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Manoa 12.1 (2000) 249-251

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Book Review

Oriental Girls Desire Romance

Oriental Girls Desire Romance by Catherine Liu. New York: Kaya, 1997. 331 pages, paper $13.95.

Any "starving artist," student, or hobo philosopher-dreamer who lived in New York in the 1980s will remember it as a place much like Tokyo in the early 1990s: full of people, money (everyone else's), high life, low life, long days and longer nights, but mostly full of freedom, danger, and opportunities--sometimes gotten, but more often merely glimpsed.

Taking its title from the personal ads placed on behalf of Asian women wanting to flee rural poverty by marrying Western men, Oriental Girls Desire Romance charts a young Chinese American woman's journey from middle-class, Ivy League life to the picturesque Manhattan underworld of snap queens, discos, drug trips, and strip joints--with a trip to China in between. Although the unnamed narrator fits in at her Ivy League college, her intellectual gusto just can't compete with the economic and social status of the trust-funders' and senator's offspring she meets there. Wounded by an unsettled childhood in an immigrant family--a boorish, feudalistic father and a passive-aggressive mother--the narrator seeks refuge in the streets. Caught between the revolutionary communist philosophy of her Maoist father and the capitalist reality of the monied 1980s, the "theory-junkie" narrator chooses to live in the chameleonlike East Village, where people could "feel rich when we were poor. It was about the power of the moment." The amped-up, vamped-up East Village/Soho party life is full of drag queens and strippers with pseudonyms, and the narrator finds a tentative home where everyone else has assumed a new identity too.

Liu, an art critic and assistant professor of French, asks, "What do Oriental women want?"--a spin on the age-old Freudian question. The edgy narrator recalls her mother's advice to find a man who will be good to her: [End Page 249]

. . . as if my highest ambition in interpersonal relations should have been to spend my life as an impassive, good-natured queen bee, happily incapable of anything but letting a man bring goodness my way. Finding a man to be good to me implied that all I had to do was be a beautiful, selfish cripple; whether or not I was capable of love was irrelevant. The scenario she painted with a few bold strokes was horrifying enough that I began to seek out men who would, in fact, be anything but good to me.

The protagonist goes through a series of lovers, including a pretentious European intellectual, a lesbian who is more in love with the idea of love than with the object of her affections, and a Midwestern architect who is more brawn than brain. Boredom sets in sooner than romance, and our girl sinks lower and lower into existential crisis. Meanwhile, thoughts of Zheng, an unrequited love she had at university in China, come back to haunt her, providing some of the novel's strongest moments:

My thoughts of sleeping with this Chinese boy included the image of embracing not just his sweet young body but all of China and the world in which he lived. I couldn't help it, our Chineseness was like a sentinel that stood in our way. I knew that he knew almost nothing about the world in which I lived, how far I had strayed from my family and Chinese notions of good conduct.

Zheng eventually marries another woman, and the narrator's quest for fulfillment begins anew.

And what of the "Oriental Girl," the girl who found

her situation unbearable, to the point where taking a long airplane ride into the arms of an unknown husband-to-be was preferable to home, poverty, or twenty-four-hour surveillance....Her husband-to-be would actually bear an uncanny resemblance to a pink ball. He would have gained some weight since the photo he sent her, and he'd have lost his tan....How did she feel when his big pink body heaved over...


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