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Dirty Laundry

EATING CHINESE FOOD NAKED. By Mei Ng . Scribner: 252 pp., $21

January 11, 1998|HELLER McALPIN | Heller McAlpin is a novelist who reviews frequently for the Los Angeles Times and Newsday

Twenty-one years ago, Maxine Hong Kingston broke literary ground with "The Woman Warrior," a brilliant, fierce nonfiction book about growing up in a culture that was alien and fascinating. The Chinese American cultural milieu seems less exotic and shocking today, after having been further explored and popularized in Amy Tan's novels, but there is still plenty of room left for writers such as Mei Ng, who has written a coming-of-age novel about growing up behind her family's laundry in Queens, N.Y.

Despite its catchy title, "Eating Chinese Food Naked" is less striking than "The Woman Warrior" or "The Joy Luck Club" and not just because of the familiarity of the material. While direct and clear, Ng's writing is less visceral, lively and poetic than Kingston's and less layered and rich than Tan's. Instead, there's an overall edginess and a graphic boldness to this first novel that is distinctly 1990s. In addition, it feels at times as if Ng is wary of being too engaging.

Ng's main character, Ruby Lee, has just graduated from Columbia University with a degree in women's studies. Not knowing what she wants to do with her life, she returns home to the four cluttered rooms behind Lee's Chinese Hand Laundry, which her parents, who barely communicate, have divvied up between them. Franklin and Bell came to America a dozen years apart in their late teens, Franklin to work for his difficult father and Bell as his mail-order bride years later. Franklin is a hard-working, cigar-smoking tyrant who has alienated his family with his gruff put-downs and relentless demands.

Ruby, the youngest of three children, is unusually, protectively attached to her mother. As a little girl, she dreamed "about marrying her mother and taking her away." Now she hopes to save Bell from lovelessness by taking her to Florida to visit old friends and then to Manhattan to live with her. Ruby is at a crossroads, as uncertain about her future with her sweet Jewish boyfriend Nick, an aspiring actor, on whom she compulsively cheats, as she is about her career. She knows you can't go home again but assures herself that her return to Queens and her secretarial work are both temporary. Ng effectively captures the insecurity and uncertainty of early adulthood, torn between one's family and the world beyond.

There is tenderness in Ng's book, but it is hidden under a layer of toughness. Ruby projects an aura of unfriendliness that is equal parts confusion and angst. Her avid sexuality is contrasted with her emotional evasiveness. She keeps picking up men, but what she really wants are women--which scares her. She wants to hate her father but can't--because she has seen some of his sensitive moments. On the job, she is "a no-bullshit, kick-ass typist" with "an expression of glum politeness." She is told that "she'd be real pretty if only she lightened up." Charm is not one of her attributes, yet she is not altogether unsympathetic.

Ng uses food and laundry to underscore cultural differences between Chinese and Americans and as extended metaphors for love. Ruby has hang-ups about both. She is repulsed by the mountains of dirty laundry her family has washed and ironed, "sour from bodies that ate too much dairy, worried about every little thing, and then tried to cover it up with perfume." And she finds it shameful to have others do your wash. "Gringo" Chinese food for Americans is "neat and clean," none of the live creatures and messy crabs, hacked chicken wings and turkey necks her mother cooks. Knowing how to eat properly is crucial to a relationship, for it entails mutual self-sacrifice, always giving "the good bits to the other person." It is one of the many tests that her boyfriend Nick, constantly on probation, fails unknowingly: eating Chinese takeout naked after sex and, most damning, leaving all the bony parts of the duck for Ruby. He even sends out his laundry.

In fact, Ruby has been trained to eat and love by a master of self-sacrifice. Bell always slips the choicest morsels into her daughter's bowl, despite Ruby's efforts to block her. Yet even when Ruby tries to buy tickets to Florida with her summer earnings, her mother outmaneuvers her. "Somebody told me there's lots of hurricanes in Florida now. Not a good time to go. Tell you what. You take that money you saved up and you get your own apartment," Bell says in her well-captured staccato speech.

With a role model like this to live up to, is it any wonder that Ruby confuses self-sacrifice with love? Still, she tries our patience with her unfairness to Nick and her obsession with dirty laundry. Using the cultural differences in their eating habits to brand as selfish this patient, princely man--who buys a token just to wait on the subway platform with her, helps paint her mother's kitchen and puts up with countless infidelities--just doesn't wash. The compressed glance into the future that wraps up the book points in a happier direction for Ruby, but we are not convinced that this is a person who will ever truly come clean with herself or others even after acknowledging her lesbianism. Worse, by the end of Ng's book, we don't really care.

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