“It’s hard,” says an American in Rachel DeWoskin’s Repeat After Me, “to know much about someone whose language you don’t speak.”
Communication is not the only difficulty experienced by the people in this nimble first novel. Whether from the United States or from China, they are angry, guilty, distrustful, insane. Lovers singe themselves with suspicion and betrayal. Families fashion intercontinental lives. Parents confront the accusations of their children. Brothers and sisters are estranged. Yet, all of these conflicts have linguistic roots. The characters are defined and masked — they are trapped, and they are liberated — by language.
In the fall of 1989, just months after the massacre of students in Tiananmen Square, Da Ge, a Chinese dissident émigré, begins attending Aysha Silvermintz’s ESL class in New York City. “The G is hard,” he explains, “Dah. Guh.” He is scarred and broken, ruthless and delicate. His clipped English exaggerates both his anger and frailty. Aysha is fragile, too. Recently hospitalized for a breakdown, she stabilizes with lithium and observes herself with a heightened vividness. “I’m like a polished poem,” she says, “revised down to the most essential version of myself!”
Aysha’s parents are divorced, largely because of her own meddling. She avoids the world, keeping a tiny circle of friends, confiding only in her students, and fleeing any possibility of outside interactions. Her Chinese, at first, is nonexistent. She lives through words, counting out letters on her fingers, creating alphabetic rituals and mythologies. “The curbs were like punctuation,” she thinks while riding on the back of Da Ge’s scooter, “rolling down into the street on either side. Parentheses.”
Through his essay assignments, Da Ge explains the alienation he feels from both China and the United States. “The problem with China maybe not with Mao idea,” he writes. “In this way, China is like America. The idea is good, just the real thing do not work out.” Disillusioned by the failure of socialism, his mother had committed suicide when he was a child. His father embraced the new economy, becoming rich. Da Ge burned down his house. “I know that America is like the idea of China,” he writes, “just an idea. Not a real revolution. Not a real dream place. Not even democracy.” Aysha imagines him as a heroic activist for reform. Perhaps, she thinks, he was the student in the famous photo, the one who stood alone in front of the tank during the previous June’s demonstrations.
But, politics remains a footnote to their affair, which, for Aysha, is punctuated with exclamation points. “He was like a book with whiplash plot twists,” she thinks. “I would be the protagonist of a bodice ripper.” Their relationship deepens as the months elapse. They share the burden of fractured families. Neither has a home in which they entirely belong. Each hopes the other will rescue them, but Da Ge is too arrogant to ask, and Aysha is afraid to scare him away. She is an English teacher who cannot correct his diction. She buys a Chinese dictionary, but doesn’t even know his real name. Da Ge’s English does not allow for nuance; he expresses himself directly, but with verve. “I want you unbelievable bad,” he says, when he finally joins her in the bedroom. If they had more time, all these problems might be resolved. But, moments are like months for them, and when they are together they have more important things to do than translation exercises. Unable to communicate, they are too fragmented to complete each other.
Thirteen years later, and now living in Beijing, Aysha is far closer to whole. She no longer spells out words on her fingers — though she cannot keep from alphabetizing the kitchen condiments — and her Chinese is nearly fluent. She has a daughter, Julia Too, who is miraculously multilingual. Da Ge is gone.
Aysha still worries and observes. She rates her authenticity as an expatriate. She is hypersensitive to the slightest cultural miscues. But, with Julia Too in Beijing, she has time to learn and teach, a luxury she never had with Da Ge. Through his friends, and the surviving shards of his family, she puzzles together the reality of the man she had hardly known. Meanwhile, the language games continue. Aysha shares a gibberish of secret syllables with her daughter; together, they cherish the Chinglish mistranslations they find on signs. Missing her absent father, Julia Too compiles a book in his memory. While Aysha suffers acute “nuance paralysis” and Da Ge was utterly insensitive to the feelings of others, Julia Too is a perfect adept, thoughtlessly accomplishing the tasks that her parents had strained all their energies to fail at.
Interleaving the claustrophobic tension of New York City with the exultant relief of Beijing, Repeat After Me releases you from pressure just long enough to let you breathe, and then submerges you again before you’ve quite recovered.
“Maybe,” one of Aysha’s students suggests to her, “it will be difficult for Chinese and American to understand each other.” This is the central issue of DeWoskin’s novel, as it was the question that guided her first book, the winsome memoir Foreign Babes in Beijing. Whatever her characters’ anxiety may be, DeWoskin’s own authenticity as an expatriate is beyond question. She arrived in China in 1994, and starred as an American seductress on the nation’s first televised soap opera. Six hundred million viewers watched the show; for years, she could not appear on the streets of the capital without being mobbed by fans. Since then, she has transformed herself into an authoritative commentator on the country, writing numerous articles and essays on China’s changing social and political affairs.
Repeat After Me plays with familiar cultural truisms. Chinese characters accuse Americans of being lazy, blunt, and prejudiced. Americans expect their Chinese acquaintances to be cagey, proud, and to hate cheese. While each vigorously typecasts the other, they simultaneously express outrage at being stereotyped themselves. “I’m not represent the idea of every peasant,” Da Ge asserts to Aysha on their first date. L ater, however, he concedes that his cynicism about politics might make him “more Chinese.” National traits are too useful as organizing structures for people to set them aside. But, DeWoskin shows, they are almost entirely malleable and selective. Her Chinese people are direct and tetchy, while the Americans are inscrutable and preoccupied with saving face. Every action her characters take contradicts the cultural expectations they express. Americans are supposed to be fat, but Aysha is recovering from anorexia. They are supposed to be materialistic, but Da Ge is the one who flaunts his thick roll of dollar bills.
There is nothing inherent in ethnicity that prevents people from understanding each other; the problems arise from preconceptions. Even when the characters cease being abstractions and become friends and lovers, the strictures of culture can never be wholly set aside. Intimacy allows them to redefine their labels for each other, but Americans can only act more or less American. Aysha impresses her Chinese friends by embracing their culture, but she can never become Chinese.
DeWoskin uses language as a synecdoche for culture. Her Chinese characters speak a pidgin English that could easily descend into racist dialect humor, but she renders their imperfect grammar perfectly, counterbalancing it with her American characters’ struggles to learn Chinese. “I am the kind of person,” Aysha says of her language skills, “who calls doorknobs ‘balls you turn on doors to open or shut.’ I can get things done, but there’s nothing poetic or compact about not knowing the word for ‘knob.'” Writing a novel in two tongues is a challenge, but to render each language in both its fluent and vernacular varieties requires a rare sensitivity to pitch and tone. DeWoskin manages it, darting from the Queen’s English and Tang Chinese to ESL fragments and street epithets — and crafting poetry of it all. Her prose can also transfigure practical moments into the meters of verse:
In my kitchen, he chopped chicken and bell peppers into quarter-inch pieces as perfect as jewels, and expressed such shock over my lack of a wok it was as if I had killed a person he loved.
In Repeat After Me, Chinese and American characters are linked and separated by their preconceptions of each other. They fight these stereotypes even as they strive, and fail, to fulfill them. The pressure either to conform or rebel leads to tragedy. Authentic empathy — like democracy, like revolution — is impossible. The best that most people can do is to talk and listen, read and write. “Da Ge was proud that Chinese was both more sensible than English and more expressive,” Aysha muses. “I like a language somewhere in between, a Chinglish hybrid that allows for importing the most expressive components of each language into the other.” She discovers this fusion in Julia Too, her multiethnic, “stunningly bilingual” daughter.
Thai Jones is the author of A Radical Line: From the Labor Movement to the Weather Underground, One Family’s Century of Conscience.