ORPHAN BACHELORS: A Memoir, by Fae Myenne Ng
MEET ME TONIGHT IN ATLANTIC CITY: A Memoir, by Jane Wong
My earliest memory of community is of walking around my birth city in northern China with my mother and grandparents, receiving greetings of “Have you eaten?” from friends and acquaintances and assuring everyone, “We have.” Decades later, when my grandfather unexpectedly died during the Covid pandemic before China reopened its borders, my mother took shelter in her kitchen in New Jersey, cooking nightly until dawn. A stream of stir-fries, soups and sweets appeared at my door just a few miles away; on my phone, a text: “Have you eaten?”
In many Asian American households, love is intermingled with food. Rather than telling us that they love us, our parents feed us, guarding against physical hunger while an emotional one rages. Two memoirs, Fae Myenne Ng’s “Orphan Bachelors” and Jane Wong’s “Meet Me Tonight in Atlantic City,” explore the many forms of hunger that come with being Asian in America.
Honoring the full depth of both memoirs in a single review is as impossible as celebrating the full richness of Asian American and Pacific Islander heritage in a single month. Ng and Wong are both second-generation Americans with ancestral roots in Toishan, in the southern Chinese province of Guangdong. But they grew up nearly three decades apart, on opposite American coasts — Ng in the 1950s and ’60s in San Francisco, where her family operated a grocery store, and Wong in the 1980s and ’90s in New Jersey, where her parents ran a Chinese restaurant. Each author paints her story with flourish; but whereas the novelist Ng’s narrative might be likened to a figurative oil work, with structured lines building layers of her family’s history, the poet Wong’s book is reminiscent of an abstract watercolor, free-flowing, nonlinear, without clear borders.
This linguistic adeptness causes tension for both authors, who resent that their American upbringings confined them to English — what Ng calls the “barbarian’s language” and Wong “the language of the colonizer.” In 1940, Ng’s father arrived in America as a “paper son,” posing as the child of an unrelated Chinese American to enter the United States despite the Exclusion Act. “When my father said daay bort, pronouncing the word ‘deport’ by breaking it into syllables that creaked like a door opening and shutting,” she writes, “I felt its decree.” She adds, “‘Deport’ is the first English word I heard my father speak, so it’s my first English word.” When Wong’s mother was pregnant with her and then her brother, Steven, she asked random customers at the family restaurant to name her unborn children — to give them English names so they might “fit in.” Wong hungers for familiarity with her Chinese name, the memory of which has become so faint she calls upon her mother to repeat it to her. Hearing it, she reflects, “My Chinese name opens like an old jar of fermented garlic. ‘Can you say it again?’ I ask her over and over, until I’m dizzy with its unrecognizable pungency.”
Stuck in the language that subjugated their respective parents, Wong and Ng search the literature of Asian Americans for a semblance of artistic community. Theresa Hak Kyung Cha’s “Dictee” helped Wong to see that “storytelling was hardly a linear act when you come from a history of trauma, war and migration. Reading ‘Dictee’ gave me permission to create constellations of speculative memory.” Ng found that “Eat a Bowl of Tea,” by Louis Chu, “gave life to my Toishanese,” a “fearless” and “uninhibited” language that is “shouted, not spoken.” These texts also offered the authors new ways of disentangling their Asian American womanhood from racism, imperialism and misogyny. Ng calls the protagonist of “Eat a Bowl of Tea,” Mei Oi, “our erotic avenger against Exclusion. She demands sex as retribution for the childless wives left in China’s empty marital beds and also the Orphan Bachelors living sexless lives in America.” And Wong examines the violence experienced today by Asian American women — “hypersexualized, objectified and reviled” — through the lens of Cha’s brutal rape and murder just after the publication of “Dictee” in 1982: “Have our bodies ever known safety?”
Ng’s and Wong’s bodies have both known hungers of many kinds, inheriting their ancestors’ “insatiable” appetites — for food and water, but also for connection. Their bodies have endured male aggression and reproductive pain: Wong’s “memory of the man who bit her nipple so hard he drew blood; the memory of another man who held her neck with his hands, stewing in the suet of power and violence,” and Ng’s periods, which “were muscle-cramping, debilitating, fetal-spastic, wrenching marathons.” Of her decision not to have children, Ng writes, “Exclusion killed my desire for progeny, for entry into that community of delusional immortality.”
There is also the hunger of grief: for Ng’s mother, brother and father, who die in quick succession; for the estranged father who walked out on Wong in her teens; for the series of exes who follow suit in Wong’s adult years; and, most of all, for the ties to home that fade with the loss of each loved one.
All his life, Ng’s father would say to her, “America didn’t have to kill any Chinese; her law assured none would be born.” In such a world, what could be more defiant than the act of eating, of continuing to live? At a restaurant in New York City’s Chinatown, Ng felt the food to have “delivered me back home,” warm jook reminding her of her mother’s “homemade baby food.” And, with a bowl of jook that Wong has learned to make herself, “I thought about how I could finally feed those I love,” how “everything I eat is a reminder that I am alive.”
Qian Julie Wang is the author of “Beautiful Country: A Memoir of an Undocumented Childhood” and the managing partner of Gottlieb & Wang LLP, an education rights law firm.
ORPHAN BACHELORS: A Memoir | By Fae Myenne Ng | Illustrated | 244 pp. | Grove Press | $28
MEET ME TONIGHT IN ATLANTIC CITY: A Memoir | By Jane Wong | Illustrated | 276 pp. | Tin House | $27.95