April 23, 2020: “Swimming in Hong Kong” by Stephanie Han

Good day to you, Story366!

Yesterday, I detailed how I was set to venture out to a store for the first time in a month. I made an online order at Lowe’s and they did not offer curbside pickup (which I found out after I made the order). After I posted yesterday, I went to pick up my order.

To say the least, it was weird.

To say the more …

I geared up in mask and gloves and headed over. As I noted yesterday, Lowe’s is the one place in Springfield that’s constantly packed, a full parking lot all day, the Lowe’s superstore deemed very essential. I parked at the far end of the lot and walked up to the In door, where a few guys were standing outside, seemingly six feet apart. So far so good. As I got closer, I realized there were also people inside the foyer, not adhering to social-distancing standards—it was raining and the young person “working the door” told me it was okay to come in out of the rain. I chose to remain outside, distant, while most others did not. Right off the bat, strike one.

Every time someone left, someone else was allowed in. The maximum occupancy for the store was 170 people—another employee with some hand-held device was at the Out door, relaying info whenever someone left. That was all good, only, again, people weren’t staying isolated. Right after I got in line, another guy walked up, stood right behind me, as he normally would have. I stepped away and he took the opportunity, at the employee’s prompting, to go into the foyer.

Most unsettling about the whole experience was the older couple—as in well into their eighties—that sauntered up right after that. They did not look well, in the way people well into their eighties don’t sometimes look well. They were accompanied by a somewhat younger man, but still in his early sixties. I immediately thought, What the fuck are these people doing here? I was there, yeah, but I was geared-up, keeping my distance, and was just picking up a bag. These folks were there, unprotected, not adhering to any safety precautions, and when it was their turn to go into the store, they grabbed a basket and just started walking around. I couldn’t believe it. My own mother, eighty-four years old, hasn’t left her house in month. If she tried to go to Lowe’s, I think we’d tackle her and tie her to a chair.

I got out of Lowe’s as quickly as possible. I checked in, signed for my, and was on my way, noting that the Lowe’s employees—at the door, at the register, walking around—weren’t wearing masks or gloves. The only real precaution was the Plexiglass sneeze guard between me and the clerk; yet she still had to pass me the receipt and a pen so I could sign. Clearly, it was a place out of time, where nobody was all that concerned with what was going on. Sure, other individuals had masks on and were keeping away, but on the whole, not a great scene. My return to the world was brief and I doubt it’ll be repeated any time soon.

For today, I read from Stephanie Han‘s collection, Swimming in Hong Kong, out in 2016 from Willow Springs Books. I’d not read Han’s work before cracking the book, so it was nice to jump in an see what she does.

Han’s collection is set mostly in Hong Kong, as you might guess, though not all. I started with the opening story, “Invisibile,” which sets the tone of the collection pretty well. The story takes place in a bar in Hong Kong and features a young Korean woman, noticing how invisible she is, sitting alone at a bar in Hong Kong. She usually does not blend in—there’s a lot of distinction noted in the difference between people from different Asian nations—but the story is more about her blending in, as a person, how much she matters, especially in this foreigner-heavy establishment.

“The Ki Difference” is set in Seoul, about a couple eating at a vegan restaurant, noting how well the place would do in LA, everyone their loving veganAsian restaurants. The man is quite boorish, it turns out, a rude, older Westerner who can’t shut up. The woman—whose perspective from which the story is told—is Korean, quite a bit younger, and trying to figure out her place, ashamed of her mate, for how he’s acting, for who he is, for the choice she’s made.

“Hong Kong Rebound” is told from the POV of a young girl in a Hong Kong sports bar, frequented by foreigners. She is watching a soccer game with her father, wondering how she fits in, the same theme of identity that Han touches on throughout.

The title and final story, “Swimming in Hong Kong,” is told from alternating perspective. The first is Froggy’s. Froggy is an old man, a Honk Kong local, and he and his two friends go to the local rec center every day to swim. For the past couple of months, the three have seen a Westerner, a young black woman, swimming there every day, too—only she’s not really been swimming: She’s been learning (which, in swimming, is very close to drowning). For months, she’s been trying to do one lap across the pool, but so far, has only made it halfway, at most, before struggling and having to touch bottom. The three men comment on her progress, one of them mocking her, one of them wanting to bet on her ever succeeding, while Froggy is at least sympathetic.

The other perspective, then, is the woman, Ruth, who is indeed trying to learn to swim. She is determined, and physically capable—she’s run a marathon before—but simply doesn’t have anyone to teach her. Her thoughts aren’t on making it across, though. Her mind, and her parts of the story, are occupied by her work, the fact that she’s the most valuable employee at her company but recently took a pay cut. She furious with her boss, who mocks her, keeping her in her place. Ruth’s just about at the end of her rope with this boss and her job, and thinks about making a move.

The story vascillates between the two, maybe five times, each time going further into each character’s origins. Froggy’s wife is dead. He doesn’t speak to one son anymore and constantly criticizes the other for being fat. Ruth’s lived all over the world. She’s not only run a marathon, but got hit on afterwards by the winner and they dated for a while. Froggy is full of regret. Ruth wants to change her life before she feels the same way.

Eventually, the two storylines collide, the characters exhibiting the briefest of interactions, though a crucial one, especially for this story. Overall, I really like the format, the whole back-and-forth approach, but most of all I liked meeting these two characters, finding out what makes them who they are, and then seeing Han bring them together. It’s a solid story, a really good piece of fiction.

Overall, Stephanie Han uses the stories in Swimming in Hong Kong to tell us stories, but also to introduce us to characters in setting and situations that maybe we don’t think about a whole lot. I found it informative, even refreshing, to read these characters’ perspectives, to see the challenges they faced, through their eyes. Had I ever wondered if a Korean woman would feel out of place in a Hong Kong bar? No, but that’s my luxury (i.e., white privilege). Have I ever considered what it’s like for a local, in Korea, to show up at a bar with an older man, a white American? Have I ever thought about what it would be like to a woman—and a minority—trying to get what she deserves in a foreign country? No, but Han made me think about all of those scenarios in her colleciton. For that, and the adroit storytelling, I’m grateful.