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Mr. Chang’s Tomatoes
*Please note: This excerpt is taken from the beginning of the work.
Li Chang peeked out the kitchen window of his son’s apartment at the next-door neighbor. The fellow was middle-aged, at least twenty years younger than himself. Mr. Chang smiled as he watched the man watering his tomato plants. There were five of them, swaying on an overhanging shelf just outside of his basement door. It was obvious that the man had done this before, but his method, Mr. Chang thought, was a bit amateurish. So typical. Americans did everything so large and complicated; all that was needed were the methods that farmers like himself had used for centuries back in China.
Mr. Chang’s eyes misted over as he thought about his homeland. He probably would never see it again. His beloved Wen had passed on two years ago, and his son had arranged for him to come to America to live with him and his family. Oh, he was happy to be near his son and to see his two granddaughters raised up well, but he did not like America. For one thing, there was not enough green for someone who had been raised in the countryside of Beihai in the Guangxi province. He missed the flow of the River Li in the mornings when he would awaken early to be down at the river before sunrise.
When he was young, he’d been a fair artist, had wanted to travel to Shanghai to become famous. Then he met Wen. They married and made plans to escape their small existence in Behai. When Wen became pregnant, their hopes to travel down the mountain to the big city were lost.
Join the discussion
Randy Hildebrand says
I was almost insulted at first when the narrator compared America and China. But then I realized that he had a point. Americans can tend to be a bit “amateurish” and go for style over substance. We Americans could stand to learn a thing or two from other cultures.
I enjoyed the way the narrator enveloped the reader into speaking of his homeland. The love story implied in those terse sentences leaves me wanting to read more. Why could Li never return? What happened with Wen? Very intriguing and thought provoking piece.
My initial reaction to this piece of writing wasthat it was very good ….very interesting I thought… I wanted to read the whole story…..I was disappointed that it was not complete…. I kept wondering how it would end would he end up up liking Americans.. or would he go back to China……….an intriguing story… Good
Jay Gordon says
There is a gentle sweetness to this story. There is an abundance of interesting exposition in a compact space, but it is not intrusive and unfolds naturally.
We often read about perceptions Americans have of other cultures. It is refreshing to have the spotlight redirected. The best fiction is when we learn something from the story, whether it is geographic, spiritual or some other form of learning.
You can immediately see the opportunities for plot development as Mr. Chang adapts to his new country and changes his perspective to begin this phase of his life without regret for his past sacrifices. It is certainly a universal theme that parents sacrifice their own ambitions to provide for their children, who often come earlier than is practical.
I hope Mr. Chang gets involved with something like a community center, where he can develop his talent. Perhaps we discover he is more skilled than his modest recollection suggests. The art teacher could be from yet another culture and teach him more tolerance of differences. Or, she could also from China, and they ultimately plan a return trip and learn there is much to appreciate about America. They could learn rose-colored memories are not always accurate.
A relationship could develop between him and the teacher that helps him cultivate optimism and foresee a happier senior life than he ever imagined. Far from being essentially useless, as he feared, he discovers the joy that comes from helping others.
He may also learn that America is vast and has places as green as those he remembered in China. There are many options for plot development that are possible from this charming distilled introduction.
I look forward to learning what obstacles the author devises for Mr. Chang to overcome as he grows into a happy, productive senior.
Rhythm grabs me right from the start. For my ear, this is a piece that reflects the writer’s innate feel for cadence that can hold onto a reader like me as the story unfolds.
These paragraphs introduce a voice I’d like to hear tell me more about Mr. Chang and the world he sees here in the US.
And being a Southerner with tomato plants in my garden every year, I realize I might learn a thing or two.
My hope is that the writer pay attention to his/her strength of rhythm, stay true to that voice, and for a suggestion going forward in telling the story, I point to the second paragraph.
In the first sentence, we are told Mr. Chang’s eyes mist over. And though it is only a micro-second later, we are left to wonder why he is tearing up…I know, I know, it seems so trivial…but then we learn he misses his homeland, saddened that he may never see it again.
To illustrate the impact of cause and effect, I suggest reversing the message of the first two sentences. Eliminate those tiny mental speed-bumps so the story keeps its rhythm, flowing deeper into the emotional distress of longing for homeland and the way things used to be with the happiness of being near a son in a different world.
Nice beginning. Nice work.
Shelley Seymour says
I like this excerpt. The author appears to be heading somewhere and the story is moving along. The ideas are well-described and developed. We want to read what happens next. Good work.
Marty Sorensen says
The setting of the story poses an interesting geographical question. The location is not green. So it’s in the southwest someplace, probably middle-southern Arizona, because the son brought Mr. Chang, and the son is an engineer there. Mr. Chang lived not only in the countryside, but in the mountains as well. And near a river. Mr. Chang is an artist (a “fair” one, which didn’t seem to be a helpful adjective), and the son is not. And he’s missing his wife. A tough situation. He could teach his granddaughters art. And the tomatoes. I didn’t understand why that was so problematic for him. Mr. Chang is looking out the window at his neighbor’s house, real close, so there is no garden, like there is back home in Guangxi in the mountains. This story is wide open for development.
Marty Sorensen says
More. Well, Mr. Chang didn’t want to stay in the mountains in the first place. He wanted to go to Shanghai. It’s always been a huge city, an original big time seaport. Not too green. He wanted to be famous. that means he was very ambitious, and presumably talented, and got feedback (e.g., Mao’s Last dancer). Maybe he will draw the tomatoes and become famous now. — I found the basement door confusing. Mr. Chang’s in his son’s apartment and next door is a basement, i.e., something below ground. — So the whole question is how does his mind develop. He sees himself as a farmer, painter. There are so many ways this could go.
I like the voice in this piece. I can picture this older gentleman who is used to the ways of his homeland observing the young American neighbor. I would love to read more, especially any dialogue.
The description of the overhanging shelf was difficult to visualize. The Chinese method of farming is mentioned but not described. Is it important to insert specifics here to show the difference?
I like the comparison of his green homeland to his current location. It may be better to describe the actual countryside instead saying the green of Behai in the province. Something like, “the rolling green hills of Behai” and connect that to the sentence about the river. It would give the reader more of a visual. And why did he wake up to be down by the river early?
“Mr. Chang’s eyes misted over” may be too cliche.
The final paragraph felt disconnected from the previous ones. It feels like the story veers in a different direction.
I wonder how Mr. Chang’s son ended up in America if they lived in a small town.
Overall, I like this story and want to read more. Since it’s a short story, it needs more specific details so that the reader gets the premise quickly.
khaula mazhar says
My first impression was that I would probably pick up this book and continue to read till the end. It was very clear and gave a lot of information in just this small piece without being boring. That feeling of nostalgia is there and I knew how this person felt being so far away from his home.
John Meekins says
I liked it. Do wonder what he was going to say next, or waiting for him to say he wished he’d stayed in China rather than come to the US. I don’t think five plants are a lot, though.
Christine Howard says
I really liked this. It made me want to know more about Mr Chang and wonder what relationahsip if any he was going to have with the tomoato grower.
Maybe read it out loud to your self as a couple of sentences were a little unclear.
A very good piece.
Gloria Stern says
Mr.Chang sounds interesting – unusual approach to a common situation. I don’t see narrative distance as one of the talking points, however, this is the critical failure. I would like meet Mr, Chang but I am only given authorial comments. Can you please open up the presentation to afford me the privilege of a first hand introduction?
Dianna Zaragoza says
I thought this was a good beginning to a story – I could feel the underlying vulnerability behind his disapproval of the neighbor’s gardening habits – very good.
There was a contradiction in how much he missed his homeland now, but once wanted to escape it – not necessarily a bad thing. Contradiction builds drama.
Be careful about telling things you can show instead – maybe he could evaluate a painting he did instead of talking about being a ‘fair artist’.
Could cut some words – hinders the flow of reading a bit (‘there was not the green of the countryside of Beihai…’, etc.
Overall, good character sketch, I thought.
Dayna Bickham says
I am sorry, but I must say this did not grab me. I thought it was boring. I do not want to insult you, but it may be just a difference in taste.
I only want to share my initial reaction so that you can have an overall review from many sources. I hope I have not offended you.
I wish you all the success in the world. Keep up the hard work!
Ann Evans says
I enjoyed this excerpt thoroughly. There is an atmosphere of sadness, connected to the potent detail of watering tomatoes. Perhaps a bit more of Mr. Chang’s nature could come through in the first paragraph. It jumps a bit too quickly into the background without establishing him strongly enough. His “beloved Wen?” That could be developed with just a brushstroke or two. Perhaps the method through which he transitioned to America — by airplane? His first trip? How deep a peasant is he? Maybe a brushstroke or two about Guanxi — Americans have no idea what sort of place it is. Listening to the river flowing by in the mornings is an evocative detail, maybe another one or two details?
Since this is so short, it is impossible to know whether the “point” of the short story or novel is addressed. There is a possible conflict presented — I only hope that it is the main conflict in the book or story. The conflict, as I see it, is in the proper way to nurture things and people. He has come here not to water tomatoes but to nurture his grandchildren. Perhaps his son/daughter has a different idea how that should be done.
I found it sensitive, descriptive, and involving. I would love to know what happened. There is so much possibility for drama.
Thanks to everyone for your insightful comments from the reader’s perspective. I will go back to my draft to incorporate some of your suggestions. Thanks especially for opening my eyes to so many directions that I can take this story (By the way, “Mr. Chang” actually does exist; he speaks no English and tends my brother-in-law’s tomato plants).