MOSF 17.14: Young, Asian American, and All the Feels: Hua Hsu’s Stay True (EAAPAAO Part 2)
MOSF 17.14: Young, Asian American, and All the Feels: Hua Hsu’s Stay True (Everything Asian American Psychology All At Once Part 2)
by Ravi Chandra December 26, 2022
Stay True, Hua Hsu’s memoir of youthful friendship at Berkeley comes at an important time. The pandemic has raged for almost three years, youth life has been catastrophically disrupted, and mental health issues are at a peak. Depression, anxiety, grief, and suicidality are at highs for all age groups, but most concerningly for BIPOC youth. We need to focus on what’s most important: relationship. Stay True is a memoir, but also a cultural and mental health intervention, emphasizing that we stay true to the people in our lives and what truly sustains us.
Historically, relatively little has been written about Asian American mental health, but large studies from years ago suggested that Asian Americans self-reported greater distress than White Americans, but this distress did not then fit into DSM categories, so our mental health was deemed “better” than whites. This shocked me and my Asian American colleagues when we first heard about it – working with Asian Americans and having Asian American friends, and just plain being ourselves, we had a completely different experience of distresses than these studies proclaimed. I took to referring to the greater self-reported distress as “complex relational-cultural distress,” and intuitively felt that it was tied to the fact that most of us were more interdependent than individualistic, with what a mentor called a “family (or community) centered ego,” in a culture that didn’t value us or value that. Add to this, a study 20 years ago reflected that we tended to be more pessimistic than whites (while somehow also being just as optimistic) – which makes for an interesting mix that might predispose to both resilience, adaptability, but also a kind of bipolarity of emotional tendencies, with the poles sometimes jutting out intrusively or even spikily, or layered into each other for the long haul. On top of that, we don’t access mental health services as much as Whites, so we tend to suffer in silence, internally, until the “prompt” of the outside world – say, the massacre at Atlanta spas in March, 2021, or the vicious slaying of a friend – awakens the losses, fears, angers, frustrations, and needs for belonging, justice, equity, community, commonality, and being heard and seen that we’d stuffed for much of our lives in this country that assigns us sidekick, worker drone, transactional roles of obedient doing without full-fledged-and-accepted being, care for our cares, or care for our suffering. So many things have been pent up that this time in Asian American life might be called the “Great Unpenting (#gettingitoffourchests).”
Add that to the Great Reckoning for racial justice of our times, and the Great Conversation about religion’s role in our lives that I unanimously declared a few years ago (see MOSF 15.4 and 16.5 in particular). Actually, I think the Unpenting has been going on for some time, but has finally attained critical mass in the culture. White editors, producers, journalists and maybe institutions are taking note. We have a significant number of our own in the ranks of these editors, producers, and journalists; we have many of our own institutions. We feel noticed in a way that we hadn’t before, but this also gives me the exasperating sense that White attention was more important than our attention. But maybe it’s only that White attention must be a conduit for our attention, in this culture.
I want our attention, most of all.
As I’ve written, “Asian Americans are relating to everyone. But who is relating to us? How well do we even relate to ourselves?”
Our relational, interdependent nature has always been under assault by a purportedly individualistic culture that is really factionally organized around the needs of the dominant, White majority culture. To reset mental health, to reset culture to meet our needs, we have to stay true to relationship, and really remember that, in particular, relating to Asian Americans and Asian Americanness, as work-in-progress, is critical to our well-being. Without the specific mirroring, validating – and loving – that only we can provide each other – how can we be truly whole?
Hua Hsu stays true.
A spoiler that’s not much of a spoiler, as it’s been widely reported: the primary focus of the memoir is Hsu’s friend Ken, who is Japanese American from just outside San Diego, and who is brutally murdered in a carjacking in 1998, when he and Hua are juniors at Berkeley. Much of the book is a nostalgic buddy movie co-written by the pair, but projected by Hua’s mind. In fact, they actually do collaborate on a potential movie script, “Barry (sic) Gordy’s Imbroglio,” and “Ken wrote out the film’s thematic concerns: ‘Girls,’ ‘Friends,’ ‘Parents.’”
Stay True begins with the middle of these, friends in a Volvo, a car idealized for safety in a world that is not – a tragic theme that haunts the volume. Hua, as driver, felt “responsible for my friends’ safety, and for their enrichment, too,” in the form of music. Stay True is wildly obsessed with music, and Hsu’s obsession with Nirvana, Kurt Cobain, punk, and finding the offbeat is contrasted with Ken’s supposedly more mainstream passions for Pearl Jam and the Dave Mathews Band. (Hsu handed out personally made mixtapes when his book was released, the marker of quintessential 90s nostalgia, glee, generosity, and hope for relatedness.) This parallels Hsu’s 2nd generation child-of-immigrants outsider feels with what he imagines are Ken’s more established credentials and rootedness as a presumable sansei Japanese American. Early on, Hsu states, “My wariness about Ken was compounded by the fact that he was Asian American, like me,” perfectly capturing the joy and restless discomfort about identity that we commonly feel, that can feed into both need and discomforts about relating to each other.
For some reason, though, Hsu does not use the word “sansei” in describing Ken. This is mildly vexing – as Hsu reveals he and Ken are quite into Asian American culture, and generational issues would no doubt have been part of their conversations – but maybe this was deemed “too Asian American” for the (hoped-for White, mainstream) audience? Or maybe Hsu’s omission draws attention to the fact that our parents and “ancestors” are somehow beside the point and the whole point at the same time when we are in college. Not knowing where to take that dichotomy, Hsu chooses mostly omission (and reverential distance) for Ken’s part, but commits himself to a self-reveal.
On this path, Hsu loops back to his own parents, particularly his father, who by Hsu’s teen years had moved back to Taiwan. Hsu communicates with him by fax (!), the overnight responses detailing answers to homework questions or carrying on a dialogue about music, culture, protest, and even mental health issues. At least some of the missives are signed “Love, Dad,” and this and the contents of the letters belie the notion that Asian American immigrant parents don’t express love, acceptance, or understanding of their children. This is a dad who was really trying, from afar. Hsu’s mother is more of a faint etching, but when she makes an appearance late in the book, it’s in conversation with a stranger in the mall, seeking advice on how to talk to Hua about Ken’s murder. I appreciated Hsu giving his parents these warm appreciations, a welcome alternative to our usual and thorough laments.
Adobe stock image by Dmitrystock, licensed by Ravi Chandra. Bromance: Let’s do it, let’s fall in love!
“Girls” (girlfriends and girl-friends) also get a portion of Hsu’s memoir-spotlight, though are necessarily sidelined by the focus on the Ken-Hua bromance. Cathy Park Hong’s Minor Feelings contains a whole chapter on her friendships/rivalries with other young women in college. Hsu does her one better by naming and filling out all the interstices of male friendship in an entire volume, perhaps at the expense of inter-gender relationships. American men have historically had poorer relational ecosystems than American women, and male suicide has jumped by over 20% in the last 20 years, making this focus especially critical in 2022. Perhaps the greatest gift I received during the pandemic was two new male friends, QiRe Ching and Truong Tran, who agreed to collaborate on a film project with me and who have remained regular companions in conversation and complaint ever since. The specific affection and understanding I’ve gotten from these and a few other Asian American male friendships have really taken me places I hadn’t been before. I think I’ve primarily been geared towards friendship with women, which can be just as wonderful, but not always as willing. But maybe that’s an age and relational status kind of thing, and all of this will swing around eventually. Women tend to have more relational demands than men – a boon and sometimes a burden – and men, single men especially, often get lost in the margins of those demands. As men, we have to make up the difference within our own gender, I think, as well as equitably share the burdens of women. Hsu’s book is a welcome looking glass at how the former at least might be made more possible.
Beyond this troika of “‘Girls,’ ‘Friends,’ ‘Parents,’” Hsu’s book is also a history of a narrow slice of his collegiate intellectuality, and a broader look at the social and political concerns which animated him and his friends, particularly in his volunteer work with Mien youth in Richmond, and San Quentin inmates, including Eddy Zheng, who was later paroled and is now continuing community efforts with his New Breath Foundation. Perhaps part of the reason that relationships are so important – and so often distressed – in the Asian American community is that the world beyond our relationships is so distressing and demanding on us in particular that we find ourselves sucked into it and away from relating for relating’s sake. For a time, in college especially, relationships and relating with the world can and do become a collaborative project that provides solace in hard times. We need to create more room for this overlap throughout the lifespan. What better definition of belonging and community is there?
Perhaps a useful defining feature of the modern Asian American memoir is that a therapist must make an appearance. And be critiqued. “Abandon hope, all therapists who enter here.” But don’t feel too badly. The drastic, impatient, and willing to accept imperialism and hierarchy among us criticize even Buddha, and the rational and interdependent among us criticize Jesus. (Erm, no bias in that breakdown here.)
Cathy Park Hong seeks out and then critiques the therapist “Eunice Cho”. Michelle Zauner summarily dismisses and trades in her therapist’s $100 copays for restaurant meals and Maangchi.
Adobe stock image by Krakenimages.com, licensed by Ravi Chandra.
“Nothing my therapist said was anything I hadn’t psychoanalyzed in myself a million times already anyway. I was paying a hundred-dollar copay per session, and I began to think it would be much more fulfilling to just take myself out for a fifty-dollar lunch twice a week. I canceled the rest of my sessions and committed myself to exploring alternative forms of self-care…I decided to turn to a familiar friend—Maangchi, the YouTube vlogger who had taught me how to cook doenjang jjigae and jatjuk in my time of need.” – Michelle Zauner, Crying in H-Mart
I’ve been compared unfavorably to a sex worker’s attentions and prices. (At least I slide???)
As they say on SNL, “ya burnt!”
A therapist does indeed make an appearance towards the end of Stay True, and is initially critiqued. I even critiqued her as I thought about how I might have done things differently. Sigh. Hsu describes himself as “legendarily self-involved,” which is reason either to see a therapist or avoid one. But he gives his last moment with his therapist the final word. “I’m going to write about all this one day, I told her, and she smiled at me.”
In the acknowledgments, Hsu reveals “I’ve been writing this for over twenty years,” which gives readers (and therapists) a window into not just the relentless obsessions of an observant writer, but the workings of grief, which is obsessive and relentless with an entirely different and sustained amplitude. My favorite line in Shang Chi is when Jodi Long as Mrs. Chen says “‘moving on’ is an American idea.”
A scene from Shang Chi, with Jodi Long and Simu Liu in foreground, and Awkwafina behind them.
My least favorite approach in the Interpersonal Therapy (IPT) of grief is basically filling out your memories of the deceased with all the ways they were a schmuck. “Don’t miss them – they weren’t all that great” seems a particularly American trademark. Shinhee Han and David Eng discuss Asian American mental health (especially in Gen X) as being unprocessed grief that turns into “racial melancholia” related to the deficits and losses of identity and belonging created by racism.
Are we ever done? Should we, ever, be done? Is it all about “investing in new objects” per Freudian theory, or saving what we must of the old, if only in feeling and sentiment? Isn’t it about creation of the new, more mindful of that feeling of loss? Isn’t this why it’s said that the wise among us are always at least a little bit sad, and why Asian Americans keep a storehouse of pessimism, even underneath our smiles and laughter? A fellow Asian American mocked me for a joke I once told on the wards. “You’re always so ‘funny-funny ha ha.’” He said this, despite knowing a big part of my grief and loss. But his saying this reminded me of it, and reminded me of his, unacknowledged, between us.
To grieve is to properly worry a lost patch of interpersonal psyche, to fret over what was mine, theirs, and ours-between-us, and to be continually lost in that question, until it matters less than the fact that it was, and still is. Its arc still continues in this world.
The underworld feels strengthened when grief is named. Grief is our legs, our arms, our chest, our body, when our head wants to be someplace else, someplace protected, safe, above, beyond, enclosed in a skull, separate. Mourning and remembrance, in ethereality, bring us into our ground, our humble body, human, from the Latin humus, for earth. On the new earth we create, our ghosts can walk with us, be known again, find peace; we can continue our journeys.
Stay True is a proper worrying of grief for a lost friend, and all the possibilities lost with him. It asks us to urgently consider our priorities in the here-and-now, to let go of ourselves, and hold onto one another, dearly, for life.
Great review, Ravi. Thanks for writing this. I appreciate what you wrote about men’s relationships, which are usually either invisible or caricatured.
Thanks Susan, for these kind words: and yes, Asian American male relationships don’t get much airtime. Thanks for keeping up with a fair bit of my writing over the years, and for our long friendship. You’ve meant a lot to me since we met way back when, and I first studied Japanese American history from you. Happy New Year! May it be bright.
Likewise, Ravi! Let’s get together in the Year of the Rabbit!
Thanks very much for the eloquent, insightful, and comprehensive review of Stay True. I appreciate your attention to the implications for our mental health.
When I read the book, I was taken by how beautifully Hua Hsu captured the culture and identity development of his college-going generation in the mid-1990s. I listened to a few podcasts about Stay True and was struck by how many of Hsu’s contemporaries had the same thought. For example, in his podcast, David Chang expressed his surprise, happiness and confusion about seeing himself throughout the book, even to the point of having lost a close friend to a shocking, sudden death and forever after being in mourning mixed with guilt. The NY Times editors who nominated and selected Stay True as one of 2022’s best books made similar remarks about personally relating to the formative indie college culture brought to life by Hsu. They suggested that his artistic consciousness as a writer for The New Yorker took root at Berkeley. Younger members of my own family could have been Hua too. Like him, they wore clothes bought at thrift stores, favored Fred Perry shirts, created zines and mixtapes, watched The Last Dragon multiple times, and becoming fascinated with deconstructionist theories of literature and history.
I suppose a lot has been written about/by the WWII generation as well as the baby boomers but little about/by the generations coming afterwards, especially by a child of immigrants who is also a person of color. Hsu might be among the first. That said, Stay True is universal in its specificity and so is an excellent read for a person of any generation.
Btw, it’s possible that Ken was yonsei or even gosei. I believe the typical sansei is a baby boomer.
Thanks again! Stay true!
Thank you for this, Linda! I’m glad the book has been getting such good attention. And you’re right Re generation, possibly. I just remembering going to Sansei Live events in the 90s with many of my Gen X friends!
Ravi I really enjoyed your essay. I do think that male friendships definitely don’t get enough air time in writing and so sad that it seems that a murder was involved in this friendship in the book.
As someone who also also tends towards the dysthymic, I appreciate the cultural nod when I can self pathologize – probably because of my cultural immersion in positive thinking and “always be winning.”
Thanks for reading and reflecting on these themes, Fred! I definitely have that sad layer myself. “There’s always a banana peel” is pretty much my life motto, experience, and observation. Friendship keeps us going and adds hope though 🙏🏽🙏🏽🙏🏽