In “The Trip,” your story in this week’s issue, a Chinese-American woman and her Caucasian-American husband take a tour through China and visit her family. How did the premise first come to you?
Earlier in the year, my husband and I travelled to China. It was his first time and probably my seventh. I came back from this trip with some things to process. When anyone asked, I said that the vacation was good, and it was; we had fun, ate well, saw all the sights. But I suppose the trip was particularly odd for me because it was the first time I’d gone with my husband. I found myself having to speak English in places where I never had before—at my uncle’s house, for instance, at my grandfather’s grave, in supermarkets—and quite a lot of English, too, so that my husband could participate. I was translating for everyone and, at the same time, trying to experience on my own. I was happy to translate but also drained. Afterward, I truly couldn’t differentiate which observations were mine and which belonged to someone else. This frightened me. So when I sat down to write a fictional version I knew that it would work better if there were other characters who spoke English as well. Hence the tour guides and the wife’s cousin, and, of course, the husband’s mother.
The couple grow further and further apart in the course of the trip, as he feels alienated and she tries to feel at home. Do you think they were ever genuinely close?
I imagine that, in America, fewer of these divisions would come up. The wife would consider her identity to be part of her but not necessarily an obstacle. The husband is thoughtful but stoic (and would not engage unless he could see that something really bothered her). On a day-to-day basis, both of these characters have low-key attitudes. Their ability to keep things at a distance is common ground and perhaps a result of their both having come from broken homes or being only children. Only children have no buffer, I find. They are given a set of conditions to handle and usually do. Unfortunately, travelling abroad induces stress. I asked myself what this couple would not be able to shrug off, what they would really have to confront, especially in a place where they both face encroaching forces.
In counterbalance to the alienation the husband experiences in China, the wife has had to contend with an overbearing and xenophobic American mother-in-law. Who do you think has it worse?
Thanks for this question. The husband’s mother is overbearing, yes, but I am not sure I consider her xenophobic, or displaying fear/dislike/hate for another group. There is a small event in the story in which the mother believes she is doing something inclusive, but both her son and his wife know better. I don’t think the mother means to be insensitive, but she is also not aware of what she should be sensitive to. The son considers it ignorance, pure and total, but the wife extrapolates. Ignorance leads to fear. And, to take it further, fear leads to dislike, and dislike leads to hate. Internally, the wife would take it further, as she belongs to the more marginalized group. But she hides her thoughts, and, externally, her husband defends her. In the dynamic between the mother and her daughter-in-law, who misclassifies whom? Some people are isolated, have not been informed by the same experiences, cannot keep up with change—yet they do not necessarily dislike or hate. Likewise, the way the wife’s family behaves, this family who I don’t think have travelled much, either, is off-putting, at times hard to bear, but the husband senses that they do not act out of malice, so goes along with it.
Who, then, has it worse?
I chose to write from the husband’s perspective because he would say that his wife does. Part of his character is an awareness gained from being educated and leaving home. He may not get it right all the time, but he tries, and that effort is something I wished to capture.
The husband actually does most of the contending with his mother, who just won’t leave him alone. Is she a malevolent force in his life, or just a small-town woman terrified of losing her only child to a world she doesn’t know?
More the latter. She is proud of her son but doesn’t understand his work or interests, and doesn’t have the capacity to. So she has become singularly proud, and intrusive, trying to fill the unclosable gap between them with constant attention and nostalgia. Her son recognizes that he comes from people who encouraged him but did not necessarily expect him to get to where he is. I think a mother like this has trouble reconciling her son’s success with the collapse of their relationship. She wonders why they can’t have both. She does want him to be happy, I believe, but how can she recognize his happiness if she sees his world only through a pinhole? In real life, this son–mother pair would be estranged, but, in the story, the son still speaks to his mother, still answers the phone; he is hopeful.
There’s a turning point in the story, when the wife’s cousin refers to her as an “ABC”—American-born Chinese. The wife is infuriated because she was born in China, and she sets about to prove or reclaim her Chinese identity. Why does she react so strongly to the comment?
From the cousin’s perspective, the phrase “ABC” would seem like a compliment. She has both envy and admiration for a family member who grew up in the West. The cousin works in a pie store and likely considers herself well versed in American culture, thus her perfect English, which she would have learned in school but perfected through mass consumption of Western shows, movies, and music. But being well versed in pop culture is one thing. The cousin has lived in China her entire life and, thus, has not experienced the same feelings of isolation that the wife has. In China, the cousin is neither immigrant nor minority, and her interest in Western culture comes with little to no baggage. The wife, however, takes the label as an insult. She is both Chinese and American, sure, but has been reminded that she is not enough of either. And what she can express in Chinese is so limited that the childish phrase makes her feel even more reduced.
Your last story in The New Yorker, “Omakase,” also involved a couple in which the man was a white American and the woman was the child of Chinese immigrants. As in that story, neither character here is given a name. Why not? Are you trying to emphasize the universality of the situation, or is it just that, as you said last time, you’re not good at naming characters?
For this story, I wanted the names that I did include to stand out. The more prominent characters (man, woman, mother, cousin) do not have names, because it would detract from my initial goal. The names I chose—Felix the Cat, Helen of Troy, etc.—are silly and fun but, more importantly, easy to remember and say. At some point in my life, I was asked to consider changing my name to Vicky. Vicky Wang—that would have been me. In grade school, I told people to call me Karen, a name I liked because it was also my teacher’s. My classmates kindly obliged. Convenience, the give and take of it, is often built into interactions. So, to expand on what I said before about not being too good with names, I should say, rather, that I am more used to a multi-name system. A person wishes to be called one thing, but on all his official documents he has another name, and perhaps his family calls him a third. The latter would be confusing to write or explain in a story; there would be something really schizophrenic about it.
At the end of the story (spoiler alert!), the wife decides to stay for an indefinite period of time, to reimmerse herself in Chinese language and culture. Did you know from the beginning that the story would end in that way? Or did the ending sneak up on you?
I did not know the ending when I started. I knew up to the point when the wife would stop translating. I knew this because I had wanted to stop translating. But, once I got there, the narrative was still incomplete. The wife is someone who, while not angry at anyone in particular, is angry about her circumstances, angry that she has been robbed of important choices. But we are all the products of a combination of chance and choice. By staying indefinitely, the wife may not have made the right choice, but that is really for her to figure out. If she fails in China, she will at least have proved something to herself, and that is important for her to have—a success or a failure, most likely a mix. When I saw this kind of ending, probably a few lines out, I also knew the husband’s reaction. He is not going to stop her.