In 1993, the Chinese television broadcaster CCTV began airing A Beijinger in New York, a series based on Cao Guilin’s semi-autobiographical novel about a Chinese couple, Wang Qi Ming and Guo Yan, who move to New York City to start a new life. Though the show was much less polished than the American and Canadian television we were accustomed to watching, my family inhaled all twenty-one episodes—trekking every weekend to dinky video shops in Chinatown to rent homemade VHS recordings. For the first time, we were seeing people on TV who looked like us, worked like us, ate like us, spoke like us and shared with us the same uncertainty about whether they would “make it” in the west. We were captivated.
Recently, I called up my mom [novelist Lin Chang] to talk about Beijinger’s portrayal of the Chinese immigrant experience and how it paved the way for her own Chinese-language novel, Toronto After the Snow.
The first thing you said to me after you re-read the book and re-watched the show was that they were very different from each other.
Yes, the novel is more believable and more evocative. The TV show isn’t as personal; it has many more characters and it is more focused on creating “drama.”
I’ll give you an example. The novel and the TV series both begin with Wang Qi Ming and his wife Guo Yan getting off the airplane from Beijing and kind of being overwhelmed in the airport in New York.
In the book, Guo Yan is scared—the airport is large and confusing to her. In the early ’90s, China wasn’t as developed as it is now, so the differences would have been even more striking. Wang Qi Ming is not scared. He’s looking around with curiosity. Guo Yan worries that her aunt, who was supposed to pick them up from the airport, will not show up. Wang Qi Ming tells her not to worry; the aunt is Americanized by now, and Americans always keep their promises. An announcement is broadcast on the PA system and Guo Yan asks her husband what was said. He listens carefully but cannot decipher it. He tells her, “They’re saying it too quickly for me to understand.”
His wife responds, “Even if they said it slowly, you wouldn’t understand it.”
Wang Qi Ming listens again when the announcement is repeated and finally he tells her that he understands some of it: “Ladies and gentlemen,” he translates.
An airport employee approaches them and asks if she can help them, but they can’t understand her at all. The previously confident Wang Qi Ming is suddenly stiff and subdued. After much effort, he says to her, “I go home.” The airport employee asks them where “home” is and all Wang Qi Ming can do is to repeat himself: “I go home.”
I liked this scene at a lot. It was funny and real. I could relate.
But in the TV show, to create dramatic conflict in the airport scene, Guo Yan harshly scolds Wang Qi Ming the whole time. Her behavior made no sense to me, and there was no explanation as to why she would be so angry and unpleasant.
The TV show made Guo Yan an unsympathetic character throughout the series. My objection isn’t that her character was unpleasant, but that her unpleasantness didn’t make sense. In the novel, Guo Yan’s character is much more believable. She is a traditional woman who supports her husband, and though she tends to worry and fret about their new life together, she is capable of handling hardship.
The series showed the main characters working hard, manual labor jobs like the ones you and a lot of our friends worked in when we first came to the west. How did you feel about that?
I don’t think it was very accurate. I’m thinking about a scene in the third episode, where Wang Qi Ming is working at the Chinese restaurant. He cuts his hand, and it bleeds, so he quits. Unbelievable! He’s finally found a job, and now he’s going to quit? Over that? It’s one thing if his boss fired him, but he quit? He couldn’t wear gloves? He could have wrapped up the wound; it was just a cut.
This again was a plot device to force his character to leave his job, to get the ball rolling so that his character could start his fast rise to wealth. But why would anyone leave such a job? Chinese people in that situation would never do that. He owes $900 the moment he steps off the airplane. He needs this job, so why would he give it up?
You wouldn’t have quit, and neither would I.