Tales of Assimilation

Reading Recent Asian-American Memoirs
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Amy Tan, pictured with her family in 1959 (Courtesy of Amy Tan)

I was twelve when I first watched The Joy Luck Club on a library VHS. Amy Tan’s novel (precursor to the film) had been released four years earlier, when I was in third grade and too young to notice. Joy Luck tells the story of four Chinese mothers and their American daughters, how they inherit each other’s fortunes and sorrows across generations and continents. Alone one evening in front of the television while my parents worked at our family’s restaurant, I saw on screen, for the first time, plots and characters that told my story of cultural negotiation, language barriers, and filial piety.

Later, my mom watched Joy Luck with me. I thought she would revel in seeing Chinese characters in an American movie, but she remained mostly unmoved—except during one dramatic scene of betrayal and escape, when she scoffed: Why should you buy Amy Tan’s books to learn these things? I could have told you these stories for free. Still, she praised the author for “getting it right.” She may have meant the history (Chinese women’s subjugation, famine, immigration) or trauma (war, family separation) or Tan’s portrayal of assimilation’s gifts and wounds.

This year, I picked up Tan’s Where the Past Begins (Ecco, $28.99, 368 pp.). Her second book of nonfiction is part memoir (fans will understand my thrill at learning what was and wasn’t autobiographical in Joy Luck) and part meditation on writing. To research the book, Tan describes digging into bins of childhood memorabilia; she finds her parents’ death certificates, a photograph of her teenage brother laid out in his coffin, letters, abandoned novels, and reams of sketches. She tests her memories against this evidence, revealing gaps, errors, and outright lies she now must reconcile to her story. Where the Past Begins contains interludes from source texts, namely early journal entries and letters Tan wrote to her mother from college (Tan often interjects to remark on the mystery of who her past self was). The book is deeply metatextual. One chapter is comprised of a series of emails with Tan’s editor, Daniel Halpern, about writing the book. Another chapter begins, “I am the author of this novel,” then enrolls readers in a master class on narrative structure, voice, and character. Where the Past Begins affirms that the past is not a set of memories but a living companion, that the present is not just the moment at hand but a spectral current flowing with history, childhoods, and ghosts.

As a first-generation American, I’ve done many things my parents never could.

Before becoming a fan of Amy Tan’s novels, the only Chinese character I had encountered in a book was Shirley Temple Wong in The Year of the Boar and Jackie Robinson. That novel, set in the year of my mom’s birth, details a story similar to hers: the heartbreaks and refusals of a young girl recently arrived in America from China. By contrast, the protagonist in Lisa Ko’s 2017 National Book Award Finalist The Leavers (Algonquin Books, $15.95, 352 pp.) is a first-generation American like me. The book follows Deming Guo: born in Brooklyn, sent to live with his grandfather in Fuzhou until age six, and then reunited with his mother back in New York. Deming and his mother grow close, then drift apart as Deming becomes both adolescent and American. In one scene, Deming tells his mother he’s been given a denigrating nickname at school. He thinks it’s funny, his ticket to acceptance; she demands Deming quash the name-calling. Their impasse is momentary, but carries a weight of linguistic misunderstanding I can identify with: my CDs thrown in the trash over untranslatable song lyrics, friends banned from our house because of misheard teenage banter.

When Deming is twelve, his mother disappears, altering not just the direction of his life but his identity as her son, as American and Chinese. Spending his teenage years in a homogenous white community in upstate New York, Deming is vulnerable and isolated, escaping into jazz and Jimi Hendrix.

The Leavers explores not only the immigrant experience but also trans­racial adoption, revealing the fragility of being white adoptive parents to a child of color. With equal tenderness and anger, we see the jealousy a child’s biology and birth family can elicit in an adoptive family, whose love is desperate to surmount—and thereby erase—race, language, and grief. As we watch Deming grapple with his life’s upending, his birth mother narrates her own story of loss and desperation, addressing it to her son. Readers of Amy Tan will recognize the child haunted by a parent’s immigration story—a self that is both his mother and everything his mother has lost.

As a first-generation American, I’ve done many things my parents never could. Becoming a teacher (or just working outside the family restaurant) was one. The last seven years of my teaching career were spent with developmental writers at my city’s community college, and my final recommendation, Michelle Kuo’s memoir Reading with Patrick (Random House, $17, 336 pp.), brings the assimilation story into adulthood. Like my very first encounter with Amy Tan, I was surprised and gratified to see part of myself reflected in Kuo’s story of becoming a teacher.

Kuo recounts her Teach for America assignment in Helena, Arkansas, a segregated, declining town in the Mississippi Delta. Amid her lyrical descriptions of Helena’s kudzu and dust, and her loving renderings of her students’ spark and wit, we meet Patrick, an eighth-grader in her class. Already fifteen and mostly raising himself, Patrick charms Kuo with his kindness and curiosity. Kuo eventually leaves Helena, only to return years later when she learns Patrick is in jail for a terrible crime. In his cell, he and Kuo start reading together, transforming each other.

Structured around her reading with Patrick, Kuo’s book examines a series of fraught relationships between herself, her parents, and her work. She is caught between her parents’ enormous sacrifices and equally large expectations for her life, and her deepening loyalty to a dysfunctional alternative school in a dying town sustained by families left behind in the Great Migration. In trying to reconcile her obligations and desires, Kuo exposes her own motivations with striking vulnerability: “My parents had come from a country nobody had heard of that I didn’t know much about. And so I had turned—it was becoming obvious now—to the black tradition as a surrogate, as a way to fill in the absence of my own history and claim an American past.” Reading with Patrick is Kuo’s multifarious American assimilation story: away from her parents and into America, as a stranger into Helena, and ultimately into her vocation. Like all powerful assimilation stories, it hinges on flawed, limited, transcendent love.

Melody S. Gee is a freelance writer and editor, and the author of The Dead in Daylight and Each Crumbling House. She lives in St. Louis, Missouri, with her husband and daughters.

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