“You could feel the impending cataclysm.” A conversation with Val Wang
I read somewhere that Westerners typically cast themselves as the protagonists of their own memoirs, while Asians are usually bit players in theirs, one mere star in a great constellation. I had gone abroad intending to have swashbuckling foreign adventures and to get as far away as possible from turgid family psychodramas with Confucian overtones. As I told Yeye repeatedly years ago, I was American! But I had made one fatal mistake: I had set the story in China, where my family’s past worked as an undertow, pulling me in directions I was powerless to fight.
We crossed over the Second Ring Road, which flowed under us like a river of cars, and turned onto a wide avenue clotted with vehicles of all sizes driving like maniacs and honking peevishly. But no one was actually going all that quickly, and the whole scene was at once manic and leisurely. Cranes floated high above us, wheeling slowly over the green-clad skeletons of half-built buildings. Pollution and exhaust hung heavily in the air and the avenue looked unpleasant to walk along. But people did. There were people everywhere, ambling along the sidewalks, stuffed into buses, biking shoulder to shoulder in the bike lane. Their faces looked grey and sad. Hatched from the protective cocoon of family, I could feel myself shrinking as a sea of strangers spread itself around me.
–Excerpt from Beijing Bastard: Into the Wilds of a Changing China (Gotham Books)
ANNE RASMUSSEN: Your title is a nod to Beijing Bastards, an early-nineties underground film you’d seen as a college student. That movie’s gritty vision opens up a new perspective on China and you suddenly decide (with the fervor that only someone in their early twenties is capable of) to move to Beijing after college and become a filmmaker. Working as a journalist in Beijing, you meet (and are ultimately underwhelmed by) the film’s director Zhang Yuan, but you continue to staunchly defend the film to your artist and journalist friends even as they dismiss it as mediocre. Much of Beijing Bastard chronicles your own desire to create and a quest to find a subject matter that feels worthy of your (at the time somewhat unfocused) ambition. How does the film Beijing Bastards strike you now?
VAL WANG: I recently re-watched Beijing Bastards in preparation for an event where I screened clips of it in conjunction with readings from my book, and it was a bittersweet experience. It’s like opening a box with something precious from my youth in it and that something loses a little bit of its scent with each opening. It was maybe the third time I’ve seen it since my original viewing. And each time it reminds of not only the original time I saw it, but each subsequent time too, so the viewings just get more layered and complex and almost sad, as they lack the purity of youth. I spend the whole movie waiting for those moments that take me back to the emotional state I was in when I was 20 (times best experienced through the lens of nostalgia) and they do come but they are more fleeting each time. It becomes harder and harder to imagine who I was at that age that I could be touched so deeply by this movie.
It’s honestly not a very good movie from a plot or character angle and I’d forgotten that the last third of the movie introduces a whole new plot and characters who are never explained. But the spirit of the movie is true: so rebellious, so lost, so hungry for self-expression, and on this viewing I had a tender feeling for my young self, that these were the feelings that echoed who she was. What I also noticed on this viewing was how much documentary-like footage there is in the fictional movie: people biking through the rain in colored ponchos, a shoe repairman at work, the logistics of making a call at a phone booth. The director Zhang Yuan put a lot of love into his portrayal of the city and I definitely picked up on that on my first viewing.
AR: And I sort of love this! The things that inspire us to make huge, life-changing decisions may not be so wonderful in hindsight, but the impact they have on us lends them a sort of second life if we are brave enough to admit their influence. What other works have inspired you to explore and create?
VW: The book that most inspired the writing of Beijing Bastard was The Berlin Stories. When I read it while I was living in Beijing, a light just went on in my head. I saw the people I knew and the experiences I was having in a completely different light. A documentary maker I did subtitles for was a dead ringer for Sally Bowles and my own family and others I knew were middle-class families whose way of life was doomed by the changes coming to society. Also, the mood of the city as portrayed in The Berlin Stories struck a chord with me. You could feel the rumblings of tectonic shifts happening, you could feel the impending cataclysm coming and the grip of an autocratic government tightening, and also the creative ferment, both artistic and entrepreneurial, unleashed by the social chaos.
I began to see striking similarities between Weimar Berlin and Beijing in the era I was there, post-Tiananmen Massacre, pre-Olympic bid. The Berlin Stories barely mentions the rise of the Nazis but there’s a sense of unease throughout the whole book, especially as you look back through lens of history, and that sense of History happening in the background of the story as people live their lives in the foreground stuck with me.
AR: Your descriptions of Beijing and its neighborhoods are richly detailed and the simultaneous destruction and growth of the city around you in real-time lends urgency to the book: everything you describe will soon be demolished or transformed. As an expat who can choose to stay or go, you realize that the luxury of expressing an emotional reaction—whether sadness or nostalgia or even optimism— is denied to your Chinese relatives who must remain stoic in the face of an uncertain future, even as their homes and ancestral neighborhoods are sold and demolished. What were the most notable changes to the city that you observed when you returned in 2008 to cover the Olympics?
VW: The city had transformed in fairly predictable ways after I left. The destruction of the hutongs decimated the street life that existed in my relatives’ neighborhood and other areas of the old city. Food and clothing vendors disappeared and more supermarkets and malls sprang up. The community life that had existed in those spaces disappeared, many of the people moved to anonymous apartment blocks in the suburbs. The city kept expanding outwards – the 4th Ring Road had just opened when I lived there and I think they’re up to the 6th Ring Road now. This growth means that people’s commutes are longer and fewer people bike so of course the traffic had become insane, which in turn worsened the pollution. Life seemed to have taken on the onerous, oppressive feeling of a big Western city. One positive was that the subway had really been expanded, but it too was packed. Rush hour there made rush hour in New York look like child’s play.
AR: How has [your father’s cousin and his wife] Bobo and Bomu’s living situation changed in the years since you returned to the U.S.?
VW: At the end of the book, Bobo and Bomu are preparing to go visit their daughters in L.A.; that yearly visit has solidified into a tradition for them. They spend their winters in L.A. and the summers in Beijing. In Beijing they still live in the half of the courtyard house they were in when I lived there, with their son, daughter-in-law and grandson, who’s now a teenager. That house, so far, has evaded the wrecking ball. And it even has a shower now!
AR: When you begin filming the Zhang family, a multi-generational family of Peking Opera performers living together in a single room, your intention is to present a documentary about traditional Peking Opera and a portrait of the family’s day to day life. But they are so fascinated by you—your choices and freedoms as a young, independent Chinese American woman—that the objective story you envision telling is awkwardly and hilariously thrown off course. Instead of carrying on their lives as though they are not being filmed, the Zhangs insist on engaging with you– alternately criticizing, guilt-tripping, and jockeying for approval each time you begin to film. One of the sons declares his romantic (unrequited) intentions, and the elderly patriarch responds to your questions with a mix of condescension, paternalism, and barely contained rage. These interactions as you relate them are charged and hilarious, and in spite of your mortification your artist friends urge you to include yourself in the story. But you ignore their advice, preferring to remain out of the frame. Why do you think you felt so resistant at the time to allowing that story— the family’s dual desire to tell their story and scold you into a sort of filial obligation—to be told?
VW: I think first of all it goes back to one of the things the fortune-teller said about me, that I have a surly and inflexible personality. When I get an idea into my head about how I feel things should go, I can’t be swayed from my course and I won’t take any advice, no matter how kindly offered. There were times when this character trait has led to positive outcomes, like me moving to China against all the vociferous protestations of my family, and other times like this when it has tripped me up. I decided that I wanted to make a certain kind of vérité documentary, no matter how the action unfolded in front of the camera. I was modeling it on the documentaries of my friends, like Yang Lina’s Old Men or Wu Wenguang’s Life on the Road, which were in turn modeled on observational, fly-on-the-wall documentaries by Frederick Wiseman or the Maysles brothers, where the filmmaker stays out of frame. But eventually I had to come to the realization that if I’d been more flexible and let our relationship be the subject of the documentary, it could have continued. I learned an unfortunate amount about myself through the filming of this documentary and found out the hard way that I needed to become more flexible.
But I think on another level, and this related to the writing of the book as well, I just didn’t want to be part of the story. I didn’t think that my story was the most interesting one that I’d experienced in China. I’d internalized the idea that the Chinese-American experience is inauthentic or watered down and my pursuit of this Peking Opera family was about finding the pure exemplar of Chinese culture. I was searching for the “real China,” as silly as that sounds.
And as I turned the tapes and experiences into a book, I came to a further realization: the Peking Opera family had been a stand-in for my own family and struggling with them was my way to grapple with my own difficult relationship with my family. Because I’d gone to Beijing at such a young age when I was still searching for so many answers about myself and my family, these existential questions were part of the DNA of all the stories I pursued at that time. As much I wanted to resist the cliché of the Chinese-American woman immersing herself in a family and finding out about her roots, that cliché was part of the story that wanted to be told, the flipside of the “American rebelling” story I thought I was setting out to tell.
AR: In some ways, as you note, that post-college hard-headedness had its advantages– you took an enormous leap of faith in moving to Beijing. And though it seems like you were standing in the way of the story that needed to be told, in some ways I wonder if the book benefitted from the delay it took you to find your subject– if that process yielded details you wouldn’t have encountered had you gone to Beijing with that project: the Chinese American “finding her roots” in mind. Now that you teach college students, how does this hindsight inform how you talk to them about risk-taking in life and art: how to balance staying true to one’s own vision while remaining open to constructive feedback and the possibility of change?
VW: I taught a memoir writing class this past fall and I talked a lot about risk-taking with my students, about the importance and the difficulty of revealing something of yourself in writing. This often involves exposing darker parts of your own life and emotions, because the truth is that people tend to connect with the struggles of others rather than the happy times. They were fairly hesitant to do so. My book was coming out as I taught the class and I talked to them about sharing their sense of anxiety around revealing so much of my own life. I also talked about my process of writing the memoir, from starting out thinking I was writing only about the transformation of modern China as it happened in parallel with my own transformation but realizing that for readers to connect more to me as a narrator, I had to expose my difficult and painful relationship with my family. That relationship gave the events in the book their meaning.
We talked a lot about process, about starting with an idea but not truly knowing what the story you are writing is until it’s down on the paper and you can see it from the outside, often with the help of others. I tried to get them to see the act of writing as a process of discovering themselves and the world they live in. In some stories I got the sense that my students were learning about themselves and changing through the very process of writing, and that was terrifically exciting for me and for them, as well.
AR: What was the timeline of beginning to envision Beijing Bastards as a book (rather than a film), and what did your writing and revision process look like? What advice do you have for artists who are still struggling to identify what form and genre would best suit their vision?
VW: After being in Beijing for almost five years and getting into my late 20s, I realized I wanted to write seriously. I knew that I wanted to write about the Peking Opera family, my own family, my filmmaker friends, and the neighborhood I lived in. I got into the Writing Seminars at Hopkins and started writing the book pretty much the day I came back. I wrote continuously that year and then moved to New York and kept writing as I worked as a freelance television producer. During this time the writing came easily, it really felt like the spirit of the city was writing the book through me and that all of the stories were interconnected and together told a bigger story about the city’s changes. It took five years total to finish the first draft. I found an agent and went through a round of rejections and a dark period of depression. I tried to give up and move on, but the book wouldn’t leave me alone. It took time to realize I’d sidestepped the real story of the book, my relationship to my family, and that I had to turn inward much more than I had. This led to a big, painful edit, a new agent and, five years after the first draft was finished, a book deal.
It’s hard to find the right medium for each project. I find the process very idiosyncratic and very personal. Through doing both types of projects, I’ve realized that for me shooting video is much more about finding out how the external world works and writing is more about exploring inward questions. It may not be that way for everyone and who knows, it may not be that way for my next project. I think that whatever medium allows you to say what you need to say and that gives you the fortitude to withstand all of the failure and rejection that may come your way is the right one.
AR: Although the story begins as a portrait of the artist as a rebellious young Chinese American woman–a post-college quest to make your mark and define yourself in contrast to the more conservative expectations of your parents, at its conclusion Beijing Bastard ultimately feels like a tribute to family in all its noble and exasperating forms. In spite of the many cultural clashes you experience with your Chinese relatives and the Zhang family, who seem to view you as a surrogate (disobedient) daughter, and the stern admonishments of your parents, who fret about everything from your professional and marital prospects to the condition of your teeth–all the while keeping a watchful eye on their phone bill, the portrait of your family that emerges is generous, loving, and very funny. I’m curious how your parents have reacted to the book. And have you been able to share much of this with your Beijing relatives? Any plans for a Chinese edition?
VW: I worried a lot about my parents reading the book. I told them before the book came out that they were in it and that I’d dredged up our conflicts from my adolescent days. To air dirty laundry like that is such a no-no in a Chinese family. I worried even that the curse word in the title would cause them pain – I mean, how were they going to brag to their friends about the book with a title like that? When I told them the title over Skype, my mom said, “What? Beijing Backwards?” So I was prepared for the worst, for them to be angry or ashamed about it. I wrote a note when I sent them the book telling them that I had no hard feelings from the past and asking for their forgiveness for my wild behavior. (Now that I’m a parent, I can see rebellion from the opposite perspective.) I was greatly relieved when my mom loved the book and saw a reverse of her own journey to the States in it. She’s always maintained that we share a sense of adventure (or, rather, that I inherited it from her) and so the book seems like a confirmation of that for her. I don’t think anything in the book particularly came as a surprise. I think she could see that the book is about my rebellion from them but also about my attempts to understand where they come from, both literally and figuratively. I’m realizing now that the internal conflict between the rebellious side of me and the side wanting to be a part of my family is the real engine of the book.
My dad has been too busy cleaning up his Yahoo! mail account so he can spread the news about the book to actually read the book, but I hope he does soon. I’m sending it to Bobo soon but as he doesn’t read English, hopefully his daughters can translate for him. No word yet on a Chinese edition – that would awaken a whole new set of anxieties!
AR: Can you tell us a little bit about your latest multimedia project PLANET TAKEOUT? Are you still inviting participation in this project?
VW: Planet Takeout is an interactive documentary project about urban Chinese takeouts that sprang out of my curiosity about the relationships I observed in the Chinese takeout I frequented in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, when I’d recently moved back from China. The Chinese immigrants who ran the takeout had long-running relationships with their local customers, mostly African-Americans, and the takeout seemed to be a fascinating lens into both the local neighborhood and global immigration patterns. A cultural crossroads, as I called it. As part of Localore, a nationwide project to spur innovation in public media, I embedded in four takeouts in Boston and told stories from both sides of the counter and also about relationships across the counter. I reported a number of stories for WGBH Radio and produced an immersive, interactive documentary that still lives online. The idea was that the project would open up into a participatory project where anyone anywhere who was a customer of a takeout could contribute stories and photos. That phase of the project is over but I’m exploring new ways to exhibit and grow the project.
Find a copy of Beijing Bastard on Indiebound.
Find out more about Planet Takeout and the Localore initiative.
Val Wang is an author and multimedia storyteller. Her memoir Beijing Bastard was released by Gotham Books in Fall 2014. Her multimedia projects work at the edge of digital innovation in journalism. She most recently created and produced Planet Takeout, an interactive, multiplatform documentary on the role of Chinese takeouts as a vital cultural crossroads in America. The project incubated at WGBH Radio as part of the nationwide Localore initiative. Val teaches in the English and Media Studies Department of Bentley University. She lives in Boston but her heart is still partly in Beijing.