November 25: “The Unforgetting” by Lan Samantha Chang

What’s going down, Story366? Depending on how you look at it, today was either Black Friday or just Friday. I’m not one for setting up a tent along the outside wall of a Walmart in order to get a cheap flatscreen, but I’m also not one to bemoan whatever gives a person pleasure (or a cheap flatscreen). My family and I more or less try to avoid shopping areas, not necessarily out of some statement or protest, but because today, driving by the mall, let alone going to it, means lines, traffic, and anxious people, three things we try to avoid at all costs, even on a normal day. So, no shopping for us.

Yet, today, we randomly found ourselves at a couple of places of business. While there, we inquired about Black Friday deals, hoping that we perhaps had stumbled upon something super-cheap or even free, as that’s how I’m sure it works. Unfortunately, neither the popcorn store nor the kids’ haircut place were featuring deals today, so we went home empty-handed—except for the fact we bought popcorn and the kids got haircuts and we paid full price. Take that, Black Friday.

Amidst all this chaos, I still managed to read a few stories from Lan Samantha Chang‘s collection Hunger, out from Penguin. I’ve read part of this book before, and read some more today, (though I still haven’t read the hundred-page title novella, “Hunger”), so I knew her work a little. I also know that Hunger won all kind of awards and that Chang soon after took over as the director of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, which in my line of work, is a pretty good job, and she’s written two novels as well. Reading her work today reminded me of what her stories are about, mainly her Chinese heritage, her characters mostly Chinese-American immigrants adjusting to life in the United States. The story that stuck with me most today is “The Unforgetting,” so here we go.

“The Unforgetting” is about a family of Chinese immigrants who in the first scene cross the plains into Iowa, where they’re moving, and stop to check out what looks to them like another ocean, the rolling landscape of farms as far as their eyes can see. It’s a scene-setting opening, one filled with hope, these people coming to this new, strange land and encountering such a gorgeous sight, embracing it, when so many others would look out at those same fields and think they were in the middle of nowhere. This family, the Hwangs—a dad named Ming, a mom named Sansan, and a little boy named Charles—are a picture of the American dream, nothing but hope of a better life ahead of them.

The Hwangs settle in. Ming is a lab instructor at a university and Charles begins American elementary school, where he’s behind from the start because his English is shoddy and, well, he’s in Iowa all of a sudden and his native tongue is not English. A letter sent home describes his problems and suggests the family maybe start speaking English at home, a letter that at first enrages Ming. Sansan reminds him, though, this was all his idea, moving to the States, and they knew this was going to happen. The family then commits themselves to absorbing young Charles in English language and culture. They not only start speaking English at home, but also steer him toward more Western traditions. Within a year, Charles’ grades improve makably, and within two or three, he’s at the top of his class.

The family is of course happy with his progress, but at the same time, they know they’ve sacrificed a lot of their Chinese identities. Charles begins to lose his native tongue and Sansan stops reading him Chinese bedtime stories, instead opting for his American textbooks. On top of that, she’s stopped reading her own culture’s stories, placing her favorite books on the shelf, never to be touched again. Even more distressing is the fact that Charles grows into a penchant for history, U.S. history, particularly the World War II-era Pacific Theater. In other words, not only have the reduced Charles’ knowledge and experience in his heritage, but he’s somehow adopted the history of his adopted country and is seeing a very important part of Chinese history (the Japanese occupation, which Chang’s own family endured) from a distinctly different point of view.

Charles grows into quite the scholar, earning early admission into Harvard, which Ming and Sansan know they’re supposed to be insanely proud of, but this choice in schools leaves Ming especially rather annoyed—there’s a perfectly fine university, Iowa, right down the road.

And that’s all I’ll reveal tonight in terms of plot. “The Unforgetting” might not be so much about what happens, anyway, but what’s happening. What I mean by that is the cultural changes that Charles experiences, causing him to lose track of his heritage, are more relevant here than what any of them does. This story is about this cultural aspect, but it’s predominantly about the humanity of its characters, how they interact, particularly Ming and Sansan (Charles is a secondary presence here, despite the story focusing on him so much). Chang very intriguingly employing an omniscient third person—we skip all around in Ming and Sansan’s perspectives—something I don’t see all that much in stories, but it works here. It’s important that we get into both of their heads, to see two different viewpoints on Charles’ progress as a human and new(ish) American. Plus, it’s just interesting, seeing Chang’s skills on display, her flowing so effortlessly between Ming’s impatience and Sansan’s quieter loss—that’s the main reason I avoid omniscience and advise my students to as well, not because it breaks some Fiction 101 rule, but because it’s so hard to pull off and be convincing. Yet, Chang makes it look easy.

“The Unforgetting” has so much going for it, and even though it’s the first story I read today, I wanted to write about it because it is so good and there’s some many ways of discussing it. The same could be said about all of the stories in Hunger, as Lan Samantha Chang seems to start with a theme—Chinese ex-pats in America—but does so much with style, structure, and character, her theme is only a small part of what her work has to offer.