Beijing Bastard by Val Wang
Published by Avery, 340 pages, $17
Quirky and independent, Val Wang was born in Washington, D.C., to strict Chinese parents who fled the Communist takeover in 1949. Filial piety wasn’t her bag, and this memoir chronicles how she skipped away to Beijing after college, rejecting her parents’ hopes for law school or marriage. There, she finds a radically changing culture. Traditional courtyard houses are meeting the wrecking ball in preparation for the 2008 Olympics, and alien-seeming customs are blending with modern grit. As an adventuresome journalist, Wang plunges into the latter. That includes working on a documentary about the Peking Opera, which gives her a view into both Old and New China. She meets former opera star Zhang, who was paralyzed while doing backflips 35 years before. Since then, under his barking orders, his sons and grandsons have continued the opera, full of wild fight scenes designed to lure tourists. Wang’s interviews with the family, crammed with “the detritus of decades,” bring alive both their colorful eccentricity and her own.
Another job doing translation has her working on a painful family documentary in which the daughter, Yang Lina, interviews her divorced parents and brother, reconstructing sorrow and conflict. During their work together, Yang Lina insists on wearing only her underpants. She’s just one of the book’s many memorable characters, which include crazy-bold journalist buddies and a man who, while drunk, beats up his monkey. Wang also delves into her always-interesting dating life, which zigzags between cultural and romantic misconnections. And she comes to understand the losses her parents experienced in China—but even when immersed in her family’s culture, she remains rebelliously American.
From page 43: But the actual sound of Chinese flooding into my ears sprang open an ancient trapdoor in my head that had long been rusted shut. I felt myself lying on a cot in my parents’ room at Christmas as the clicking of mah-jongg tiles and happy yelling in Chinese floated up louder and louder from downstairs.