The children of immigrants have often been called upon to translate for their parents. Their ability to switch from the language of their parents to the English of their birthplace makes them the bridge between the customs of the old world and the expectations and demands of the new. Not only are these children faced with a generation gap, but they must also cope with a cultural gap. This enormous responsibility can become an overwhelming burden. In Fae Myenne Ng’s first novel, Bone, the narrator Lei, the “First Girl,” and her younger sister Nina, the “End Girl,” confront this burden over a dinner conversation.
Nina’s voice went soft. “Look, you’ve always been on standby for them. Waiting and doing things their way. Think about it, they have no idea what our lives are about. They don’t want to come into our worlds. We keep on having to live in their world. They won’t move one bit.”
She looked straight at me. “I know about it too. I helped fill out those forms at the Chinatown employment agencies; I went to the Seaman’s Union too; I listened and hoped for those calls: ’Busboy! Presser! Prep man!’ And I know about should. I know about have to. We should. We want to do more, we want to do everything. But I’ve learned this: I can’t.”
Nina’s inability to shoulder this burden of translation has caused her to move to New York, far away from San Francisco’s Chinatown where her parents live. Lei, the eldest sister in the family of three daughters, remains in San Francisco, uncomfortably but inextricably connected to the family and the community. Yet it is the self-imposed silence of the “Middle Girl,” Ona, that is at the center of this novel.
Ona has committed suicide by jumping off the M floor of one of Chinatown’s housing projects. She left no note, and although the police reported that she was on downers, there was no apparent cause for the suicide. Lei’s attempts to come to terms with her sister’s death, and thereby her own life, lead her to muse about incidents from their childhood and the everyday circumstances of the present. The author, Fae Myenne Ng, does not seek to solve the mystery of Ona’s death in this novel—it is a mystery that is unsolvable; rather, through the narrative voice of Lei, she explores the languages and silences of love, grief, assimilation, avoidance, anger, guilt, and finally acceptance.
The novel begins with the language of gossip: “We heard things. ‘A failed family. That Dulcie Fu. And you know which one: bald Leon. Nothing but daughters.’” Whispers are heard behind children’s backs—a failed family because there were no sons, because Dulcie had left her first husband, because Dulcie and Leon fought and Leon had moved out, because Nina had moved to New York, because Ona had committed suicide, because Lei had moved in with Mason Louie and then married him in New York without the benefit of the traditional banquet. At the beginning of the book, Lei has just returned from New York and must tell her parents that she married Mason while there.
There is no hesitation in speaking to Leon, her stepfather—he is the first person Lei wants to tell. Leon is the one who had dismissed the gossipmongers: “People talking. People jealous.… Five sons don’t make one good daughter.” Leon always had assured his stepdaughter, “It’s time that makes a family, not just blood.” Telling her mother is much more difficult for Lei, because the announcement inevitably will wound Mah’s Chinese pride.
The conversation jumps between languages, as Lei’s attempt at accommodation by approaching her mother in Chinese falls away in the American reality of her deed; she must speak in English. Her mother counters in her ancient language, one that goes back to primitive grunts, to express her displeasure and provoke guilt in her daughter. Not only does Mah have a Chinese vocabulary to draw on, but she can invoke the universal language of motherhood. Lei survives the encounter because she chooses not to retaliate against her mother by reminding her of her own failed marriages; instead, she reaches across the divide of affection by shifting the focus to Mason.
“You don’t like Mason, is that it?”
“Mason,” Mah spoke his name soft, “I love.”
For love she used a Chinese word: to embrace, to hug.
I stepped around the boxes, opened my arms and hugged Mah.
Although two gossipy women have witnessed the altercation between mother and daughter, Lei no longer cares about their tales. When she sees them leave, knowing that they are off to pass on their news, she dismisses them from her concern: “Let them make it up, I thought. Let them talk.”
Gossip gives way to lies when Lei begins to work through her relationship with Leon. Leon needs a steady source of income to pay his rent at the resident hotel he moved into after Ona’s suicide. When Lei finally convinces him that he can still earn some money while collecting social security, he agrees to apply for his benefits. Lei accompanies him to the social security office, where she and the interviewer try to sort through the morass of aliases and multiple birthdates Leon has claimed over the years. He had entered the United States illegally, taking on someone else’s name and life history. Once in the country, he followed “old-timer logic: If you don’t tell the truth, you’ll never get caught in a lie. What Leon didn’t know, he made up. Forty years of making it up had to backfire sometime.” These are the lies that Leon had used to survive and support his family in a society that patronized him and devalued his masculinity. At one point during the interview, a frustrated Leon resorts to cursing in broken English. His...
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