On one hand I’m not a sentimental person.
I object out loud to cliches and unrealistic tropes in every rom-com I watch (which makes me a terrible movie buddy). Titanic doesn’t make me sad. Neither did Ellie’s death in Up.
On the other, I’m known to cry — my friends and family can attest to this — at the weirdest moments when watching films and reading books.
Watching Bao — the Academy Award-winning short film — the mere sight of mapo tofu on a dinner table made me ugly-cry in the cinema. The moment Ellie Chu’s father started speaking Mandarin in Netflix’s The Half of It, I bawled at home. And, when reading that the parents of Rose Lu — author of All Who Live on Islands — “have been working constantly for over fifteen years and they want a break” I had to fight tears and plough on.
Connecting the dots, I suppose a clear trend emerges. I don’t cry out of sadness. Rather, at moments that I feel seen, represented and recognised, I react viscerally. That’s why reading All Who Live on Islands was a beautiful experience for me.
I knew before I began — but not how much — it would speak to me, if not from the blurb or other reviews, from the names of each of the essays that comprise the collection. ‘Hustle’, ‘Cleaver’ and ‘Yellow Fever’ are titles that encapsulate the familiar experiences of growing up as an immigrant and Chinese New Zealander.
Lu’s work is easily-read, her tone calm and incisive. For a majority of the book, I could be listening to a friend share memories and experiences from her life. Many of those happen to twang my heartstrings, as they likely will for many immigrants and children of immigrants.
Lu had a period in her life when she leaned into stereotypes, and pushed away from traits of her Chinese identity. She honed her English, emphasised her Kiwi attitudes and labelled herself a “banana” — yellow on the outside, white on the inside. For Lu, “Chinese culture was defined by an absence, a set of negative qualities I was determined not to uphold.” Lu speaks Mandarin and Chongming dialect well enough to communicate with her parents and grandparents but not well enough to “wade through the overlap in our mutually intelligible language” to discuss topics like mental health or personal fulfilment.
All Who Live on Islands captures the many changing faces of Aotearoa. Naturally there is the face of the Chinese New Zealand diaspora, and 21st-century immigrants. Lu writes about the need for “quiet” moments in diasporic Asian literature that she couldn’t find in American or Australian works.
The aforementioned assimilation and language barrier — along with good ol’ discrimination — are common in the genre, but what’s lacking, and what Lu hopes to add, are those intangible, small breaths, like “the fact that the 馄饨 (wontons) in Shanghai are characteristically small or the feeling of contentment when you hear a conversation in your mother tongue.”
I know exactly what moments Lu is talking about. They’re not moments of overcoming discrimination or breaking generational cycles, though these triumps are definitely important. They’re the moments when you see an exact replica of your mother’s cooking on the movie screen — a movie screen that rarely shows people that look and sound like you do.
At times I think only people acquainted with the immigrant experience will be able to relate to parts of All Who Live on Islands — like having highly qualified and educated parents resorting to cleaning or factory work — but then Lu introduces experiences — like her difficult friendships, clumsy sexual experiences and switching career focus — that transcend most social boundaries. Lu pinpoints her place, privileges and responsibilities in Aotearoa with impressive clarity, which makes you wonder about yours.
Peeking from within the pages are also the faces of previous generations of immigrants, the gender-queer, the angsty youths. Lu is told as she explains the trans identity of a new colleague to another migrant co-worker, “In the Philippines, we don’t talk about this stuff.” Lu speaks with the confidence gained by lived experience on a variety of topics, from race, class, gender and mental health.
It wouldn’t be incorrect to call her collection of essays a work of Asian New Zealand literature, but it would be undercutting the scope and value of All Who Live on Islands. Lu’s experiences with bisexuality, with interracial relationships and with navigating a male-dominated STEM industry all contribute the relevance of the book.
So yes, All Who Live on Islands is a great work of Asian New Zealand literature. It is an even better piece of New Zealand literature. Drawing on her past, and looking to the future, Lu offers us a refreshing glance at those who live on the islands of Chongming and Aotearoa.Support Villainesse