I have to admit, I love the idea of finding yourself by going back to the place that your parents fled. While that may not have been the actual reason for Wang to go back to China, it certainly seemed to be what she got out of it. I listened to the audiobook, read by Emily Woo Zeller, who’s voice was familiar from when I listened to The Girl Who Wrote Loneliness last year.
There’s actually a lot to love in this book. As with Najla Said in Looking for Palestine, Wang grows up stuck between the culture she is growing up in and the culture her parents are pushing upon her. She is dragged to Chinese school, told what Chinese do, and doesn’t seem to ever quite feel Chinese. She’s Chinese-American, which seems to become an ever greater distinction as other try to force her identity onto her rather than let her identify herself.
I’ve been through a little of that too as people have tried to tell me just how Hispanic I am and what I should or shouldn’t do on account of it. I’ve tried to gently remind them that there is this whole other half of me and that perhaps Hispanics are more nuanced they are giving themselves credit for (the person, not all Hispanics because this only seems to happen with people who think we should all be some monolithic group that all dance perfectly, among other things). Nevertheless, I have never gone back to Cuba, where my mother is from, but I would only hope for a similar kind of experience.
While in China, for reasons that are more a gut feeling than rational, Wang realizes quite a bit about her family, where they came from, what they ran from, and why they are the way they are. She seems to get there just in time as China begins to capitalize and modernize. While the exact China of her parents’ past was already gone, trampled under 50 years of communist regime, she gets to look in and see a part of what made their culture and lifestyle so different from life in the US and a little of why they worked so hard to preserve it.
My favorite part about stories like this, that start in the US and involve traveling to parental homes abroad, is that it tends to have the same feel of a hero’s journey into an unknown world in science fiction or fantasy. The lone hero embarks upon an adventure of discovery into a culture that is new to their lived experience, maybe they’ve learned something about them, maybe not. Either way, the lived experience is entirely different and the awkward moments of figuring out what’s normal and who’s taking advantage of you and what isn’t normal is all fun to read about.
I loved the way her views on her parents and China and Chinese culture and different kinds of attachments evolve throughout the book. At my age now, and reading through books like this, I have to wonder if we all cringe at the thought of what our 20 year old selves thought and did and thought our lives were going to be like. Big ideas and no idea how to get there.
For me, the most poignant moment can be summed up in a line she quotes from an interview:
His history, after all, is mine too.
I suppose that’s true for us all. Our parents are a part of our history, and what they went through is a part of how they raised us.
I borrowed the audiobook from the library, but you can find places to purchase it on Booklikes by clicking on the cover image or add it Goodreads for later.