Six deceptively simple essays revolving around a Chinese-American woman’s life story.
The Chinese-American immigrant experience is a furrow that has been only too well hoed by Amy Tan, Ha Jin and Lisa See, but Owyang avoids the traps of the dumpling diaspora by taking a different path. At age 66, she finally decides to tell her mother’s story, and, in the process, explores the chronic struggle of being Chinese in America and American in China. When Japanese soldiers kill her father after the 1937 Nanjing massacre, her mother migrates with her two children and lover to New York. It helps that the young author, a gifted pianist, has been admitted to Juilliard. Her mother emerges as a “true eccentric,” a cross between a tiger mom and a woman addicted to gambling, though not ruinously. In the other essays, Owyang travels to “a new China” to teach English, only to be scolded by an elderly Chinese man for allowing her American colleague to jog in shorts and “show her legs.” Having married a Chinese-American professor, she now has two loving grandsons, and just when it all seems suffocatingly bourgeois, there is a flash of drama, enough to deepen this bland reminiscence and pave the way for a surprisingly assertive end. While the essays could have been edited to cut out repetitive background bits, the spare prose and reliance on anecdote, rather than description, work well. There are no great literary flights, but occasionally, when the author does employ analogy, it is with pleasing effect. Sitting in the park with her finger twirled around the strings of a bunch of balloons, her mind wanders back to the day her beloved mother died. “I heard my grandsons giggle. ‘You let one of the balloons go.’ I was more than a little surprised because I hadn’t felt a thing.”
An unpretentious memoir in which less is more.