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.”