All posts by Susan Wong

Respite

I can’t believe this semester is almost over. What a huge difference from how I felt on day one to now. I started this class so confused and discouraged, but now I see a clear path to the end of my thesis. I’m relieved to have the research portion pretty much done, but now I realize that the real work is looming and I’m feeling an anxiety of a different kind. I’m worried that I won’t be able to come up with enough stories for the creative part of my study. 

Over the break, I will review some old stories and see if any of them are suitable for a new memoir. I have a lot of brainstorming to do and lots of editing too. Right now, I am watching YouTube videos on memoir writing as well as rereading some of my favorite books to see what I like about them and what I can borrow from them for my own stories. So that’s it. I will be doing lots of thinking and hopefully some writing over the break. 

Congratulations to Tom, Amber, Kelsey, and Hugo! You did it! Good luck to you all in the next phase of your lives!

Heartfelt gratitude

Thanks to all of you for your patience and attentiveness while listening to my story. The night before Thanksgiving is very stressful for many of us and we were so lucky to be able to meet over Zoom. Special thanks to Dr. Zamora for her thoughtfullness! Your positive, warm feedback is truly empowering and has given me the confidence to start working on more stories. I will no longer worry whether readers will find them silly or boring. You have validated that they are interesting and evocative of a different time and place, which is exactly what I was striving for. I’m glad that my story made many of you think about your own grandparents and what they valued in their own lives. You wouldn’t be who you are today without their love and peculiar habits.  

Jerry Jenkin’s YouTube tutorials on how to write memoir and compelling stories has helped me tremendously. I highly recommend his advice to all novice writers. I’ve only just begun my writing career, so I need all the help I can get.

Here are more interesting tips from the experts:

  • Figure out the theme in your stories to make them meaningful.
  • Memoir is about the reader not the writer, so it must contain universal truths and transferable principles in order to be of value to the reader.
  • There should be a character arc. Here is what I once was and here is what I am now.
  • Conflict makes a story more compelling.
  • Give detailed descriptions to make imagery as vivid as possible.

I hope this helps all of you. 

Happy writing! 

My Turn

It’s been a chaotic (but wonderful) week. Now that I’m an empty nester, I cherish having all 3 of my children home for the holidays. It’s not often that the entire family is home at the same time, so I try to make these occasions as special as possible. Cleaning the house, figuring out the Thanksgiving menu, food shopping, and preparing for my thesis presentation has been very challenging. 

So how did I de-stress? I took long walks and watched some of my favorite episodes of Mary Tyler Moore on YouTube. 

And now I’m ready! 

My thesis will be about the Chinese immigrant experience, with the research portion focusing on the origins of Chinese hand laundries and the circumstances that led to their proliferation throughout the United States. The creative portion will be a collection of memoir essays that pay homage to my grandfather who came to America during the Chinese Exclusion Act. Many of the issues that I uncovered in my research will be highlighted throughout my stories.

At Dr. Zamora’s suggestion, I will read one of my memoirs during my presentation. Below is the introduction. I appreciate your patience and constructive advice.

Member of the Club

            My favorite perfume is Halston. I love it not only for its seductive floral scent and its elegant, tilted, tear drop shaped bottle, but also because every time I catch a whiff of it, I think of Grampa and the 21 Club. Located at 21 West 52nd Street in Manhattan, Jack and Charlie’s 21 Club was only a few blocks away from our small apartment building in Hell’s Kitchen. When I was little, I didn’t know that it was a famous restaurant or that only important people dined there. All I knew was that Grampa worked there at night and when he came home in the morning, he would give us tiny bottles of Halston perfume.

Staying on track

This weekend was very productive. Rainy Saturdays are perfect for sitting in front of the computer and getting work done. I was able to switch all my annotations from APA to MLA style. It took a loooong time because Kean library doesn’t have most of the articles I used in their database and to try and get in touch with someone to look for them was not worth the time and effort, and trying to figure out Endnote or Zotero for the citations was also too time consuming. I ended up doing everything manually. I survived it. I’m fine. So now I’m almost done with my lit review. I just need to annotate a few more articles and then start on my proposal. I really want to get it done by the first week of December. 

I’m also starting to work on a memoir I’ve had in my head for a while. Dr. Zamora suggested I read one of my stories for my presentation, so that’s what I’ve also been working on these last few days. I’ve been calling my stories a few different things — memoir, vignettes, slice of life. It just occurred to me that I’m not really sure how to classify them. I would really like to call them vignettes, but they may be too long or descriptive to be considered that. Oh well, I don’t think it matters right now. I just need to keep writing them and let my ideas flow. I’ll figure out what to call them after I’m done, or maybe the class can help me out. 

I’ve also been reading many how to guides on memoir writing and watching some very interesting YouTube videos as well. 

Here are some nutshell tips for writing a powerful memoir:

  • Make sure your work is relatable to your audience. Don’t preach.
  • In order to be authentic and believable, be ready to take a deep dive into your feelings and experiences.
  • You need an outline, a basic story structure
  • In order to hook the readers, plunge them into conflict right from the beginning.
  • Pay attention to and describe pivotal people really well.

Another interesting point is that unless you are famous, a close friend, or family member, most readers will not be interested in your story. They will most likely find it boring. So, if you are appealing to a wide audience, also employ the same literary techniques that fiction writers use. Pay attention to audience, tone, pace, imagery, conflict, and irony. 

I hope others find this helpful and good luck to you all on your writing journeys!

The Story of Tyrus Wong

Over the weekend, I watched a YouTube video about the artist Tyrus Wong. If you have ever seen the Disney movie Bambi then you are familiar with Tyrus Wong’s artistic genius. Most people don’t know that he created all the characters and set designs for the movie. At the time, he received little recognition, but years later his work was praised by Disney himself, and more recently, shortly before his death at 106, he appeared on news shows to talk about his early experiences as an artist. 

His life was very interesting and unusual given that he chose art as a career and was actually supported by his father in this pursuit. Most Chinese men, young and old, during the 1920s and all the way up to the 1960’s, worked in restaurants and hand laundries. He was a kind, gentle, humble man who broke barriers during the Chinese Exclusion Act. 

But what fascinates me the most about this man is that he gave a first-person account of his experience on Angel Island. There are virtually no first-person accounts about being detained on Angel Island, so finding his YouTube video was so exciting! In addition, it is from the perspective of a young child, as he arrived there at the age of 9. He was from my ancestral  village in southern China and spoke the same dialect, so I felt an instant connection to him and his story.

When he landed at Angel Island with his father, the two were separated and did not see or hear from each other for many months. Father and son were scared to death. Neither knew whether the other was dead or alive. There were no other children there to play or commiserate with. He was utterly alone with no toys, books, or any kind of entertainment. He was repeatedly prodded and interrogated by a group of white men who had absolutely no sympathy for his predicament and didn’t care that he knew no English. Listening to his story, I couldn’t help but feel heart-broken and enraged by the cruelties of the “justice” system at that time. But there was something else in his voice, something in his face that looked familiar. I saw that same look in my father and grandfather—an optimism, a resilience, a dignified air and fighting spirit that said, “Do and say what you will, but you’ll never break me.” 

Tyrus Wong came to America in search of the “Gold Mountain.” At the end of his life, he said he found it in his greatest accomplishment, his children. 

I hope my vignettes convey the same message. 

It’s coming along

This week I started reading a book on Chinese hand laundries. It’s very interesting and I am gaining a lot of insight into the psychology of the workers, things that never occurred to me growing up and even witnessing first-hand. Working on this thesis is bittersweet. I am reliving my childhood in so many ways. Reading some of these passages takes me right back to the best and worst times of my life. I wish I had asked more questions when my father and grandfather were still alive. The mentality in their generations was not to complain, just endure and your children would be better off. This is probably why there are practically no first- person accounts of Chinese laundry workers or railroad workers. I am feeling very wistful lately reading these books and articles about the earliest Chinese immigrants. Where and what would I be today if my grandfather and father had not been so selfless?

It was a productive research week despite having started a new part-time job and being extremely tired and sore from my second J &J shot. I did a few more annotations on articles about the first Chinatowns and am now trying to find more on bachelor societies. There aren’t many articles, but there are some books out there that make references to them. However, reading these long books are time consuming and they don’t yield the information I’m looking for in a succinct manner, so I’m trying to avoid them. Next, I will continue to gather more articles on hand laundries. There do seem to be many articles on that.

As I look at all these annotations I’ve completed, I am starting to get nervous about how to put them all together so that everything flows nicely. I also need to sharpen my academic writing skills, as I haven’t done any of that kind of writing in a while. I’ve been immersed in blogs and vignettes for so long that I hope I can easily switch gears. It’s coming along though, and I know what needs to be done.

My Legacy

I just finished reading Ghosts of Gold Mountain by Gordon Chang. The book describes the experiences of the Chinese immigrants that worked on the Central Pacific Railroad. My mother told me years ago that my great great grandfather helped build the railroads in California but gave few details about what he had gone through as a young man leaving his small village in China for the great unknown of America. All I can remember of what she said is that he worked so hard and saved every cent he made to send back to China for his young family. Reading this book made me realize what his experiences must have been like in those days, and they weren’t good. Most likely, he had to deal with racism, terrible working conditions, low wages, physical and verbal abuse, loneliness, and homesickness. No first-person accounts by actual Chinese railroad workers are known to exist thus far, but there is now an organization spearheaded by Stanford University to find artifacts, mementos, memoirs, more photos, and letters from the railroad workers and their families. It’s wonderful that these men are finally getting the recognition and respect they deserve for their tremendous work and the sacrifices they made in building the Transcontinental Railroad. Anyone interested in knowing more about these early immigrants and other aspects of the Chinese immigrant experience should visit MOCA, the Museum of Chinese in America. I visited the museum over the weekend with my mother, and she was able to corroborate much of I what I saw and read. It was a nice visit, made even more special because I got to spend time with my mother. 

My mom is 84 and doesn’t get out much because she is the sole caregiver of my grandmother who is 107. Grandma is in good health, but her mind is no longer sharp, so I can’t rely on her for details or stories about her childhood in China or what it was like for her and her family when she first came to America. It’s such a shame because she has lived through so many major wars and pivotal events both here and in China, that her recollections could be of so much value to my thesis project, but in some ways I’m thankful that her memory is failing because she has lived through some very tough times, best to forget most of them.

However, I can’t help being frustrated every time I visit Grandma. She was (is) an intelligent woman, able to read and write, and in her youth, very articulate. I wish she had left something for me and my siblings and cousins to reflect on. I wish she had kept all the letters to and from my grandfather and pictures of her family from China and Hong Kong. I wish she had written down her stories. I wish someone had told her how important they would be one day. Oh well, no use in dwelling on what might have been. I’m just glad she’s still alive and always happy to see me. My visits with her and my mother always remind me that time is passing by very quickly and if I intend to leave any stories of my own for my children and grandchildren, I better stop procrastinating. This is why my thesis project is so important and urgent to me. Presently, my children have almost no curiosity about their cultural background and my childhood growing up as an immigrant. But someday they and my grandchildren (God willing) might, and when they do, my memoir vignettes will be ready for them. 

As I don’t like to work on too many things at once, I will give my vignettes my full attention after I’ve done the majority of my research and lit review. For now, I’m just jotting down memories and ideas for complete stories. I can’t write on demand. I need lots of time to remember things and reflect, then write, then think, then reflect some more.

Progress

It’s a good thing that the literature review is a living document which can evolve and be edited as often as needed right up until I turn it in. The more articles I read, the more fascinated I become about the Chinese immigrant experience. I started my research focusing on the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, but then discovered that I needed to go back further to uncover more details about the beginnings of racism against the Chinese. I then looked for articles about the building of the Transcontinental Railroad in California, but then discovered that that still wasn’t far back enough. I had to go back to the gold rush of the late 1840s. That’s when it really all began. However, not quite because then I had to delve into what conditions were like in China to make all these young men so willing to leave their families and the comforts of home for the wild west of America. I started reading about the Taiping Civil War which then led further back to Sun Yat Sen and Chiang Kai-Shek. Although it was all so engrossing, I realized that I need to set boundaries for my research or I could keep going off on endless tangents. 

In our last class, Dr. Zamora said that through all this research it will soon become clear what matters most to me and when I figure this out, I will be able to develop a specific line of inquiry.  This is exciting and anxiety producing too because I know what I want to focus on, but going back to Dr. Nelson’s class (I wish I could stop doing this!), I really feel like I need the research question to propel me forward. What am I trying to prove in my thesis? What gap in knowledge am I trying to fill? Do I even need a research question, given that this is a non-traditional thesis? I’ve got it in my head that the research question is the foundation of the thesis and if I can’t nail it then my thesis will never come together.

I have a lot of articles but need to really start working on how to put them all together. It’s like a big puzzle. I have so many pieces, maybe too many still, and need to keep shedding things that are not helpful. I hope I don’t sound confused. I really do understand what I’m doing and see a path through all this. I’m still in the beginning stages of my thesis. I just need to be patient and let things fall into place.

Decluttering

I’m happy to see Amber’s thesis finally coming together so nicely. It fills me with hope and confidence that I can do the same, given we both started out so confused and unorganized. More often these days, I am getting revelations about where I’m headed and what I need to add or take away to make my thesis more logical. It’s so discouraging to work on something when you don’t really know what you’re doing. Thankfully, I have more clarity now, and seeing my project take shape is really motivating me to put in more time and effort each week. I completed 4 annotations and gathered more articles since our last class and will try to keep this momentum going in order to finish my lit review before thanksgiving. I know it’s ambitious, but I need to set deadlines or I may never get done. 

Since last semester, I’ve been very focused on the process of memoir writing being a large component of my thesis. Dr. Zamora said to get rid of this and just focus on the Chinese male experience. I agreed with this advice and looking back now, I don’t know what I was thinking to include that in the first place. It was making my project so long and confusing and now that I’ve dropped it, things are falling into place and my thesis has become more streamlined and focused, making finding relevant articles easier. I can include my memoir vignettes without showing readers how to write a memoir. Unfortunately, I spent quite a bit of time researching this non-fiction genre and it took up a lot of head space, but I did learn a lot and I know it will help when I write my vignettes, so it wasn’t a waste of time.

The value of decluttering is so underrated. In your house and in your thesis, getting rid of stuff you don’t need is really liberating. Like Marie Kondo says, if it doesn’t spark joy, throw it out. 

Careful what you wish for ….

Creative freedom is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, I love that I can take this thesis in whatever direction I want, but on the other hand, too many options leave me dazed and frustrated. I’m actually longing for guidelines and rules, well not really, but sometimes I need some handholding.  Last week, I thought I had a clear vision of where I was headed, but after doing more research over the weekend, I decided that I like my original idea better. For now, this week anyway, I will again explore the role of grandfathers in Chinese immigrant families. My literature review will begin with the treatment of the first male Chinese immigrants that came here in the mid 19th century.  I have started gathering articles on the Chinese Exclusion Act and the events that led up to this very important piece of legislation. I am reading about things that I never heard of before or maybe read about in passing but didn’t know or care enough about to form an opinion. I am not proud that I know so little about the history of my own people in America. Well, this is all slowly changing, and I hope that by the time my thesis is complete I will be an expert on the topic.

I will also continue researching the role of Chinese hand laundries as well in the history of Chinese immigration. Again, I didn’t know how vital they were to the survival and unification of the first Chinese settlers, who were all male. There used to be thousands of these small businesses in NYC, but sadly only a few remain. I will never walk by one again without stopping to think about how hard those workers toiled day and night to find a place in our society. My father, grandfather, and almost every Chinese male in their generations worked in these hand laundries. Growing up, I never fully appreciated just how hard they worked to provide for me and my siblings. 

There is a clear progression in my research, from Exclusion to hand laundries to old age. What happens to these men when they get too old or weak to work in the laundries? They take an active role in raising grandchildren. My thesis will highlight the contributions of Chinese grandparents in raising grandchildren.

So, for now, I’m concentrating heavily on the research portion of my thesis and not worrying too much on my memoir vignettes. I will save the creative part for next semester, as I need to concentrate on completing one component of my thesis in order to ground my work and feel like I am accomplishing something.