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Author explores how lingering sorrow is baked into Asian American experience

Journalist Kat Chow's memoir "Seeing Ghosts" recounts the grief of losing her mother. Chow said “this shape of loss and longing” colored her immigrant family even before her death.
Image: \"Seeing Ghosts,\" by Kat Chow.
"Seeing Ghosts" by Kat Chow.Grand Central Publishing

In the introspection that unfurled after her mother’s death, author Kat Chow often wondered about a specific moment in her mother’s life.

An immigrant, Chow’s mother — Bo Mui, who later took the name Florence — adopted a new career as a computer programmer after spending years drawing blood at a Connecticut hospital, a transition that involved years of night classes and coding lessons at the local college.

“Was she satisfied still, with this change? I suppose I am wondering what it means to be satisfied,” Chow wrote in her new memoir "Seeing Ghosts." “My father often talks of survival — do whatever is necessary to succeed — but where in this idea does satisfaction factor?”

Speaking to Bo Mui in absentia, Chow wrote: “Mommy, I am asking about your happiness — and yet, I am only able to reach as far as ‘satisfied.’”

These questions, coated in an unresolved sadness about the past and the life that Chow’s parents attempted to forge in those early days, served as a reflection of a long-term feeling of loss that’s often baked into the immigrant experience, Chow told NBC Asian America.

In the memoir, released last week, Chow investigates her own culture and meaning of family, which are shaped by her mother's death due to cancer when Chow was 13. While the work, which reads like a delicately written scrapbook, plunges into memories and questions about the past, shifting between tenses and anecdotes and bits of history, it isn’t so much a book about grief as it is a lens to explore her own identity.

Chow said that in turning over the death, fallout and what came before them, she discovered there had been “this shape of loss and longing that I noticed in my family for so long.” It’s a concept, Chow said, that’s present in many Asian American families who’ve experienced the trauma of uprooting an old life and starting a new one.

“I'd actually been wanting to write about this for so long that I hadn't really even understood how to articulate it or how to really word it because it wasn't just about my mom's grief,” Chow said. “I just understood that it felt as though we were really existing in these negative spaces where we were inhabiting loss.”

Chow, a journalist and founding member of NPR's race and culture podcast “Code Switch,” also examined her parents’ relationship. The couple met at a tag sale in Hartford, Connecticut, when her mother was 25 and her father, Wing Shek, was 31. It was rare for immigrants who shared their dialect, Taishanese, to find each other in that area, Chow wrote.

Her mother and father both hailed from Southern China, with pasts fleeing from communist rule before later putting down roots in the U.S. Their relationship, like that of so many others, was steeped in tensions, often about finances and instability. Wing Shek, a proud graduate of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, bounced between jobs, including as an engineer, programmer and financial consultant. One particular career path that led to conflict was Chow's father’s decision to open a restaurant.

A tribute of sorts to his own father, who had opened successful restaurants in Havana, Wing Shek’s ultimately sunk into bankruptcy.

Bo Mui, a mischievous woman who delighted in jokes, stretched the family’s finances over the years to give her three children luxuries like horseback riding and tennis lessons, which the family could not afford, Chow wrote. As the family struggled to keep the restaurant open, Bo Mui became pregnant with her only son — prized in her family’s culture — whom she named Jonathan. But he died soon after his birth, another source of grief the family had to contend with.

“I would see the ways in which my parents were trying to make homes in suburban Connecticut and how isolated they seem in terms of community and place but also self,” Chow said. “There is this disconnect where they had these ideas of survival, but they somehow weren't measuring up to these ideas.”

Many of the observations in her book, she said, came from the idea of “racial melancholy,” coined by scholars David L. Eng, Shinhee Han and Anne Anlin Cheng. Built upon Freud’s work on mourning and melancholia, a persistent state of sorrow, the scholars posited that immigration, assimilation and racialization are “unresolved processes” of melancholia.

“Melancholia describes an unresolved process that might usefully describe the unstable immigration and suspended assimilation of Asian Americans into the national fabric,” Eng and Han wrote in their report “A Dialogue on Racial Melancholia.” “This suspended assimilation — this inability to blend into the ‘melting pot’ of America — suggests that, for Asian Americans, ideals of whiteness are continually estranged. They remain at an unattainable distance, at once a compelling fantasy and a lost ideal.”

Citing Cheng’s piece “The Melancholy of Race,” Chow explained that racial identity is “shaped by the push-pulls of loss and recovery.”

“I get this. The immigrant family tries to preserve a history and a life that the surroundings resist,” she wrote.

That preservation took on a more literal sense in the book, when Wing Shek tried to taxidermy a fish — a literal act of preservation that harkened the author back to a moment where her mother once joked, "I want you to get me stuffed so I can sit in your apartment and always watch you."

Throughout the book, the Asian Americans, while imperfect people, built into relatable, sympathetic characters. Initially, Chow said the death of her mother erected an emotional wall between her and her father.

“There was so much silence between us. When my mom passed, my dad and I didn't know how to talk to each other about a loss that had kind of cleaved our family apart,” she said.

But in between hardened conversations and an unwillingness to talk about traumatic events, the book revealed moments of connection, including a trip to Havana to fill out her father’s own origin story.

“Describing someone is actually perhaps one of the most brutal things you can do as a writer, right, because you are memorializing, and sure it’s your point of view, and how you view them, but it can be really hurtful,” she said. “I took that responsibility, whether it was writing about myself or writing about my family, our histories, very seriously.”