Author(s): Rose Lu
All Who Live on Islands introduces a bold new voice in New Zealand literature. In these intimate and entertaining essays, Rose Lu takes us through personal history a shopping trip with her Shanghai-born grandparents, her career in the Wellington tech industry, an epic hike through the Himalayas to explore friendship, the weight of stories told and not told about diverse cultures, and the reverberations of our parents' and grandparents' choices. Frank and compassionate, Rose Lu's stories illuminate the cultural and linguistic questions that migrants face, as well as what it is to be a young person living in 21st-century Aotearoa New Zealand.
Rose Lu’s collection of essays is sharp, precise and insightful. Lu draws on her own life — childhood, relationships and culture — to highlight what it means to be Chinese in New Zealand. The strongest essays, which are excellent, explore the difficulties of stepping through the minefields of cultural expectations and stereotypes. How do you navigate the world as a young child when you live in different worlds? At school, you are the 'Asian child' and you bear all the prejudice and stereotypes of your obvious ‘difference’; at home, you are the link between your grandparents and your generation — one of the few grandchildren who can understand their dialect, and you are a child for whom your parents have forsaken their own careers. This is the migrant story: come to a new land for better opportunities for the next generation. In Lu’s opening story she describes changing her slippers.
“On this journey I change my...slippers twice, from the lounge pair to the house pair, then from the house pair to the shop pair.”
While I imagine Rose Lu doing this —I have a clear image in my head of her slipping off, on, off and on again her footwear moving from room to room — I also sense this is a method by which she has stepped through the diverse arena of her life. We all do it: fit a persona for whatever purpose we require — home, work, family gatherings — and for whatever role we may be complying to at any given time — wife, mother, manager, worker. Yet Lu’s arena, like many migrants or children of migrants, is overlaid with her cultural experiences. Being Chinese or Asian in Aotearoa is to be both visible and invisible. School camp is no exception — the experience of trying new food (lasagne) and of being pushed together with the other Chinese girl, Winnie. Indigestible suggestions on both counts.
“A dish I had only heard about, and couldn’t wait to try… I had learned the word lasagne long before I had my first bite...A red slab was slopped on my plate...Further down the table I could see Winnie pushing her food around the plate. My cheeks reddened. I averted my gaze.”
What Lu says in a few words creates images that immediately resonant because in many ways she is writing about our shared experience. Whether that’s growing up in small-town New Zealand, working out who you are as a young independent person, or the relationships you delve into much to your horror looking back, there is the bud of familiarity. Yet this is intensified for Lu by the racism and prejudice which occurs on an everyday basis and by the importance of her ethnicity. Many of the essays also touch on how you can feel discombobulated within your own culture and by it. Having put her Chinese self safely in the box at some time in her late teens and more so during her years studying in Christchurch, you get a sense of this 'self' becoming integrated into her everyday life, as she develops who she is by using her love of language and her humour, as well as her obvious appreciation of her family and their migrant story, to unpack herself through words in a candid and considered way. She isn’t obviously confronting, yet she does not shirk from pointing out the obvious stereotypical behaviour of mainstream New Zealand. Having grandparents who migrated to New Zealand in the 1950s and spoke little or no English all of their lives, I found myself drawn predominantly to the stories of family and the importance of food within cultures to act as a common language and a receptacle of past lives — a way in which the strands of ancestry can be preserved. Other readers will find other essays resonate — returning to and travelling through your cultural homeland, finding like-minded friends and associates with common experiences, or the action of finding yourself among the words that tell stories — the art of the personal essay. Rose Lu’s essay collection is a fine debut.