Sterling Lung, twenty-six, recent graduate of a prestigious cooking school, is the new resident chef at the Richfield, Connecticut Ladies' Club. Beloved by the Ladies, he also has an intelligent, attractive Jewish girlfriend, Bliss, who loves him. Still, Sterling is dreadfully unhappy.
Sterling is discontented because he grew up on Long Island in the back of a Chinese laundry, son of Genius and Zsa Zsa Lung. He finds he cannot escape the first thing everyone, including the mirror, notices about him: he's "Chinese." Raised in America, he knows only the Chinese he learned at college, and has done whatever he could to put some distance between himself and the ongoing embarrassment of being the son of a laundryman.
"I embraced school because school wasn't home, European cuisine because Escoffier wasn't home, Bliss because she wasn't home."
After the initial excitement of having his first job, the novelty is wearing off, both for him and the Ladies. They saw "their young chef, with his silky hair and beautiful hands, his sly, quiet, 'mysterious' demeanor, his warrior's gaze and angelic food," but they also realized that he refused to cook Chinese food. Would that this were his only problem.
Bliss is in her second year of dental school in the Midwest: "Our professional lives are tied to mouths--I pleasure them, she fixes them," and while she's out of town, his parents import a picture-bride for him, straight from the Chinese mainland.
Initially, he's prepared to reject the backward, flat-shoed, chopstick user of his imagination. "In my heart every Chinese woman registers as an aunt, my mother, my sisters, or the Hong Kong girl whose picture my mother keeps taped to the kitchen mirror. They hold no romantic interest for me."
That is, until he meets her: ravishingly, exotically beautiful, with a near-perfect command of English, and a mind of her own. Did we mention the art student who Bliss found passed out on Sterling's bed when she unexpectedly returns home from school?
Nonetheless, Sterling does marry his Jewish bride and her rich father finagles a cooking show for him. There he finds the expectations as a television "personality" the equal to the insulting conditions at the Ladies Club.
"How am I supposed to be Chinese? By being myself? I'm not the kind of Chinese that viewers want to see, I'm Sterling, graduate of the [Culinary Institute of America]. So I try to give the people what they want: a goofy bucktoothed immigrant bastard who is humbled and grateful he's been let into their homes."
These conflicts form the comedy of the plot, but the larger issue in Sterling's life is his father, with whom he has never had a moment of emotional connection. So thoroughly American is Sterling that he has no conception of what it took for Genius to open his first laundry in 1943.
"An immigrant has no business even contemplating such a luxury as happiness. It was an American affectation, slipperier than Chinese luck or money lust. [Genius] had come this great distance to witness extravagant things, not monkeys, not peacocks, not buffalo, but American genius, motorcars and highways, movies and appliances, airplanes for leisure travel and wars in Europe and Asia. Yet he had been only an observer, admiring America from afar."
Genius' life of hard work had prepared the way for his children, yet Sterling, even following his own marriage and children, couldn't find his way back to his father's heart. It would take monumental tragedies, illness and death, to initiate a union between father and son.
This brief sketch only scratches the surface of this complex tale. The Barbarians are Coming is a story of ethnic reconciliation, overtly the son's recognition of his father's integrity as a person, and covertly Sterling's coming to terms with his own Chineseness, something he has run from all his life. Embarrassment, estrangement, assimilation--the reasons are unknown even to himself. It will be his small son, Moses, who teaches him about what it means to be who he is.
Showing Moses his first artichoke, Sterling carefully instructs him: "You take away all the tough stuff, the prickles and pokey parts, and every time, inside, you find a heart."