About the author
Minfong Ho was born January 7, 1951 in Rangoon, Burma. Her parents originated from China and she was brought up in Bangkok, Thailand. As she did most of her studies in English, Minfong Ho soon mastered three separate languages: English, Thai and Chinese. She “started to write only after I (the author) left home, as a way to conjure up Thailand for myself, to combat homesickness while studying at Cornell University.” Before becoming a writer, she was a journalist at the Straits Time newspaper in Singapore and has been a lecturer as well as a teaching assistant. An award-winning author, her main medium has been short story anthologies, among them being In My Grandmother’s House, Soul Searching, Join In and First Crossings.
Saeng belongs to a Laotian immigrant family currently residing in the United States. Saeng is to take her driving test using the Lambert’s car, specifically the car that belongs to David Lambert, which is also Saeng’s love interest. Throughout the story, Saeng recollects her memories in Laos and their journey in America, sponsored by a Lutheran minister whose wife is Mrs. Lambert. Although life should be wonderful for them, Saeng is met with a string of events that dampens her joy: she first realises that David would have no interest in her, only heeding his mother’s instructions to lend their car; she then fails the driving test; as she is offering to buy David a meal, with money provided by her mother out of sudden generosity, David pays no attention to her and speeds off to talk to a blonde girl across the street. Disappointed and saddened, Saeng walks home alone and stops by a florist. The florist’s atmosphere reminds Saeng of home and soon, she spots the winter hibiscus – recognised as “saebba” – growing in a pot. Emotions overwhelm her and she decides to buy the flower with the money in hand. When she returns home, Saeng informs her mother that she had failed the driving test. Her mother comforts her, taking the winter hibiscus and planting in the garden. The winter hibiscus, which grows even in adversity, becomes a symbol of Saeng’s renewed hope as she promises to retake the driving test next spring.
A. Determination and Perseverance
The story revolves around Saeng’s challenges and ends, aptly enough, with renewed determination to take them head on in the future. Saeng, as an immigrant in a foreign country, is obviously anxious about her appearances and about fitting in. She worries that she might not belong as an American despite being there legally: to resolve that – rather, change herself unnecessarily – she adopts the local language, English and uses it daily; she studies diligently for each test conducted in English using a worn Laotian-English dictionary; she combs her hair straight down her back to mimic the cheerleaders, the image of American “perfection”; she takes the driving test, not just to help her family, but also to increase her standing and maybe, just maybe, draw David’s attention. As the story shows, life doesn’t always go your way, and fitting in does not come easily. Saeng fails the driving test and her attempt at gratitude, to get closer to David is dismissed nonchalantly and casually as David drives away, talking to another girl across the street.
At this point, Saeng had finally broken. She perceives herself as failing at fitting in, deciding to give up on retaking the test, lowering herself into despair and sorrow. After her previous diligence, never once failing a school test despite her difficulty in understanding the language, to fail here, in front of David was a disgrace too heavy to bear. To kick her when she’s down even further, she is reminded of how faraway she was from her home by the saebba – the hibiscus. She is taken aback by how lost she is, hopelessly isolated in a foreign land. She had lost so much and broke down crying.
Yet after bringing home the hibiscus, Saeng does not spiral into despair. Instead she is reminded of how far she and her family, immigrants from beyond the ocean, had come in this land of opportunity. Her mother comforts the crying Saeng and brings the saebba to the garden to be planted. As she digs up the cold soil and sets the hibiscus into the ground, she hears and smells the cooking of bitter melon in the pan, another symbol of her individuality. Despite leaving her hometown, she did not leave herself behind and this new home has become so much more familiar. Hope is brimming in her heart now as she swears to retake the driving test in spring, just when the hardy winter hibiscus begins budding.
In a way, the theme represented here is in close relation to the winter hibiscus itself. The hibiscus, coming from a foreign land just like Saeng was at first alone in this harsh world. But it does not give up, growing up in the harsh, grey winters and soon becoming familiar with them after years of living, adapting to its surroundings yet retaining its distinct petals and leaves. No matter how isolated you are, and how many foreign obstacles hamper and surround you, there is always hope to survive. This determination to survive and succeed is what sets people apart and is what pushes them further to strive for a better life. This is reflected in Saeng’s final declaration; despite her not belonging like David and the cheerleaders, she still loves this new home and will do her best to survive in it, overcoming whatever challenge may come her way.
B. Life of An Immigrant Family
We have all heard of immigrants in Western countries, in particular Asian families that end up in America, the promised land of opportunity. The Winter Hibiscus depicts such a life splendidly, from the initial aid they receive, to the desperation to earn for themselves, independence and the desire to fit in. Saeng’s family has shown us what it takes to survive in a foreign country, without any prior knowledge of the language or the country itself.
From the first summer when they had went smelting and combing the golf course for nightcrawlers, to sending out for seeds in Chinatown and having their own garden, Saeng’s family is a representation of the desire to be independent, possessed by many immigrant families there. Many strive to work hard for themselves and craft a future in this promised land, struggling to learn the language just like Saeng and her parents. There are also those who are desperate to fit in like Saeng, changing their own appearance to be accepted by others and striving to fit in by partaking in what might give her her American identity and look, such as a driving license and cheerleader hair.
Yet, these immigrant families do not separate from their original identity. Just as how Saeng remembers her home and her past, it is part of who they are. No matter how hard they try to fit in, there will never be an American as seen on TV – white, pure and smiling. It is their origins that make them special – despite all their discrimination and setbacks, they choose to look forward and live on. Their strength and determination is something to be admired.
- Studies hard for each of her tests, be it school tests or driving tests, despite her lack of fluency in English as the primary language in America
- This can be seen through her diligent studying and her strong will when it came to taking the driving test, albeit for a very brief moment. However, she regained this determination from the inspiration of the winter hibiscus – saebba – and decides to retake the test in spring even though she had suffered humiliation just earlier.
- Low self-esteem
- This is seen through the emphasis by Saeng that she felt that she did not belong despite living in America for four years. She sees herself as different from the typical teenage American despite being the same age and the image of perfection was unreachable to her.
- This changes when she accepts America not as a shelter but as her new home, having familiarised herself with her surroundings and life and America, shown in the last two paragraphs of the short story.
- David Lambert
- Could not care for Saeng’s driving test outcome, only doing what he was told to lend the car to Saeng
- Saeng’s mother
- Cares about Saeng and her social life. Hands her a twenty dollar note to treat herself and David to Big Macs
- Cares about her family’s welfare, hence works hard to support them independent from government aid
- Works hard after arriving in America. Goes smelting, gathering nightcrawlers and studies English under a government program. Also works as a dishwasher along with her husband as a janitor.
- Saeng glanced down at her own clean clothes. She had dressed carefully for the test – and for David. She had on a grey wool skirt and a Fair Isles sweater, both courtesy of David’s mother from their last jumble sale at the church. And she had combed out her long black hair and left it hanging straight down her back the way she had seen the blond cheerleaders do theirs, instead of bunching it up with a rubber band.
This demonstrates Saeng’s attempt at fitting in, a clear sign of her discomfort of being alienated in this foreign country. She copies the local’s appearances and tries to blend into the background of this nation.
- There were certain words that held a strange resonance for Saeng, as if they were whispered echoes behind them. Luuke, or child, was one of these words. When her mother called her luuke in that soft, teasing way, Saeng could hear the voices of her grandmother and her uncle or her primary-school teachers behind it, as if there were an invisible chorus of smiling adults calling her, chiding her.
This shows that Saeng was quite fond of her former home and that her native language is one of the ways Saeng recalls Laos. It also gives us insight into Saeng as it tells us that she had left home as early as primary school, and that not all of her family and friends could make it to America with her, foreshadowing Saeng’s sadness at this loss later on in the story.
- It had happened so quickly. Saeng felt limp. So she had failed. She felt a burning shame sting her cheeks. She had never failed a test before. Not even when she had first arrived in school and had not understood a word the teacher had said, had she ever failed a test.
Saeng’s shock at failing the driving test can be felt here. She was extremely ashamed in herself, as seen in the phrase “burning shame” and immediately considered herself a failure. Despite working so hard, one mistake had managed to ruin a significant part of her American life, seen as crucial for her to fit in there.
- Saeng looked at the white bud in her hand now, small and fragile. Gently, she closed her palm around it and held it tight. That, at least, she could hold on to. But where was the fine-toothed comb? The hibiscus hedge? The well? Her gentle grandmother?
A wave of loss so deep and strong that it stung Saeng’s eyes now swept over her. A blink, a channel switch, a boat ride in the night, and it was all gone. Irretrievably, irrevocably gone.
And in the warm moist shelter of the greenhouse, Saeng broke down and wept.
The climax of Saeng’s suffering. Overwhelmed first by her first failure in the land of opportunity, she is painfully reminded of how far she was from her original home and the world she had lost, including her own grandmother. She grieves this loss that was held back for four years and lets her tears pour forth. She could never feel the same way she had while living there, her childhood robbed and replaced by this new, strange and foreign life in America.
- When they come back, Saeng vowed silently to herself, in the spring, when the snow melts and the geese return and this hibiscus is budding, then I will take the test again.
The conclusion to this short story. Shows the renewed hope and determination Saeng has for her driving test and the rest of her future. The hibiscus – a symbol of her home and determination – serves as a another inspiration for Saeng to keep going, regardless of the prejudice she faces as an immigrant.
This is one of the six short stories that is provided through the short stories anthology for English Literature KSSM.