Since reading more of Ha Jin’s stories, I’ve reconsidered “The Bane of the Internet.” No, that isn’t exactly true – I discovered something I hadn’t seen before, and now I feel stupid that I didn’t see it immediately. It’s the irony. The sister who has come to America, the one who is in China. The ant and the grasshopper. The planner and the flirt. The goal-driven and the status-driven. The perennial immigrant and the soap-opera star. And how that will change, once the sister in America has her own shop and her kids will live the soap opera. I’m not sure how to articulate it, but there is something clever there.
This came to me after reading “The Beauty” where I see a similar cleverness, couched in a story that is, well, not much. It reads like something out of a 40’s pulp mag. Or a fable – or a Zin story! A real estate agent has a beautiful wife and is so concerned because his child is so plain, and he is beautiful, his wife is beautiful, so where did this ugly child come from, this child who cries all night and keeps him awake? The wife is friends with an ugly man and that raises suspicions. It’s the focus on beauty, the disappointment that his wife’s beauty isn’t genuine but artifical via plastic surgery – and thus tarnished – that makes it interesting. He’s so focused on status. There’s a couple that wants to move from Switzerland to Flushing so they can get real Chinese food (a notion that made me giggle). He wants to leave Flushing because there are no English bookstores. I didn’t realize Flushing was now predominantly Chinese, but I guess it is. This guy left China once, and he isn’t happy to find it being recreated around him. I found myself wanting to know about his daughter, in the coming years, whether they became close or whether he continued to see her as ugly and disruptive, if he ever changed. This was more of a character portrait. Aha! I think that’s the thing, in these stories, there are plots, but the characters do not change, they never have any insight, their efforts are driven to keeping things the way they are. Then there’s the whole aspect of him publicly renouncing his Communist party membership after Tiennamen Square. I didn’t realize that was possible, at least not if one wanted to live outside of a political prison, and certainly not if one wanted to emigrate. I come back to something that was said, I believe, on The West Wing (“everything I needed to know about politics I learned from The West Wing”) – that China started out 100% communist and America started out 100% capitalist, and now China is 80% communist and America is 80% capitalist, and one day they will meet in the middle (uh oh, don’t show that to any Tea Partiers, they’ll think it’s cause to shoot somebody).