Pang-Mei Natasha Chang has written a very moving book about the astonishing life of her great aunt Chang Yu-i. Yu-i was born to a prosperous family in China in 1900, the year of the Boxer Rebellion. Fortunately, before she died in New York City in 1989, at the age of 88, Yu-i told her story to her great-niece, the author of this book.
I’ll refrain from spoiling the story for readers who hope to read this book. Hopefully it is enough to say that Yu-i’s story and her challenges were unique. The author does an excellent job of interviewing Yu-i and received thoughtful and generally unsentimental answers about her personal saga, but I have been left with hundreds of questions. I feel the need to know more about Yu-i. Why did she do something? What was she thinking? I really need to know what made Yu-i tick.
The twentieth century was a tough time for China and for all the Chinese who emigrated. Given her sheltered upbringing, Yu-i would seem to have been far less prepared than most to meet the challenges she faced, but in fact she prospered. Although political events were obviously swirling all around Yu-i during this turbulent period, but her story focuses more on her personal challenges and the social system into which she was born.
This lovely book is further enriched by relatively brief references to the author’s own life story. As Chang tells her great aunt’s story, she also reveals aspects of her own life, including the family pressure she felt growing up, as well as the racial slurs she endured. Her life lacks the drama of her great aunt’s life, but this book is a testament to her own upbringing and her struggles to find the right career path.
It is worth noting that I have written this review just a few hours before my book club meets to discuss it. It will be fun to discuss it this evening without worrying about spoiler alerts!
At times all of the mass murder and genocide across the globe can be numbing. You know it is happening and you see the awful photos, but there is just so much of it that it can seem remote and, God forbid, routine. Well, Loung Ung’s 2000 memoir of her childhood under the Khmer Rouge brings it home. First They Killed My Father – A Daughter of Cambodia Remembers, tells a harrowing tale of exile, murder and overwhelming hunger as seen through the eyes of a privileged middle class five year old.
This child knows what she had and has absolutely no idea why she has been abruptly pulled from her comfortable life in Phnom Penh and, together with her family, cast into a hostile rural environment. Ung survives, but as the title of her book suggests, not all of her family was so lucky. The mindless beatings and killings all occur in a numbing environment of hunger and fear. No one trusts anyone; the author and her siblings are told they must hide their Chinese ancestry and middle class roots. It is actually pretty amazing that the kids were able to follow these life-saving directions. They showed a lot of discipline and seemed to have entered into survival mode.
Fortunately, Ung managed to get out. After tough times in a Thai refugee camp, she immigrated to the United States with one of her brothers. She went on to an American high school and college and ended up writing at least two books and working with the Campaign for a Landmine Free World.
I Googled Ung to see what she has been up to since writing this book and learned that she has prompted some controversy within the Cambodian community. In particular, some have questioned whether Ung could have called the details of her childhood trauma so specifically, given that she was so young, only five years old, when the nightmare began. Given that she wasn’t in a position to write it all down, it seems entirely plausible that her youth and the passage of time may have affected some of the specifics of her recollections. Of course the passage of time affects the recollections of many of us.
Such controversies do not blunt the impact of this book. Ung’s story hits you right in the face and breaks your heart. This is what genocide felt like to a young child. She may not have focused on the politics behind the Khmer Rouge’s absurd cruelty and meglomania, but she saw the lunacy behind the terror. People turned on each other with unimaginable viciousness, and mass murder and loss were the result. At some level the politics really didn’t matter.
Growing up Asian American – Stories of Childhood, Adolescence and Coming of Age in America from the 1800s to the 1990s, edited and with an introduction by Maria Hong, is a collection of 33 pieces, both fiction and non-fiction, about the Asian American immigrant experience in America. The stories share many themes — concerns about parents’ expectations, awareness that parents don’t quite fit in or don’t quite get what is going on. and then the writers’ own concerns about how to get along. A number of the writers feel considerable stress between their families’ insular worlds and their own experiences in American schools and communities. There are also cringing moments when the writers and their families face discrimination, both blatant and (hopefully) unintended. These stories don’t have many happy, cohesive families. Instead, most of the writers come across as loners who have been thrust into an alien environment without the proper tools for survival.
This book is highly recommended. The sheer volume (33) of the pieces underscores the fact that, regardless of immigration status or economic circumstances, it can be really tough to move to this country and that it can be uniquely traumatic for children.