Immigrant, Emigré, Expatriate: River East, River West by Aube Rey Lescure

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River East, River West by Aube Rey Lescure

By Aube Rey Lescure

On Migration Narratives: Author Aube Rey Lescure on her new novel, River East, River West.

When readers meet Lu Fang in 1985, he is on one of his daily swims towards the heart of the Yellow Sea. “North of Harbin, a river separated China and Russia,” he thinks. “Mongolia, Kazakhstan–those were land borders…Narrow lines you could not cross. But the sea wasn’t a border, and no one was here to stop you from swimming a little farther each day. The only border here was the limitation of the human body.”

He is a lowly shipping clerk, his education upended by China’s political upheavals. The swimming, cutting straight away from shore until he reaches the half-life of his strength, is a form of daily migration, albeit one he knows is futile. When does migrant become immigrant–does the “im” signal arrival to a final destination, a place of settlement? If he ever did leave his birth country, could he ever be called an emigrant, a label seemingly reserved for the upper-class, for intellectuals in exile, for one’s whose country of origin was more noteworthy than their landing point? Or expatriate, another epithet synonymous with transience and privilege, denoting a status focusing on neither origin nor settlement, but rather a temporary stay–taking up residence somewhere, but uninvested in truly integrating into the host society?

Like Lu Fang, I’ve thought often about borders, nationalities, and identity. My debut novel, River East, River West, is in part a satire of expatriate culture in Shanghai, in part an exploration of the inequities of global migration, so much of which is dictated by arbitrary birthright, by class and nationality. At one point in the book, Lu Fang is having a beer with his soon-to-be lover, an American woman who’d come to China as a foreign teacher in the 1980s. He thinks: “How could it be so easy for her to come to China, and not for him to get out?”

Borders are artificial, and selectively porous. Foreigners arrived in China in droves since the reform and opening era, sustained by an economy hungry for trade and foreign investment, as well as educational policies heralding English as an essential subject taught to Chinese children. A western-looking person in command of any degree of English could become a 外教, or foreign teacher. Meanwhile, for Chinese citizens, leaving the country, even for temporary study abroad, was no easy matter. Visas were difficult to obtain except for the exceptionally bright or very rich. Legal emigration was a hypercompetitive race. In the Shanghai I grew up in, expatriate enclaves full of westerners on post-college Asia stints were drinking themselves numb down the street from TOEFL test prep schools, where Chinese students spent long hours studying for an exam that’d prove they had the linguistic credentials to study at a foreign university. Many foreigners who lived for years in China, in contrast, never bothered to learn a single word of Chinese.

River East, River West details the corrosive effects of expatriate privilege and culture, how it very much still constitutes a neocolonial class thriving off cushy “relocation packages” in contemporary China.

The Shanghai American School, founded in 1912 to educate the children of colonials and missionaries, reopened in 1980, under the auspices of Deng Xiaoping’s reform era. The school bus that takes my main character, Alva, from her neighborhood of Century Park to the gated communities on the edge of Pudong, where a new Shanghai American School campus sits atop golf course grounds, is an ironic form of daily migration: into an enclave she thinks represents the “America inside China.”

 In 2007, another young Chinese man in the story, Gao Xiaofan, a child of migrant workers from Gansu, gives this monologue when asked if he’s ever thought of leaving China:  “Leaving China? Let’s see. For people like me, there are no study abroad packages. No visas. How would I do it? I’ve heard the stories. Travel south, to Fujian and Guangdong. Get on a small boat crammed full of people. And if the boat makes it far out enough, get into a bigger boat with other illegals from Vietnam, Philippines, Bangladesh. And if this boat is able to cross the Pacific without sinking–and they sink all the time–dock in Mexico. And survive the heat, the exhaustion, until we’re in the Great America, and scatter off, but then what? …I prefer to die in my own country.”

Prior to researching for the novel, I had no idea how many Chinese migrants were part of the human flow crossing the perilous Darién Gap in an attempt to reach the U.S. The New York Times reports that in 2023 alone, around 24,000 Chinese migrants were detained crossing into the U.S. southern border. Many had flown into Ecuador, a strategy circulated on Chinese social media, adopted largely by migrants of lower socioeconomic classes for whom legal emigration channels are unattainable. Others might attempt a sea journey from southern Chinese ports.

 Ultimately, these are not routes undertaken by the characters in my novel, who represent the middle class and upper middle class of China’s economic boom generation. For those who do wish to emigrate, the focus is on the coveted privilege of foreign passports, or wealth that could pave way to visas. Yet for these aspiring emigrants, leaving home is never as clear-cut as forgoing an unwanted life for a more desirable one. Visa comes from the Latin videre, to see, and that is the human urge that fuels my novel’s migration narratives— the yearning to see what is beyond, even when the costs of such sights are beyond imagination.

(c) Aube Rey Lescure

Author photograph (c) An Zi

About River East, River West by Aube Rey Lescure:

River East, River West by Aube Rey Lescure

A mesmerising reversal of the east–west immigrant narrative set against China’s economic boom, River East, River West is a deeply moving exploration of race, identity and family, of capitalism’s false promise and private dreams. 

Shanghai, 2007: feeling betrayed by her American mother’s engagement to their rich landlord Lu Fang, fourteen-year-old Alva begins plotting her escape. But the exclusive American School – a potential ticket out – is not what she imagined.

Qingdao, 1985: newlywed Lu Fang works as a lowly shipping clerk. Though he aspires to a bright future, he is one of many casualties of harsh political reforms. Then China opens up to foreigners and capital, and Lu Fang meets a woman who makes him question what he should settle for…

Order your copy online here.

About the author

Aube Rey Lescure is a French-Chinese-American writer who grew up between Shanghai, northern China, and the south of France. After receiving her B.A. from Yale University, she worked in foreign policy and has co-authored and translated two books on Chinese politics and economics. Her fiction and creative nonfiction have appeared in or are forthcoming in Guernica, Best American Essays 2022, Lit Hub, Electric Literature, The Millions, The Florida Review online, WBUR, and more. She is the deputy editor at Off Assignment.
Facebook: @aube.reylescure Instagram: @aubenoisette X:@AubeReyLescure

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