Spotlight On: The Woo-Woo by Lindsay Wong
Authors of Asian descent break stereotypes by telling their truths
By Coco McCracken
The more Asian Americans write stories that make it into print, the further the model-minority stereotype recedes in our generation’s rearview mirror. One such stereotype is that Chinese Americans are studious, well behaved, and quiet. (I know this is a myth because I am Chinese American and my family was anything but studious, well behaved, and quiet!) These reductive descriptors of individuals are perpetuated by the publishing and film industries, which lack diverse representation.
After reading Lindsay Wong’s breathtaking memoir, The Woo-Woo: How I Survived Ice Hockey, Drug Raids, Demons, and My Crazy Chinese Family (Arsenal Pulp Press, 2018), I felt like shouting from the rooftops. Here is a daring piece of memoir that colors outside the lines in every way, begging the reader to understand that Asians are not defined by the sum of our coded parts, and that our stories are as nuanced and complex as the cultures we come from.
Wong begins her story with a bang at a doctor’s office in New York City: “Miss Wong, you are seriously ill,” says the doctor. After a diagnosis, Wong leaves the office. She is stoic, waving away tissues. But then in the anonymity of Manhattan’s crowded streets, she breaks down and cries “so hard her eyes must have been bleeding.” Moments later, she bursts out laughing so hard she throws up. In just the first few pages, Wong lets the reader know that this ride through her story is going to be as unrelenting for us as it was for her to live.
We’re whisked back in time to Wong’s childhood in British Columbia, Canada. Here we meet her family, where the chaos of life in her household rings off the page. Her father had Wong play “dirty games of hockey,” where she and her brother would be paid cash to make rigged penalties. We learn more about Chinese ghosts, or the “Woo-Woo” who, according to her mother, constantly threatened to possess her, which made Wong believe that everywhere she looked, she was surrounded by ghosts.
Her schizophrenic grandmother teetered at the top of the matriarchal line. In one psychotic break, her grandmother believed that their fridge was attacking her. We also see Wong’s aunt suffer a more public and darker breakdown, threatening to jump off a busy Vancouver bridge, stalling traffic for hours. “How does someone go crazy?” Wong muses. And the reader, immersed in the dysfunction, also asks, “How does one survive this?”
Like many writers, Wong is a divided observer. One part of her rejects the “madness,” using biting humor to bring the reader relief. But another part of her reveals tender feelings, and this makes the book engaging. Wong tries to guess the “why” behind these mental breakdowns, and her reflections enter her prose swiftly and succinctly.
“So although [my mother] was proficient in many things, including being a formidable screamer, she had many household oddities. You might wonder why our off-white carpets were peculiarly grimy, or why eight months of soggy newspapers were stockpiled in [our home’s] hallways, or why pieces of junk were accumulating on the kitchen counters. We were pack rats, the enthusiastic, obsessive immigrant kind, who were too paranoid to unpack, just in case the government decided to send us back.”
Many people have a fear of turning into their parents. But what happens when intergenerational trauma comes knocking on your bloodline’s door? Are we at a point in time where the experience of mental illness in families can be shared loudly, and boldly? Or do we still whisper it at cocktail parties, hiding it in the “safety” of hushed gossip?
Wong is unapologetic in lifting the curtain into her childhood. We deeply enter her world, and the wounds of her youth are vicariously unleashed on us. Some critics have had a hard time with Wong’s language. One reviewer on Goodreads called her language “mean and vulgar.” I think back to my childhood, which was rife with alcohol, cursing, and “vulgarity.” Like many children, I didn’t have a choice about whether or not to be exposed to unlikeable situations or behaviors. So why should writers put makeup on the truth, just to make it easy to take?
The Woo-Woo is not an escapist read. It doesn’t offer the reader much solace, which is fair, since life itself rarely offers solace either. However, in the spaces between the jagged edges, there is stillness and beauty, an exceptional feat when dealing with such tough subject matter.
We don’t need to only read stories like Wong’s in order to deepen the limited worldview of the Asian American experience, but it’s time that we made room for all experiences. Last month, I overheard someone tell their friend, “Chinese girls are so smart, so studious!” and I had an urge to tell her I failed math in high school. As long as our stories stay in the margins – or worse, unpublished – popular culture will fill in the blank spaces for people of Asian descent. Now, more than ever, we need to tell our own stories before someone else does.
I believe Wong’s memoir will produce a domino effect, encouraging writers of color, and writers dealing with mental illness, to march ahead as bravely as she did. Change is loud; it colors outside the margins. And change can be a daring pursuit that inspires others to jump on board. And sometimes that can happen when you share the truth of your upbringing, in all of its uncensored glory.