A review of “The Water That Falls on You from Nowhere” by John Chu

John Chu begins with the inexplicable appearance of water:

The water that falls on you from nowhere when you lie is perfectly ordinary, but perfectly pure. True fact. I tested it myself when the water started falling a few weeks ago. Everyone on Earth did… The liquid tests as distilled water every time.

Pure water appearing by magic is a device pioneered in 1970 by Gabriel García Márquez, who previewed the travails soon to befall a family with the first sentence of One Hundred Years of Solitude:

Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.

Chu’s water, though, is a great big deafening symbol. “Psychologists are finding the longer you wait,” he writes, “the more unequivocal you need to be to ever find solace.” Water will fall until you proudly tell the world that you are gay. Something has changed, and you cannot remain silent. Everyone must now come out of the closet.

The story turns on Chinese culture. In Chinese, rather than referring to other people as him and her, it is common to use relationship markers. This is particularly true for relatives, who by custom call each other not by pronouns but nouns: “Father,” “Auntie,” “Sister,” “Son”… and “Husband” and “Wife.” This linguistic practice is a legacy of China’s transition in the 20th century and the modern importance of using the idea of “traditional culture” to signify what is and isn’t Chinese.

It is not sufficient to accept same sex marriage is permissible or express tolerance and goodwill. “We can’t marry until you’re ready to come out to your family.” Every family must alter their behavior and their speech. The water will stop once the definition of Chinese traditional culture has been changed.

Most of the story is about how to break it to the Chinese family. This device was pioneered in 1993 in the exquisite script for The Wedding Banquet, written and directed by Ang Lee along with writers Neil Peng and James Schamus. The dialogue shifted between English and Mandarin, allowing audiences to gain a nuanced feeling for the cultural interaction between parents and closeted gay son. The ending is beautiful and poignant, and you should really watch it before reading the spoilers in the next paragraph.

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The ending is beautiful and poignant. When the young Chinese woman who volunteered to be their cover story becomes pregnant, the illusions unravel. The Chinese mother begs her son not to tell the truth to his father, who is not long for this world. But the father has known the truth all along. His only wish is for the illusion to remain in place that Father is ignorant of the truth for a little while longer. Father’s wish is granted, Mother and Father go home, and three young people are left to embark on a strange, ambiguous journey.

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Does “The Water That Falls on You from Nowhere” trump The Wedding Banquet? In its descriptions of the Chinese family, the borrowed premise is smothered with stereotype, and even Ang Lee’s gentle Mandarin cadence is replaced with suffocating dialogue like:

 “Doesn’t it matter to you that you’re embarrassing Mom and Dad in front of 婆婆 and 公公?”

And, near the end:

“你是研究生物科技的. 孫子能給我嗎? 有你們兩個的基因的?” Ok, this isn’t an example of her being witty or erudite. My mom is also very practical and direct.

I hear my heart pound. Gus is looking at me for a translation. We don’t have a relationship if I filter what he hears.

“She said: You’re a biotech researcher. Can you give me a grandson? One with genes from both of you?”

(Transliteration into the Roman alphabet would have been fine, or Chu might have at least hinted at the meanings behind some of the shapes of the ideograms, let us glimpse how they relate to the emotions expressed.)

I’m not sure if Chu thinks he has trumped The Wedding Banquet or not, but his answer, in the end, is merely a shadow of Ang Lee’s. Mother will be allowed to keep her illusions, now spliced with a generous helping of faux futurism. Does Chu really think that the biotech researcher will solve the chromosonal conundrum, or just that they ought to let Mother believe so? Which will make the water go away? Chinese in China have long been taking to the internet to arrange cover marriages between gays and lesbians. Now they are starting to take steps toward changing marriage laws, and realizing that homosexuality spans generations. The current generation getting married in China (often in their early to mid-20s) has already grown up watching Asian gay and transgender pop stars. Is this science fiction, or just ideas cribbed from 70s books and 90s movies dressed up with one of the political concerns of the millennials? I didn’t find it particularly original or convincing.

“The Water That Falls on You from Nowhere” was the winner of the 2014 Hugo Award for Best Short Story. 

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