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The Fortunes by Peter Ho Davies discussion guide: Home

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Peter Ho Davies


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Discussion Questions

1. What does the oft repeated phrase "to see the elephant" mean? How is it used by the various characters? What is the elephant—as a metaphor, what does it represent?

2. SPOILER ALERT: why does Ling decide to quit his comfortable position with Charles Crocker in order to join the railroad workers?

3. Why does he choose to work as a bone collector? What satisfactions does it provide him?

4. How does he finally come to see himself and his place in America?

5. What are the many indignities Anna Mae Wong faces as the first Asian-American actress in Hollywood?

6. Follow-up to Questions 5: How does Anna Mae respond to the rejections, even from her own father?

7. Describe her feelings when she visits China. Does she find peace, a sense of belonging, or more exclusion and an even greater sense of alienation?

8. How does Anna Mae finally come to see herself and her place in America?

9. In what ways does the narrator of this section cast doubt on the events of Vincent Chin's murder? What difference does the uncertainty make, if any, in the final out come?

10. Follow-up to Question 9: When listening to members of the America Citizens for Justice refer to Vince's murder, the narrator thinks:

"[A] brutal slaying" wasn't the way you'd talk about it if you were there. That wasn't how I remembered it (p. 190).

What does he mean? Why was his remembrance of the beating different from their imagining? How reliable or faulty is memory? Are we, the reader, to doubt the version of the events that were made public?

11. The narrator questions himself continually: "Vincent was my friend. So how could I leave him?" How blameworthy is he, how at fault? What do you think most of us would do in the same situation? Do you have any idea how you might react?

12. At the end of this story, the narrator visits a strip club. He asks the stripper whether she is Chinese or Japanese (why does he ask her that?), and she retorts, "All-American, Baby. We're all American here." His final thoughts are:

It felt like something to cover ourselves in, that word, its warm anonymity. And I nodded, sank back on my stool, bought her that drink (p. 204).

What does his observation suggest? What emotional response is he expressing? Has he come to some resolution? If so, what?

13. It is now the 21st Century. In what way does John feel marginalized by his Chinese heritage: "Growing up he felt burdened." Once he arrives in China, how does he feel?

14. How do the three previous stories come together with John's story in China?

15. Why do John and his wife decide to accept the baby offered them as a replacement for the baby who died? What was going through their minds? What might you have done?

16. In a final reflection on the way home, while thinking of the famous Terra Cotta army figures and the laborers who built them, John wonders,

What else can we represent if not ourselves, however uncertain or contradictory those selves might be. After all, aren't those very contradictions and uncertainties what makes us ourselves (p. 264)

Discuss that statement. Is he correct? Are most of us, especially perhaps immigrants, made of contradictions? How would that belief help John and his new daughter navigate life in America?

17. Which story of the four do you find most absorbing and why?

18. Consider the frequent jokes the characters tell, usually directed at themselves. How did you respond when first reading them? Did you laugh? Were you put off? Angered? Why do you think the characters tell such disparaging jokes at their own expense?

19. To what extent is America, hopefully, a more welcoming place than it was when the first two stories took place? Consider, also, that the (very real) events of the third section took place only three decades ago. Also consider the references in two of the stories about Asians taking jobs from Americans. Isn't that issue with us today?

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