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Out of Parents’ Silence Comes a Daughter’s Tales

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Lan Samantha Chang likes to browse through antique stores and secondhand curio shops, examining strangers’ discarded mementos. She wants, she says, to absorb the images and textures of what she finds. Old framed photographs of someone else’s ancestors. Teacups around which families gathered for conversations now long forgotten. The trinkets and baubles of invisible lives.

Chang browses not as a buyer, but as a voyeur, trying to glimpse an element she says is missing from her own life--a knowable family history, in which everyday items serve as the touchstones of shared experience.

It’s the curse of many immigrant families, said Chang, whose own parents grew up with war in their native China. Generations of blood history are severed for the sake of the future, the past discarded because it holds too much pain. And in many of those cases, the family stories go untold, leaving children without a reservoir of family lore from which to draw personal context.

“My parents are so reticent about the past that I had to create a set of stories that would let me work through a whole lot of questions I had about them,” said Chang, 33, who was born and raised in Wisconsin and now lives in Menlo Park.

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That sense of disengagement courses through the novella and five short stories that make up “Hunger” (Norton), Chang’s first published collection. It’s a notable debut, earning high praise from critics and adding to the growing body of literature--from Julia Alvarez to Amy Tan--that explores the stresses and uncertainties that haunt immigrant families, the de facto wellspring of American society.

Chang’s themes echo far beyond the world of Chinese Americans, touching on universal aspects of personal upheaval and dusty, forgotten dreams of vicarious ambition, and of the pressures all those things can bring to bear on the young. One critic described Chang’s stories as owing more to Bernard Malamud, with his highly textured depictions of immigrant Jewish life in New York City, than to Gish Jen or Tan, more predictable comparisons.

Like Jen and Tan, Chang writes about Chinese families trying to make the transition from immigrant to American. But the ruptures among Chang’s characters are more personal than cultural. These characters are largely strangers to themselves and to their families, and their loneliness envelops them as loose shrouds.

“The stories really are about certain things that happen over and over again,” Chang said recently over lunch in Santa Monica. “It’s not just a matter of one person who leaves where he’s from. He’s leaving an indelible family legacy. . . . There’s this desire of the children to know their parents and desire of the parents to make lives for their children. In most of the stories, that’s a conflict.”

That dynamic propels the title novella, “Hunger,” in which the character Min Sung relates her history of personal and physical dislocation. Born in China, she was a baby when her parents fled to Taiwan to escape war. As an adult in the mid-'60s, Min immigrates alone to New York City, where she meets Tian Sung, her mate under the Chinese yuanfen belief that fate apportions each person a life partner.

But their love dissolves beneath the stresses of adapting to American life. Tian, a gifted violinist spurned by his family for fleeing China for the freedom to play, is passed over for tenure at a music school. Eventually dismissed, he becomes a busboy in a Chinatown restaurant, living out his own dreams--both of musical success and revenge--through the talent of his younger daughter and student, Rose.

As Tian’s dreams become obsessions, his frustrations turn into a river of anger that drowns family harmony. Anna, his eldest daughter, leaves the family’s apartment in Brooklyn for Manhattan to be closer to her college. Then Rose runs away, leaving Min and Tian to their strained intimacies. “I could never have made up for what he lost for himself,” Min says at Tian’s deathbed.

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Within Chang’s family, the forsaken past ends with war. Her mother, born in Beijing, moved 26 times before she was 18, trying to avoid the shifting battle lines between Japanese invaders and Chinese defenders. Chang’s father left his family in Shanghai at 18 to study in a “road school,” students and professors traveling the countryside evading war and learning where they could. Both parents emigrated in the early ‘50s, met in New York City, married and settled in Appleton, Wis.

“They wanted to make our lives as stable as possible,” Chang said. “There were great public schools, and it was safe and secure.”

So the Changs became Americans, raising four daughters and subjugating their pasts to fit in with the present. Yet Chang’s characters, she said, aren’t based on her family. Rather, they represent parallel lives. They are her parents’ fictional contemporaries, whom Chang said she created to better understand the reasons for generational silence.

Chang sees in that silence something of a gift.

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“Their silence ultimately was helpful,” she said. “If they had told me all their stories, I would have been too responsible to them. It’s the silver lining. I don’t want to write autobiography or be a memoirist. I want to write fiction and literature.”

In the Chang family, she said, the intergenerational drama played out without the bitter divisions that fill her stories. But the results were similar: The pressures to parlay the parents’ sacrifices into personal success acted as a powerful motivator. The four Chang children attended Ivy League colleges. One is a doctor, another a lawyer. The third is studying to be a physical therapist.

Chang flirted with similar careers. She entered Yale planning to study medicine but hated the science classes. She decided to try law and was accepted at law school, but couldn’t bring herself to start the arduous courses.

She felt she’d prefer the 9-to-5 world of bureaucracy to the long, stressful hours of the law, and earned a master’s degree in public administration from the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard. She was, she realizes now, trying to embrace the stability that was so important to her parents.

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“I realized that I had been pursuing passively the past, taking Chinese history courses and language classes. I was discovering what my parents’ world had been like. I thought that if I could get a job where I had to wear hose, then everything would be all right,” Chang said, laughing.

“I was always actively miserable. I woke up one morning--I was taking economics courses--and thought, ‘Wow, I really hate this.’ I had always wanted to be a writer. I decided that that was what I was going to do.”

It was not a popular decision on the home front.

“They were so stressed about it,” Chang said. “In some ways, it was their worst nightmare to discover their daughter wanted to go off and do something half-cocked and flaky, with no measured mark of success, with no money in it.”

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She persevered, though. A stint at the University of Iowa Writers Workshop was followed by fellowships to write and lecture as part of the Stanford Writing Program. Then came publishing success in Atlantic Monthly and Story. Two of her pieces were selected for “The Best American Short Stories” in 1994 and 1996 (Houghton Mifflin). And now there’s “Hunger,” which Chang hopes will be followed by her novel-in-progress about relationships among sisters, set in China, Taiwan and the U.S.

“It’s set back in the period when my parents were growing up,” she said. “A lot of it takes place during war, and the characters move from China when the Communists take over.”

The themes will be familiar. Sacrifice. Dislocation. The willful embrace of the new at an expense not immediately recognized, as in her short story “The Unforgetting,” telling of the Hwang family’s decision to settle in small-town Iowa.

The parents decide to clear room in their minds to learn this new life by forgetting the details of their old one. Ming, the father, shelves his dream of studying science and becomes a photocopier repairman for the sake of their son, whom they conspicuously name Charles. The parents struggle to become fully American, symbolically storing in the basement six rice bowls brought from Beijing, and eating their meals with silverware and hard plastic plates.

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Yet when their son, raised more American than Chinese, announces his plans to leave Iowa for Harvard--in essence, leaving the family--the parents’ desires to assimilate shatter. Sansan, the mother, seethes as she blames her husband. She flees in the car, but Ming, sitting in the darkened kitchen, knows she’ll return, for neither of them has any other place to go.

Even then, in this valley of despair, Ming can’t admit to his wife the simple truth that he needs her. In his loneliness and isolation, he serves as the powerful and delicately wrought emblem of Chang’s vision.


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