Let me begin with this disclaimer: I don’t usually read Asian immigrant memoirs. At least, not until very recently. This particular book came to my attention while I was randomly perusing some Asian American culture blogs, where it had received some attention, in part I’m assuming, because of its provocative title. The reason I wanted to put out this disclaimer up front is because, unlike a lot of other reviews for this book available on the web, this one is not written with an academic background in ethnic studies or extensive experience with the canon of the Asian American memoir. So, what can my review offer? Well, as the child of Asian immigrants who had never read Asian immigrant memoirs until very recently, I found the experience of reading this particular memoir and studying the blogosphere’s response to it to be interesting because of the questions it raised for me as an ethnic person in contemporary America who occasionally writes things for public consumption (Exhibit A: this blog post). So, in addition to sharing my thoughts on the book, I’m going to share some thoughts on the responses it has elicited, which I have found to be equally interesting.
First off, a quick rundown of the book and its author. I Love Yous Are for White People is by Lac Su, a young Vietnamese immigrant who, as a child, escaped South Vietnam with his family in 1979 and immigrated to America. The memoir begins with a harrowing boat dock escape then explores Su’s experience of growing up in Los Angeles in a series of chapters that read like individual essays. As noted by many reviewers, the book touches upon themes of filial piety, identity negotiation, and the pains of cultural transition. Also noted by many reviewers: what carries the memoir is Su’s voice. Even though a lot of the anecdotes feel either far-fetched (at one point, he blows balloons out of discarded condoms found in the hallway of his family’s apartment building) or too familiar (there’s a scene in a restaurant where his father doesn’t understand how food stamps work), I remained engaged because Su narrated these moments with self-deprecation and earnestness. It is hard not to like a guy who constantly notes how his father calls him “Big Head”—evidently the translation of a Vietnamese “term of endearment.”
While there were a lot of interesting and amusing moments in the memoir, of particular interest to me was the prevalence of violence throughout. I got the impression that for Su and his family, violence was encoded in their family’s story from the get-go. From the boat-dock escape amidst machine gun fire at the beginning, to the brushes with street violence sprinkled throughout, Su’s family just couldn’t get a break. For me, the most riveting scene in the book was a scene of random violence in which street thugs attack Su’s father while he tries to bike to work; the ostensible leader of the gang pins Su’s father on the ground and attempts to shove a screwdriver into his throat (Su’s father avoids serious harm by turning his head to the side in the nick of time). In addition to depictions of random violence like this, there are countless scenes of domestic violence in which Su’s volatile and overbearing father punches, whips, slaps, or uppercuts everything and everyone in sight, including his wife and children. Then, in the latter half of the memoir, Su recounts incidents of gang violence in which he engages in hand-to-hand combat with other local street toughs. Cumulatively, it comes across as one big olio of dominance rituals and tribalism.