I and You

By J. David Stevens 


Arc Pair Press
February 2019

Reviewed by Patricia Campion


The four stories in J. David Stevens's short story collection I and You explore the experience of Chinese immigrants in the United States. Yet, unlike other stories about the immigrant experience, these are penned by a Caucasian American, whose access to the immigration narrative comes through his Chinese-born wife, Janet. They touch on themes familiar to immigration narratives: loss, the desire to belong, the search for identity, and most of all, the rifts that immigration causes between immigrants and their country, between immigrant parents and their American-born children, or between Caucasian Americans and newcomers to their country. But they all connect to the broader theme of otherness. 

As an immigrant myself, I approach such narratives with curiosity, expecting to find an echo of my own experiences, but also with skepticism. Stevens isn't himself an immigrant, so how could he tell such stories? In an age keenly aware of the pitfalls of representation, his writing demonstrates the validity of the enterprise. His perspective as an observer, only indirectly involved with the questions his wife confronts every day, gives him the necessary distance to clarify his insights. Ironically, it is when a magazine asks him to write as a Southerner that he comes face-to-face with his white privilege: 

I was shocked to realize, while writing that essay, that Bark Gok Woo [his wife's great-great-grandfather] had settled in Richmond years before any of my ancestors made the city their permanent home. I had long understood Southern identity to be a matter of black and white. Quite literally, B. G. Woo's appearance confronted me with the fact that I had been writing Janet's past out of existence. . . . He left me to wonder how many other individuals—not just Chinese, but also black, white, and otherwise—I had diminished or ignored in shaping my vision of the place I call home.

Thus Stevens sets out to reinsert the Chinese American experience in the mainstream American story and ends up with a collage of characters and viewpoints very much like the picture of America that results from the complex migration patterns that forged it. In the introduction to I and You, he gives the reader background information on his wife's family and his own, the stories that each family transmits from one generation to the next to build a collective family identity, a heritage, and a sense of belonging. He finds unexpected parallels and questions and these constitute the foundation of his storytelling. 

The title story, which opens the collection, is a fragmented narrative where we encounter an unnamed young son of immigrants who is struggling to learn calligraphy ("I"), and his older self, who is making his way in the corporate world ("You"). The calligraphy lessons are a compromise between a father who wants his son to be fully American, and a mother who wants him to know something of her culture. The narrator announces that "she will fail," that he is too clumsy to master calligraphy, too removed from Chinese culture. Yet his future self will experience the common plight of the first-generation American who faces the casual ignorance of Caucasians trying to relate to his heritage and who cannot pretend to be Chinese when he finally travels to Guangzhou. 

"Turkeys" is told from the perspective of Raymond, a son obeying his parents' choices of extracurriculars, in this case his father's dream that he try out for the football team. In this story too, the weight of parental expectations bears heavily on the next generation's shoulders. Raymond feels that "if his father were caught between China and America, Raymond was caught between America and his father." He ends up paralyzed, at least temporarily, like a turkey facing the hunter's bullet.

In "Cleave," the story of a lesbian grad student who falls for an international student from China, Stevens gives us the point-of-view that is closest to his own experience as a Caucasian who is romantically involved with an immigrant. Kara and Minzhi bond over Chinese cooking when Kara starts cooking lessons to please her official girlfriend. Minzhi, however, will eventually conform to familial expectations, marry a Chinese stock analyst and, as her family hopes, will immigrate to the US with him. It is Kara, the Texan, who drops out of her English program for culinary school.

In these three stories, Stevens makes beautiful use of calligraphy, cooking, and football, as embodiments of Chinese and American culture. They serve as bridges between the characters while revealing two Chinese values that clash with American views: emotional control and the endless pursuit of perfection through practice. The body, in the act of practice, betrays emotions that can't be expressed openly, though they weigh heavily on the characters. For instance, after one successful drawing, the boy in "I and You" observes how his teacher "doesn't smile, not even in our triumph," and he behaves the same: "I should thank Ms. Liu, maybe even praise her teaching, but I don't. 'Yes, ma'am,' I offer, as I have been taught, then rise to leave." The "should" is his American identity in formation, but what he says reflects his parents' Chinese upbringing.

Stevens adopts the immigrant's perspective only once in the collection, in the story "Old San." The title character, an old blind man, and his caregiver, Wei-Ling, a middle-aged divorcee, immigrated at a young age and remained close to their Chinese roots—Old San doesn't even speak English. Wei-Ling has a plan for Old San to receive an official apology from an American, now famous, who hurt him long ago. Her naiveté, however, turns the encounter into another affront. Thankfully, Old San remains unaware of it. This story touches most directly on racism and doesn't fit as well with the others because it shows the opposition between immigrants and Caucasians most openly, and, in a way, most clumsily. Because the details of the past offense are left to the reader's imagination and the offender is a minor celebrity, the plot feels forced, maybe too large and complex for a short story.

As a collection, Stevens's stories powerfully demonstrate the never-ending process of adaptation, questioning, and learning that migration forces upon us all, immigrants or not. The unknown, the other, isn't just the new culture or race, but the family history that remains hidden, left behind. Stevens is at his best when he explores the emotional repercussions of having to find one's way through life with this incomplete knowledge. His characters' stories are full of failures and disappointments, unexpressed desires and pains, but Stevens gives us a ray of hope at the end, in the child who finally draws a straight line in calligraphy class, the caregiver who gains a better understanding of the husband who left her, the lover who finds a calling for Chinese cooking. Ultimately, these are stories of empathy and love in the everyday world, where people reach out to each other and keep practicing, even if the end result is imperfect.