Though I Get Home is YZ Chin’s debut book, a collection of interconnected short stories that illustrate the Malaysian post-colonial experience and modern-day political dissidence. I picked it up because as a writer, I am interested in post-colonialism, diaspora communities, and activism. Furthermore, I would like to experiment with Chin’s use of interconnected narrative with my current project, In the Shadow of the Middle Kingdom.
The book centers around Isabella Sin, known as Isa, an aspiring writer-activist who was imprisoned for writing obscene poetry. The government arrested her he along with others who participated in a protest in Kuala Lumpur. Her grandfather, Gong Gong, had worked as a butler and a nanny for a British family during colonial times, had told her stories that ignited Isa’s fascination with England. After his death, Isa spent a year in London, which led her mother to blame her lack of marital prospects on her Anglophone speech and attitude. There is also the story about her friend K, who at the opening of Starbucks in Taiping, pondered whether or not to leave her ex-boyfriend who had already broken up with her.
There are other characters in the book who aren’t directly related to her, like Howie Ho, a Chinese Malaysian studying in New York, who dated an American girl who was sympathetic to Malaysian activists and had a penchant for writing poetry. There’s also Ibrahim, a member of the RD, who acted as the moral police. His job was to make sure that their fellow Malays, who are all technically Muslims, are preserving their purity and not engaging in sexually deviant behaviors, such as sex before marriage and cross-dressing. They knocked on the windows of parked cars and broke into hotels to make sure that everybody was behaving themselves.
Initially, I didn’t care for the book. I didn’t connect with the storytelling and felt that the book was messy overall. I didn’t always understand how each story related to one another. There was a story about a concubine that seemed out of place. Furthermore, while reading “A Malaysian Man in Mayor Bloomberg’s Silicon Alley,” I was frustrated reading about this Howie Ho, a seemingly unrelated character who went away to the US for college, dated an American girl, and went back to Malaysia to vote for an election. It is the longest story in the book, and at first, I didn’t understand why he even mattered. Chin does reveal the relevance of this character at the end, but I wish there was some foreshadowing in the earlier stories. Also, there is a thread in the story where Howie Ho witnessed an incident of abuse and violence in his college dorm room but chose to do nothing. That annoyed me—not only because I thought he was a coward, but I also didn’t understand how the incident added to his character. I just felt appalled and disliked him.
Having said that, I enjoyed some of the stories, such as “The Butler Opens the Door.” After the daughter of the British family he was working for had gone missing, Gong Gong staged a funeral to help his employer grieve properly. The British people who attended the funeral were appalled and fascinated at the same time, which reminded me of my own grandfather’s funeral that I attended as an eight-year-old. It was an open casket funeral, and Mama had led me to see him, despite my unwillingness. I saw him through a glass sheet over a fridge-like thing— I jolted at how cold it felt when I touched the surface. He looked like he was sleeping, but he also seemed strangely hollow and weird. I didn’t like it. On the same day, I also got yelled at for playing with the joss papers, the money for the dead, by folding them into cranes and other origami animals before feeding them to the fire. There is a lot of burning at a Chinese funeral: I watched in awe as flames engulfed an entire paper home that looked like a dollhouse and a paper car. All these memories came rolling through my mind as I read about this funeral with no corpse.
Initially, I didn’t like the book. However, after reading parts of it a few times to write this review, I grew to appreciate it. It’s like a bottle of good, vintage wine that takes time and patience to enjoy. I learned a great deal about Malaysian history, politics, and how similar Chinese folk religion is wherever people practice it.