I’m Not Chinese
by Raymond Wong
Press: Apprentice House
Date: October 2014
Reviewed by: Charse Yun
A Homeland Excursion
Memoirs have historically been both a bane and boon in Asian American writing. Early autobiographical chronicles by Asian writers in the U.S. remain valuable today for conveying immigrant struggles. But with the explosion of memoir in the 1990’s, more recent autobiographical accounts seemed plagued by formulaic narratives. One common motif is the Americanized narrator of Asian descent who travels back to the homeland of his or her immigrant parents. The writer successfully undergoes a journey of healing and self-discovery and ultimately “comes to terms” with his or her bicultural identity.
At first glance, Raymond Wong’s I’m Not Chinese seems to be just another addition to this storyline. But that would be misleading. Wong’s work (published by the lesser-known Apprentice House in 2014), is a much more thoughtful. Although it may not reach as wide an audience, his work admirably demonstrates that what is most personal in writing can be deeply moving and transcend cliché.
The book begins in 1996 with the Raymond, a single, 30-something job counselor from California en route to Hong Kong. He is traveling with his mother, a strong, determined woman who might be called “difficult.” Twenty-eight years earlier, she separated from Raymond’s father and ran away to the U.S. with Raymond in tow. Raymond was only five at the time. There, she re-marries a white American man, who becomes a complicated step-father to Raymond. From the very outset, Raymond is not your typical Asian American narrator. In elementary school, his classmates ask, “What are you?” “British,” answers Raymond. The British, he points out, ruled Hong Kong for over fifty years.
But Raymond soon learns cheeky answers don’t translate into a sense of belonging in the States or China. When he tells his Chinese relatives that his girlfriend is Vietnamese-American, he notes: “The translation induced somber expressions, as if I’d announced the collapse of my business.”
Mother and son begin their headlong trip into Hong Kong and China, and the scenes are composed mostly of dialogue, the back-and-forth translations provided by his domineering mother. Interspersed are an abundance of tactile, finely wrought details. Wong writes with a fiction writer’s eye: “the hypnotic sweep of the windshield wipers,” the “flickering glow [of an incense stick] like a child cupping a butterfly.”
As the journey progresses, Raymond notices his mother losing steam: “Her eyes seemed distant and lost, and her shoulders slumped like the stem of a plant, once strong and vibrant, now wilting and slowly dying inside.”
He soon discovers why. Raymond is finally reunited with his real father and learns the startling secret of his parents’ divorce and his mother’s decision to abandon her husband in Hong Kong. Readers may be surprised that Wong was so much in the dark about his family history for most of his life. That his mother would not tell him may strike one as irresponsible.
But that is what makes the story compelling. Throughout, Wong describes his experiences with very little filters. Unlike other Asian American narratives, the foundation of I’m Not Chinese is not a journey to self-discovery or closure, but a stumbling upon familial secrets. This is the real thread of the story that gets pulled along by the current underneath. Even the lyrical details accentuate how disassociated Wong has become in light of his family’s wounded history. In one scene, Raymond’s mother argues bitterly over a forty dollar telephone charge at a Beijing hotel. Normally, Raymond would be annoyed. But now, he realizes his mother’s inability to find healing across generations or continents is intimately linked to her own wounds. Raymond now sees her more compassionately: “A frightened 12-year-old girl watching, helpless, as soldiers took her mother and father away.”
It’s a moving scene, yet nothing is resolved. Later, Raymond is shocked to learn his mother has never told his father that she has remarried. When he urges her to do so, her response closes the chapter: “Without answering, she turned to the window.”
In I’m Not Chinese, healing and closure may be just out of reach, but understanding and reverence for his family, Wong shows, is close at hand.
Charse Yun is a Korean American writer and translator who now lives in Seoul, S. Korea. Currently, he is a visiting professor at Korea National Open University. Born and raised in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, he studied at UW-Madison and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, but he is most proud of his recent status as an alumn of Antioch University’s MFA program in Creative Nonfiction.