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The Strangers Welcomed at O.C. Chinese Parents Book Club

O.C. Chinese Parents Book Club convened at University Park Library on April 3rd, 2016.

Over the three-hour meeting, members enjoyed a veritable feast of books, and The Strangers popped up twice on the menu.

Orange County Chinese Parents Book Club

In the two years O.C. Chinese Parents Book Club has been around, its mission has been to encourage Chinese parents to read books in English, expanding their view of their literary and literal landscapes while reducing cultural and generational gaps. The club tasks each member with picking their own books and sharing their thoughts at monthly meetings. About 200 books have been discussed in total, ranging from classics, to genre fiction, to auto-/biographies, history, and inspirational/self-help books. While selection of books is limited to English, the discussion is held in Chinese. It has proven to be very effective in its mission to expose Chinese parents to quality English publications and provide an open forum for the exchange of varying ideas and opinions. 

Having met previously at members’ homes, the club needed a home of its own due to rapid expansion and tremendous community involvement. Meetings are now six times a year at the University Park branch of the O. C. Public Library.

The first to introduce The Strangers was Jing Sun, the club’s founder. He had returned from vacation the day before and showed up wearing a festive Hawaiian shirt. He weighed in on the topic by rewinding his memory to the trip to the Aloha State. “When we got off the plane, my daughter asked me, ‘who’s going to show us around?’ I replied that I had no idea,” Jing said. "I had reserved a tour service, I knew the agency’s name, but I hadn’t met the tour guide in person. So my daughter went, ‘Okay. I get it. A stranger is going to greet us.’”

Jing continued, “It made me think that traveling is all about strangers and unexpected events. No matter how meticulously you plan ahead, you’ll always have unexpected encounters. Some are good, others are bad, but when you return, it is very unlikely that you’ll feel that you’d rather have stayed at home.”

After his two-minute warm-up speech, Jing dove into The Strangers which he had read on his flight. He finished all nine stories and enjoyed each one, but found two of them most captivating.

The first of these stories was Rui Wang’s “The Hero of Our Times”. According to Jing, the story is about how people navigate through difficult times of shattered morality. The protagonist, Weizhong, dedicates his life to his both his beloved girl, Constitution, and ideals, but ultimately, the sacrifice he makes seems in vain. The girl he saved did not know anything of his sacrifice, although she never shies away from the advantages Weizhong quietly offers.

“I don’t know how the author of the story feels about this character, but I guess he thinks that Weizhong is the hero of our times, based on the title.” Jing said. “I, on the other hand, feel sorry for Weizhong. His pessimism cost him his life and it made me sad. My takeaway from the story is that survival is the key to getting your story heard. If you’re dead, your story can only be told by others.”

The audience chimed in at this point. Some compared the story to Afghani-American writer Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner, and some mentioned Asghar Farhadi’s film A Separation. All agreed that Rui Wang, the story’s author, had great potential to write a longer and more detailed work depicting life and struggle during China’s Cultural Revolution from an immigrant’s perspective.

The second story Jing talked about was Christina Yao’s “Vacances À Paris”. This love story intrigued and puzzled him. The story, daringly written in first-person perspective, is from the perspective of a married woman born and raised in China. She travels to the United States for higher education, finish her PhD, and find a job in the medical field. Unfortunately, her life is losing balance because her husband can’t keep up with living at her pace. During a business trip to Paris, our protagonist/narrator meets a medical student who is much younger than herself.

Jing read a passage from the story immediately after said medical student, Tahar, disguises a romantic advance as a dinner invitation.

“He first looked into my eyes and then looked down at the table. When he looked up at me again, he suddenly changed from a vibrant and confident man to a wishful and vulnerable child. ‘I want to have dinner with you,’ he said. His expression reminded me of my daughter. When she wanted me to put her to sleep, she would ask me with that same kind of expression. I hated to say no to her. I hated to refuse Tahar, too.”

The question Jing brought up was, “A married woman finds a guy who’s dramatically younger than her irresistible just because she hates to refuse him in the way she refuses her child. Do you think this feeling is authentic?”

A heated discussion ensued. Some of the female participants defended the way that the character feels by claiming that maternity could well spark sexual desire in some cases. Some pondered what the author’s true intention could even be in this instance. Is that only a subconscious justification made by the character because "I", the narrator, am well aware of the affair’s potential immorality?All agreed that love was so complex and intriguing that it was worth endlessly exploring.

After Jing Sun bowed out, Yan Sun stepped up. Yan has been one of the club’s most enthusiastic members since its formation. She too was excited to share her thoughts on The Strangers.

Yan found Lily Chu’s “The Bug” to be the anthology’s most impressive story . She thought that the story had the shape and depth of a modernist story, and therefore it stood out in the book as a whole. She also mentioned “Counting Down the Minutes” and “Return to Gander”, remarking that the latter is, like “Vacances À Paris”, a love story in which an unexpected romance blooms in a place to which neither of the protagonists belongs. Yan found that the story exuded a sense of fragility and instability which she, as an immigrant, experienced as well.

After Jing’s discussion, Yan’s recommendation doubled the audience’s interest in the book. Another club member, Xiangdong Lin, couldn’t wait to read The Strangersin April and shed more light on it during the next meeting.

The book Xiangdong introduced this month was Beverly Kaye and Sharon Jordan-Evans’ Love ‘Em or Lose ‘Em: Getting Good People to Stay. A Wall Street Journalbestseller, the book offers simple strategies for managers to better engage with their employees. According to Xiangdong, who has many years of experience in the corporate world, retention is one of the biggest challenges that businesses face today. This struck a chord with many participants who were concerned with the future of the book club itself.

The fourth member to share was Li Lin who brought to the table Jerry and Esther Hicks’ inspirational/self-help book Ask and It Is Given. “I don’t know if it is cheating because I didn’t finish the book by reading it, but by listening to the audio version,” Li confessed. After being assured that an audiobook would be fine, she told the audience she felt enlightened by the book’s teachings and how she learned to better her life by manifesting her desires.

The last to present was Anna Wang, editor of The Strangers, a regular patron of University Park Library and a proud member of O.C. Chinese Parents Book Club. She expressed her gratitude to both the Library and OCCPBC for elegantly tying together these multiple threads of her life.

By the time of Anna’s turn to take the stage, references to The Strangersand its authors had been peppered through the discussion. When it came to her turn, she spoke on Stephen King’s Revival. According to Anna, Stephen King continues to intrigue her because she can’t quite call him either a literature writer or a genre writer. After giving a brief synopsis, Anna picked two passages and used them as examples to discuss how King’s unique style blurs the boundary between two kinds of fiction writing.

Anna’s analysis of Stephen King interested Jing Sun, who decided that the next book he was going to read should be a Stephen King novel.

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