Hua Hsu (Devlin Claro)

Hua Hsu’s perceptive and unforgettable memoir, Stay True, focuses mostly on his college years—and one particularly meaningful and heartbreaking friendship from that period—but it begins with the story of his father and a fax machine. In the early nineties, Hua’s father was working in Taiwan, while his son was starting high school in the Bay Area and struggling in math. The family fax machine allowed Hua’s father to help him with his geometry homework from 6,500 miles away. “Like many immigrants who prized education, my parents retained faith in the mastery of technical fields, like the sciences, where answers weren’t left to interpretation,” Hsu writes. “You couldn’t discriminate against the right answer. But I preferred to spend my time interpreting things.”

As father and son go back and forth about proofs and equations, they begin to communicate in the margins. Hua informs him about the latest news in America (Magic Johnson’s HIV announcement, the postseason fate of the San Francisco Giants) and offers updates on his own life, from cross-country practice to his struggles with school. He also shares whatever new music he’s into. His father dutifully seeks out these songs in the cassette stalls of Taipei, and faxes back with his thoughts:

I like the November Rain by Guns N’ Roses. The Metallica is also great. I couldn’t enjoy the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Pearl Jam. The old songs reinterpreted by Mariah Carey (I’ll Be There) and Michael Bolton (To Love Somebody) are marvelous. The MTV’s “unplug” is a great idea!

Of course, young Hua doesn’t fully appreciate his dad’s attention to his interests. “As a teenager, I ultimately had better things to do than fax with my dad,” he writes. But his father persists, asking questions about his son’s life and opinions, trying to connect despite the physical and generational distance.

“He often implored me to apply some of the energy I spent memorizing sports statistics or writing record reviews to my school work,” Hsu writes. “I just had to study my textbooks the way I studied my cherished magazines. I could tell you what albums were slated for release next month, but I couldn’t, for the life of me, pass the written portion of my driver’s test.”

Whenever the faxed encouragement “comes across sterner than intended,” his father offers follow-up faxes (“Last Friday, I overemphasized the toughness. Don’t be scared. The life is full of excitement and surprises. Handle it and enjoy it”). Hsu reproduces several of his father’s notes at length. Reading them, touched by the love and concern he tries to convey from a great distance, I found myself getting emotional about a fax for the first time in my life.

The early parts of Hsu’s memoir focus on his family, not just during his teenage years but also before he was born, offering context for the larger reflections on Asian-American identity that come later in the memoir. Hsu examines the story of his parents’ own arrival from Taiwan as graduate students in the sixties, their attempts to find community and maintain their identity in the United States, and the larger global-historical circumstances that led them, along with many others, to leave their home and start a new life here.

Moving from New York to Illinois to Texas to California, the elder Hsu discovers a love for American pop, rock, and soul, from Bob Dylan to Michael Jackson. But his music fandom doesn’t immediately rub off on his young son. “My father’s record collection only had the effect of making music seem uncool to me,” Hsu writes. He prefers to listen to baseball on the radio instead. Reluctantly, he accompanies his father on frequent Tower Records runs, and watches him record hours of MTV on the VCR, “whittling his findings down to a greatest hits tape on another VCR.” All of this makes his preteen son think that music was merely “something that grown-ups took seriously.”

Reading them, touched by the love and concern he tries to convey from a great distance, I found myself getting emotional about a fax for the first time in my life.

Then, late one night, Hua hears “Smells Like Teen Spirit” on the radio, before the release of Nevermind, before Nirvana became the biggest band in the world. He’s thirteen years old, and the experience is life-changing. “I believed that I’d happened upon a secret before everyone else,” he writes, “and I was addicted to this feeling.” Soon he’s trying to track down albums by every obscure band Kurt Cobain mentions: “He led us down a trail, pointing us toward out-of-the-way landmarks. Casting about for those other territories became my reason for being.”

Music begins to define Hua’s world-view. He starts a zine, hoping to share his wide-ranging passions and “secret” cultural knowledge, seeking out other like-minded people, distinguishing himself from the boring masses, attempting to articulate the blurry boundary between what was cool and what wasn’t. (Nirvana, yes. Pearl Jam, no.) “Making my zine was a way of sketching the outlines of a new self, writing a new personality into being,” he writes. “I was convinced that I could rearrange these piles of photocopied images, short essays, and bits of cut-up paper into a version of myself that felt real and true.”

Now an English professor at Bard College and a staff writer for the New Yorker (and previously for the great and long-defunct website Grantland), Hsu manages to achieve a difficult balancing act in recalling his younger self. He shows us his teenage snobbery, mocking his own pretensions and feigned worldliness, while also conveying the meaningful thrills that these cultural obsessions brought to his life. Hsu’s self-portrait will be familiar to those who relied on their own snobbish passions to endure the lonely confusions of adolescence.


But the story of Hsu’s family and his zine-writing, music-obsessed high-school years is only a preface to the larger story he sets out to tell in this memoir. The real story of Stay True begins only when he arrives in college at Berkeley. And it’s a story that ends in tragedy.

During the selection process, Hua and his parents agree that Berkeley is a good school, although his father worries a bit about the “neighborhood.” His parents hope the university will help him “acquire recognizable skills.” Hua, though, is more interested in the abundance of record stores, bookstores, and vintage-clothing stores that surround campus. Even more than this, he’s interested in finding his “tribe.”

One of the mistakes we make in late adolescence—or at least that I made—is that we assume our ideal friends and romantic partners will be those people whose taste and opinions are most similar to our own. And so we often seek out people who are “like us” in some supposedly special way, and quickly dismiss the people who aren’t. When Hua arrives on campus as a freshman, he does precisely this. He’s on the hunt for people who match his very particular (and self-flattering) conception of coolness.

Instead, he finds Ken. Japanese-American, born and raised in San Diego, Ken is confident, gregarious, “flagrantly handsome,” and, in Hua’s view, appallingly normal. He wears clothes from Abercrombie & Fitch. He’s in a fraternity. He likes Pearl Jam and Dave Matthews Band. “I had met hundreds of him, hundreds of times before,” Hsu writes. “I was eighteen, in love with my moral compass, perpetually suspicious of anyone whose words came too easily. He was a genre of person I actively avoided—mainstream.”

The real story of Stay True begins only when he arrives in college at Berkeley. And it’s a story that ends in tragedy.

They become close friends, of course. When we’re kids, we’re taught that you can’t judge a book by its cover, but reality turns out to be a bit more complex. Throughout their undergraduate years, Ken largely remains the person he seemed to be—fun-loving, comfortable in his own skin, Hua’s polar opposite in so many ways—but he also turns out to be remarkably thoughtful, someone who is always happy to retreat to a dorm rooftop or an old Volvo to have another endless conversation. Both friends come to rely on these conversations to help them get through their undergraduate lives.

Ken challenges some (though not all) of Hua’s pretensions. As they progress through college, the two remain uniquely themselves and yet also help each other grow, even if they don’t realize it at the time. And Hua comes to adjust his sense of what friendship actually means:

I thought college was where I would find my people, which I assumed meant people who dressed like me, and listened to the same music as me, and wanted to see the same movies as me. Variations on the theme of me. But I realized, maybe too late, that all I wanted was friends to listen to music with.

To be present, to be curious, to be willing to share what you like, these qualities matter much more in a friendship than having identical tastes. Ken devours the mixtapes Hua makes him, offering song-by-song feedback, “like an encouraging parent.” In turn, Hua comes to be just a bit more open-minded about his friend’s mainstream tastes. They even develop a ritual involving Pearl Jam: “Before our finals, we would sit in front of my stereo and reverently listen to ‘Yellow Ledbetter.’ It wasn’t so bad.”

As Hsu describes his growing friendship with Ken (and their close group of mutual friends), he also tracks his own growing intellectual and political awareness. He encounters Derrida’s ideas on friendship and struggles to make sense of Foucault. He begins spending time reading at the Ethnic Studies library, learning more about the various and troubled strands of Asian-American history, while also mentoring low-income Southeast-Asian middle-schoolers in nearby Richmond. He continues to put out zines, briefly volunteers with a Black Panther Party newspaper, and works long hours on the university’s Asian-American paper, after being rejected by the Daily Cal. He goes to raves and marches in the streets to support affirmative action.

Meanwhile, Ken tries out for The Real World, confronting a casting agent about why the show has never included any Asian males. He starts a campus organization called the Multicultural Student Alliance. In between listening to Belle and Sebastian and Bone Thugs-N-Harmony, Ken and Hua discuss the lack of Asian-American characters in the sitcoms and films of their youth. Inspired by the mid-eighties Kung Fu–satire Berry Gordy’s The Last Dragon, they begin to write a movie together, mocking all the tropes and clichés they grew up with, creating parts for their friends that subvert all the cultural stereotypes they’ve inherited. They put it away for a while, and they never get a chance to finish it.

During their senior year, after a party at Ken’s house off campus that Hua and all their friends attended, Ken’s life ends in a shocking and utterly heartbreaking act of violence. The remainder of the book describes Hua’s attempt to reckon with his grief and sadness and the awful, haunting, unforeseeable absence that hangs over him. Anyone who has ever lost a friend on the cusp of adulthood, even in far different circumstances, will surely recognize some of their own grief in these pages as well—in the guilt, the questioning, and the dreams of their return that leave you briefly relieved when you wake up.

In the end, we come to realize that Hsu has been trying to write this book, one way or another, ever since his friend’s death. The story that he ultimately tells is tragic and deeply disturbing, but Stay True is not primarily about that tragedy. It’s about growing up, discovering the joys of true friendship, and grappling with the complications of identity and the larger world. It’s a book that should be read and remembered. There’s insight, emotion, and compelling self-scrutiny on every page. Although Hua believed that Ken was no different from hundreds of others, by the end he convinces us that, in his friend’s kindness and eagerness for life, there was nobody else quite like him.

Stay True
Hua Hsu
$26 | 208 pp.

Burke Nixon is a lecturer in the Program in Writing and Communication at Rice University, where he teaches a course called Fiction and Empathy.

Also by this author

Please email comments to [email protected] and join the conversation on our Facebook page.

Published in the May 2023 issue: View Contents
© 2024 Commonweal Magazine. All rights reserved. Design by Point Five. Site by Deck Fifty.