I never really cared much for reality TV shows and watching semi- or rather pseudo-celebrities acting out their day-to-day lives in front of a camera and thinking that their emotional outbursts or onscreen antics are entertaining or of some cultural value to society. There’s nothing remotely interesting about the staged drama or the contrived circumstances the reality TV stars find themselves in. However, I have to admit that I do enjoy reading autobiographies, biographies, and memoirs of famous, not-so-famous, and not-even-famous people and learning about the minutiae of their life and experiences. I particularly like reading about the lives of ordinary people whose personal stories are often quite extraordinary yet also familiar at the same time.
Biographies (I use this term in a generic sense to include autobiographies and memoirs) speak to us in a way that a work of fiction can’t, probably because we know that the story is real and the events therein did happen. They’re told with authenticity and sincerity and with a certain degree of candidness and reflectiveness that draw us into their narrative. Reading them often invites us to look inward and think about our own experiences and who we are in relation to the people around us. I think what makes biographies so engaging is the sense of intimacy the author conveys in telling his or her personal story to us. We in a way become a confidante to the author, a friend with whom secrets can be entrusted and all the mundane details of his or her life can be shared without embarrassment. We don’t know this person and yet this stranger’s story resonates with us. That’s the beauty of biographies—we see remnants of our lives in other people’s stories.
During Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, we’re reminded of the many contributions people of Asian and Pacific Islander decent have made to the United States and also the challenges they’ve faced to become American citizens. Much has been written about their experience, and a great way to celebrate AAPI Month is to learn more about the history of Asian Americans and hearing their stories. Here are seven autobiographies and memoirs written by Asian Americans who share their story about coming to the United States and their personal history and journey to becoming an American while maintaining their cultural identity. They, along with so many other immigrant stories, help us understand the human condition and add to the collective human story.
House of Sticks is about a young girl who immigrated to the United States from Vietnam with her family. As they navigate the new cultural and geographic landscape, she finds herself torn between two worlds. She feels duty-bound to meet her parents’ expectations, but at school she feels the pressure to blend in. Sigh, Gone is about a boy whose family is also from Vietnam. It’s a coming-of-age memoir that recounts a young man’s bewildering experience of finding himself and his identity in books and punk rock. Beautiful Country is a story about a Chinese family who came to the United States illegally. As “illegals,” they live in constant fear of being discovered and with the hopeless feeling of being invisible. They must remain unseen and try to build a new life in a strange and sometimes unwelcoming country that in time will reveal its true beauty. Crying in H Mart tells the story of a Korean American girl who grew up in a predominantly White community in Eugene, Oregon. It’s a coming-of-age story about growing apart from, and then back together with, her Korean identity as she tries to find herself. Her mother is the only connection to her Korean heritage, and when she is diagnosed with a terminal illness, she is forced to reckon with her identity. You Can’t Be Serious is about an American kid from an immigrant Indian family whose idiosyncratic life journey takes him from the suburb of New Jersey to Hollywood, then to the White House, and back to Hollywood again. It’s a collection of funny, ridiculous, and sometimes awkward stories about growing up Indian at home and in Hollywood that will make you laugh out loud. Heart of Fire is a memoir by Senator Mazie Hirono who shares her story about growing up in Japan and immigrating to the United States with her mother and brother. Her story is one about a woman who finds her inner strength and rises above the hardships of being an immigrant to become a U.S. Senator. Lastly, On Gold Mountain is a memoir by acclaimed author Lisa See who chronicles her Chinese family history. It was inspired by the many colorful stories told to her by her grandmother and great-aunt when she was a girl playing in her family’s antique store in Los Angeles’s Chinatown. Using oral histories and historical documents and records, she creates a narrative that begins with her great-grandparents, two strangers from different worlds who fell in love and created a lasting legacy for her.
House of Sticks by Ly Tran
Unlike the refugees who had to flee their homeland during the Vietnam War or immediately after the fall of Saigon, Ly Tran and her family came to the U.S. almost two decades after the war had ended. Through the United Nations’ Orderly Departure Program, they emigrated from Vietnam and resettled in Queens, NY, in 1993. Life in America wasn’t easy for Ly, who was just a toddler when she came here. Barely knowing any English and having almost no money, her parents struggled to make a better life for their four children during their early years in America. Ly recounts her family’s poverty, her father’s PTSD, which was the result of being a prisoner of war, and her struggles to fit in at school while trying to be a dutiful daughter to her traditional, Buddhist parents. Difficult to read was her relationship with her strict and sometimes dismissive father who refused to believe she needed glasses. Her memoir paints a moving and candid portrait of one immigrant girl’s coming-of-age and struggle to find her voice and willpower amid clashing cultural expectations.
I like this book for the title alone. It’s a play on sounds and how you say it is phonetically the same as how you pronounce the former capital of South Vietnam, Saigon. I also like it because the memoir is told through the themes of great classic literature such as The Iliad, The Scarlet Letter, and The Metamorphosis. With seriousness and humor, Phuc Tran talks about the traumas and hardships of immigration and the abuse and racism he and his family received as foreigners trying to start a new life in Carlisle, PA. His family came to America as refugees in 1975 with almost no money and knowing no English. From the outset, he was a target for ridicule when he started school. A strange name, being poor, his race, and poor English made it challenging for him to fit in. However, when he discovered literature and punk rock, he felt empowered to recreate himself amidst the feelings of rejection and isolation. In books by Dickens, Dostoevsky, and Hawthorne, he found solace; and in the music of The Clash, Sex Pistols, and Agent Orange, he found freedom and a sense of belonging. Both literature and punk rock eased his loneliness but also helped him forge a “new” identity, which would later in life shape him into the person he is today.
Beautiful Country by Qian Julie Wang
The label “illegal” is a word detested by those who use it and by those on whom it is used. It’s an awful word in certain context and an insensitive one at that, regardless if it’s used appropriately or not. Qian arrived in New York with both of her parents in 1994. They came to the U.S. from China illegally, and her memoir is a heartrending story about growing up undocumented and the hardships she experienced at home and at school. Her early memories of America is her family’s constant fear of being discovered and having to live in a shadow world in which she had to remain “invisible.” Her parents, professors in China, make ends meet by working long hours in sweatshops, and Qian notes that the stress of this new life in America had made them bitter and argumentative with each other. Yet despite the cruelty and indignities her family endured, Qian still found small moments of joy that gave her the strength to survive in a hostile environment. Her story is one of resilience and determination and finding her place and making a home in a country that at first appeared ugly.
Crying in H Mart by Michelle Zauner
Michelle Zauner, frontwoman for the indie rock band Japanese Breakfast, shares her experience growing up as an Asian American in a predominantly White community in Eugene, OR. She was born in Seoul, South Korea, to a Korean mother and a Jewish-American father. Her family moved to Eugene when she was nine months old. In this memoir, Michelle shows herself not only as an accomplished musician but a witty writer and storyteller as well. She writes about her mother’s high expectations of her, her painful adolescents, and the times she spent with her grandmother and mother in Seoul bonding over heaping plates of good Korean food. When she moved to the East Coast to attend college, she laments losing her Korean identity, which had started years earlier when she was the only Asian American in school back in Eugene. At a critical time when she was trying to form her own identity and establish herself in the music industry, news of her mother having terminal pancreatic cancer would force a reckoning with her identity. This is one daughter’s story about forging her own path and reconnecting with her mother and her Korean side and reclaiming the gifts of taste, language, and history her mother had given her.
You Can’t Be Serious by Kal Penn
Kal Penn is the nom de plume and professional name of actor and former White House staff Kalpen Suresh Modi. The son of immigrant parents from India, Kal is no stranger to racism throughout his life despite being born in New Jersey and speaking perfect English. His parents came to the U.S. with very little and, like many immigrants, worked hard for a better future for their children. Although he was afforded many things growing up as a result of his parents’ hard work, in many ways his life parallels theirs. It wasn’t easy growing up as an Indian-American kid and it certainly wasn’t easy getting a start in Hollywood. In his book, he shares vignettes of his early life in New Jersey and his journey from Hollywood actor to President Obama’s White House aide. In his own humorous way, he reveals the racism of Hollywood, which is a constant reminder to him that he’ll never quite fit in. After years of fighting for equality in the film industry and obtaining success as an actor, he sort of gave it all up for an opportunity to serve his country as a White House staff. As hilarious as his stories are, there is an underlying message learned from his parents that no matter who you are and where you come from, you have many more choices than those presented to you.
Heart of Fire: An Immigrant Daughter’s Story by Mazie Hirono
Mazie Hirono is one of the more outspoken members of Congress, speaking on behalf of women and people of color and advocating for women’s rights, fair housing, and gun control. Her path to become a U.S. Senator was not smooth or even planned. In her very candid memoir, she opens up about a childhood filled with fear and disappointments and growing up in an environment in which no one would ever imagine her becoming a public figure, much less a Senator from Hawaii. Born and raised in Japan, she was only seven years old when her mother left her abusive husband and moved to the U.S. with Mazie and her brother. Their new life was very difficult and challenging, but comparatively better than back in Japan with an alcoholic father. She recalls her mother working two jobs to keep the family afloat while trying to adapt to life in America. In many ways, this memoir is not just about Maize but also about her mother, whose courageous actions and determination to make a better life for her family taught Mazie at an early age to stand up for herself and others. Her mother, she notes, was an inspiration for her to become who she is today. Heart of Fire is as moving as it’s inspiring and is a reminder that we are all given agency to change our own life and the lives of others.
As a young girl growing up in Los Angeles, Lisa See frequently visited her family’s antique shop in Chinatown where her grandmother and great-aunt told stories about her great-grandparents and great-uncles. Those stories later inspired her to write this family memoir, which chronicles the history of her Chinese side of the family beginning with the love story of her great-grandparents Fong See and Letticie Pruett in Sacramento, CA. It’s rich with details about early Los Angeles Chinatown and the immigrant experience for the Chinese men who came to America in the late 1800s seeking wealth in the “gold mountains” of California. See spent five years researching her family history, which included writing down stories she had heard, interviewing family members, and poring over documents and records in the National Archives and several historical societies. On Gold Mountain is a family portrait that not only tells her family’s story but also the stories of Chinese people in America.