- Adultery and the Immigrant Narrative
In the first chapter of Louis Chu’s novel Eat a Bowl of Tea (1961), Ben Loy, a Chinese immigrant living on Manhattan’s Lower East Side in the 1940s, kisses his new bride ardently in their marital bed. The narrator implies, however, that Ben Loy is incapable of making love to his wife; he is unable to perform sexually before the doorbell to their apartment rings, announcing the presence of a Caucasian prostitute whom he once patronized (9–14). This reminder of his bachelor life that interrupts the opening scene of conjugal bliss has later implications in the novel; when Ben Loy’s impotence continues to be a problem, his frustrated wife takes an older Chinese immigrant lover. Chu seems interested in how immigration—a large-scale event that involves movement across national borders—can influence the smallest and most intimate of human interactions such as the kiss shared between a man and wife. He makes an explicit link between the risks and upheavals of immigration and the complexities of marriage and intimacy.
The changes wrought by migration are represented through the trope of marriages and intimate relationships that unravel in America in five literary works I examine: Abraham Cahan’s novella Yekl (1896), Chu’s Eat a Bowl of Tea, Junot Díaz’s short story “Fiesta, 1980” (1996), Lara Vapnyar’s short story “Mistress” (2003) and Gish Jen’s novel The Love Wife (2004). In these works, the unraveling of intimate relationships stands in for other representative acts of immigrant struggle in novels and stories, such as language acquisition and economic hardship. Adultery, especially, becomes an imaginary space in which authors explore what happens when national and ethnic identity is destabilized, thereby shaking up notions of family life, patriarchal hierarchies, and fidelity. Whether this freedom to choose one’s lover or spouse is a fantasy or reality, the options America seems to offer can result in a shift in thought regarding intimacy and marriage. Indeed, Laura Kipnis writes, “Fidelity pledges, whether to nations or marriages, do hold particular property relations in place: break these vows and anything might happen. . . . Let’s not forget that nations too organize property relations, and citizenship signifies our fidelity to them” (184). Once fidelity to a national identity is broken, it follows that marital and familial obligations might be destabilized as well—and vice versa.
The authors of these works use adultery or the merest hint of marital [End Page 71] infidelity to represent a disrupting influence of immigration that lingers for generations, affecting children as well as grandchildren of immigrants. Although each text is characterized by certain cultural markers that are specific to one ethnic group’s experience—the particulars of immigration patterns, for example, or the food they eat—they are all linked by the similarities in their adulterous plots. These stories hinge on the homesickness and nostalgia of a character who finds it difficult to adapt to a new life in America, and whose desire to revisit the homeland is satisfied metaphysically through an emotional, taboo relationship with another person of the same ethnic group. These transgressive acts range from the purely innocent (a shared conversation in an English-language class, in the case of Vapnyar’s story) to the overtly sexual (the full-blown sexual infidelities found in Díaz’s story and Chu’s novel). In all these stories, the men and women find companionship and comfort in extramarital relationships that irrevocably change the fabric of their marriages and engender fidelity to new ideas of self-identity.
The physical act of sex is not always necessary for the immigrant to indulge in nostalgia—the important fact is not intercourse but discourse. The term “conversation” has come to mean, in our own times, a verbal exchange; for the most part, it has been stripped of its older usages. Since the twelfth or thirteenth century, the word also referred to sexual intercourse. This earlier meaning still inheres, but only when linked to the word “criminal,” as in “criminal conversation,” which is, in legal language, the tort of adultery (Korobkin 20). The closeness of our current connotation of the word “conversation...