What originally enticed me about Joss and Gold by Shirley Geok-lin Lim was the premise—Lim set out to turn the infamously fetishistic story of Madama Butterfly by Giacomo Puccini on its head. With Joss and Gold I was thrilled to see a modern, feminist re-telling of a story I’ve heard a hundred times before.
Split between Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia in 1969, and New York and Singapore in the early 1980s, protagonist Li An, who is Malaysian, falls in love with Chester, an American Peace Corps volunteer. Li An ends up pregnant once their affair fizzles, and doesn’t tell Chester. Chester leaves Kuala Lumpur due to the political instability happening during the time of their relationship, and moves back to the States, where he marries and goes on to have on a mundane life.
In Madama Butterfly, the story ends with the eponymous Madama Butterfly committing suicide once the lovers reunite, years later when her child is grown. This is not the case in Lim’s story, as Li An goes on to be a single mama, with a killer career in Singapore, raising her daughter with her friend Ellen. It’s not easy for her, but she’s not lying around pining for Chester.
Joss and Gold would pretty much be a total feminist fantasy for me, but it was, admittedly, a dense read. Even with a refreshing new take on an old tale, reading Joss and Gold was like reading an introductory crash course in racial politics, identity, colonialism, and Orientalism all in one go.
Oftentimes while reading Joss and Gold, I felt like there was more heavy-handed lecturing happening than story-telling. A reader could literally write a thesis on the perception of Asian women in North American cultures based on a single paragraph from any page in the book.
In the spirit of this impression, I have selected a few interesting quotes from Joss and Gold for Gender Focus readers to ponder and consider.
Perceptions of Western Culture in Malaysia
Li An, however, was different. She talked too much and too fast, which embarrassed him. She liked roaming on her motorbike like a boy. Her tight jeans showed her thighs and calves, and her smoking made her conspicuous in a crowd. Men picked her out immediately as someone they could tease. She was like a Western girl—bold, loud, and unconcerned about her reputation.
Othering in the Classroom
Her hips were unusually curved for a Chinese, and in jeans and an expensive American sweater she attracted even the white teachers, who usually acted as if students were a faraway mirage to whom they airmailed their lectures.
Changing One’s Race
Gina had always struck Li An as terribly bold. It wasn’t courage she lacked, she thought, but imagination. She hadn’t been able to imagine what kind of life she could have without being Chinese. History taught no lessons about changing one’s race. It only taught about war and violence between people, even people of the same colour and blood. Gina hadn’t been clever enough to rise above history.
What would happen if they all suddenly switched to Malay right now? How would she express herself? Like a halting six-year-old, groping for light in a darkened world? Her world was lit by language. The English ingested through years of reading and talking now formed the delicate web of tissues in her brain. Giving up her language would be like undergoing a crippling operation on her brain. Of course, she would be able to move and sleep and eat, her outward appearance would not change. But without her language she would be as handicapped as any armless and legless beggar in the street.
“That’s the way with colonialists,” Abdullah continued cheerfully. “You white people, Americans, believe you can claim all kinds of things that don’t belong to you. Land, plants, tin mines, even other people. You want to possess, but you do not care for what you take. Perhaps in your own country you love and care for what you have, but sometimes I think not even in your own country.”
White Privilege and the Ivory Tower
To be white, to know one was white, to find anything else peculiar and uncomfortable, as no sin—it became, in fact, the basis for curiosity and inquiry, one’s fate.
This truth made it easier for him to walk down Broadway, past toppled garbage cans and loud salsa music. It made it easier for him to stop by the black peddlers hawking African beads and batiks and copies of The Autobiography of Malcolm X on the sidewalks, to buy a shell necklace for Meryl. Ignoring the roisterous, clashing voices and colors outside the unwalled boundary of campus for the books that taught him to study people rather than get mixed up with them, Chester was able also to carry this truth with him during his six-month stay in Bali. It made him comfortable in a way he had not been in Malaysia. He was there to study difference, not to overcome it, and he could finally relax with the natives, knowing guiltlessly that he was not one of them.