Su recalls the peculiarities of growing up as part of China’s one-child generation in this debut memoir.
Despite its affable title, this is a stark, striking memoir in stories recounting episodes from Su’s early years that are worlds away from the standard American notion of what a childhood should entail. For instance, the author recalls sitting at home one night in June 1989 watching a detective series on television—the government broadcast four episodes that night instead of the usual one—only to find out later that, not far from her home, the People’s Liberation Army was slaughtering protesters in Tiananmen Square. Born in 1978, just before China instituted its one-child policy, Su was the daughter of a mother who had wanted sons—she miscarried three before Su’s birth, aborted one after—which caused her to keep Su at a distance: “I once asked my mother why she never held my hand, hugged me and kissed me,” writes Su. “I remember my mother said to me she did not think it was necessary.” Su received more affection from her grandmother, though despite (or perhaps because of) this, she would often deliberately hurt the old woman’s feelings. Many of the pieces in the book concern initial experiences: the first time that Su rode a bike, or saw a sunset, or watched television. Rather than marking an addition, however, each experience seemed to whittle something away from the maturing girl. This is a book of disappearances—of a chronic, evolving sense of lack.
Su writes in a detached prose that evokes the naiveté of childhood while hinting at the deeper trauma that some of these events inflicted. The result often borders on the surreal; for example, in the opening chapter, “Tiger,” the author describes a beloved pet dog that “was big, as big as a donkey, I used to sit on his back. I was about nine years old. He liked grass very much. I used to pick a lot of grass for him.” Because owning an unregistered dog was illegal, and because registration was expensive, Su’s mother decided that Tiger should be killed, so she strangled the dog in the yard while Su looked on. The next day, the family ate Tiger for dinner. “Now I love dog’s meat,” Su ends this disturbing tale. “It is the most delicious meat that I have ever had.” The fablelike perfection of some of the pieces—“Song Yali,” “Sange,” “Garden”—suggests quite a bit of authorial shaping, and as a result, some readers may be tempted to view the book as a collection of short fiction. In the end, though, the literal truth barely matters; Su so sharply captures the universal experiences of lonely youth and sets them so starkly against the austerity of 1980s China that the book delivers an artistic truth that’s powerful enough on its own. It’s a work that will sneak into one’s soul and linger there for a long time.
A haunting childhood remembrance set in China’s recent past.