My boyfriend, Chris, is presently away in Hong Kong tending to his family affairs. He has been away for the past two months leaving me all by my lonesome to read and blog about that turbulent time in my life two years ago, when I was lovelorn, in the midst of a breakdown and desperately searching for a new career. Missing Chris (and perhaps feeling a bit left out of his adventures in China), I started reading Linda See's Shanghai Girls. My pulse quickened. Five pages in and I was hooked.
This tale of an upper crust family in 1930s Shanghai - where the daughters wear "complementary cheongsans to show harmony and style" - has an exotic appeal, no doubt. But what really draws me in is the fact that, despite the far-flung setting, I can identify with the thoughts, feelings and deepest aspirations of the heroine, Pearl. She is an independent, yet secretly insecure woman, who has always been a little too tall and clever to be considered beautiful in conventional terms. Especially compared to her cute-as-a-button, flirtatious sister, May.
Pearl doesn't understand men at all. The man whom she has secretly been in love with for years - an artist who paints her and her sister for calendars and soap ads - doesn't seem to care when she arrives on his doorstep in tears. Her father has sold her and May in arranged marriages to Chinese-American men in order to cover his gambling debts. Contrary to her expectation that this man will save her, his Bohemian airs melt away, and he reminds her of her obligation to filial piety. Devastated, Pearl and May attempt to resist the arranged marriages on their own, but then their father disappears, the Japanese attack the city and the girls suddenly find themselves refugees on the run, vulnerable to attack and rape. As their situation gets increasingly dire, it becomes clear that their best hope for survival is to get to America to their would-be husbands. Pearl reflects:
"Many people wish to go to America. Some will do anything to get there, but going to America was never my dream. For me, it's just a necessity, another move after so many mistakes, tragedies, deaths, and one foolish decision after another. All May and I have left is each other. After everything we've been through, our tie is so strong that not even a sharp knife could sever it. All we can do now is continue down the road we're on, wherever it takes us."
These passages capture the essence of how it feels as Pearl's girlish longings and desire to find love curl inward and die stillborn. Now, she's in survival mode and finding the man of her dreams seems as frivolous and unreal as a soap opera. I have never experienced losing everything in war and being uprooted (as my grandmothers have). Shanghai Girls gives me a glimpse of how it might feel by magnifying 100 times the experiences that are vividly real to many readers - deception and desertion by an old lover, drifting through life with no place to go, feeling like an outcast who just can't go on.
But Pearl does go on. Her strength and resourcefulness in the face of adversity are inspirational.
Photo from: here
- Leslie Shimotakahara
- Toronto, ON, Canada
- Leslie Shimotakahara is a writer and recovering academic, who wanted to be simply a writer from before the time she could read. Hard-pressed to answer her parents’ question of how she would support herself as a writer, Leslie got drawn into the labyrinthine study of literature, completing her B.A. in Honours English from McGill in 2000, and her M.A. and Ph.D. in Modern American Literature from Brown in 2006. After graduation, she taught English at St. Francis Xavier University for two years. Leslie woke up one morning and realized that she’d had enough of the Ivory Tower. The fact that she wasn’t doing what she wanted to do with her life loomed over her, and the realization was startling. It was time to stop studying and passively observing life and do something real instead. She needed to discover herself and tell her own story. This blog and the book she has written under the same title (Variety Crossing Press, spring 2012) are her foray. Leslie's writing has been published in WRITE, TOK: Writing the New Toronto, Maple Tree Literary Supplement, and GENRE.