Book Review: We Two Alone by Jack Wang

by Yennie Cheung

If the saying holds true that readers discover books at the right time in their lives, perhaps now is the right time to discover Jack Wang’s We Two Alone. Each short story in the collection focuses on Chinese migrants and their children, living around the globe—the United States, South Africa, and Canada (Wang’s home country). Spanning about a century, the seven stories chronicle just a fragment of global anti-Chinese racism and serve as a reminder that the anti-Chinese animosity currently plaguing the Western world is far from new. Through them, Wang shows us that members of the Chinese diaspora have long understood what it means to be othered and ignored in spite of where they’re born or how they look.

As with many collections, the stories in We Two Alone draw parallels with one another: doctors and hockey players struggle to practice due to race, men falter in romantic relationships with white women, and Chinese women struggle just to be heard by their husbands. But what stands out are the things that separate We Two Alone from other story collections. A few pieces finish with a summary of the characters’ lives—an unsurprising ending to, say, a Regency novel, but unorthodox for short stories. Also, two first-person stories focus less on each narrator’s point of view than on their parents’ lives. While these decisions seem distancing at first, they also hint at the tales being presented as oral histories of the characters’ families—an important distinction when written histories often go unnoticed by mainstream society. Even the life of Ho Feng Shan, whose life Wang fictionalizes in “The Night of Broken Glass,” is relatively unknown despite being the Chinese consul-general of Vienna dubbed the “Chinese Schindler” for saving, potentially, several thousand Jews during World War II.

Interestingly, the story pulls from his own family’s history. “The Nature of Things”—about his grandparents—begins in Shanghai during World War II with Vancouver-born couple Frank and Alice Yeung living abroad so Frank can utilize his medical degree. This inverts the setting of the typical immigration narrative, providing a glimpse of what it means for foreign-born Chinese to “go back” to where their families came from. In Shanghai, Alice witnesses white people abusing the native Chinese, while Frank must prove himself at work to a “veritable army of foreign doctors” because, being Chinese-Canadian, he is an outsider, “foreign-but-not-foreign.” This echoes the othering experienced by many foreign-born Chinese: too visibly Chinese to be seen as members of their birth country, too Westernized to be seen as Chinese, and either way treated as inferior, especially by colonizers and invaders—a term that is not limited to white people here, as the story begins on the cusp of Japanese occupation.

In more contemporary pieces, the struggles to survive outside of Asia take on different tones, but Wang’s characters are careful not to mistake increased tolerance for acceptance. “Belsize Park,” for example, reads like a contrast of Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake, in which Indian-American Gogol dates a Manhattanite, ignoring his parents and losing himself in his girlfriend’s posh, white-bred world. Wang’s Chinese-British Peter dates white Londoner Fiona in the 1980s but still works at his parents’ Chinese takeaway on weekends. He doesn’t hide his upbringing from her rich parents or feel embarrassed by his roots, which is refreshing. But he doesn’t change. Instead, it’s Fiona’s character that arcs. Expensively educated and well-adjusted, she doesn’t seem to have suffered, but their relationship begins by finding commonality in his struggles with racism and hers with misogyny. She’s empathetic enough to recognize when someone discriminates against Peter, but when someone snubs him he gets irritated that she’s offended by something seemingly inconsequential compared to his experiences of being chased and having “bricks . . . thrown through [his family’s] shopfront window.” The benefit of reading this story in 2021 is that we recognize what Fiona does—that microaggressions are a form of racism that makes an impact without getting the racist’s hands dirty. She’s the one who recognizes that, for all the opportunities her privilege affords her, what it tolerates remains narrow-minded and small.

But strength of character doesn’t mean that Wang’s characters don’t struggle with their identities or what it means to assimilate. In the titular “We Two Alone,” for example, struggling actor Leonard grows tired of bit parts and “having yet another snot-nosed MFA student tell him to thicken up his accent,” but he rejects an audition to play lecherous Vince Masuka on the series Dexter because the role perpetuates a racist stereotype against Japanese men. Leonard, like so many othered minorities, laments that he “just [wants] to be normal. To see himself in a story.” But Wang challenges this sentiment when Leonard, as the founder of the Asian-American Shakespeare Company in New York, casts Asian-American actors but refuses to reinterpret the plays through an ethnic lens. This evokes a question raised with the success of Netflix’s Bridgerton: If a character’s race changes but their manners, perspectives, and decisions aren’t informed by their race, is that truly diversity? Or does it merely perpetuate white culture as the standard for normality? For Leonard, centering Asian-American perspectives seems like an act of radicalizing his reality and othering himself, but the story does the opposite; in centering Leonard’s identity as an American-born Chinese, Wang beautifully explores the universal human struggle to belong.

In that way, We Two Alone has something for everyone. For some, these stories provide a fiction-based history lesson on Chinese people around the world and insight into the ways migrant families have been forbidden to feel at home where they live. For others, and especially fellow foreign-born Chinese, it provides exactly the thing Leonard wants: to see our real, everyday selves in a story. Over a year into global isolation, Jack Wang’s collection tells us that we are seen and understood. It tells us that we are most certainly not alone.


 

Yennie Cheung is the executive editor of The Coachella Review and the co-author of the book DTLA/37: Downtown Los Angeles in Thirty-seven Stories. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from UC Riverside-Palm Desert, and her writing has been published in such places as The Los Angeles TimesWriters ResistAngels Flight • Literary WestThe Rattling Wall, and The Best Small Fictions.

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