined in the high school classroom and comparisons and contrasts easily evoked, drawing students into observations about family versus personal values in Asia.

Both “Maria,” which is set in the Congo, and “Cross of Gallantry,” which is set in Mongolia, are stories about the poignancy and inevitability of war. Though the setting of “Maria” seems a bit incongruous in this little volume, its fascinating characters (a mercenary and a missionary woman) and universal subject matter dramatize the fact that in war, regardless of the location, civilians and soldiers struggle with the same problems. The woman and man in “Maria” show us a fragmented, abstract relationship between people caught in violence. When juxtaposed with the next story, “Cross of Gallantry,” the reader understands, through another relationship (a boy and his uncle) that war transcends cultural circumstances. The isolation of the soldier, and the tragedy of passing on the legacy of war to the next generation, can be felt in both the Congo and Mongolia.

“Asuo” provides perhaps the clearest cultural piece of the collection. In a very short four-page vignette, the author conveys the scene of a child standing in front of a tent in Kazhakstan, her thoughts about growing up, her relationship with her family, and the conditions of her life in relationship with the foreign people around her. It is a beautiful and simple way for high school or undergraduate students to learn about a life which they might have led, had they been born in this part of the world. Because of the clear and visually evocative writing, a high school teacher could ask students to draw what they have read, to react to the situation that the girl finds herself in, to predict a future for the girl, and to discuss any number of feelings that might be going through the mind of the girl.

When reading prose by a writer from another culture, it is valuable to examine both the content of the writing and the approach to that content. While an explicit portrayal of culture occurs in only a few of these stories, the author’s outlook on universal themes and her style of writing should not be forgotten. I have discussed five of the ten stories in this volume which I believe are most suitable for a high school student. But the remainder are beautifully written as well, and should be considered, either in an advanced high school or undergraduate class on Asian literature. They represent the thoughts of a woman living in an Asian country that is intensely integrated with Western culture. This writer from Hong Kong gives us a chance to see how the two cultures have melded, and how Western writing techniques have been assimilated by a Chinese sensibility.

The AAS Secretariat is closed on Monday, May 29 in observance of the Memorial Day holiday