By Samantha Pak
Northwest Asian Weekly
By R. Zamora Linmark
Coffee House Press, 2011
After 13 years of living in the United States, Vicente De Los Reyes is returning home.
Born in the Philippines, Vicente, or Vince, came to Hawaii when he was only 10 years old. He returns after winning a contest and finds himself struggling to adjust to many things in Manila, including the heat, crazy drivers in a chaotic city, and political and cultural differences.
Upon returning, Vince seems to struggle more as a “balikbayan” — or a U.S.-based Filipino “returning to visit the motherland and witness its vast improvements” — than as a young gay man living in the early 1990s. This surprised me, but in a good way, as the story is more about a young man returning home who just happens to be gay, rather than about his sexuality and the issues around that.
While Linmark doesn’t focus on Vince’s sexuality, he doesn’t ignore it either, as he explores the protagonist’s attraction to his cab driver on one of his first nights out on the town.
What I also enjoyed about “Leche” (which means milk in Spanish, but has come to mean another four-letter word to Filipinos) is the eccentric group of people Vince meets. From a former nun turned activist, to a political film director, to the country’s first-daughter-slash-actress, each character has a distinct personality.
I found it particularly amusing when one character explains to Vince what a lesbian in the Philippines is (a “born again” gay man who goes straight) and the social classification system in Manila.
Scattered throughout the story are “Tourist Tips,” giving insight into Filipino culture.
Some of my favorite topics include the climate and weather in the Philippines, how Filipinos love to stare, and how Filipino Spanish differs from regular Spanish.
“Leche” also touches on the Philippines’ cultural and political history, which I did not know much about before and was glad to learn along the way.
“Out of a Far Country”
By Christopher Yuan and Angela Yuan
WaterBrook Press, 2011
Since he was a boy, Christopher Yuan, the son of Chinese immigrants, knew he wasn’t like the other boys. He was attracted to boys.
Chris’ mother, Angela, suspected this and hoped it wasn’t true. But when Chris came out to his parents, telling them he is gay, Angela’s worst fear came true. She made her son choose between his family and his sexuality. Chris chose the latter.
Heartbroken and lost, Angela turned to Christianity to find a way to cope with her family’s latest development.
“Out of a Far Country” is the true story of a mother and son who are given a second chance at life, in more ways than one.
This is one of the things I really enjoyed about the story. Although “Country” focuses on how the two handle Chris’ sexuality, they also share other struggles in their lives — from Angela’s more than troubled marriage to Leon, to Chris’ double life as a dentistry student by day and drug dealer by night.
“Country” tells the story of how this family finds Christianity and is able to heal in many ways they hadn’t realized they needed. And while religion plays a major role in the narrative, it is not overbearing and forced down your throat, so non-Christians need not worry.
I also admire Angela and her undying love for her son, who she initially couldn’t understand. Some of her choices and actions may appear extreme and heavy handed, but it is clear she was doing her best for her family.
Likewise with Chris, his treatment of his family and his actions could be seen as callous and reckless, but it is all part of his journey of going from someone with little hope of a future to becoming a minister.
The Yuans’ story is filled with obstacles and hurdles, but how they face them and overcome them is a true inspiration.
By Aska Mochizuki
Vintage Books, 2009
Hiro is a young Japanese woman teaching languages in Vietnam.
There, in her newly adopted country, she meets Dung, a young Vietnamese woman studying Japanese. Dung is the first woman Hiro has ever been attracted to and she’s not sure how to handle it.
Eventually, Hiro learns Dung is also attracted to her and the two women fall in love. This is the first time either of them has been with another woman.
As their relationship becomes more serious, Hiro meets Konno, a Japanese businessman about 10 years her senior. Hiro’s friendship with Konno makes Dung jealous. A very complicated love triangle ensues, which begins to spin out of control before Hiro realizes what is happening.
What I liked about “Spinning Tropics” is how Mochizuki focuses on Hiro’s feelings for both Dung and Konno, as she tries to figure out what is love and what is lust.
The story is about how Hiro feels about these two people as human beings. The fact that they are opposite genders is irrelevant.
In addition to the dynamics of the love triangle, “Tropics” touches on the topic of expatriates adjusting to their new home and the cultural differences between countries that are not too far apart geographically. I found this fascinating as the characters discuss what it means to have a significant other who is Vietnamese or one who is Japanese. It was interesting to see how the locals interact with the expats. It made me realize how unique every country’s identity is.
Mochizuki describes the country of Vietnam so vividly that you feel as if you’re there.
From the wonders of Vietnamese coffee and the life and times of beggars, to family dynamics and motorcycle rides, Mochizuki’s descriptions are incredibly detailed, which make for a more complete story. (end)
Samantha Pak can be reached at email@example.com.