Maks Sipowicz reviews Dry Milk by Huo Yan (trans. Duncan M. Campbell)
By Huo Yan (trans. Duncan M. Campbell)
Reviewed by MAKS SIPOWICZ
Huo Yan’s Dry Milk is a book about many things all at once. It is a meticulous character study of an unpleasant man who never quite settles in a new country. It is a philosophical parable about following the path our lives set before us. It is a cautionary tale about greed. Huo draws these threads together in creating the rich world of the book.
Set in Auckland, Dry Milk focuses on John Lee, a Chinese man who married a disabled woman so that he could leave move to New Zealand in search of a better life. Instead, he ends up as the owner of a failing antique store, renting out the spare rooms in his house to Chinese exchange students, and attending meetings of a community group he despises, but which he feels obligated to attend. Huo gives us an idea of the kind of man John is in the second paragraph of the book, in the description of him closing his store for the day: “Just as his last would-be customer was about to enter the shop, [John] flipped over the sign in the front window read CLOSED. Having beaten the customer to the door by a pace or two, John Lee locked it and ducked back out of sight” (1). The pettiness characterizing his behaviour is the guiding force of the entire novella.
We begin on the 30th anniversary of John’s moving to New Zealand. As an immigrant, John embodies the many aspects of the foreigner’s experience. I was struck by how universal certain parts of his life in New Zealand were. He is uneasy around other Chinese expats, whom he meets as part of their local community group. Equally, he is uneasy about any prospects of a return to China. My own experience as a migrant confirms this – as a migrant one can begin to feel like a tourist not only in one’s adopted home, but at their origin as well. John’s story highlights the additional difficulties faced by migrants at the intersection of race and culture, but also the changing nature of this experience. He remarks that when he first moved, he tried hard to fit in, but now there are young Chinese migrants everywhere. “Walking around nowadays, you see Chinese faces everywhere. This place has become Chinese. John Lee sighed. How careful he had been, thirty years ago, to try to fit in, to try to become like them” (55).
Throughout Dry Milk John reaches multiple times for the Book of Master Zhuang. Master Zhuang, or Zhuangzi as he is also commonly known, was a Daoist philosopher active in the mid-fourth century before common era. His philosophy is characterized by its skepticism about our ability to know about certain kinds of truths and its relativism with regard to morality. For Zhuangzi, the answer to questions about right or wrong depends on who is asking them. This is connected closely with the principle of non-action, that is, acting naturally without having to carefully consider every aspect of one’s action. Acting in a way that comes naturally to us and living our life accordingly is how we can come to embody the Dao (Way).
John is eager to apply these teachings to his life. He thinks much of Zhuangzi is still relevant, and in conversation with a visiting scholar he agrees eagerly to the suggestion that “all of the various truths we moderns talk about were known long ago by the ancients” and that in this respect “nobody can compare with the wisdom of the ancient Chinese” (16-17). The practical aspects of John’s affinity for Daoist philosophy can be seen throughout Dry Milk. For instance, he decides to marry his wife as soon as he hears that the government is intending to send her to live with her family in New Zealand, following a eugenic turn after the Cultural Revolution. Later, John is similarly sure of himself in his pursuit of Jiang Xiaoyu – the student lodger renting a room from him. Each decision, whether it is consciously so or not, seems to be an attempt for John to act naturally. Unfortunately, consistently throughout the book, the lesson John learns from Zhuangzi is the wrong one. Where for Zhuangzi striving to act naturally means we can come to enjoy our lives as we can come to accept what is offered to us, John’s actions produce a string of disappointments, fostering his resentments against his wife, the social workers who come to help him care for her, other members of his community, and the few New Zealanders he interacts with on a regular basis. This pushes him to go on with the opportunity offered to him by a business acquaintance to begin exporting dry milk powder. Ultimately, the only thing borne of John’s constant striving is more darkness.
Huo captures well the sort of social competition and attitudes all too common among long-term migrants. Faced with an increasingly changing reality, wherein his own luck seems to remain poor, John’s finding comfort in classical philosophy underlines the chief source of his discontent – the changing fortunes of those who had remained in China, and its growing middle-class, and experience he feels he missed out on but deserved. Looking at the new wave of migrants, whom he considers to not have to struggle as he had, and who in his mind are not attempting to blend into their new environment, he turns to tradition. Ironically, it is through a visiting scholar who gives a talk on Zhuangzi to the Chinese Community Hope Association he belongs to that John gets elected to the group’s executive, finally gaining some of the status he craves, noting with satisfaction that the jealousy of his rival in the group will become “all-consuming” (59).
Dry Milk is a dark book, but it is not without hope, even if this the kind of hope Josef K is given by Franz Kafka in The Trial. And while its protagonist is unlikeable, abusive, and petty, his flaws and striving for a life beyond the possibilities on offer drew me in even as they shocked me. Duncan M. Campbell’s craft as a translator doubtlessly helps in this – the text is colourful and rich, presenting a vibrant portrait of the community it concerns. Huo captures the sense of foreignness that all migrants experience. Beyond this, she captures the generational differences that are ever present in expatriated communities. At the same time, she gives voice to some of the challenges that are unique to Chinese migrants, and thus offers her readers a perspective that is at once broad and particular.
MAKS SIPOWICZ is a writer and academic living in Melbourne, Australia. His writing has appeared in 3AM Magazine, Ink, Sweat and Tears, Australian Book Review, Colloquy, Parergon, and others. He blogs at Philosophy After Dark and tweets @callmesipo.