The first thing you need to know is that I’m not Chinese.
My name is Raymond Wong and I stopped being Chinese
at the age of five.
And so begins Raymond Wong’s touching account of his own coming of age as a Chinese American. I’m Not Chinese is part memoir, part travelogue, part lyric essay, and it is entirely warm and moving. Wong takes us with him on his journey from resentment to openness and insight, and his is a book that, while appearing at first unassuming, is, we come to realize, thick with humor and understanding.
Wong has grown up in California with his mother, who left his father in Hong Kong when Raymond was five. His mother remarried in America, and Wong and his mother lived with his stepfather and his two half siblings. As he tells it, Wong has always felt like an outsider. He was never wholly American, yet he was far from being Chinese. In California, he refused to remember or learn to speak Chinese, and he had little knowledge of or interest in his family back in Hong Kong and China. Yet he did not feel comfortable or accepted as an American, either. Growing up in California, he writes, he preferred to be both out of sight and out of mind:
“I knew how it felt to be afraid. To be shy….because being noticed
meant you were doing something wrong. Or worse, there was
something wrong about you. And it was better to be invisible
Wong had always considered himself an outsider, a person with no real roots or long-standing values, and it wasn’t until he made the journey back to Asia with his mother as a young man that he came to understand what family means as well as what his life might mean to himself as well as to others. Yet even while on this trip back to Hong Kong with his mother, Wong is still an outsider. Throughout the book, Wong goes to great lengths to show us how he relied utterly on his mother during their trip since he speaks no Chinese. At every gathering and during every conversation with family members, Wong needs his mother to translate all that is being said to, and about, him. He feels out of place in California, and he is out of place in Hong Kong. It takes learning about and relying on his mother in the country of her birth for Wong to come to know what matters most to him.
Wong’s story is at heart the story of a mother and a son. In making the trip to Hong Kong, Wong comes to understand his mother’s life in ways he had never considered. Indeed, before this trip it seems that, to the son, the mother had no story of her own. The trip they make together brings his mother to light in unexpected ways, and Wong’s prose is at its most convincing and engaging when he’s recounting interactions he has with his mother. As they visit relatives and important family sites in Hong Kong and China, Wong learns bits and pieces of his mother’s life story as places and people bring up memories for her. It becomes clear to Wong that he had never bothered to ask his mother about her own past, and his narrative is a gradually unfolding and vivid account of the connection and interplay between mother and son.
As his mother is reminded of her past while they are back in her homeland, she begins to share her own memories of her early time in America, memories Wong was never much interested in before. At one point she tells her son about the work she found when she first got to the States:
“The owner there Chinese. He very mean, pay little bit. I learn some
English in Hong Kong, but my English not good, so he always calling
me stupid. He not want use Chinese so talking very fast and say why
I not understand?” She chopped the air as if to strike at the memory
of her former boss.
The true-to-life voice of his mother comes through in Wong’s prose, and, just as we see her clearly and with humor as well as empathy chopping the air at the memory of her hard early life, throughout the book Wong portrays his mother arrestingly and with care. Wong makes his mother come to life in his book, and he manages this with subtle, telling prose that allows us to see and hear her and her son for ourselves.
We come to know his mother well in Wong’s book. She is driven, confident, emotional, smart, intuitive, and funny, and Wong’s prose allows her to shine. This is a story of the mother as much as it is of the son, and Wong expertly and convincingly captures the tension as well as the love and respect that become clearer as the mother and son get to know each other in this new context. As they travel and reminisce, important family information seems to arrive almost as non sequitur:
“Wait a minute; you have a brother in San Francisco?”
“He die four years ago.”
“How come you never told me about him?”
“I tell you, but you not remember.” She shot me a scolding stare.
Without planning to, even without really wanting to initially, Wong learns to love and admire his mother and her story. In telling his own story, her story is revealed. Wong understands and appreciates both his own family and his mother more urgently as a result of his trip, and he also comes to the realization that he had been on the defensive for too long, that he had neglected what is, he now realizes, most important: family and the bonds of a shared history.
Raymond M. Wong is a husband and father in San Diego. He graduated with the MFA in Creative Writing from Antioch University Los Angeles. His award-winning memoir, I’m Not Chinese: The Journey from Resentment to Reverence, was published by Apprentice House in 2014. His writing has appeared in Chicken Soup for the Soul, USA Today, San Diego Union Tribune, Small Print Magazine, Segue, Marathon Literary Review, and his collection of essays will appear in an anthology, Songs of Ourselves, in Fall 2015 from Blue Heron Book Works. Visit him at www.raymondmwong.com.