The Semantics of Belonging: Asian American Identity and Cost of the American Dream in Ling Ma’s SEVERANCE
By Khushi Daryani •
“Only in America do you have the luxury of being depressed,” claims Ruifang from Ling Ma’s Severance (Ma, 226). A recently resurfaced novel due to its uncanny similarity to the global pandemic, it contains several overarching elements of a dystopian novel: a zombie fever, descriptions of a postapocalyptic world, and reverberations of late-stage capitalism. However, the novel subverts the genre by choosing an emotionally detached working-class Asian-American woman as its protagonist, Candace. Strikingly average, Candace is stuck in a job she hates, has acquaintances instead of close friends, and a ‘free-spirited’ boyfriend who aspires to write fiction and rants against consumerism after sex. Far from the ruthless sci-fi girl boss dream, Candace wakes up every day to repeat a set of mundane tasks and like the routine. Why does Ling Ma choose a remarkably normal, helpless, and demotivated woman to survive the apocalypse?
The story is told in fragments of Candace’s past that slowly puzzle together the secrets to survival taught to Candace throughout her childhood. The sickness was nostalgia and, as a second-generation immigrant, she was born with the antidote. Candace has a fraught bond with her mother, and there are numerous hints of intergenerational trauma exhibiting the systematic violence sustained due to patriarchy and linguistic hegemony. Her upbringing in an emotionally abusive household propels her to survive her illness of reminiscence. However, how do you argue with a mother who speaks a different dialect? Abuse is a term exclusive to the English language. Or as Candace asks, “Even if I spoke the truth, would she understand it, as I pecked through sentences in my garbled Chinese?” (Ma, 188). Memories about the language dissolve into compulsory nostalgia as she feels like an imposter with a name given to her in a language she can barely grasp: “I had no idea what my Chinese name meant, or that I was even named after a poem” (Ma, 89).
Candace’s mother, Ruifang, is a woman denied from reaching her true potential. A certified accountant in China, “her job had been deemed important enough for her to remain in Fuzhou during the Cultural Revolution” (Ma, 173). However, after immigrating to the States, her lack of dialect and work visa force her to work in mediocre jobs such as arranging wigs for a wig company. This systematic violence compels her to be harsh on her daughter in an effort to help her fit into a system that works against them: “You’re not in Fuzhou. Say it in English, she said in Chinese” (Ma, 188).
The irony of the statement highlights the contradictory nature of cultural assimilation. There is a lack of translation between them, a sea of semantic memory lost in the hope of the American dream. Moreover, the subsequent loneliness entailed from the lack of community leads to Candace’s detachment from those around her. She feels out of place since she has never been given a place to be herself. All her parents want for her is “to be of use” (Ma, 192).
During a work trip to China, she realizes the workers see her neither as Chinese nor Chinese American. It’s crucial to consider Candace not just as an Asian American or as a working class woman, but as a working class Asian American woman. She lies at the intersection of race and gender, never quite able to converse with her cousins back in Fuzhou and fails to relate to the girls at work. Candace is the embodiment of a subversive culture; she has usefulness with no use.
“For most of my childhood and adolescence, my mother was my antagonist,” she exclaims (Ma, 186). When six-year-old Candace moves to the States to live with her parents, she’s unrecognizable to her mother. Candace remembers her years being punished by her mother. Like most kids of first-generation immigrants, she’s lost in translation, caught between the person she ought to be and the person she is becoming.
During her childhood, Candace routinely hears her parents “reenacting conversations with American acquaintances, colleagues, the car wash attendant, the grocery cashier” (Ma, 188). The linguistic gap widened until it didn’t leave room for anything to be said. They were awarded for “performing their Americanness, perfecting it to a gleaming hard veneer to shield over their Chinese inner selves,” demonstrating that chameleonic qualities aren’t just a feat to be accomplished for immigrants, but it’s a survival instinct (Ma, 188). Belongingness is often a privilege afforded to those painfully unremarkable and ordinary, however, foreign cultures are only deemed worthy by how smoothly they assimilate in the hegemonic state.
When visiting New York for the first time with her parents, Candace remembers wandering around the city with her mother. They “pretended to live there, imagining different lives;” and although an imaginative activity, it comes form a place of yearning (Ma, 41). While her sisters ascend to business jobs in China, Ruifang works menial jobs. The dissatisfaction leads to routine conflicts between her and her husband. As Candace puts it: “I have always thought of Fujianese as the language of arguments, of fights” (Ma, 42). Instead of past memories riddled with sentimentality around her culture and language, she associates it to negative schemas. The intergenerational trauma in her childhood shapes her as a pessimistic and unmotivated adult. But, her aloofness and inscrutability is also a strength in a system that has threatened to dispose her.
Later in the narrative, Candace asks her father about the book he reads to teach himself English. He claims it’s about “a man from a poor background who wants to better his life,” which is how most immigrant stories begin (Ma, 190). When she asks him whether he makes it, her father replies: “He does, but at a cost. There’s no happy ending,” which is how most immigrant stories end (Ma, 190).
While work commitment is familiar to her, Candace has dual identities, stuck in a constant and solitary tug-of-war. ‘To be or not to be?’ is a simple question, a soliloquy for a Hamletian fantasy. Unable to relate to those around her and alienated in society, the question on the lips of groups ostracized by society is ‘To be, but who to be?’ As for those living within the crossroads of race and gender, the choice isn’t easy—does the self lie in the sacrifices of the generations that suffered for it or in the dream of what the future may be?
In third grade, KHUSHI DARYANI’S English teacher told her she writes well, so she never stopped. Her work has appeared or is upcoming in The Aerie International, Di-verse-city Youth Anthology, and The Apprentice Writer. She also has been commended as a 2019 Foyle Youth Poet by the UK Poetry Society.