In a skillful and ambitious short story collection, Stephanie Han proves that grouping people as “Asian” is an artificial and lazy way of blurring distinctive cultures that have only a continent in common. Han, with roots in Hawaii that go back for more than a century, bypasses her heritage in Swimming in Hong Kong; the ten stories that comprise her book have settings that range from Seoul to Nantucket, told in the voices of Hong Kong scrap collectors, a Korean-American journalist waiting for her husband in the bar of an exclusive club that aspires to colonial grandeur, a KoreaTown manicurist who abandoned her young child when she left Seoul to work in the U.S., an aging Hong Kong swimmer who helps an African-American expatriate gain confidence in the water and in her life. She explores the sexual Orientalism of Western men and the feelings of the women who succumb to that particular fetish, skewers the ways of WASP preppies on the Eastern seaboard, and examines the difficulties of being a Korean-American girl with “the freedom of pocket money and an American life awaiting” at the end of time spent with her grandparents in Seoul.
Han illuminates these different worlds and voices with language that is vivid and crisp, descriptions that are precise and evocative. Her characters blaze with the heat of their common humanity, while clearly showing the cultural divides that yawn between each of them. If these people were ever brought together in one room, language would be the least of their differences. It’s a tribute to Stephanie Han’s talent that they convincingly populate the pages of her extraordinary debut. Their well-told stories, whether they take on the form of an insightful vignette as in “Hong Kong Rebound” or the shape and scope of a novella as in “The Body Politic, 1982”, make Swimming in Hong Kong a book to own and Han a writer to watch.~Janet Brown