Bury What We Cannot Take
Our immigration system is a hot topic in the news lately and it seems like personal accounts of success and failure by people who come to this great land are broadcast by our media on a regular basis. Bury What We Cannot Take is a story of immigration which moves the issue to a historical context; it’s a powerful, emotional tale of a family leaving mainland China after it has fallen to the communists and the pain of rebuilding their lives in Hong Kong.
Their family had once been large and wealthy. Now all that remains is Grandmother Bee Kim, her daughter in law Seok Koon and grandchildren, San San who is nine, and Ah Liam who is twelve. Bee Kim’s son, Ah Zhai, is in Hong Kong. He had been working there when the Chinese government became communist and has not seen his family in years, although he is able to write to them. Their apartment is much smaller than what it was before and the neighbors much coarser. The regime change has not worked in their favor.
Bee Kim has struggled adapting to the new reality. Her husband, once a factory owner, died as the janitor in that same factory. Her friend recently lost her spouse when his workers rioted and now that friend has committed suicide. Angry and hurting, Bee Kim takes a hammer to the portrait of Chairman Mao which they are forced to have hanging in their home.
When San San and Ah Liam discover her with the hammer and shards of glass lying all about her, they swear to keep the event secret. Then Ah Liam is offered a golden opportunity – a chance to join the youth league. It is the first step to becoming a full party member, a recognition of all the hard work Ah Liam has done in school to separate himself from his bourgeois past. To prove his dedication to the cause, he lists his grandmother’s behavior on the form.
The family had been quietly making plans to leave China, but the situation becomes urgent when Ah Liam’s confession results in their being scrutinized by the government. Seok Koon heads to the safety bureau to procure visas for passage to Hong Kong but even after bribing the official, receives only three passes: one for herself, one for her mother-in-law and one for a child of her choosing. She chooses Ah Liam. She is heartbroken when she leaves San San behind, but is confident that with the help of her husband she will be able to procure another visa and be reunited with her daughter quickly.
It doesn’t quite work out that way.
Ms. Chen does an excellent, truly exceptional job, of helping readers envision the changing Chinese landscape through the eyes of this little family. Bee Kim captures the difference between the old world and the new perfectly. Not only have her husband, much of her wealth, her lifestyle and her friends been taken from her but the right to mourn the loss is snatched from her as well.
Seok Koon represents the dichotomy of the times. She is mother of both son and daughter, a daughter lacks value in their culture but means the world to her. She is a married woman who hasn’t seen her husband in years and even before that he was essentially a stranger to her. She is the least valued adult member of the family but the only one able to clearly see what must be done and the only one willing to do it.
Ah Liam is someone for whom my heart ached, since he truly was caught between two worlds. Naturally a good and obedient child, he excels at school and laps up the indoctrination they feed him. He has seen, through his own experiences, that much of what is being taught is right. His grandmother forced the kitchen boy – who was his own age – to work rather than play with him. She threw the family out when Ah Liam pursued the relationship. And Bee Kim also treats the few remaining servants with contempt. Communism, with its emphasis on equality, appeals to his proletariat nature.
But while Ah Liam shows us the cause of the revolution, it is San San’s story that shows us the reality of it. From the poverty and hardship experienced by many, the fear and brutality experienced by all, and the charity that lies beneath the ugliness, we see through her eyes the phenomena of this monumental moment in history.
Bury What We Cannot Take is evocative, engrossing, beautiful, frightening and illuminating. The only flaws I could find are that it was also a bit unbelievable and that it scratches only the surface of issues and characters that could have used a fuller exploration. That said, I would still recommend this novel to anyone looking for a good read. It packs a powerful punch into a relatively small package.