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|Representations of Englishness in Timothy Mo's novel 'Sour Sweet'
Ulla Rahbek, from the University of Bergen, Norway presented a more contemporary view of the English in Representations of Englishness in Timothy Mo's novel 'Sour Sweet'.
Sour Sweet is set in the 1960s. It revolves around Chen, his wife Lily, their son, and his sister-in-law, Mui, all of whom come to terms with a strange land, its people and their customs in different ways, and often through prejudice and misunderstanding.
The family moves to England and buys a restaurant. The father, Chen, becomes inadvertently involved with Triads. This was an aspect of the novel Ulla Rahbek deliberately avoided here except to say that it demonstrates a post-war England that has probably changed drastically from the pre-war England of which George Orwell wrote that 'the English dislike bullies and terrorists. American gangsters will not succeed in England.' By the 1960s the Triads and others bullies and terrorists were well established.
The Chen family first encounter the English as brash and vulgar, indulging in 'loud and rowdy behaviour including fencing with chopsticks, wearing inverted rice bowls on their heads like brittle skull caps, writing odd things on lavatory walls and mixing the food on their plates in a disgusting way before putting soy sauce on everything'. The Chinese family note that for a once imperial nation the English never acquired the savoir faire of fine cuisine.
The deterioration continues as the family are exposed to more and more people. Figures of authority are regarded as idiots. The way the English treat the old is horrifying. When Lily, who does not have a driver's licence, is stopped in her car she offers the policeman her 'tea money' which she has always carried about her for the specific purpose of bribing a policeman if ever she was stopped and asked to produce a driving licence. She is appalled at the policeman's low standard of morality when he actually accepts the bribe. Son's school is soon labelled the Academy of Misrule. Lily is horrified when he enjoys it. She teaches him to fight, to defend himself from the bullies, and is very puzzled at his teachers' horror when he ends up fighting a girl. Surely, Lily thinks, the point of fighting is to win, whoever your opponent is.
Chen takes on some English values, particularly the view that his home is his castle. Lily meanwhile turns upside down the notion of English superiority by taking the view that she always knows best. Mui gradually assimilates, to her sister's frustration
This is an England of the 1960s and England, of course, is more than just the English. London is a city of Indian, Greek and Chinese restaurants, West Indian bus drivers, Asian and Indian school children and Jewish tailors. Lily particularly comes to like the bus drivers, who are largely West Indian and Asian. Of the English, however, the Chinese family come to the conclusion that they are not acquainted with honour, decency and personal hygiene. To Lily, the English remain pink-faced, foreign devils.
Mo deliberately uses the term English, not British. Being English in Mo's view is a state of mind, a choice that people make.
Mo's interest is in change. The only way to survive, for a family and for a nation, is to adapt and change. At this point Ulla Rahbek drew another quote from George Orwell. In his essay 'The Lion and the Unicorn' Orwell said: 'England will still be England, an everlasting animal, stretching into the future and the past and like all living things having the power to change out of all recognition and yet remain the same.'
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