Chieng, Chieh (2005). A Long Stay In A Distant Land. New York: Bloomsbury.
This quirky, multi-generational family story begins in southern California. The Lum family are middle-class Chinese-American. Louis works for a magazine but moves back home to tend his father after his mother is killed in a traffic accident. The father has vowed revenge on the driver that killed her and Louis has to talk his father out of it. But then Uncle Bo disappears, suddenly moving to Hong Kong to see what the Old Country is really like, and also to escape his suffocating grandmother. Louis goes to Hong Kong to find Bo, where additional adventures ensue.
The novel is advertised as a comedy, because the reader is supposed to be amused by the zany antics of the Lum family. The humor is dry but degenerates to cute. The basis of the humor is that members of the family are not completely acculturated into America, or Hong Kong either, so they make mistakes in both cultures with charming misunderstandings and mispronunciations. In that sense the humor is condescending.
Consider this example, when Bo joins the Boy Scouts.
Melvin decided Bo had to learn to start a fire before his first Scout meeting. “A basic skill he needs to know.”
“Are the other boys going to ask him to start a fire for them when they meet?” Esther asked. “Is he going to have to bring them the head of deer, too?”
…Bo’s first fire-making lesson began with Melvin placing a piece of cloth at the end of a stick. He lit the cloth with a match and then tossed in into a coffee can to snuff out the flame. Bo watched silently.
“What are you doing?” Esther asked.
“Charring the cloth,” Melvin said.
“Why?” she asked.
“It’ll catch sparks that Bo will make. It’ll burn easier after it’s charred.”
“You just lit it with a match. If you didn’t put out the fire, you would have fire.”
“Yeah,” he said.
Cute, cutesy, and mildly humorous in a child-like way. The scenes are deadpan, giving the reader plenty of distance to look down his or her nose at the cute immigrants. I found it not only tedious, but slightly offensive. Also, notice how the clunky tagging of every utterance in the dialog parallels the family’s clunky use of English.
It’s a well-reviewed book by an up-and-coming young author, but I found the writing loose, the humor predictable, and pointless contrived scenarios clever for the sake of being clever. If there is a serious theme in the novel, it is the expression of what it’s like to be a person (and a family) caught half-way between two cultures. I didn’t hate the book; it just left me indifferent.