This piece also appeared in the Fall 2009 issue.
Book Review By Michelle Wong
First generation Asian Americans often gripe about their parents being difficult and stubborn. As students, they are expected to get straight A’s in order to keep honoring the family name. It’s an unspoken stereotype that the males in the family are always more valued, and therefore are treated better. And, no matter where they were born, whether it was in the U.S. or any other country, they are Asian first and foremost and their other nationality second. They are Asian Americans, not American Asians.
Kathryn Ma addresses all of these issues and more in her anthology, “All That Work and Still No Boys.” There are 10 stories in the book, all discussing the essence of what it means to be not only Asian American, but specifically Chinese American. All of the stories are written from different perspectives. Readers see how the Chinese culture affects the views of a grandmother who loves her granddaughter, of a Chinese American guidance counselor trying to see through the facade of a Chinese American student and many more.
The eponymous short story, “All That Work and Still No Boys,” which won Ma the Iowa Short Story Award, is a particularly moving one. In this story, readers learn about the relationships between an immigrant mother and her grown American-born children, and among the siblings themselves. As the eldest daughter, Barbara must dutifully take care of her ailing mother. When her mother needs a new kidney, it should be Barbara who is the perfect and only match — not Lawrence, the youngest and only son. Barbara, or one of her three sisters, should donate the kidney — not Lawrence, who was almost not born. Not Lawrence, who needed to be created after the mother’s half-sister visited, saw the four daughters, and said, “All that work and still no boys.” Not Lawrence, his mother’s pride and joy.
The mother doesn’t understand why one of the girls can’t be the donor. “Ma wonders briefly if the girls think she’s giving up. As in, what’s the point in going through with the operation? Edwin [the husband] is gone and the children are all grown. But that’s not the case: Ma wants to live longer. Not so badly that Lawrence should have to suffer though. Even a little risk isn’t worth taking. With Edwin gone, there’s only Lawrence.” To her, everybody in the family seems to be against her getting a new kidney.
Since Barbara can’t donate her kidney, she does everything else possible to be of use. She goes with her mother to the doctor. She tells Lawrence to convince their mother to accept his kidney, even though he wants their mother to make the choice and not pressure her. Barbara even goes to take multiple compatibility tests in hopes that a miracle would happen, instead of getting the same incompatible result over and over. Barbara is a good daughter, but sometimes people just need to accept the facts and give in to nature — something that Barbara’s mother learns later on.
This story is particularly moving because it shows a family’s hardship through the alternating narratives of Barbara and her mother. The story is raw and heartfelt, and Ma does an amazing job in breathing life into each character with her witty humor and intelligence. Readers will sympathize with Barbara, while feeling Lawrence’s frustration, and understanding why the mother so desperately wants Barbara to be a match.
Readers will understand, and maybe even relate to the disappointment that each narrator goes through — whether it is at their family, their “frenemies” or life itself. Learning about the stories behind the frustration — the troubles of hiding a family secret, of supporting the family no matter what or reasoning with the parents who are too stubborn to really listen — will resonate with Asian American youth who struggle between independence and family devotion.
Overall, the book is an enjoyable read. It moves at a quick pace — 10 short stories are more accessible and easier to read than a novel weaving them together. Asian Americans will appreciate the book, and the accurate portrayal of their culture. Others will appreciate the book for the insight into Asian American culture. “All That Work and Still No Boys” will leave readers crying, laughing and reminiscing about their own experiences with their parents.