Fleeing the Cultural Revolution, a young Nina Huang says goodbye to her family and friends, and steals across the bay to Hong Kong, afterward immigrating to the U.S. and later to Canada. Twice she returns to China to reunite with her mother as well as friends, and to see how Chinese society and politics are evolving. However, as an escaped citizen who has returned with an American passport, Nina puts herself in dangerous situations and finds herself needing to flee from the red terror once again.
“Zoe S. Roy’s novel, Calls Across the Pacific, is a fascinating journey of a young woman, Nina Huang, whose adventure begins during the Cultural Revolution in China, follows her immigration to the United States, and eventually leads her to a new life in Canada. The story entwines the intimacy of a memoir and the panoramic sweep of eyewitness history, enmeshing us in the challenges of breaking away not only from the violent persecution of communism, but also from the oppressive moral norms of a tradition bound China. This courageous tale of perseverance in the face of adversity is a timeless rendering of the never ending quest for transformation and beauty.”
—Bianca Lakoseljac, author of Summer of the Dancing Bear
“With Calls Across the Pacific, Zoë Roy continues to plumb her firsthand knowledge of everyday life in Maoist China. Her experience of this endlessly fascinating era, combined with a talent for detailed, humorous and sometimes heartbreaking storytelling, makes for a fine novel which delights and informs in equal measure. Roy captures the culture shock that assaults her protagonist Nina Huang, and shows how her birth culture never quite lets go, despite ownership of the iconic American passport.”
—Amanda Hale, author of Sounding the Blood, The Reddening Path, My Sweet Curiosity, and In the Embrace of the Alligator
Born in China, Zoë S. Roy was an eyewitness to the red terror under Mao’s regime. She holds a M.Ed. in Adult Education and an MA in Atlantic Canada Studies from the University of New Brunswick and Saint Mary’s University. She lives and works in Toronto as an adult educator. She is the author of an acclaimed collection of short stories, Butterfly Tears (2009) and a novel, The Long March Home (2011).
"Calls Across the Pacific" by Zoë S. Roy
reviewed by Basso Profundo - September 20, 2016
In Calls Across the Pacific, Zoë S. Roy recounts the journey of Nina Huang, a Chinese woman who when a teenager was sentenced to a re-education camp during Chairman Mao’s Cultural Revolution. She risks her life in a daring midnight escape past patrol boats to cross to Hong Kong on her first step to freedom. The book is presented in the form of a fiction, but its substance is that of a political science or history text assembled to present a first-hand look at how Mao oppressed and degraded his own citizens.
Ms. Roy intends to exhibit in high relief the differences between open and closed societies; she sets out the jarring juxtapositions in can effective variety of forms. She also wants to provide a glimpse into the lives of those remaining unfortunate political prisoners who weren’t lucky enough to get out. She does an excellent job with the tasks she set for herself.
We experience the harrowing escape of a lucky, resourceful teenager, the bewilderment of her first experiences in the U.S., and her gradual assimilation. Throughout these events, she repeats her mantra of how good it is to be free to make her own choices, to go to college based on her merits and not some state-wielded yardstick of political fitness. The lessons and observations continue to flow from one situation to the next, and they build to a coherent message: stating political beliefs should not be a crime.
Calls Across the Pacific is a valuable work of political science. For those interested in Mao’s China and his role in history, or in dissidence in totalitarian regimes, this book provides a valuable insider’s glimpse at a dark episode in China’s history.
A Review of Zoë S. Roy's Calls Across the Pacific
reviewed by Asian American Literature Fans - December 27, 2015
I have been reading Zoë S. Roy’s publication in reverse order, starting with her most recent novel, Calls Across the Pacific, which is told in third person perspective and follows the viewpoint of Nina Huang. The official page provides this useful synopsis: “Fleeing the Cultural Revolution, a young Nina Huang says goodbye to her family and friends, and steals across the bay to Hong Kong, afterward immigrating to the U.S. and later to Canada. Twice she returns to China to reunite with her mother as well as friends, and to see how Chinese society and politics are evolving. However, as an escaped citizen who has returned with an American passport, Nina puts herself in dangerous situations and finds herself needing to flee from the red terror once again.” The novel can be classified more or less as a kind of bildungsroman, as Nina attempts to integrate herself into a larger national identity, one that is ultimately complicated by the titular “calls across the Pacific.” Rather than presenting Nina as traumatized by her many boundary-crossing movements, Roy is intent on revealing a tactical character, one who is willing to push herself intellectually and physically in order to survive. In some ways, this novel reminded me of Jade Snow Wong’s Fifth Chinese Daughter, especially as it twined a narrative about an individual alongside larger social forces embroiling the United States in Asia. In this sense, Roy’s work is very much operating through a historical aesthetic, as Nina becomes a political refugee in a time in which the U.S. must contend from fallout from multiple wars in Asia (and the Cold War). Pivotal to the texture of Roy’s narrative are romance plots, as Nina must find a way to balance her romantic interests alongside her educational endeavours. Indeed, her first significant relationship in North America is ultimately terminated after her boyfriend perceives that she is putting more effort into her studies than into their connection. A second relationship with a Canadian journalist proves to be more fruitful, especially as Nina is able to explore her interests in political science alongside her developing notions of romance and love, especially as couched in a more westernized context. Of course, the calls across the Pacific also speak to Nina’s multiple movements back to China, first after Nixon re-establishes contact in 1975 and later when Nina seeks to embark on more research for an intended book project. But both of these trips are not surprisingly complicated. Nina cannot be too open about her travels there, and both instances involve her identity being interrogated. In the last arc of the book, Roy ups the tension when Nina is detained for a period of time until she can provide proof that she is traveling with the assent of her original labor camp. Of course, Nina is not part of a labor camp, so she must rely upon the quick wits of her friends and family to help her escape and return to Canada. Fortuitously, Nina’s translation skills come in handy during this period, and she inadvertently falls upon some information that reveals the hardships endured by some “sent down youth” during the Cultural Revolution. Such details are essential to Roy’s political project: this novel is part of the historical recovery work of many expatriate and domestic Chinese North American writers who have been delving into this particular period and the many brutalities that resulted from Mao’s reformation policies (see also: Lisa See’s Shanghai Girls for another instance that explores the Great Leap Forward). The sustained interplay between historical references and personal matters can sometimes bog down the emotional impact of the plot, but Calls Across the Pacific is undeniably critical as part of this larger archive of Chinese North American transnational narratives that reveal the intricate nature of ethnic diasporas.
Calls Across the Pacific by Zoë S. Roy
reviewed by Canadian Bookworm – December 6, 2015
This novel follows a young woman, Nina Huang, as she flees the collective she has been forced to live on in China. It follows her out of China to Hong Kong, on to the United States, and eventually to Canada. Nina's father was in the military, and she was at one point a Red Guard herself. But her father's education, at West Point, soon counted against her, and sealed her fate within China under the cultural revolution. Nina's experiences read like a memoir, with her voice reflecting her origins.
The story begins in 1969 and continues to 1978. We see Nina's life in North America and how she adjusts and finds a place for herself. We also see her longing for news of her family and friends back in China and how, as the borders relax, she is able to make her way back on more than one occasion to reconnect, learn their stories, and perhaps find a voice for those stories in the larger world.
Calls Across the Pacific by Zoë S. Roy
reviewed by Nicola Mansfield
Back to Books - December 6, 2015
A brilliant historical fiction set in the 1970s of a young woman who escaped Maoist China to freedom via Hong Kong to the US and finally comes to rest in Canada. But she doesn't find her final rest until she is able to go back and find out what happened to those she left behind, which she is able to do in the days leading up to the death of Chairman Mao. The story flashes between the present 1970s and the early 1960s when Nina's family was persecuted by the Mao regime and she herself was at first a Red Guard before being shamed for her parent's crimes and sent to a re-education camp. Takes a good look at the travesties inflicted on the people of any ilk under Mao's regime and Nina through her research on political science and a book she is writing brings both the political system and capitalism vs communism under the lens of an inquiring mind. The writer leads us through the people of China, showing that revolutions don't always end with the people as victors. Communism uses the people as a tool and leaves the people questioning why nothing gets any better. I found the book a quick read and enjoyed Nina as a character, at times the book even veered off into romance mode, but not too much :-) We are left with the people of China, especially the students, hoping the death of Mao now means some Western reform will come, some freedoms of thought and speech. It's a happy place to leave the people. Unfortunately, it wasn't to be and an author's note on the continued persecution of political crimes, human right's violations, the violent student uprising at Tiananmen Square, etc. would have been appropriate. But nonetheless, a lovely story. Roy's writing flows beautifully and I've enjoyed every one of her books to date.
Cultural Evolution/Revolution: Calls Across the Pacific a novel by Zoe S. Roy
reviewed by Gary Severance
Imagined Experience - November 26, 2015
Calls Across the Pacific is the second novel by Zoe S. Roy that describes the lives of characters affected by China’s Maoist Cultural Revolution (1966-1976). Her first very good novel, The Long March Home published in 2011, was the story of three generations of women, one immersed in the time of Maoist oppression, one who escaped it in part, and a third who was not directly involved but seeks to understand her family’s legacy of life in the vast, ever changing China.
In her second novel, Ms. Roy develops the character, Nina Huang, who escapes from Number 5 Military Farm, a re-education location for individuals from families tainted by family histories of perceived anti-Maoist revolutionary activity. Nina and her boyfriend attempt to flee to Hong Kong seeking asylum from a democratic government. The two are separated in flight, and 20 year old Nina makes her way to the U. S. with the generous help of Chinese expatriates. Working hard at tedious menial jobs, Nina makes a life for herself with the idea of ultimately learning about the contrasts between her Eastern and Western cultures through formal education.
Nina earns opportunities for basic and advanced education in the U. S. and Canada and forms relationships in her new settings. But, she does not forget her roots in China that she perceives as positive but morally restrictive in the long run but oppressive and purgative in the revolutionary short term. Using her facility with languages, Nina develops her writing skills and sets out to record the history of her family and acquaintances as a journalist. Nina has a peaceful and fulfilling life in Canada but feels drawn back to China to record the stories of people who suffered greatly during the Maoist Cultural Revolution and its aftermath. A persistent theme in Nina’s story is her view of the evolution of Chinese culture. Is this process dependent on abrupt changes through violent revolution followed by a slow recovery of enduring values? Or is China sacrificing its cultural legacy by rapidly forcing changes in the peoples’ unifying philosophy and the country’s economic strategies?
Calls Across the Pacific is written in a simple and direct style that is appropriate for teenage, young adult, and older adult readers. The freelance articles Nina writes about the experiences of a variety of people in China broadens readers’ understanding of its evolutionary/revolutionary history in the 20th Century.
Dusk, like a thick curtain, concealed the quiet fields of the Number Five Military Farm near Jinghong County in Yunnan Province, China. The hot and damp air of an August evening hovered over soybean plants and clung to the barbed-wire fence. Rusted iron posts ran from the bush patches, along the trees, and outlined a path that sprawled into the faraway woods. Under a massive fir tree, a young man and woman, both about twenty years old, stood silently.
“Nina, why don’t you say something?”
The girl bit her lip. “What else can I say?” She jerked her head upward, looking him in the eyes. “Dahai, do you love me?”
“Yes, but I can’t go with you,” Dahai said, his hand fanning mosquitoes away from Nina’s face. “Love isn’t everything. I must join the Vietcong.” He paused and then said, “I don’t think it’s right to sneak across the border to Hong Kong.”
“You are going to sneak across the border to Vietnam, too.” Nina grasped his hand. When she thought about the Vietcong, she shook her head. They are communists, too. “Think twice. I’m afraid you’ll regret it.”
“I’m heading for a brighter future,” Dahai said.
Nina had doubted the revolution since her father’s death. “The land across the Pacific Ocean means freedom to me. I can’t stand the Cultural Revolution anymore,” Nina said, her hands on his chest, her eyes imploring him to change his mind.
“Maybe both of us are wrong. Who knows?” A twinge of sadness pierced Dahai’s heart. He pulled Nina gently toward himself and embraced her. “I’m sorry. I can’t go with you.” Dahai was thinking that he didn’t want to follow the path his parents had taken. His parents were labelled as enemies of the Communist Party, but he believed in communism. “Maybe I can prove it’s wrong to say ‘the hero father raises a revolutionary son, and the reactionary father has an anti-revolutionary bastard.’ Joining in the anti-American war is a chance to prove I’m not like my folks.”
“You’re so headstrong.” Nina quavered and withdrew herself from his arms. “What’s the use of proving you are different from your folks? Nobody treats us as decent human beings because of our family backgrounds.” She shook her head, her bobbed hair swinging back and forth. “We’ve been trying hard to remold ourselves here, but we will always be second-class citizens no matter how hard we try. I’d rather take my chances someplace where I can be free.”
“Right, take your chance.” Dahai nodded. “In case…”
“In case what?” Nina stared into his brown eyes.
“If I die, tell my brother and sister my story if you see them.”
“If I die, go find my mother, but don’t say a word about me,” Nina said, irritated.
“Enough, let’s stop it.” Dahai hesitated, but reached out his arms again to draw Nina close. At the prospect of leaving her, his heart sank into a dark well, but he couldn’t relinquish his plan of going to Vietnam—his only chance to prove himself.
Nina clenched her fists and punched his palms. “I’ll blame you forever.” She sobbed, unable to speak anymore.
Dahai cuddled her. “Forgive me. I’ll never pardon myself till I die—”
“Oh no, we won’t die.” Nina stopped weeping. With her hand over his mouth, she cried out. “We deserve a better life. Something’s wrong with this society, not us. I fear you’re making a mistake for not going with me.” While leaning her head on his chest, Nina was calmed by the beating of his heart against her ear.
A gust of wind wrapped itself around their bodies, and they shivered under the darkening sky. The sound of a dog’s barking brought the reality of their future steps closer. Nina remembered she had a meeting with her girlfriend, Zeng, to plan for the next day’s trip to Kunming. She whispered to Dahai with a sudden urgency. “I’ve got to go,”
“You go.” Dahai clasped her head with his palms, and his lips covered hers. His mother’s words echoed in his ears, and despite his usual aversion to it, he repeated it now, “God bless you.”
Nina pulled herself away from him with a muffled “Goodbye.” She hurried away toward the end of the path. When she turned her head, she could barely distinguish his lanky figure; he was engulfed in the darkness. However, she still kept striding away on the dirt passage.
Dahai watched Nina fade away and almost called after her, “Wait! I’ll come with you.” He felt frozen, heartbroken. That he might never see her again in his life was a tangible reality. He covered his eyes with his hand, but the tears dripped through his fingers. Like a puppet on strings, he shambled back to the hut he shared with twelve other young farm workers.
After breakfast the following morning, Nina didn’t follow other workers out to the field to pick ears of corn. She gripped the fictitious telegram sent by her cousin, Rei, from Guangzhou, and walked out of her dormitory building. She wore her yellow-green uniform: a worn-out shirt and pants with patched knees. It was a hot day. She had to roll up her long sleeves and pants. She rushed into the head office in a one-storey building. A middle-aged army officer sat at a desk with his greying head bending over a newspaper.
“Good morning, Chairman Yang,” she greeted him when she entered the office. “I’m sorry to disturb you. May I ask for a personal leave? It’s not the busy season now.”
Yang lifted his head from the paper and noticed Nina’s puffed eyelids and red-rimmed eyes. “What’s wrong, Nina?”
“My mother’s been hospitalized.” Nina handed her telegram to him. “Look at this.”
“‘Return home. Mother’s sick.’” Yang read it aloud and then scrutinized the date. “Well, it looks like you haven’t been home since you came here a year ago.” Yang seemed to mull over the issue, but his poker face didn’t show any sign.
Nina’s hands trembled, beads of sweat oozing from her forehead. She prayed he wouldn’t investigate her request. Her heart beat fast until he said, “Okay, but you must be back in three weeks.”
“Thank you so much!” Nina breathed a sigh of relief.
“Being away from the farm doesn’t mean you should stop reforming your thoughts. Follow Mao’s directives every day,” Yang said, his fingers tapping on the desk as if he were writing notes on a board.
Meekly, she replied, “Yes, Chairman Yang.” Nina left the office and hustled back to her dorm room, her steps springing.
Ten minutes later, Nina stepped out of the wooden hut and trudged along the road toward Jinghong County. She carried a worn green canvas handbag over her left shoulder and gripped the handles of a dark blue duffel bag with her right hand. She squinted in the blinding sunshine and surveyed the green crops blanketing the fields like huge rugs. She did not turn her head; she was afraid she would lose the courage. She could hear herself screaming from the bottom of her heart, “Farewell!” She quickened her pace to escape the pain at the thought about leaving Dahai.
Nina walked about ten minutes before she heard horseshoes tapping behind her. Zeng arrived with a horse-drawn cart as expected. Zeng lived with her parents who were local peasants. She borrowed the horse cart from her brigade.
“Get in.” Zeng halted the horse on the roadside. Her two long braids swung down in front of her when she reached down to take the packs from Nina, She flung them back and pulled Nina up over the side of the cart.
Nina dropped on to the hard seat. Free from the tension in her shoulders, she suddenly felt weary from the sleepless night over parting with Dahai. Gradually the rocking motion of the cart and clocking rhythm of the horse hoofs pounding the dirt road help her drift off to sleep.
When she woke from the nap, she found herself facing a starry sky. The horse’s snorting reminded her she was in the cart, which had stopped at the roadside.
“We’re close to Kunming,” Zeng said, leaning against the board of the cart. She handed Nina an opened canister. “Here’s something for you to eat. I’ve just had a snack.”
Her stomach growling, Nina grabbed a steamed bun from the metal container. “Thanks.” After quaffing the water from the canteen, Nina asked, “Do you think your boyfriend will be on duty with today’s train?”
“Not sure,” Zeng shook her head, her bobbed hair swinging. “His schedule changes all the time. You’re a couple of days late because of waiting for Dahai. I have no way to reach him and let him know you’re still going.”
“I’m sorry, Zeng,” Nina said. “What should I do?”
“Get on the train by yourself at first and find him when you need help.”
“Okay, I’ll take a chance.” Nina grasped Zeng’s hand. “I really appreciate your help. I will repay you in the future.”
“Don’t mention it.” Zeng waved her hand in front of Nina’s mouth. “Our moms are old friends. I think of you as my sister and wish you the best.”
The horse-drawn cart resumed its way toward the Western Hill Station. When Nina gazed into the hazy sky, the feeling of leaving her friends forever and facing an uncertain future came flooding back to her. She wept like a little girl under night’s curtains.
Zeng parked her cart near the Kunming station where a lonesome train whistle broke the quiet of dawn. Nina climbed out of the sideboard and opened her handbag. After rummaging through it, she pulled out a package covered in newspaper and placed it in Zeng’s hand. “This is for you; a silk scarf to remember me by. Be careful on your way back.”
Zeng nodded. Overwhelmed with warmth and affection, she held back her tears. “Don’t worry about me. Take care.”
Nina patted Zeng’s hand. “Goodbye! And thank you.” She spotted a side entrance near the gate under a dim streetlamp where train workers came and went, and headed toward it. Inside the window a man rested his head on the table, napping soundly. Without hesitation, Nina scampered past the security booth where a whiff of cigarette smoke drifted from the small opening and mingled with the odour of diesel.
When she reached the barren platform, she laid down her bag and sat on it to wait.
The train arrived an hour later. When she boarded it, nobody asked to see her ticket. However, she couldn’t find any space to sit and had to nudge the people in the aisle to reach the car’s end. After wading through car after car, she finally noticed an empty space near an old woman. She squeezed in her baggage and plunked herself on top of it. By the time she settled, many passengers had awakened. Some stretched their arms or legs, and others stumbled across the crowded aisle toward a washroom or the dining car. She watched a few crew members hurry past. She decided not to ask about Zeng’s boyfriend unless she was in a real pinch.
About an hour later, a loudspeaker announced a ticket check, which required the passengers’ co-operation. Nina stood with her bags, walked hastily into a nearby washroom and locked the door behind her. The damp stench of the voided bowels mixed with smoke forced into her nose. Thankfully the window was ajar, and the fresh air was a welcome relief to her. The noises of questioning, arguing, people moving around lasted ten minutes, then receded. Relieved, she left and returned to her spot.
“I thought you’d got a seat somewhere else,” the old woman said while she drew back her legs to leave Nina some space.
“Thank you. I went to the washroom. I had a stomach ache.” She decided not to share the real reason behind her retreat to the washroom.
“A lad was fined 50 yuan for not having a ticket. That money can feed four people for a month.” The woman sighed.
Nina drew in a breath. I’m lucky, she thought, my eight yuan wouldn’t have got me far. At least she had not needed to call on Zeng’s boyfriend and put him at risk too.
Three days later, Nina slept soundly in a dust-layered room on Lujing Road in Guangzhou City. In her dream, she was a child again, and her mother sat beside her in bed. Mother’s warm hand stroked Nina’s hair. But before she could look directly into her mother’s face, her childhood had faded like a shred of cloud merging into the sky.
She woke up. The dust particles danced in the afternoon sunshine coming through the window curtains. She heard a knock on the door. Knowing it was her cousin, Rei, she called out, “Come in.”
Eighteen-year-old Rei pushed the door open and walked in. “What time can we leave?”
“I … I…” Nina stammered. “I want to say goodbye to my mom, but am afraid of getting us into trouble.”
“It’s not a good idea,” Rei said, raising his eyebrows. “She might be charged with aiding the escape. It’s better if she knows nothing about it. If we fail, she’ll see us behind bars.”
“You’re right,” Nina said, reaching for her short-sleeved grey blouse and pants on the chair next to the bed. Rei turned his head and squatted to arrange his items in the corner: a pack with an air pump, two uninflated basketballs, a knife, plastic cords and string bags.
That evening Nina and Rei paced back and forth on Yuexiu Street North and gazed up at a building across the street. When Nina finally noticed a blurred figure in the lit window, she drew a deep breath.
Bye, dear mom! Nina turned her head and walked toward Rei. “Let’s get going.”
The two of them soon disappeared at the end of the street.