Grandpa Chen in Timothy Mo's Sour Sweet

Sinan AKILLI, M.A., Hacettepe University, Turkey.

[Part 5 of "Culture of Balance and Balance of Cultures: A Gendered Approach to Cross-Cultural Adaptation Process in Timothy Mo's Sour Sweet. Note: In-text citations refer to the bibliography, which opens in a separate window.]

The analysis of Chen's father, or Grandpa as referred to in the novel, from the perspective of cultural transplantation requires the evaluation of another parameter, that is age, besides his gender identity. The role of age as a factor that influences cross-cultural adaptation is explained by J. Randal Montgomery, who claims that "the regression results indicate that age was the second most powerful predictor of Sociocultural Adaptation and confirm the expectation of a negative sign (older refugees being least adapted and younger ones most adapted)" (684). Accordingly, in addition to his arriving in Britain as a traditional patriarch after the death of his wife, Grandpa's old age seems to prove Montgomery's findings. Thus, he is expected to be less adapted than even his son Chen, and in reality this is the case. All through the course of the novel Grandpa remains an isolated figure. Perhaps the most symbolic expression of Grandpa's isolation and his reluctance to adjust to! the new environment is the place he chooses to sleep in Chen's house:

Grandpa Chen was already awake but in the darkness of his cubby-hole it was not possible to see that his eyes were open. He crawled out from under the take-away counter, where he had made his home shortly after arriving in the UK.... He had perfectly logical reasons for wanting to live in the counter. He had spent his first nights in his son's house in the chamber which had been prepared in his honour. He had found it draughty, alien, and unpropitious. He had never in his life slept anywhere except on a ground floor, near the earth, as man was meant to sleep. (222)

These are the behaviours and attitudes of an old man whose possible integration into a new environment is rendered impossible by the influence of traditional patterns.

In one case Grandpa Chen seems to be very enthusiastic about communicating with his peers from the host society. After spending some time in a hospital and recovering from a broken hip bone, Grandpa decides to invite his old friends at the hospital to Chens' take-away restaurant. At the first glance, Grandpa Chen's enterprise looks quite radical due to the fact that no other Chinese character in the novel attempts at establishing such friendly relationships with the members of the white majority. However, this presumption becomes invalid because of Grandpa's reserved attitude during the party. All through the party, "Grandpa [did not] take the slightest bit of notice of his guests. He was properly seated at the head of the table, basically looking rather uncomfortable and repressed on the chair..." (250). In other words, Grandpa is again isolated in his own party. Nevertheless, Grandpa's terrible failure in communicating with people from a different culture is illustrated by the "surprise" he has prepared for his guests. After the feast Grandpa says that they should take the guests to the garden since he "'[has] something to show old people to make them happy'" (253). Indeed Grandpa is very excited before his disclosure of the surprise:

Grandpa had just thrown a tarpaulin over whatever it was he had to show as Mui ushered his guests into the yard.... Lily urged forward the old folk at the sides so that they made a rough semi-circle, a friendlier and more informal configuration. 'Ready, Grandpa,' she called.... Grandpa stepped forward. With as much of a flourish as his arthritic shoulder permitted him, he whipped off the tarpaulin. Lily blinked. She new the shape of what she was looking at; it took just a moment to absorb and digest its significance. Propped against the wall at a 45 degree angle were a coffin and coffin-lid in smoothed but unvarnished wood. (253)

The guests, who are already disturbed by Grandpa's surprise and its natural implications, become even more offended and leave the place when Grandpa offers to make a coffin for all of his friends. Of course, Grandpa's intention is to show hospitality to his friends and he does not consider even the "possibility of unfavourable reaction" (253). Most probably, in his own country Grandpa's surprise would be appreciated and his hospitality would be acknowledged. Yet, what is an act of favour according to the norms of Chinese culture is perceived as a rude and offending behaviour by British people, whose perception is also shaped by their own cultural norms, and thus Grandpa's surprise leads to his being abandoned by his peers. Since Grandpa is absent from the scene from then on, the party experience may be considered as the final statement about Grandpa, and it is actually a negative statement reflecting his failure in adapting to the British socio-cultural environment. With reference to his total failure in adaptation and subsequent non-existence in the novel, the coffin made by Grandpa Chen can be read as a symbol of the futility of the efforts of an old male Chinese immigrant whose relationship with the alien soil can not be formed by putting down new roots into that soil, but through a coffin, that is a symbol of becoming non-existent by way of death.

In Sour Sweet, men do not successfully accomodate themselves to British culture because they reject the cultural norms of their host society. The consequent alienation means they either remain isolated members of the society or become lost as characters. Only in the case of Mr. Lo it is possible to observe the beginnings of a slow and gradual adaptation by the help of a woman, yet even this change is not substantial enough to be compared with the adaptation levels of the female characters in the novel. In this sense, one may also argue that Timothy Mo's attitude, which is reflected in the novel by that of the narrative voice, is governed by objectivity. Although he has the same gender identity as the male characters in Sour Sweet , this does not influence his depiction of the male characters in their favour. Actually, the extent of Mo's objectivity is understood more definitely by studying the way he treats his female characters.

Other parts of this essay

United Kingdom Overview Mo's Sour Sweet

Last modified 15 May 2003