Spingster Kang

                                            Published by Innana publications



Thirty-two-year-old Kang, nicknamed “Spinster” in China, is a new immigrant in Toronto. The suffering of her sister as a rape victim has made Kang distrust men. She needs to study for a teaching certificate to continue her profession. To save for tuition, Kang rooms with Tania, a retired professor. Besides doing domestic work, she proofreads Tania’s memoir. Born to a Jewish father and Russian mother, Tania grew up in Moscow. Her youthful love with a Chinese medical student at Moscow State University especially intrigues Kang since her own father once studied in the former Soviet Union though he has never talked about it.

Kang has a chance encounter with Tania’s nephew, Brian. Assuming he is gay, she meets with him without aversion. Chatting with Brian and analyzing her own life help get her eventually out of the shadow of her sister’s tragedy. She falls in love with Brian and he turns out to be straight. Inspired by Tania’s memoir and suspecting her father’s past, Kang pays a visit to Moscow. Brian joins her in search of his Russian Jewish roots.

The trip brings the two closer. A time capsule they have uncovered confirms that Kang’s father was Tania’s, first love. They plan to have an engagement party; Kang’s parents are scheduled to come for her betrothal. However, Brian has shown symptoms of schizophrenia. Should Kang cancel the engagement? Should she reveal to Tania that her father was her first love so long ago? She seeks solutions and is happily surprised.

Chapter 1-- A Shirtless Man

On a Saturday night after work, Kang trudged along a snow-covered sidewalk toward Islington subway station. This was her longest workday of the week—three hours teaching Chinese in an after-school program, an hour on the subway, and eight hours behind a Tim Hortons counter. Coffee cups and donuts danced before her eyes in the soft glow of the streetlight, their circular shapes overlapping and swirling with the snowflakes. The biting wind whipped her face and slowed her steps, and her sneakers slid on the snow. It was early March, but it was colder in Toronto than in Beijing.

Several minutes later, she entered the station and boarded an almost empty train. Sinking into one of the soft red seats, she placed her black backpack and pink down jacket on her lap. She stared at her watch: 11:10 p.m. In twenty minutes, I’ll be at home lying in my warm bed. Thinking about her bed made her feel even drowsier. Her eyes heavy and her head drooping, she dozed off.

Kang had arrived in Toronto six months earlier. Since then, the nickname “Spinster,” a label she had reluctantly received and carried in China, had disappeared. In Canada, many women, older than her, were unmarried and might always be; it was nobody’s business but their own. Back home, her family, friends, colleagues, and even acquaintances always volunteered to help her get rid of that label by suggesting potential mates for her to consider. She’d found herself being watched and gossiped about constantly, and she’d always wanted to shout, “I don’t have a problem! I’m not interested in getting married!” She didn’t have any of the skeletons in her closet that people in China normally associated with single women in their thirties: a reputation for being sexually promiscuous or any physical disabilities that might prevent her from being a mother. Her only problem was that she had never been able to trust a man since her sister was raped. So, she simply did not want a man. Any man. Period. Still fast asleep on the subway, she began to dream. She watched a shadowy human figure stroll along a path in the wilderness. When the figure turned around, she couldn’t tell if it was a woman or a man. She noticed the beaming and worry-free eyes, but the vision suddenly began to fade.

“Wake up,” said a voice near her ear. “This is the last stop.”

Kang opened her eyes. A woman was nudging her shoulder. “Thanks,” she mumbled, and quickly stood up. A draft of cold air blew into the warm car from the wide-open door. She read the word “Kennedy”—the east end of the subway line. Sitting back, she yawned, but kept her eyes wide open—she didn’t want to miss her stop again. A couple of passengers boarded, and then the train travelled back the way it had come.

Fifteen minutes later, Kang dragged herself toward the five-storey walk-up on Broadview Avenue where she shared a one-bedroom apartment with Fei. Snowflakes drifted onto her face and melted. She licked the snow off her upper lip. To soothe her thirst, she pictured the tall glass of water she would pour herself when she got home.

Mounting the stairs to the fourth floor, she walked to her apartment and heard music and chatter coming from inside. Fei is having a party tonight, she thought. With an audible sigh, she opened the door. A girl and two young men sat around the table playing cards. Slouching on the couch, Fei giggled with her boyfriend. Her bottle-blonde hair touched her shoulders, and, to Kang’s blurry eyes, her glistening red lips looked like a bloody muzzle that might snap at any time.

“They brought me a huge birthday cake.” Fei stood and gestured to a large plate on the table. “Want a slice?”

“Happy birthday!” Kang responded, stroking her stomach to indicate she was full. She was too tired to say more, but her annoyance dissolved, and she forgave the noise. It’s her birthday party. She would’ve given her a gift if she’d known, she thought as she hung her jacket and backpack in the closet.

The bedroom door was open a crack. She stepped in, and Fei followed her. “Minla is drunk and napping in my bed.”

Kang stared at the figure covered with a blanket in Fei’s bed beside her own. Fei chuckled. “Can you believe that she got drunk from one cooler?”

At that moment, the blanket moved. Minla sat up, her hair messy and her face red. “I’m okay now,” she mumbled, shuf­fling out to the living room. She rang her fingers through her hair and announced, “I’m going home.”

Fei followed her out of the bedroom. “Take some cake with you.”

“She might get drunk from that, too,” quipped one of the guests. Several people burst out laughing. They were just twenty-somethings and they seemed to have a great deal of time to waste, thought Kang. Thirty-two-year ­old Kang was always in a rush. She always felt like she was chasing something, but she wasn’t sure exactly what. When she was a teenager, she often heard older people say they would find time later in life to make up for the things they had missed during those awful years of the Cultural Revolution, such as education, jobs, entertainment, and all the things that are part of a normal life. But that time never seemed to come. Some people had even lost their parents and siblings, and those they would certainly never find again. Kang was five years old when the revolution ended. She had only missed the swings and seesaws.

After years of studies and keen competition, she graduated from Beijing Normal University and was assigned a teaching job at a middle school. These days, in Toronto, she spent a lot of time thinking about the old adage, “time is money,” but right now she had neither time nor money. She was very busy working at part-time jobs to pay the rent and then hopefully go back to university and re-earn the credentials she needed to be able to teach in Canada. More than once she had asked herself if she had made the right choice in immigrating.

She closed the bedroom door. After turning the light off, she undressed quickly and climbed into bed. The word “spinster,” mixed with stifled laughter from the living room, pricked her ears like a needle. Will I ever escape the culture of my faraway country? She sighed, but soon fell into a sound sleep, her slight snoring sounding like ripples on the water.

Kang woke up at eight and breakfasted on a bagel and a glass of milk. Gazing out the window, she saw the snow melting. The lawn in the park shouldn’t be icy, she thought, so she grabbed a wooden stick from the closet. It was time for her to practise Tai Chi Stick, a fighting form of Tai Chi that blended rigidity and softness in its movements.

Don Mount Parkette, with its withered grass hidden under a thin layer of glittering snow, was a five-minute walk from her apartment. Occasional joggers panted in the crisp air as they ran around the park. Kang took off her jacket, laid it on the back of a bench, and began to go through the movements she had learned two years earlier while waiting for her immigration application to be processed. Most women practised the short stick form, but she had chosen the more powerful long stick style. She wanted to be in shape so she could defend herself. If my sister had been able to…

Kang particularly enjoyed a movement called White Tiger Sweep. The sweep, she imagined, could snap an attacker’s leg, but she hadn’t had the opportunity to test it yet—she had not encountered any potential threats since coming to Toronto.

When she had completed her routine, she was sweating from the effort. She put the stick back and ended her workout—she had other plans for the day.

Back home, knowing Fei was still in bed, she tiptoed into the bedroom. Before going to shower, she lightly slid the closet door open. As she picked out clothes to wear, a commotion started behind her. She turned around and gasped: a shirtless man was sitting up in Fei’s bed. “God!” Kang exclaimed, the clothes in her hand slipping to the floor. Kang wondered if she should get her Tai Chi stick, then recognized Fei’s boyfriend, Bing, and sighed in relief.

 “Sorry,” Fei said, her tousled head appearing from under the blanket. “Bing decided to stay overnight. I didn’t want to wake you up to tell you.”

 “You shouldn’t have let him sleep over without telling me,” Kang said, stifling her anger. She picked up her clothes and went into the bathroom. Locking the door, she quickly turned on the shower. The warm water soothed her tense body, but her mind was racing. She wondered if she should set some rules with Fei. But it was Fei’s apartment and maybe she should just move out, Kang thought. But Kang knew that an apartment on her own would be expensive, and she worried about whether there would be enough left over to save for tuition fees. If she couldn’t pay for tuition, she wouldn’t be able to get her Ontario teaching certificate. Then the thought of the man sleeping in her bedroom rushed back into her mind. Goose bumps climbed her arms and she suddenly felt nauseous. Shivering, she put on her clothes and went into the living room.

Before she could decide what to do, Bing slipped into the bathroom. She could talk to Fei now, Kang thought as she stepped back into the bedroom where her roommate was zip­ping her jeans. Kang was blunt. “Bing can’t stay overnight.”

 “I know, but I can’t stop him,” Fei said. “I don’t want to lose him. You know it’s not easy to find a guy you really like.”

 “Does this mean he’ll be staying overnight again?” Kang asked, hoping Fei would say no.

 “I think so. You should perhaps find another apartment.” Fei sat on the edge of her bed. She crossed her legs and looked down at her shoes.

“All right. Give me some time. I’ll find a place.”

“Okay.” Fei sighed with relief, her feet now resting on the floor. Fei felt a little guilty. It was still March and moving was tough in the cold weather. “You can stay till you find a place.

Kang left for the Toronto Reference Library, as she did most Sundays. On the subway, she mulled over her plans. After job-hunting for months, she had realized her B.Ed. in English from China would not land her a teaching position. She had found a job teaching Chinese in an after-school program, but it was only three hours a week. If she wanted to resume her career, she definitely needed to get an Ontario teaching certif­icate. She had been directing all her efforts toward saving for her studies, but before she could be accepted at a university, there was yet another hurdle: she had to pass the Test of English as a Foreign Language.

The reference library provided facilities for people to learn English, so she had been going there every Sunday to listen to the TOEFL tapes and try the sample tests. If she passed the test, she would be able to start school in September. It had looked promising, but now that this problem with Fei had come up, finding another place to live would have to become her priority.

A memory crossed her mind. When she had arrived in Canada six months earlier, she had lived in a small basement room for a month. It had been a dark and dismal room, but fortunately she didn’t have to stay there long. A friend’s friend had contacted Fei, who’d agreed to share her one-bedroom apartment with Kang. Not only did this arrangement cost her less, but the place was much nicer.

She got off the subway at Yonge and Bloor and strolled north, enjoying the warmth of the sun. The tree branches looked a little yellowish. There were some anxious buds coming out, but spring still seemed to be shy.

Instead of going to the language section as usual, Kang went to the library’s reading area and selected the Toronto Star and Toronto Sun as well as Rental Weekly. Carefully browsing through the papers’ rental sections, she focused on the cost and location of apartments. An ideal place would be around York University, the University of Toronto, or George Brown College, where she had sent her applications. Living near school would save her commuting time. She jotted down several names and phone numbers. If this issue had come up a little later, she might have known which university she would be attending, and it would have been easier to decide where to move. But there are no ifs in life, she thought.

After copying down a list of possible rentals, Kang made her way to the language section. She borrowed earphones, tapes, and the TOEFL books, and then entered an empty carrel. She proceeded to bury herself in the sample tests, just like a bird cleaning and combing its feathers before flying out of its nest. In three days, she would take the four-hour test—her last chance to make the May 1st deadline to get into the programs that she had applied for

With the earphones in, she couldn’t hear anything except the TOEFL tapes. Her worry about finding a place began to fade as she immersed herself in preparing for her future. She focused on speaking and listening, her weaknesses. She had practised speaking English in one of Beijing’s “English Corners,” where Chinese people often met to practise their English language skills, and she had been sure then that she would have no problem in the English-speaking world. But she was in for a reality check when she arrived in Canada. A few months af­ter arriving, she still could not quite grasp what people were saying, even though she knew most of the words. Practising English with other people who were also learning the language was one thing, but being immersed in an English-speaking country, and surrounded by those who had spoken English all their lives, was something completely different. Even now, she still had trouble speaking English proficiently and she had to listen very attentively to understand what was being said.

Her stomach growling for food, she left the library. In the lobby, she found a bench to sit on and took an apple and two hard-boiled eggs out of her backpack for lunch. A couple beside her had their arms wrapped around each other’s waists, sweet smiles on their faces. Turning her eyes away, Kang stared at the backpack on her lap. She had lost suitors during the past twelve years because of her inability to trust men. She vividly remembered twenty years earlier when her sister, Jian, had come home and sobbed in their mother’s arms. Mother had waved Kang away, sent her to her bedroom, and closed the door. Kang had overheard the word “rape,” a word that would terrify her for a long time. After that, she had done her best to avoid men. Mother’s warning about not going anywhere alone still rang in her head like a constant bell.

She planned to call her sister to find out how things were going with her husband as soon as she finished the TOEFL test. Kang thought of her sister while she bit into her apple. The shadow of her sister’s life had become the darkest one in her own life. Jian had suffered so much since that horrific night. Her then fiancé had abandoned her and now her husband was mistreating her. As for Kang, she had become the despised “spinster,” never comfortable around men and incapable of forming a relationship with one. Her life was like a still pond, her “spinster” hat floating in the stagnant water. But as un­desirable as her single life might be, it was much better than being in a miserable marriage. If my sister hadn’t married… Kang grimaced.

When she had finished her lunch, Kang went back into the library to continue studying. She had practised a number of writing topics before, and now she focused on this one: “Do you agree or disagree with the following statement? Children should begin learning a foreign language as soon as they start school. Use specific reasons and examples to support your answer.”

She composed the following: “I agree that children should begin learning a foreign language as soon as they start school. Children begin to express their basic needs or feelings as soon as they can make sounds. Language is a tool for them to com­municate with others. When they reach school age, they study the written form of the language. In other words, language development takes place in their early years.”

As language development begins in childhood, Kang stat­ed that it would be beneficial for children to take the same approach to learning a second language. She used her own experience as evidence.

Born in the middle of China’s Cultural Revolution, the ten disastrous years of political chaos instigated by Mao, she had started singing revolutionary songs in kindergarten—songs about heroes who had sacrificed their lives for the revolu­tionary cause. Her sister Jian had sung English songs in secret with her friend Yezi. By chance, Kang had overheard them and, from their facial expressions and body language, she had sensed that the songs were about a boat and a river, animals and plants. Twenty years later, she found out that the songs they had sung were “Row, Row, Row Your Boat” and “All Around the Mulberry Bush.”

In Grade 7, Kang studied English by recognizing the writ­ten form instead of starting with listening and speaking—the usual method for picking up a language. She guessed that this might explain why, after graduating as an English major and then teaching English for many years, she still had difficulty speaking English fluently.

In her conclusion, Kang wrote that in addition to the lan­guage development, there was another advantage to learning a foreign language at a younger age: the child also developed an open mind.

After finishing the writing practice, Kang went home. On the way back, she stopped at the supermarket near Broadview and Dundas Street East for some groceries. Every day, Kang ate sandwiches or donuts between jobs and school or leftovers at home. Real meals were cooked only on weekends. If the kitchen was available, she could make a decent supper, she thought. She wondered if Fei and Bing were still at the apartment, and smiled wryly. The she thought about the list of possible rentals that she had drawn up. She had much to do.

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“Over the course of the story, the author manages to construct an exquisite exploration of the insidious power of personal history, combined with an unconventional account of the immigrant experience…A thoughtful and provocative depiction of how the past makes claims on the present.”

--Kirkus Reviews

The novel is rich with sensual details, from the delicious Chinese, Russian and Canadian foods that are prepared at holiday gatherings and recollected through the story to the experiences that Kang has as she falls in love, faces her past, and travels. Spinster Kang is a warm-hearted, delightful story that will engage readers of all interests.

--Compulsive Reader

 Spinster Kang is an extraordinary novel… that threads an inherently interesting and layered fictional account of immigrants in Canada with 'real world' issues of relevance to students of Asian & Asian American Studies and Women's Studies…”

--Midwest Book Review

"I recommend “Spinster Kang” as a charming tale that fans of women’s issues, romance, coming of age, history, and culture will appreciate!" by Sheri Hoyte

 --Reader Views

"These questions include the effects of secondary trauma, the recognition of Hmong peoples in China and the diaspora, the acceptance of gay and lesbian people in immigrant communities, and ways to deal with mental illness. With all these matters, the novel is surprisingly light and encouraging. "

My Protagonists

I write literary fiction. My most recent novel is Spinster Kang. If you’re interested in it, you could take a look at a book trailer on YouTube. If you’d like to know what inspired me to create the protagonist, you could read the Interview with Zoë S. Roy, author of Spinster Kang.

Very often, some readers conclude my fiction is a family history or a memoir. A few of them assume that The Long March Home tells my family story.  One reviewer thinks Calls across the Pacific is a “woman’s historical fictional memoir.” Another reviewer says Spinster Kang “has an autobiographic feel to it.” All these comments make me feel as if I lived several lives.

In an interview from Ricepaper, a question was asked about whether the protagonist in Calls across the Pacific was based on myself or anyone else.  My answer was neither.  The stories I heard about “the sent-down youth” during my youth in Mao’s China inspired me to write the short story, “Yearning.” The research about the escapee evolved from my corresponding with a pen pal in Hong Kong about the successful attempts by defectors from mainland China. My walk across the bridge at the Lo Wu Immigration Control Point between Shenzhen and Hong Kong confirmed to me that my protagonist, Nina, would be able to swim halfway to reach Hong Kong.

As Alan Moore put it, “use lies to tell truth.” I invent stories to show what I’ve learned from literature, what I’ve experienced in life, and what I’ve perceived about other human beings in the world as well,  no matter whether they live in my era or different times.

If you’re curious about what my fictional character inspiration is, you could read My Confession: Exploring the Intersection between Memoir and Story.

I have a little confession to make: Tania, the second main character in Spinster Kang, has  two characteristics, the same as that of a friend of mine: “a retired professor” and “never married.” To commemorate this friend who passed away last month, I’m enclosing a photo of myself with her in 2016.


A Tale in Toronto

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Book launch

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