Finding An ’80s Taiwan In “On Such A Full Sea”

Chang-rae Lee’s sci-fi America isn’t exactly the Taipei I grew up in, but it does feel like home. posted on

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In late-’80s Taipei, where I grew up, Saturday was a work day. Few people tormented themselves with questions of which jobs were fulfilling, what constituted “authenticity,” or which bands were cool among tattered Seattle teens. Children spent longer hours at school than bankers did at Wall Street — waking at dawn and studying until after dinner. Most of my neighbors lived in cramped rentals with three generations of their relatives, and most of us were in the business of quietly manufacturing gadgets to the exact whims of America, Japan, and other wealthier countries.

Amidst all this, we were content, and didn’t know how to protest. This was an improvement over the impoverished ’60s.

Things look different now. Taipei’s posher streets are clogged with startups, design studios, and music venues, and newspapers constantly harp on the rift between young and old. The new generation insists on luxuries like expression, self-fulfillment, the frivolities of coolness, while the older generations grew up in an Asia that told them to keep their head down, avoid politics, and make electronics for San Jose and Tokyo — we were otherwise worthless to the sort of people who read The Economist and listened to BBC World, and if we were worthless to them, our children did not get to eat.

“The soul,” as William T. Vollman said, “is not a birthright.” Dignity is not doled out to everyone like confetti.

There are many other reasons why I devoured Chang-rae Lee’s On Such a Full Sea more quickly than any other book in recent memory. The story is narrated by a voice I know from ’80s Taiwanese evening programs. And if you’re a child of immigrants, or a native to one of America’s less celebrated cities, maybe you’ll hear, with a pang, the warm call of something often depicted but not embodied in American literature.

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Since debuting with Native Speaker, Chang-rae Lee has won plaudits and Pulitzers for elegizing immigrant alienation. His Asian-American characters and war refugees may sometimes win at the bloodsport of capitalism, but few of them will ever feel wanted or welcomed, even by one another.

It makes sense that Lee would borrow the frameworks of a sci-fi thriller. Maybe since Edward Bellamy penned Looking Backward in 1888, American sci-fi has been acute with class allegories. At first glance, the novel has the structural backbone of Elysium and The Hunger Games, but tonally it’s much closer to Cloud Atlas’ Sonmi-451 and George Saunders’ Jon.

Chang-rae Lee’s future America is divided between Charters, Facilities, and Counties — luxurious gated communities, factory towns, and desolate rural poverty. The cities of Detroit and Baltimore have imported pliant Chinese laborers who meld with the local populations and staff huge factories. Their descendants — the “facilities” people — are taught to be grateful for the chance to labor 100-hour workweeks. At least they’re not in the Counties. Beyond the walls of their cities is absolute environmental devastation and lawlessness.

The collective voice of the Facilities narrate the book. Fan, our heroine, hails from B-more, a city now streamlined to produce fish for health-conscious Charter residents. Fan is a diver in one of the fish hatcheries, and we’re told it’s in work that she “came closest to finding herself, by which we don’t mean gaining ‘self-knowledge’ or understanding one’s ‘true nature’ but rather how at some point you can see most plainly that this is what you do, this is how you fit in the wider ecology.”

Not a thought of labor exploitation clouds Fan’s mind, because she does it out of love for her family, or at least a very abstract idea of it. In the future, there is no OWS-like internet phenomenon to ask her why she doesn’t love herself as a Charter does. She was never taught, anyway, to think of her time and effort as something that could be wasted.

But, one day, she does the unthinkable among her family-centric clan: She leaves B-more to search for her abducted boyfriend, setting in motion a detective story, and a story of a slave laborer’s emancipation. She roams the open Counties, seeing the leafy horizon for the first time, tasting rancid rain, driving on the ruined highways of the decrepit American civilization. Out there, she relies for the first time on the kindness of strangers, and out there she is betrayed over and over. For a while, she’s taken in by a fallen Charter veterinarian called Quigley. Meanwhile, the collective “we” of B-more narrates her adventures in a creepy consensus-building voice borrowed from the PA systems of my Taiwanese elementary school. It speaks in a weird Adam Johnson lyrical PR-speak. It stares at injustices, and sort of half-smiles, and quickly looks away. The narrator is equally a loving parent and a neglectful villain to Fan.

The B-more in the book is not exactly ’80s Taiwan or Korea, or a present-day Foxconn factory in China; nor is it not those places either. And the difference between Charters and B-more is as cultural as it is material. Charters define the world’s science, art, and ideology. Their pettiest romances play out on the world’s biggest movie screens. The Facilities do not get to speak. In Charter TV soap operas, the New Chinese people take these roles:

“We’re mostly bystanders or else hardworking service people for Charter heroes and heroines, but sometimes more prominent foils, too, like a recent character in St. Clair Beach named Ji-lan, a beautiful woman from D-Troy, the big Midwestern facility, who captures the heart of a married Charter executive and causes him much delicious and humiliating trouble … it’s no surprise that it’s Ji-lan who loses all in the end, everyone learning a harsh lesson in what can happen when you stray too far from your circle.”

While the indictment of present-day global relations seem obvious, Lee refuses to cast two-dimensional villains. When Fan finally arrives at a Charter town, she finds that life there is not all well either. An old heiress keeps a harem of New Chinese servants and dresses them up in anime costumes, cooing to them and indulging them because they’re her closest thing to a meaningful relationship. A young doctor is too busy slaving away at his job and paying mortgages to marry his girlfriend. Very occasionally, Charters allow some math whizzes from the facilities to immigrate and work for their corporations too. Some Charter people are grotesque, most are devout “lifelong Connoisseurs of Me,” expending their free time worrying about their diets, music tastes, and the quality of their sex lives. But they aren’t without their lonelinesses and sorrows. And a great many Charters find themselves exiled to the Counties through bad luck, where they fare poorly because they possessed “solely Charter-specific skills, such as real estate speculators, or brokers of insurance stocks, or the writer/creators of evening programs.”

Just when we are certain we know who to hate, or who to blame, Lee will show us a facet of a character that makes that impulse seem pat. There’s a point when we come to learn why Quigley used to be a veterinarian, and why so many Charters kept pets instead of raising children. Secure jobs in Charters are few and competitive, so Charter children have to undermine each other from the moment of birth:

“There’s a kind of malaise that B-Mors and Counties people never really suffered, that empty-lunged feeling that can come from being measured, unceasingly, from the moment of birth. Pets were simpler to raise, in every way, plus they couldn’t disappoint the family or themselves and naturally offered and received affection unconditionally, which in this world is rare.”

In B-more, you may lack privacy and personal liberty, and harsh economics may make daily life deeply tiring and unimaginative, but your huge New Chinese clan loves you no matter how much they hate your hair, or how stupid they think your aspirations are. As the narrator concludes: “do not discount the warmth of the hive.”

Perhaps American sci-fi is made to tell immigrant stories. And maybe there’s a reason why, during a 24-hour travel back to Taipei, I felt welcomed home by the collective voice of B-more.

I was born fortunate, but many elders in hometown grew up like B-more residents, unable to imagine a retirement, or what they’d do with their time other than crushing labor. They shy away from cameras, desire no luxury of uniqueness for themselves, meanwhile toiling until midnight, hoping their children will someday become Charters. They willingly strip-mine their every last moral resource to feed their clan. And in an imperfect world, maybe that’s how love express itself, one bitterly-earned bowl of rice at a time.

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