016 Severance, Part 3

“I just want for you what your father wanted: to make use of yourself….No matter what, we just want you to be of use” (189).

As the Shen Fever takes over the world, Candace struggles with feeling like her work doesn’t give her life any meaning. Is she just wasting the opportunities her immigrant parents worked so hard to give her? I’m Veronica, and this is The English Chronicles, the book club for English language learners.

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Today we’re going to talk about chapters 13-18 of Severance by Ling Ma.

Last week, we saw how Candace put her photography interests aside and ended up working in the Bibles division of Spectra, despite having no experience in or desire for book production. She joined her coworker Blythe on a trip to visit their printer in Shenzhen, China, and she was immediately confronted by her immigrant background when her tour guide insisted on speaking to her in Mandarin, as if judging her Chinese identity. Jonathan described how his job at an independent magazine in Chicago changed drastically once they were bought by a large corporation. In the current timeline, Candace and three other survivors sneak off to visit one of their houses. Ashley ends up fevered, and both she and Janelle die as a result of the group’s actions. We learned that Candace is pregnant, and we ended just as the group reaches the Facility in the Chicago suburbs. We’ll continue to find out how the Fever devastates society and whether the group of survivors really can start new lives together.

BEFORE

In a chapter unlike any of the others, we learn the history of Candace’s parents. Her father had been given a scholarship from the University of Utah to pursue his PhD in Economics. He was the first graduate student from China to be admitted into the department. They go to grad school parties together and Candace’s mother tries to make friends, but, in their 30s, they’re older than almost everyone else there and she feels embarrassed about her English skills. In Fuzhou, she had been a certified accountant and was important enough to be able to keep her job during the Cultural Revolution when many people were forced into unskilled labor jobs outside of the city. Candace’s father had wanted to be a literature professor, but because he had high scores in math on the entrance exams, he was assigned statistics as his major. He studied so hard that he developed physical ailments that plagued him long afterward. The two got pregnant and eloped, later leaving Candace with her grandparents while they went to America and saved money for her airfare.

Candace’s mother stopped trying to find new friends in America and focused on finding a job. Her options were limited because she didn’t speak English well and didn’t have a work visa. At first, she assembled wigs for only $2 per hour. She worked hard in the mornings, but by the afternoon, depression and anger would set in. She was unhappy with her husband for bringing her there. One day, her husband came home early and turned on the TV, which showed the protests and violence in Tiananmen Square. While citizens were fighting for democracy, the military was shooting into the crowd. He announced that they would never go back to China. She accused him of bringing her there to trap her, and she stopped making efforts to get accustomed to their new country. At first, shopping was the only thing he found that made her happy, but when they went to the Chinese Christian Community Church, despite neither of them being religious, she finally found a place where she felt like she belonged. During the service, the preacher said that immigrating to a new country was a second chance, and it necessarily came with difficulties. They had to keep their faith. Her mother began to thrive in the new community, but her constant prayer was that they move back to Fuzhou. That wish was never granted. 

Candace’s mother’s health began to decline after her husband was fatally hit by a car. Candace listened to the stories her mother told her, and she remembered those early years, too. She remembered her mother in Fuzhou, explaining to her the schedule for each day. She describes herself as a calm and obedient child, which she attributes to her mother’s steady regulation of her days. When her mother left, she stayed with her grandparents who fed and cleaned her, but who otherwise left her by herself, and her days had no meaning. To keep her from wandering outside the house, her grandparents invented stories about children who were kidnapped. She started having tantrums at night, her anger at her situation so overwhelming that the tantrums didn’t stop until she was in her late teens. When she finally moved to the U.S., she and her mother barely recognized each other. Candace had become bratty and unsatisfiable and her mother had become strict and easily frustrated. 

Candace describes her father as working hard for his entire life, receiving promotion after promotion. She says, “His work ethic was like that of many other immigrants, eager to prove their usefulness to the country that had deigned to adopt them.” Because of this, he never really got to enjoy his life. As she got closer to her death, Candace’s mother told her that her father was ambitious and he wanted a better life for her; it was only possible in America. She told Candace that she was the only child and must do better or just as well as him. She just wanted what her husband wanted: for Candace to make use of herself and to be of use.

Candace never stopped looking for the constancy of her early years with her mother. She works for Spectra for five years, getting up, going to work, and coming home. She watches movies with Jonathan at his apartment, gets coffee from the street cart outside her work, and buys snacks at the corner store. She repeats the same routine day after day until Jonathan tells her he’s leaving New York, and she stops seeing him or responding to his calls and text messages. Instead, she lets herself get lost in her work, which continues mostly uninterrupted, even as the number of Shen Fever victims continues to rise.

One evening, Candace goes to a party at her co-worker Lane’s apartment. Lane lives in an expensive loft in the SoHo neighborhood, and she’s only able to afford living there because her Spectra income is supplemented by a trust fund established by her parents. At one moment, the music stops, and Candace hears the sound of keys jangling. Candace looks out of Lane’s apartment and sees Lane’s neighbor, an older woman, doing the same thing over and over again, trying to put the key in the knob, having trouble opening it, and dropping the keys on the floor. Candace offers to open the door for her, and, when she does, she sees the woman’s face. She has lipstick all over her chin and eyeshadow up to her eyebrows. Her neck has bruises on it. Her pants are inside out. She’s not just an older woman who has trouble with simple tasks: she’s fevered. Inside the apartment, every electrical appliance is on and water is streaming from the kitchen sink filled with dirty dishes. The woman sits in front of the TV and laughs like she’s watching a sitcom. She clicks through the channels and lands on a news program where the head of neurology at a prestigious hospital is being interviewed, saying that the rate of infection of the Shen Fever is underreported because many people live alone. Lane calls an ambulance and the paramedics ask her how long the woman has been fevered, but Lane can’t answer any of their questions. They were only neighbors. In the city, that hardly means anything.

The following Monday, Candace stays late at the office, and when she leaves, Times Square seems oddly empty. She tries to stop at a few pharmacies, but they’re closed. She ends up going to a store in Koreatown to buy two pregnancy tests, which turn out positive. She doesn’t know what to do, so she goes to sleep, gets up, goes to work in the morning, comes home in the evening, and continues repeating the routine she’s kept for days. One morning, she goes to work as usual, but when she gets off the elevator, the office is dark. Only the light in Blythe’s office is on. They both missed emails closing the office because of an impending category 3 hurricane. Although Blythe tells Candace to go home, they end up looking through some photos together. Candace says she thought Lane was working on this project, and Blythe reveals that Lane is fevered. Despite all the care she was taking, wearing her mask everywhere, she was still infected. As Blythe packs her bag to leave, Candace picks up a phone call in the office. It’s Jonathan. He asks if he can stay at her place because his basement apartment needs to be evacuated in case of flooding, and she agrees.

They go to a restaurant and talk about work and the news about the Shen Fever. Jonathan says Candace could still come with him and they’d figure things out, but she says no. No matter where they move, she’ll need a job and to have health insurance. The way he chooses to live is a luxury and only possible because no one depends on him. She asks what would happen if he had kids unexpectedly, and he confidently says that’s not going to happen. This is the moment that she decides not to tell him about the pregnancy. When they get back to her apartment, they learn that the hurricane has been upgraded to a category 5, meaning “catastrophic damage” is expected. The building loses power, Wi-Fi goes out, and there’s nothing for them to do but lie in the dark. She tells him again that she’s not going with him, that she’s not like him. What she means is that he lives his life idealistically, believing it’s possible to escape the system. He sees it as freedom, but she sees it as a cheap way to live, which is it’s own prison. In their world, money is freedom, and opting out isn’t a choice. He doesn’t push her further, but he does have one request: He wants her to start updating her blog again.

The following Monday, Candace learns that another Senior Product Coordinator was infected with Shen Fever. The office is shut down for the day and treated with antifungal spray, and the company policy is updated to require all employees to wear N95 masks when in the office. There are still no reports of anyone recovering from Shen Fever. One website theorizes that the strain of fungal spores developed within the factory conditions of manufacturing areas where they could feed off the chemical mixtures. They’re told that wind patterns may predict the transmission of the fever, and holiday traffic might also increase the spread. Quarantines are recommended, especially during Thanksgiving and Christmas. A travel ban is passed through Congress to prevent citizens of Asian countries from visiting the U.S.

Almost all Spectra employees request leaves of absence so they can move back to their hometowns or work remotely. In response, the company decides to institute a work-offsite program. To be eligible to participate, an employee has to fill out a questionnaire to determine whether they’re necessary to the company. One day, Carole from HR tells Candace that Michael would like to see her so they can discuss her future at Spectra. They need to evacuate the office, but they’re not closing down. Everyone will work offsite, but the office will stay open and they’re putting together a select group to oversee daily operations. They’d like Candace to be part of the team and serve as the point of contact for those working remotely. Carole says it’s partly about how they look—keeping the office open when their competitors have closed will give their clients confidence. They don’t say this, but it’s clear their ultimate motivation is always money. They hand Candace a contract indicating a large sum of money will be paid to her upon the contract’s completion on November 30. Candace thinks of everything she could buy or do with the money: live in a bigger apartment, buy more things for the baby, or start photographing again. She goes to sign the contract, but Michael tells her to think about it first. She says it’s okay. Everyone is leaving to be with their families, but she doesn’t have anyone in the U.S. She would have stayed in New York anyway, and their arrangement just makes her time worthwhile. Michael still insists she think about it, but once she gets back to her office, she immediately signs the contract. The office is nearly empty by October.

NOW

Two days after the events at Ashley’s house, the group reaches the Facility. It’s actually a two-story mall, with signs for department stores and a chain movie theater on the outside. After first stalking the mall as a precautionary measure, they go inside and walk past the typical stores, all of them with signs offering large discounts and clearances. Bob says they have everything they need there and can take whatever they want. He tells the group he’s one of the owners of the mall, and Candace wonders if this is the reason they came there, as if the status of owning a mall still matters in some way. Bob explains that the large department stores on the first floor can be shared spaces, while the smaller shops on the second floor can be personal rooms. He sends them off to pick which rooms they want. Candace chooses L’Occitane, a company that sells skin care and fragrance products. It seems cozier than the others, but it doesn’t really matter. She doesn’t plan on staying for long: she’ll find a way to leave soon, with or without Evan.

That night, as they’re unpacking the cars and setting up their rooms, Bob comes to see Candace. He reveals that Evan told him she’s pregnant and asks how far along she is. Candace says maybe five months. He congratulates her and says it’s a blessing and a miracle. He didn’t come to talk about that, though. He has a dilemma, which is that he can’t let her leave. She lies and says she didn’t intend to leave, but Bob says she told Evan she would and now he can’t trust her. It’s for her own good that they keep her locked in her room. He says not to worry; she’ll carry the baby to term and they’ll take care of her. When she tries to walk out of the store and Todd and Adam grab her and walk her back inside, she asks Bob if he’s saying she doesn’t have a choice. He responds that everyone has a choice. The four of them had a choice when they decided to go to Ashley’s house that night. Candace tries to apologize, hoping that appearing to defer to his power will appease him, but he says she’ll stay in the room and should work on showing him that she can follow the rules. Todd and Adam pull down a metal-link gate from the top of the entrance. “You’re imprisoning me,” Candace says. Bob tells her to try not to look at it that way. Once the baby comes, they’re going to celebrate. 

IN THE AUTHOR’S WORDS

When Ling Ma was interviewed by the Asian American Writers’ Workshop, she was asked several questions about the immigrant narrative and the role it plays in her novel. Ma had this to say about this narrative being the reason why Candace continues to work for Spectra: “As the apocalypse happens all around Candace, she keeps working. So the inevitable question is, why does Candace keep going into the office? There are a number of answers to this, but one certainly has to do with that immigrant pressure to strive, something that is instilled in you if you grow up in an immigrant household. Throughout the novel, these memories of her family and life in China kept seeping in. So I knew the novel would eventually dovetail deeper into Candace’s background.”1

She further spoke about the pressure to write a traditional immigrant novel and the expectation that writers of color are asked to make their otherness tolerable. She said, “My feelings about the immigrant narrative are something I’m still processing. It’s a personal hangup. For a long time…the immigrant narrative seemed like the predominant story being told about Asian Americans. These stories definitely have their place, but as a teen living in Kansas, as someone who was always asked ‘Where do you come from?’, I was annoyed that every narrative featuring an Asian American protagonist came with some origin story, acquiescing to that question we always got asked….Though Severance does contain an immigrant narrative, it was something I initially resisted—and of course, it had to be wrapped up in an apocalyptic conceit. You could argue that the immigrant narrative and the apocalyptic narrative are similar in that they’re both traditionally organized around a Before and an After.”

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Early in the novel, Candace recalls hearing her parents fight about their lives in America, with her father saying that they are there to provide more opportunities for their daughter. As Candace’s mother lays dying, she insists that all she wants is for Candace to make herself useful in some way. This pressure for children of immigrants to be more successful than their parents is common. According to the Institute for Family Studies, children of immigrant parents are slightly more likely to earn “mostly A” grades and less likely to require the school to contact their parents regarding problems with learning or behavior. One of the contributing factors to the higher educational performance of these children is their parents’ high expectations. The report states that most immigrants came to the United States because they believed it offered better opportunities, and they expect their children to take advantage of these opportunities as well. While 91% of immigrant parents expected their children to obtain a college degree, only 72% of native-born parents did.2 

However, these expectations clash with what millennials and their parents consider to be success. We can see that Candace’s father worked so hard at a job he was never truly interested, and that caused damage to his health. The Gallup report “How Millennials Want to Work and Live” shows that expectations about jobs and careers have greatly changed.3 Where a paycheck was once a top priority, finding purpose now is; where the job itself was once a top priority, one’s overall life now is. While engagement is far more important than it once was, it’s what millennial workers still lack. The report finds that “millennials have the highest rates of unemployment and underemployment in the U.S., and only 29% of employed millennials are engaged at work.” This can certainly lead to conflicting feelings about what success really is, and we see that in Candace’s passive attachment to her job at Spectra.

That’s all for today’s discussion of Severance. Join me next week when we’ll finish the novel with chapters 19-26. We’ll find out how Candace joined the group of survivors and what happens to her now that she’s locked in a cell in the Facility. Thank you for listening. If you enjoyed today’s episode, subscribe and leave a rating and review in your favorite podcast app. I would really appreciate it, and it helps other book-loving English learners find the podcast. How do you feel the story depicts the struggle for children of immigrants to succeed? How does Candace represent a generation that is unsatisfied with their job opportunities? Leave a comment at theenglishchronicles.com, where you can also find a transcript of each episode, send an email to theenglishchronicles@gmail.com, or find me on Instagram @theenglishchronicles.  Until then, keep reading.


Notes:

  1. Jen Lue, “Routine Made Everything Possible: An Interview with Ling Ma,” Asian American Writers’ Workshop, May 9, 2019, https://aaww.org/routine-made-everything-ling-ma-severance-interview/
  2. Nicholas Zill, “How Do the Children of Immigrant Parents Perform in School?” Institute for Family Studies, July 8, 2020, https://ifstudies.org/blog/how-do-the-children-of-immigrant-parents-perform-in-school.
  3. “How Millennials Want to Work and Live,” Gallup, 2016, https://www.nwais.org/uploaded/conferences/Business_Officers/2019_BusinessOfficers/Resources/Gallup_How_Millennials_Want_to_Work_and_Live.pdf.

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