Navigating Place and Identity
in Swimming in Hong Kong
interview by Brooke Jones
Stephanie Han, whose collection of short stories Swimming in Hong Kong came out early this year, gestures with her hands as she explains that while some writers save rejection letters, hers could fill filing cabinets. The gestures convey the cabinets would be the large ones, probably four-drawer and tall.
She began writing the stories for this collection twenty years ago, yet if it weren’t for the years “1982,” “1985,” and “1977” given in some chapter titles, it would be easy to assume the stories are set in present-day. And this was one of the hurdles to publishing that Han faced. “A lot of the things in the collection now are current – that’s why it’s published now,” she assessed during our talk. “Although these relationships have occurred throughout time.”
Swimming in Hong Kong is centered on female protagonists, most of Korean descent or from Korea, and is set in Hong Kong, Korea, and the United States. The book speaks with a multiplicity of voices: a Korean-American girl spending the summer with relatives in Seoul; a Korean-American college student navigating identity, feminism, and consent in New York; a little girl, who is Chinese, observing how her father is treated by white expatriates in Hong Kong during the World Cup… The stories take the complicated issues of hyphenated identities, diaspora, power, colonialism, visibility versus invisibility, race, class, gender relations, and make them personal. Swimming in Hong Kong was a finalist for the Association of Writers and Writing Programs’ Grace Paley Prize for Short Fiction as well as the Spokane Prize. The stories’ voices speak with immediacy, and the narratives pursue social issues that are layered and complex.
Han was born in St. Louis, Missouri, and has lived in the United States, Hong Kong, and Korea. Her father, who was born in Seoul, was drafted as a U.S. military doctor, and her family moved every year until she was eight or nine, when they settled in Iowa. She spent the summers of her childhood staying in a cottage at the Korean Care Home on Liliha Street in Hawai‘i, where her grandmother was the nursing home director. Most of her adult life has been in California. Han earned her MA from San Francisco State University, MFA from the University of Arizona, and was the first to earn a Ph.D. in English literature from the City University of Hong Kong. She and her husband were part of the dotcom boom and bust – and when it busted, they moved to Hong Kong for better opportunities. After years of living and working in Hong Kong, she and her husband have moved to Hawai‘i; she says that now, she would like to be in the West.
We met in a little coffee shop in Waikiki, around the corner from the apartment where she and her family live. As we sit across from each other drinking coffee and talking, I switch from typing her responses to writing because I think maybe I can write faster. I don’t. Stephanie talks quickly during our conversation, strings thoughts together between brief silences.
Though your language, your passport, your husband, your education and everything about you says you should feel at ease in this room, you don’t. You take no pleasure in Hong Kong trailblazing. You were not an American trailblazer. You did not invent the nectarine, win an Olympic gold medal, star in a TV show, or lead Japanese American troops into battle. You hate the phrases ‘overcoming odds’, ‘defying stereotypes’ and ‘getting ahead.’ You don’t like the words ‘assimilation’, ‘model minority’ and ‘well-adjusted.’ This is why you left the U.S..
Brooke Jones: Why do you want to be in the United States now?
Stephanie Han: I want my son to have an American identity. My husband is British, and expat, and because I’ve moved so much, I’m constantly in the position of being an outsider. And in 2047, mainland China is taking over in Hong Kong. The rule of law will not be in Hong Kong then, and it’s slowly being infringed on now; Hong Kong is not doing well with the Beijing government. So I wanted to leave Hong Kong.
Despite what is happening in the United States, there is a way to remake an American identity. There is potential here, and an energy here. We are still a young nation, if you look at the trajectory of history – it is always four steps forward, three steps back. We are now in a backward stage. But it doesn’t make me think it is hopeless here forever. Americans can be very open people; I’m talking in very broad terms about Americans, but we are a young nation. We are also a nation that claims genocide, slavery, and massive inequality as part of its history. The American project has a lot of problems, and there are also a lot of good things that have come from this national project. It is easy for people to condemn, but I think that the very concept of nation also offers us some interesting possibilities, a way of restructuring and choosing who we want to be. That said, there are 320 million people here, so it is difficult for all of us to be on the same page at any given time. And too, why should we be beyond the basics – which I suppose is really the question. What are the minimal requirements that we expect as citizens? I wanted my son to be a part of it. And I think I can make a greater contribution as a citizen, or negotiate better from my in-between context, here.
BJ: The stories in Swimming in Hong Kong include themes of identity and development of identity, insider vs. outsider, visibility and invisibility, and place and belonging. How did these themes develop?
SH: I wrote the book from 1997 to 2004 or 2005. I did live in Korea for a year as a child. My dad was a naturalized U.S. citizen. My question had a lot to do with place – what does it mean to have a home? Asians don’t have a binding narrative. If you’re Native American you have a narrative with genocide, Hispanic with language… Asians are not like that – they do not share a language, culture, anything. As a result, we come into this Asian-American identity. And it’s very problematic. It’s an artificial construct. I think while I was writing during that time, I was trying to figure out what it meant to be an outsider and insider. I don’t write like that anymore; I’m okay hovering, not in any place. I’ve finally resolved that, more or less, Hawai‘i is both a physical place and memory to me, and the closest I have to a home.
My peripatetic existence was amplified by marrying an expat. I feel, however, it’s important to have a home and place to feel rooted – especially for our child. It would be nice to stay in one place. I’m sick and tired of buying the same thing from IKEA – you’re not going to take a knife block between countries. You can look at moving as exciting or dynamic, or even as an incredible waste of money and time. It all depends on how you prioritize movement and place. I’d be fine being in one place for a while, but I’m never going to say I’m going to be in a place permanently. It’s like a jinx. Now it’s normal for me to be outside the conversation of where I am, on the borders or periphery.
The big theme in the story collection is place. My father was a medical doctor. After he got his U.S. green card, he got drafted. Because they were drafting medical doctors up to age thirty-five, we moved a lot when I was a kid because he was in active duty. I was a military brat. We lived on the base in San Francisco and in Korea. I asked my mom, “Mom, where am I from?” and she answered, “Well, why don’t you list the places you’re from and ask people to pick a place?” That’s why I read. Reading offered me a world. My 70s mom was not big on the touchy-feely sort of discussions of how one tries to belong and was quite casual. It was a different way of parenting. She said, if you like to read – yeah, you can have a friend in a book.
BJ: Did you have any siblings? Sometimes that can help, give you someone to play with, sometimes not…
SH: I have two younger sisters. We were close as a family because we had to move around a lot. Then we lived in Iowa for a period of time, seven years. I was thirteen years old when I went to boarding school; I didn’t want to live in Iowa. The summer when I was twelve, I went to Korea, like the short story [from Swimming in Hong Kong, “My Friend Faith, 1977”]. My grandfather sent a plane ticket, like the story. That really changed my life, going there. After I came back, I decided I wanted to leave Iowa. I didn’t want to be the only Asian. There was one black kid in school, one other Asian kid. Then they moved.
While I was visiting Korea, I spent two weeks in a bizarre camp. You’d wake up every morning to the national anthem. Brain-washing. You had to promise to visit the Motherland, to build up resources. They took us to the border to see North Korea – to see that we were under threat. We had to get lectures on the military capacity of Korea, on the agricultural industry. We had to wear these badges and sit in these steel chairs and watch. Eventually they had to stop the camp – I think it became hard to control because there was a conflict between the Western teenage Koreans and the conservative Korean camp leaders. But this was a very early government attempt to engage overseas Koreans with education to come back and return to the motherland.
Seeing other Asian faces was a revolution for me, that’s what led me to leave Iowa.
BJ: Why did your parents or relatives decide to send you to that camp?
SH: My uncle heard about this great Korean overseas camp, and I went for a couple weeks. I loved it. I had pen pals after that. I met Koreans from Queens, New York , and they’d tell me, yes there are other Koreans here. But obviously the experience was so significant to me because I was culturally and socially isolated.
BJ: Often, fiction is autobiographically inspired…
SH: It can be, but it’s not [autobiographically inspired] for me. I use it as a jumping-off point. When I was in Korea and Hong Kong, I had African-American friends and heard about their negotiation of the place. I’m not one of those people yearning for my homeland. Korea has a lot of problems. It’s very racist. I’m not happy in a society where people are racist against black people or anyone who is non-Korean, for that matter. That thinking deeply bothers me. So I can’t get caught up in the “my homeland’ stuff and feel sentimental about Korea in that way as I am too critical and disturbed by this type of thinking. I’m glad I went back to Korea; it resolved issues. A part of me belongs there, and a big part doesn’t. It’s too intolerant. I can’t negotiate out of it completely because I am Asian, so when I am there, I am subject to a different level of scrutiny and ideology. A lot of people who aren’t Asian are never accepted anyway, so they can negotiate out of it. I can’t. It’s hard. I don’t have legal standing in Hong Kong or Korea, so it’s hard for me to advocate for other people’s civil liberties as I have no voting rights there. That’s part of the reason I came back, too – I want to participate as a citizen. I want to raise my voice. There’s a lot of people who don’t care about that. I can understand that, too. But I’m too invested in the potential of what can be. I want things to get better.
BJ: The first story you wrote in the collection was “The Body Politic, 1982.” Did you begin with the idea that you were writing a collection of short stories? How did the collection develop? What was the process?
SH: It was hell. Each story was rejected one hundred times easily. I was picked up by agents and dropped. No Asian-Americans would publish me. I quit taking it personally - what’s another rejection? Who cares? People save rejection letters; mine would be in the pounds. But I get enough encouragement to keep writing, but I’m probably a masochist. You see narratives like what I was writing now, but not fifteen years ago.
“The Body Politic” developed, shifted, was workshopped many times. It was the last story to be published. I think because it was the nature of that narrative: what is consent; feminism. It’s not that it didn’t exist, but it’s far more mainstream now. The people who didn’t like it and reacted poorly were Asian women. Because people want to read literature with heroes and heroines that are lovable, defy all odds. You want the Amy Tan character. Americans want to read about winners. One woman told me, I want her to stand up and punch him. It makes people feel uncomfortable when a character isn’t lovable or heroic.
I’m more interested in imparting the narratives of women because our stories aren’t told as frequently as male POVs. We’re not represented at the same level in literature. We don’t appear in publishing, government, business, areas across the board – we are still under-represented. I see narratives of women as more urgent.
BJ: How did you find motivation to continue to write and submit in the face of so many rejections?
SH: I taught quite a bit and students have a way of inspiring you and encouraging you to keep going. I also had enough encouragement to keep plodding along. Writing is also how I express myself, so it isn't as if I could simply stop as I needed to communicate and obviously felt that there was someone on the other end who might want to read what I wrote, or share my outlook or perspective.
BJ: All the stories feel very current. If the dates weren’t in some of the titles, I would have thought they were set today.
SH: That’s actually why I put the dates on them. I wanted to show that the questions are questions that have always been there, that some of these ideas we think are new are really not new, but we are now more comfortable discussing them.
In the class I teach at Hawai‘i Pacific University, the students are about eighteen. Some female students said razors don’t get a luxury tax, but tampons, etc., do. I’ve been teaching long enough that I know teenagers in freshman composition wouldn’t raise this question fifteen years ago. We’re talking about it now. It’s great.
After one hundred and fifty tries, it [“The Body Politic, 1982”] finally got published. It got published after the book was released. I am so glad. It was the story that people felt hostile about.
BJ: What were your goals for the collection?
SH: I just wanted it to be published.
I think about experimentation with different kinds of voices. There are quite a few coming-of-age stories. There’s an arc to that – moments of awakening, of urgency.
BJ: There are many voices in the stories, including child POVs.
SH: I didn’t set out deliberately to write from the point of view of a young girl [in the story “Hong Kong Rebound”]. It was for a contest. In 2002, I was in Hong Kong during the world cup. Half the games were in Korea and half were in Japan. It was an exciting time to be in Hong Kong. People would stop in the middle of the street to watch; it was just a time of a lot of energy. The South China Morning Post had a call for a story, and the prompt was “Rebound.”
My father was staying with me. I thought a lot about father-daughter relationships. He was a very devoted father when I was a young child; he’d often take me to the zoo, spend time with me. I was very lucky.
The story Hong Kong Rebound was written in 2002 and this was only five years after the Handover. Mostly there were expats in the Central bars. Locals were looking in at the bars but couldn’t afford beers that cost eight dollars. People in the bars would put up black paper in the windows. I witnessed this several times. I remember an old man peeking in one corner, where there was a little scrap of window that wasn’t covered.
So these were the three things that prompted the story. And I thought, I’m going to write something. The story won the award. Sometimes, giving yourself parameters and boundaries is good, versus if everything is open and without any rules. It had to be under 2500 words.
The swimming pool that Ruth and Froggy swim in [from the story “Swimming in Hong Kong,” also the book title] is covered now. I used to swim there. The roof was open, so you could see the sky. They decided to cover it years later. I got so mad, I wrote into the newspaper and cited facts about heated swimming pools and what have you. I got really irate about it. But they covered the pool, which is really too bad. Hong Kong doesn’t have good urban planning and has a limited understanding of design in terms of allowing people to interact with nature. On the other hand, everyone has health insurance. No place is perfect.
So the Hong Kong stories I wrote – I think they cover different aspects of Hong Kong life.
BJ: Could you tell us more about setting boundaries and parameters in writing? For instance, do you generally find parameters and boundaries helpful when you write? Do you set them for yourself? What does that process look like?
SH: Sometimes I find that having little rules can work in terms of helping you reign in your ideas. If you say to yourself I want to write a 2000-word story, you can then easily eliminate the excess, and try to think of situations that will be well told in 2000 words. Sometimes journals have requirements. Often this is a way to force yourself into flexing your writing muscles. I sometimes set artificial deadlines for myself too – I must finish X by Y date. Really, no one is asking for it by Y, but setting up that date provides you with some sort of endpoint.
BJ: You’ve written about writing into conflict and paradox. What’s your process? Do you experience any surprises while writing?
SH: It works better for me to write into conflict and paradox. We think we are one thing, but we are this other thing. Humanity by its very nature is paradoxical and contrary. I always tell my students to write into the conflict. Start right before the problem explodes, because you can always backtrack a little.
Usually, I have an idea – that there’s a problem and a moment of grace about the problem. And I thicken the story as I go along. As you’re writing, things become more serendipitous.
BJ: Could you share a bit about teaching writing…
SH: I teach at HPU, and I started a workshop series this fall. I used to teach creative writing workshops in Hong Kong. I like this idea of people feeling they can control their narrative. People have a narrative; we all have stories inside of us. The art of autobiography, it’s very much an American phenomenon. Autobiography opens our nation – there’s more texture, we have a more porous surface, hearing these voices. I feel it’s important for people to write their own story.
These people who wax poetic about the writing life – I’m not one of those people. Sometimes I think, I should do something else. But I can’t think what else I would do. Writing is a compulsion. I’m a really terrible advocate for the writing life. It’s not the only way to have a meaningful creative life. I think what is important is understanding the power of your own narrative and your community’s narrative, and having or acquiring the skill to act as a citizen in terms of being able to write to communicate about a particular problem or idea. But I don’t think writing is the only means to a creative life. You must think of how you would like to communicate with the world—some do it through music, others through design, still others through physical gestures. Creativity takes many forms.