Mui in Timothy Mo's Sour Sweet

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

[Part 7 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.]

Lily is not the only example in Sour Sweet of the idea that female immigrants much more successfully transplant themselves than do their male counterparts. Mui, Lily's elder sister, who at the end of the novel also finds a balance between her Chinese identity and the English culture. What makes Mui's case special is that her adaptation follows a rather radical line in terms of her oscillation between -- to use the dichotomy suggested by Laura Hall (92) again -- "cultural authenticity" and what is a point very close to an unquestioning "assimilation," to arrive at a stable bicultural state. Hall also grants Mui the role of "cultural mediator" (95). However, being aware of Mui's special case, Hall's argument should not be readily accepted. Perhaps, it is much better, for the most part, to see Mui's random bridging between two cultures as a fringe benefit of her sometimes dangerous stand at the edge of assimilation, or in Parker's terms "an uncritical self-assimilation into hegemonic British forms of culture" (29). Ramraj claims that she "abandons tradition and readily assimilates into the new culture" (1996: 224). Yet, Ramraj is mistaken again, this time not only for his misuse of the term "assimilation," but also for ignoring the fact that at the end of the novel Mui reconciles her two cultural identities in a bicultural one and "adapts" to the new environment.

Nonetheless, Mui's experience of cultural transplantation, which differs from those of other characters, is closer to that of Lily in terms of its conclusions. Mui's progress is sometimes much faster than it should be, and sometimes overreaching with regard to its consequences. The reason for Mui's rather peculiar experience of the process is the role played by mass media in immigrant adaptation, a factor that is discussed in detail by David K. Tse and Wei-Na Lee (57) and by Doug Walker (157). Although at different stages of her experience she assumes diverse identities such as a Chinese sister, a Chinese aunt, a Chinese sister-in-law, a Chinese mother, and eventually a Chinese wife, these are not in the foreground until the end of the novel when she fits into the pattern of cross-cultural adaptation. For the most part, her cultural identity is the only identity of Mui emphasised in Sour Sweet.

The first information given about Mui in the novel is that in her childhood she

had been brought up as a girl with the not unreasonable end in view that she should become a woman: uncomplaining, compliant, dutiful, considerate, unselfish, within her limits truthful and honourable; and needless, to say, utterly submissive to the slightest wishes of her superiors which included women older than herself and the entire male sex, including any brothers she might acquire in the future. (10-11)

In other words, unlike Lily who was expected by their father to play the role of a son, Mui was brought up by the most idealised, but at the same time suppressive, codes of behaviour defined for girls by Chinese culture. It is not very difficult to understand why Mui would go to the extremes of freedom when she comes to Britain to live with her sister's family. Of course, Mui has not been exempt from a "crises phase," a short-lived one, though, at the very beginning of her life in her new home.

During her first week in the flat Mui had just sat in the kitchen with her back to the window and courtyard below.... Only with difficulty would Lily persuade her to come to the sitting-room, when she deposited Mui on the sibilant black sofa and tried to draw her out. It wasn't easy to find out what was wrong with Mui. Mui herself didn't seem to know. She had worked for a foreigner before. Perhaps it was the concentration of them here she found so disturbing. (9)

Mui nonetheless overcomes the "crises phase" quite easily and does so even faster than Lily. Mui has an advantage over Lily in terms of experiencing the initial "crises phase" because Mui has always been been treated as a female. So long as the encounter of the "crises phase" is seen as a male experience, Mui seems to have nothing to do with it. However, the main factor that helps her out of the of disorientation and disturbance caused by the initial crisis is watching television all the time. Since she can understand and even speak some English thanks to her job in Hong Kong, television gradually becomes the sole device of communication for her. Yet, since it is a one-way communication she receives messages and transmits nothing, which in the long run affects the cultural identity formation of Mui in Britain.

For a comprehensive understanding of the role played by television and other media productions in the formation of cultural identity, one may refer, in line with the patterns suggested by Winkelman (123), to the information presented by David K. Tse and Wei-Na Lee, who study the adaptation patterns of Hong Kong immigrants in relation to "media consumption" (57) in the context of Canada. Moreover, in order to compare and contrast existing views on the subject of the role of the media in immigrant adaptation on a theoretical basis, Doug Walker's study of the use of the media by "first-year Haitians in Miami" (157) should be taken into consideration. Tse and Lee argue that the "acculturation process seemed to be affected by immigrants' original media consumption behavior and language ability. Media exposure was found to relate significantly to immigrants' acculturation of the new social norms" (57). They explain that this great impact derives from the informative nature of media, which especially attracts "immigrants who are new to the environment and need time to learn how to 'live' according to the norms of the new country" (61). Moreover, immigrants' use media to gather information about the host society since "learning from the mass media may help reduce the embarrassing situations one has to go through to 'do things right'" (61). Since their study includes all forms of media, Tse and Lee are also able to compare and contrast these forms in terms of their impacts on the adaptation of Hong Kong immigrants. Accordingly, one of the results of their study is that "television usually contains the richest set of communication cues and is used most heavily by immigrants for information and entertainment" (Tse and Lee 63). Lastly, they conclude that extreme media exposure makes "immigrants' behavior . . . more extreme than that of the majority in the host country, thus 'overshooting' (qtd. in Tse and Lee 59; for a detailed definition of "overshooting" see Harry C. Triandis) the dominant norm in that society because of a desire to be accepted immediately by the host society" (Tse and Lee 59).

Similarly, Doug Walker, who emphasises the informative and communicative function of media in this regard, claims that "communication is key to the process by which an immigrant gains information to adapt" (161), and he also touches upon some details pertaining to the reasons why immigrants use media more frequently than the members of the host society: "in an environment that is often unnaturally restrictive (because of ghetto-like barriers between races), immigrants may turn to the media for information they cannot find elsewhere" (157). Walker refers to a study conducted on the effects of gender on immigrant media use, which suggests that female immigrants "may turn to television to satisfy their connectedness when interpersonal opportunities [with members of the host society] are lacking" (qtd. in Walker 194) much more than their male counterparts do. (Gender differences in media use of the immigrants in the United States of America are discussed in Nathanson).

These studies illuminate the experiences of Mui in Sour Sweet. For Mui television provides an outlet to release from the first shock of cultural encoubnter, but it is also the most important means of gathering information about communication with the host society and its culture:

Television worked better. Suitable programmes began at six o'clock in the evening, starting with news (a long way from Lily's favourite program). Mui watched avidly from the start. She developed preferences among the newscasters. There was a balding high-domed one with a flat, nasal voice she didn't like. Too much like her former master, she told Lily. Another's bushy eyebrows were 'eccentric', she said, using the pitchy Cantonese word.... Serials came an hour after the news. Crossroads (late afternoon broadcast) and Coronation Street were Mui's favorites. (9-10)

More importantly, Mui acquires first impression of the English people by watching especially the serials and stereotyping some of the characters in them according to her own perception.

Mui was not able to retain the names of the leading characters but they were none the less real to her for that. She gave the characters names of her own devising; Boy, Hair-net, Drinker, Cripple, Crafty, Bad Girl. The composite picture she was able to glean of the British population was an alarming one. More than ever, Mui was reluctant to leave the flat. (10)

Mui's first impressions of the English obviously have not been very favourable. Then, in order to escape further alienation in real life circumstances she regresses and begins to live in the illusionary world of television programmes.

By now Mui was an addict. She was even watching children's puppet-shows with Man Kee and giving every sign of enjoyment. She did not leave the sofa, with an appropriate faint sigh of compressed air escaping from the cushions as her weight was removed, until the last bars of the national anthem faded away into the high-pitched whine which denoted an end of transmissions.... Next morning Mui would be tuned in again to the schools programmes. (10)

After her period of acculturation through an extreme amount of media exposure Mui lives in the cocoon-like environment of the television, and her perception of the real world is also shaped only by the information, whether true or false, she receives from television. There are interesting examples of how she tries, sometimes efficiently, to use this information for real life circumstances and even teach it to the other members of the family. In an instance, on their way to the place Chen has found to start their own business, they come to a place in the same area where there are car repair workshops. Upon this Lily suspects whether Chen has changed the original plan of starting a Chinese take-away for starting a mechanics workshop.

Lily and Mui at first imagined themselves presented for work at some heavy industrial plant. In fact Lily thought Chen had abandoned the original idea (on which, she reflected, he had never seemed very keen) and found some more remunerative occupation for them all. The high wages enjoyed by car-workers, for instance, were known to the family, thanks to Mui's familiarity with Crossroads. (88)

In time her media preferences begin to expand to include printed media such as newspapers. Accordingly, she "was taking to reading Daily Telegraph" (93). Her familiarity with newspapers is revealed when Mui suggests Chen to advertise their new take-away restaurant in the local newspaper (103). Moreover, Mui is the most efficient one among all using the new communication device at their restaurant -- that is, the telephone -- again because she is acquainted with the vocabulary and the device itswelf from the television serials.

So now, at odd times of day and night, the telephone Mr Constantinides had installed for them double-quick, would ring. Whereupon Lily would pick up the receiver and out of habit say 'Wai?' or Mui would pedantically intone into the mouth-piece, 'Dah Ling restaurant,' followed by their number, just like the switchboard operator in Crossroads." (105)

Mui's addiction to media for communication with the outer world also has damaging effects on the development of her new personality in her new home. Had she understood in due time the necessity of replacing the illusionary world created mostly by television serials with a more realistic view of the English society, Mui would become a normal person on her way to a stage of adaptation. On the contrary, she is so much pulled into this illusion that she commits what Triandis and his colleagues has defined as "overshooting" (qtd. in Tse and Lee 59) when she idealizes the host society and its culture. In terms of post-colonial theory, one may consider the "overshooting" attitude of Mui as an exaggerated act of "mimicry" (Bhabha 1994: 87), in that she becomes more "English" than the English. The most concrete example of this is her objection to Lily's idea of driving without a licence and bribing the policeman if necessary, by saying that "the English police-force is the finest in the world" again "thinking of Dixon of Dock Green, one of her favourite programmes" (152). The particular television serial has taught Mui some of the social norms of the host country, but it is also true that, as Lily says, "life is not a TV programme" (152) and that the host society has its defects, too. From this point onwards, Mui makes the mistake of dangerously aligning herself with "uncritical self-assimilation into hegemonic British forms of culture" (Parker 29), which leads to serious trouble for her.

In sum, Mui's exposure to extreme amounts of media images of the host country can be said to have two effects on her: on the one hand, it gives Mui examples from which she can draw an understanding of the new social norms and help her establish interpersonal relationships with the members of the host country, thereby rendering her more functional than the other members of Chen family; on the other, and more importantly, it sometimes misleads her and gives rise to problems between Mui and her immediate society. These two aspects of the argument can be understood better through examples from the novel.

The positive effects of media helps Mui understand the social norms of the host society and the rationales behind them much better than do Lily and Chen, and this understanding is an essential behaviour of Winkelman's "adjustment phase" (123). Therefore, almost in all the instances in which Chinese and English ways of looking at things clash, Mui seems to be on the side of the English. Man Kee's school life, for instance, becomes an issue of discussion between Lily and Mui. When Lily's strategy of instructing Man Kee in Chinese boxing so that he can protect himself from the English boys who bully him at school results in a problem between Man Kee and his teacher, Mui becomes furious.

'You and your stupid "Give fist, give fist".'

'What is this, Ah Mui?'

'Man Kee is in trouble with his teacher because of your foolish interference. Big nuisance you make for everyone.'

'What is this, Son? You hit bad boy and make his nose bleed?'

'Bad boy? He strikes a girl as well, that's all. No, that is not all. Wicked things you teach him. Nobody should know these things.' (234)

While Lily thinks it normal to teach Man Kee fighting methods, Mui is aware of the expectations of the English school system, which does not allow for such destructive interference of the parents. In other words, Mui understands the social system better than Lily, who was then still midway through her own adjustment. In another example, which is related to Grandpa's immigration to Britain, Mui's awareness of the attitudes and rules of the host society is very apparent.

Lily's assumption was that it was simply necessary to buy the old man a ticket and meet him at the airport, as with Mui. Mui disabused her of this illusion.

'Very difficult, Lily,' she told her.

'Why, Mui?' (Lily's tone was a little patronising.)

'English people don't want many foreign persons here. Laws are strict about who can come and cannot come. Don't forget he is an old man, a mouth to feed. I am a young woman. Authorities are much stricter than when I came.


'Maybe they won't allow him to join us. I think we can bring him in as our dependent. (208)

Mui's knowledge of both the increasing legislative controls on immigration and its parts that allow for dependents makes her more effective here than either Lily and Chen. The result is that Grandpa immigrates as a dependent of his son, and that is Mui's success.

Another positive effect of Mui's exposure to media appears in her success in establishing relationships with the English. When Chen makes a business agreement with Mr Constantinides, the owner of the garage near Chens' restaurant, for cooperation and mutual support, they need someone from the family to deliver the orders to truck drivers, someone who "can" go "out" and mix with the English. Naturally, this duty requires at least some knowledge of the English language, and since "Mui's English [is] now incomparably better than Lily's" (94), Mui is assigned the task. The role of Mui's language skills in her adaptation may be clarified by remembering here the argument asserted by Montgomery about the positive influence of English language skills in the same context (683). Then, it is not surprising that she can carry out the task without having difficulties in communicating with the drivers and soon establishing close relationships with some of them.

As for the negative effects of Mui's extraordinarily quick and overreaching adaptation caused mostly by the media factor, it is possible to argue that they are related with a close, in this case too close, relationship she has established with truck drivers. As a result of her extramarital relationship most probably with a driver, the identity of whom is never disclosed by Mui, she becomes pregnant. Moreover, she has to leave the house for a considerably long while due to the possible extreme reaction of Chen in case he learnt about the affair and "thr[e]w Mui out of the house" (187). She therefore moves to the house of Mrs Law, a Chinese widow living in London, with the made-up excuse of taking care of her during her illness. Lily, who cannot accept the situation for moral reasons, thinks that Mui "bring[s] disgrace on [their] family" (200).

After the birth of her daughter, Mui becomes the head of a single-parent family. Although Lily is still very disturbed by the idea of Mui's having an illegitimate child, a source of shame according to Chinese family ethics, Mui does not seem to perceive her situation in the same manner. On the contrary, she is relaxed about it. The reason for the relaxed attitude of Mui is again her internalisation of some of the values of the English society, which were also changing during the post-war period. In her analysis of the change in English family structures from the Victorian to contemporary period, Defne Ersin states that for several reasons, including the financial freedom gained by women "which came about by their participation in the paid employment" in the years that followed the Second World War, and the increase in the rates of divorce and cohabitation, "the number of single-parent families represented a dramatic increase" in the English society (38, 40). In other words, single-parenthood was becoming a familiar and an accepted aspect of the English culture after the war. Apparently, Mui has been influenced by these changes in English values.

Thus, Mui's mistakenly uncritical fusing with the mainstream society causes a crisis both for herself and her confidante Lily. Nevertheless, this climax is also resolved at the end of the novel when Mui marries Chen's friend Mr Lo and brings a balance, of yin and yang, to her new life in a new country where she refers to as "my home" (276).

Other parts of this study

United Kingdom Overview Mo's Sour Sweet

Last modified 15 May 2003