Growing up in the ‘80s, I knew of only two non-caricature representations of Chinese people in wider American culture: Connie Chung, the news anchor; and the transcontinental railroad workers from the 1860s. Books and television were almost exclusively white; friends with whom I share a second-generation background remember wishing to be more “American,” or maybe at least to have parents who didn’t scream at each other constantly under the duress of money issues and social isolation. Why couldn’t we just be normal?
More varied — not to mention more numerous — public portraits of Asian Americans would have gone a long way toward relieving the anxiety and loneliness that generations of Asian American kids have felt without being able to name. Fortunately, a recent wave of Asian-centered books, movies, and shows (among them Netflix’s “Beef” and HBO’s “Nora From Queens”) has brought more dimension to renderings of Asian American lives, putting faces to a group too often seen as monolithic.
Jane Wong’s blazing, lyrical memoir “Meet Me Tonight in Atlantic City” depicts those faces in intimate detail. A poet and professor of creative writing, Wong, whose parents immigrated to New Jersey from China’s Guangdong province in the 1980s, spent her childhood in the shadow of her erratic father’s gambling addiction. Her mother worked relentlessly at demanding jobs with little pay or status, while her father essentially did nothing and then left them.
That instability, along with the historical trauma of her family (Wong’s parents and grandparents lived through the Cultural Revolution, though other relatives starved to death as a result of Mao’s agricultural policies), had repercussions far beyond the eventual loss of the family’s Chinese restaurant business. Wong pairs her painfully specific knowledge of poverty, cultural dislocation, and discrimination with a poet’s conjuring skills and a sociologist’s research.
The impact goes deep. “Root Canal Street,” in which she picks apart the experience of seeking dental and medical care as low-income Chinese immigrants, is in part an analytical view of the social and historical circumstances that led her family to seek care in inhospitable places. “In the countryside [in China], dental problems were the least of your worries,” she notes. “Basic health care needs were barely met.” “My parents arrived in the States in their early 20s, not knowing a single word of English. How are you supposed to navigate the supermarket, let alone the American health system?”
While the context is illuminating, it’s the visceral descriptions of sorrow and anxiety that stick with the reader. As a little girl accompanying her mother on harrowing trips to back alley Chinatown dentists, Wong “was there to witness, to document, to make sure she was okay — not hurt — at the end of it all,” she says. “[It] always felt… not quite right…But…I understood why. Why I was there…listening to my mother’s rising and lowering whimpers. There: deciding when to run to her aid. There: filling the needs of a community who can’t afford basic health care.”
This is not by any means the largest injustice Wong documents in her book, but there’s something particularly heartbreaking about a child taking on the burden of an adult’s pain — a betrayal of some larger social contract. Betrayals abound in Wong’s life: men who abuse or cheat on her; professors who disparage or ignore her work (Wong graduated from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop); people with money or power or both shaming her thoughtlessly, like the professor who chides her publicly for writing in a library book she couldn’t afford to buy.
And of course, her father, about whom her feelings are complicated enough that he intrudes, time and again, into her essays, unwelcome and yet, in the way of blood relatives, never completely exorcised.
But “Meet Me Tonight” is also a tender love letter — to friends; to mentors; to her brother; most of all, to her mother, Huang Jin Ai. A tough, funny woman, fiercely supportive of her daughter, “Wongmom.com,” as Wong sometimes refers to her, has worked the night shift for the USPS for 26 years. The essay “Snow, Rain, Heat, Pandemic, Gloom of Night” is an homage to her mother’s (and other essential workers’) long hours, particularly during the pandemic: “The pandemic has pushed my mother’s…hours to the edge. [She] basically lives at work. I think about the restaurant life, how I slept among those sacks of rice…” Guilt, so familiar to the upwardly mobile children of working-class parents, seizes Wong, who is teaching from home while her mother works “12-hour, 14-hour days.”
“I sit,” Wong says, “in the muck of my education.”
But the trade-off of those long hours is the warmth and fellowship of her mother’s “postal service family,” extended to Wong herself by virtue of being the flower of a difficult shared life. “They have never read poetry before, but they go online and order my book,” she writes of her mother’s coworkers. When Wong holds a virtual book launch, they attend, typing into the chat: “‘Hi Jane, you don’t know me, but I work with your mom! We love you!’”
Poetry and writing as power are central to Wong’s life, but when she is with other writers, she notes, “we rarely talk about writing. Wasn’t poetry in all those everyday things around us…?” In “Meet Me Tonight,” the poetry is in the words and in the everyday things, elevating ordinary lives — in all their specific scars and glory — that might otherwise go unseen.
MEET ME TONIGHT IN ATLANTIC CITY
By Jane Wong
Tin House, 288 pages, $27.95
Francie Lin is a freelance writer and editor in Northampton.