I decided to go to China because I wanted an adventure when I was in my early 20s, and I wanted to get far away from everything I had known in my suburban American upbringing. Chinese was the only foreign language I spoke, so I ended up going to China.
I grew up in this uptight, nerdy Chinese-American household or lifestyle, and I felt like that wasn’t really who I was. And I wanted to explore the more wild, chaotic, artistic side of my personality, and I do feel like actually I got that, but that wasn’t all I got. I wrote the whole book without really realizing it was about my family. Anyone else could have told me the first day I started writing it, but it took me writing it and, honestly, years to really face that and to put that story in there.
I had an immediate affinity to this family of Peking Opera performers. I picked [Grandfather Zhang] for a documentary topic. I wanted to tell about the effects of modernization through this one family and the loss of Peking Opera. All very good journalistic impulses, but really what was going on — and this was a recurring pattern in the book — is that they were stand-ins for my own family. I was welcomed into their homes, which felt really familiar, but at the same time they were telling me who I was, constantly making me do things I didn’t want to do, criticizing me, berating me. I had such trouble with it, but I couldn’t get enough of it. Oh, my goodness, I’m so blind. It was a way to experience my own family in both more concentrated and more diluted form, to work out those feelings.
FOR MORE Wang’s memoir comes out October 30. She’ll take part in the Concord Festival of Authors on October 26 and be at Harvard Book Store on October 30. valwang.com
Interview has been edited and condensed.