Elections and Empathy


Friends, it’s Election Day in the United States.  If you haven’t voted early, perhaps you’re on your way to a local elementary school or a house of worship or a library, temporarily repurposed so that we can choose our future together.

I love voting. I love that, in principle, we all bring our hopes and our convictions and our experiences of America with us to our polling places, these public spaces that shaped us and that we in turn may shape with our best intentions.

Every vote—for president or state representative or a ballot initiative—affects someone; cultivating empathy allows us to examine the ramifications of our votes from the perspective of others with experiences different from our own.

And reading is one of the best ways to cultivate empathy.

So this week, I’m recommending The Fortunes*, by Peter Ho Davies, a book that helped me to think and learn about the Chinese American experience over the last century.

The Fortunes is a novel, but one with an unusual structure. In four sections, Mr. Davies explores the lives of men and women of Chinese heritage as they try to make sense of their identities—the ones they assign themselves and those assigned to them by others.

In “Gold,” which could stand on its own as a novella, Ah Ling is sold by his uncle to work img_2359in a California laundry; from there, Ah Ling becomes the personal servant to a railroad tycoon (the historical figure Charles Crocker) and watches the fortunes of his fellow immigrants, sometimes from within their ranks, sometimes from a less intimate distance. When he first mistakes the maid for Mrs. Crocker, “a hand had loosened from the knot across her chest, floating up to pat her hair coquettishly. She wasn’t flirting with him so much as admiring herself in the mirror of his error, as if he were no more than a puddle or a window she’d caught sight of herself in.” His racial difference, Ah Ling reflects, allows marginalized whites–the Irish, in this case–to see themselves as part of the majority group. “We made them white, Ling thought. Just like Uncle Ng said. Just like bluing. Whiter than any laundry.”

Silver screen star Anna May Wong is the main character in “Silver.” In short vignettes, the story traces her biography as she begins a journey by ship to China to visit her father after suffering a major disappointment—though she’s a famous actress and of Chinese descent, producers refused to cast her in the adaptation of Pearl S. Buck’s The Good Earth. She doesn’t let the hurt show.  “It thrills her fellow passengers, she can see, that they know her and she knows Carole Lombard, and it dismays her too, this reflected starlight that dims her own pallid glow.”  For her—a movie star not allowed to kiss her white co-stars on screen, a daughter whose father is not proud of her work—being Chinese American is incredibly complex, a performance she never gets credit for. Near the end of her life, after the Communist takeover of China, she realizes “They—all of them—are Chinese American now, not just because America has finally, begrudgingly, allowed them to be, but because China has closed to them.”

“Jade” is especially difficult to read. It’s an account of a 1982 hate crime by a childhood friend of the victim. In 1982, Vincent Chin, a Chinese American man, was mistaken for Japanese and beaten by two white autoworkers angry at Japan’s perceived role in the declining American auto industry. He died a few days later. This happened before I was born, and I’m sorry to say that until I read The Fortunes I had never heard of this tragedy, which was one factor in the rise of Asian American rights groups. Vincent’s friend narrates from a place of anger and grief and frustration, wondering if he failed Vincent, wondering how things might have been different. He longs for the “warm anonymity” of the word “American.”

In “Pearl,” Chinese American writer John Smith is in China with his (white) wife, waiting to adopt a baby girl. Small bits and pieces from the other stories filter into this last chapter, suggesting the ways that history repeats itself and bubbles up to the surface of the present. As he considers his daughter’s future (and the inevitable “Where are you from?“), he thinks of the terra-cotta soldiers the famous tomb of the emperor. Each one is different, an individual face, “each figure standing for precisely one man, representing only himself.”

This timely, beautifully written, affecting novel reminds us that we are all part of the kindness and cruelty that is history, shaped by it and shaping it.

May we take the best of our humanity to the polls with us.

*I received a copy of this book from the publisher for review consideration, which did not affect the content of my review.