Val Wang’s parents came to the United States from China when they were young adults with a spirit of adventure. Still, they wanted to give their daughter a sense of her heritage, so they sent her to Chinese school, taught her traditions, and made her learn martial arts. Val hated every minute of it, and rebelled, feeling the constant weight of her parents’ disapproval (and possibly her ancestors’ as well.) Yet she was drawn to China, just not her parents’ version of it, and a terrible documentary called “Beijing Bastards” seemed to sum up that yearning, displaying the lives of hooligans who lived to drink, sleep, and swear. Finally, the most rebellious thing she could imagine to do was to reverse her parents’ original, dangerous journey: after college, she headed to Beijing, with vague dreams of being a documentary filmmaker.
The subtitle of this memoir is “Into the Wilds of a Changing China,” but in fact, Val Wang is far too self-absorbed for the majority of the book to show us almost anything about China, except around the edges. It’s more like into the wilds of an entitled Westerner. When she arrives in Beijing, at first she lives with her aunt and uncle (Bomu and Bobo.) She finds their house rules inordinately oppressive, and disobeys every chance she gets. This makes her sound less punk and rebellious than just plain sulky and ungrateful:
“Where have you been?” Bobo demanded….
“I ate with people from work.”
“You should have called.”
“You let two old people worry about you.”
“We told your Nainai we would take good care of you in Beijing,” he said.
Taking care of me. I knew what that meant. Keeping me close to home for the opportunity to scrutinize and then mock me.
Since Val takes her own cultural potshots every possible chance she gets, this does not evoke much sympathy from me, even if there were evidence it was true. She complains about Chinese squat toilets, about her lack of privacy, about Chinese table manners, about the lack of fluoride in the water that turns her teeth black (but then she complains about the men’s bad teeth, which apparently makes them, but not her, undateable), about how “superior” everyone acts, about crowding in line, about the demolished buildings everywhere, about how much trouble she has getting a decent haircut. Maybe it’s supposed to sound wry and sophisticated, but to me it just sounds overprivileged, whiny, and Western, with almost no signposting along the way to alert us that she knows better. What about great food? What about something fascinating or beautiful? What about the nature of friendship or family when it’s not a conspiracy or a fraud or an inconvenience?
Val takes a few jobs here and there as a journalist, sometimes even borrowing video equipment from a friend so she can make a stab at creating a documentary of her own. But she doesn’t know what she wants to say or do, and again, she’s absorbed in the end result — fame, fortune, awards — and not in telling a story that may unfold in some unexpected way. The most painful of these episodes is when she comes in contact with the Zhang family, who has been involved in Peking Opera for generations. The family is only too willing to talk to her, but not in the way she desires: they want to present information, make a case, rather than simply live their lives without acknowledging the camera. Rather than live into the long process (perhaps years) of getting to know the family and earn their trust, or accepting that performativity is part of the lives of many post-dictatorship societies, Val becomes angry that they won’t perform “naturally” to her expectations, and, after a few weeks, gives up. The family tries to contact her several times, and again when the elderly grandfather dies (a repository for huge amounts of information about the Peking Opera), but she doesn’t call back.
It’s not that there’s no movement forward in this book. Val does mature a bit, and her relationship with her parents in particular has substantive growth, particularly when she sees their lives as young adults in the light of her own journey. There is also a very interesting and informative theme about housing throughout the entire book. In a country (and city — Val rarely travels) with so many people, the housing crisis is acute. Part of the issue is image. The old courtyard houses are beautiful and classic, but sometimes they’re decrepit and sometimes they’re shared by ten families. If they’ve been preserved, sometimes they’re owned by one person with an American passport. How does that look to the outside world? Whole neighborhoods are demolished in the course of this book, and new apartment buildings spring up, preparing for the Olympic Games. How do you secure what you need for your family? When rules about “family” have been radically changed, how do you know it’s yours? How do you protect yourself from corruption, or foreigners, or danger? This was interesting stuff, and wove naturally through the memoir.
I chose Beijing Bastard because I wanted to learn more about contemporary China. I’ve read quite a bit of history (even recent history), but I don’t know much about what it’s like there now. I wish I’d been able to see that through Val’s eyes, and not (mostly) her own navel.
I received a copy of this book for review consideration from Penguin.