Of Abject Fathers and Angry Mothers: Chia-Chia Lin’s The Unpassing

Chia-Chia Lin’s The Unpassing (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2019) is the most Taiwanese American book I’ve ever read. By that I mean – with all of the presumption and ignorance of a second-generation immigrant – that it resonates as true for me. It resonates in the marrow of my bones, in the goose flesh on the back of my arms, in my heartbroken dreams. It haunts me. The abject father and the contemptuous mother. The cleaver and the telephone. The reading of emotion in postures rather than words. The cruelties, big and small, which can never be taken back. And the way the kids make meaning through love and fear of the landscape. They know they will never belong and yet they yearn for it and strive to make new worlds and find the homes they lost before they could speak or really remember.

In the world Lin creates in The Unpassing, the narrator’s father, Tsung-Chieh Hsu, works as a plumber and contractor, but tells his children that “he used to be a genius, that he had an advanced degree from Taiwan.” The narrator, the ten-year-old Gavin, continues, “My mother never denied it, so I know it was true.”

I think my father, Edward Teh-chang Cheng, used to be a genius, too. Like Gavin’s father, he came from a native Taiwanese family and grew up under martial law in the early years of Chinese Nationalist (Kuomintang) rule. In the 1970s, following one of the only pathways out of Taiwan, he came to the United States as a graduate student in nuclear engineering. A stubborn, iconoclastic child – the youngest of three sons in his pragmatic and rather joyless family – he dreamed of being a professor. After receiving his Ph.D., he was in talks with his alma mater in Taiwan regarding a faculty position there, but because of his active participation in Taiwanese student organizations in the United States, he was told by government officials not to come back, that there was no job for him there. He knew then that he was on the Kuomintang’s notorious blacklist. Unable to secure a faculty position in the United States (the only open position at the time for his specialized field was in Alabama and they didn’t know how to do the paperwork to hire a foreign person – or so they said), he found a job at General Atomics in San Diego, chipping away over the years at the details of how to make fusion energy a viable source of power for the world.

By the 1990s, working alone in a rented office with paltry grants from the U.S. Department of Energy (or “dee-oh-ee,” as my father called it, in his deliberate, Taiwanese-inflected English), having traveled through the rapidly changing post-Cold War world to nuclear labs and symposiums from Tennessee to Berlin to Beijing, he felt not much further than where he had begun – the world no closer to viable long-term energy production, and that much closer to environmental and political collapse.

In his fifties, in the twilight of his engineering career, he started writing poetry. In 2001, he wrote:

Birthday Confession (on my 55th birthday)

I don’t know why

I thought of my dear brother.

At 46 cancer took him.

Before he died he told me

there was no need for a gravestone,

no need for a memorial

to mark a failed life.

Now I am 55,

not yet cancer stricken

but already the kind of man

who knows nothing.

People often remind me:

obviously, on the road of life

I am a failure of a man.

I will sink and sink and sink

down to a place

where nothing can penetrate,

a dark, bottomless world,

a black hole with no markers.

The poem is full of self-contempt, and matter of fact. I recognize its desire for oblivion a different animal from the simmering rage and sensitivity of my mother’s side of my family; that is always relational, burning up other people in its wake. I know that place, this black hole with no markers: it is a place where you are always alone, and cannot be found. It’s no place for children.

A person sitting in front of a book shelf

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Edward Teh-chang Cheng

In The Unpassing, Gavin is the second of four children and survives a harrowing bout of meningitis at the beginning of the book. But his younger sister, Ruby, only four, dies, and thus the scene is set for a grief that will ultimately fracture the family. Told from the perspective of a child, however, the roots and extent of the fracture are revealed only gradually and interspersed with an occult aura. The world outside of the family’s intimate isolation is experienced primarily through the materiality of the Alaskan landscape. Their house sits alone on the edge of an impossibly tall spruce woods, intended to be the first house in a suburb that doesn’t materialize. In those woods, the children explore the possibilities of life away from the strictures of their tense parents, experiencing the nearly catastrophic falling of one of those giant trees, and getting to know the white family that lives on the other side of the woods, whose bland normalcy, goodness, and stability act as a foil to their own family throughout the book.

The Hsu children have been cut off from their own roots – not only in the form of human ancestors (in a poignant scene, their mother, who is never named, misses her last chance to speak to her father before he dies, far away in Taiwan), but cut off from their connections to land and non-human beings. These lost connections are embodied in their mother, whose intimate knowledge of and connection to the sea stems from growing up in a small seaside town on the east coast of Taiwan: “Across the rippled terrain was the same ocean she’d grown up beside…. If you cut a slanted path through the water, she said, you could end up on eastern shores of Taiwan. Her village, even.”

Their mother looks back often with yearning. In contrast, their father disparages Taiwan: “That junk island. Where you couldn’t find pizza or even a good, thick napkin to wipe your mouth. You couldn’t talk about history. You couldn’t mention certain dates. For a brief time his family had owned land, given by the Japanese and taken away by the Chinese. There was nothing left there for my father now, no family and no land.”

As immigrants, the family is profoundly alienated, deprived of ancestral connections to land and other beings, and also of any claims to legitimacy in the United States’ most sparsely populated and most recently conquered state. People outside of their family, or any social worlds to speak of, are only lightly present in the book, showing not only the family’s isolation, but suggesting absences in Alaska itself – perhaps an intimation of the violent wars of erasure waged by settlers against its Indigenous people and long Indigenous past.

In The Unpassing, it is still the height of the space race. The 1986 Challenger shuttle catastrophe occurs at the same time as the Hsu family’s personal catastrophe. And later in the book, at a moment of crisis, a sublime nighttime vision in the woods turns out not to be the aurora borealis, as one might expect of a book set so heavily in Alaska’s natural landscape, but the detritus of a Russian space shuttle burning through the atmosphere. It is not redemption, then, that the children find, but human folly which, as the narrator states in the first pages of the book, can never be undone: “although we tried, each in our own way, no one was able to go back even one step.”

My father didn’t live to read Lin’s book, but about ten years ago, when the cancer was probably already alive in him but we didn’t know it yet, he read another book: Susan Choi’s A Person of Interest (Viking, 2008). Choi’s blistering novel, a fictional mash-up of the Unabomber (Theodore Kaczynski) and Wen Ho Lee cases, concentrates American racism and male immigrant rage, failure, and disappointment into the figure of “Lee,” an undistinguished, Asian American math professor at a Midwestern university. Lee, both a widower and a divorcee, is alienated from his students and colleagues, from the place and country in which he lives, and, most heartbreakingly, from his own daughter.

Before The Unpassing, this was the only book I had read that tore at my heart in such unnervingly familiar ways: the father equal parts proud and pathetic, caught in a late Cold War web of mathematical intrigue and paranoia. The fictional Lee, the real (Wen Ho) Lee, and my father were all agents of history, whose aspirations were warped or made insignificant by their American dreams.

My father, hunched on the couch with Choi’s book in his hands, still dressed in his faded plaid flannel pajamas and dark blue velour robe, muttered, “I hate this book.” He protested Choi’s capaciously precise vocabulary, which forced him constantly to look up words in his dogeared red Webster’s dictionary. And yet, he could not stop reading it. He read as I have never seen him read another book: obsessively, as though something very important depended on it.

In The Unpassing – as well as in my own family (People often remind me:/ obviously, on the road of life / I am a failure of a man) – the father’s failures are delineated by the mother’s rage. Through Gavin’s eyes, his father is morose but loving and idealistic, pointing out the beauty of the stars and seeing worlds of possibility in little brother Natty’s drawings. Seen through the words and actions of their mother, however, the father’s cumulative failures become truly horrific, his passivity deserving only of contempt. In a pivotal scene, their mother tells their father to leave. Seemingly powerless (“My father stood there empty-handed with a silly expression on his face”), their mute father lingers with his children for a long moment before acquiescing. The mother only kicks the door after him.

By the end of the book, the father, separated from his three living children, becomes, effectively, part of the Alaskan landscape, like their little sister whose ashes have merged with the soil. Later on, Gavin, as an adult, returns to Alaska but is seen as simply a tourist. Gavin and his older sister Pei-Pei and younger brother Natty will never be recognized as part of Alaska, and yet it has profoundly shaped them.

Adult Gavin also travels to Taiwan, “trying to find the village that lived in my memory of my mother’s memory.” He stays with his aunt, who “didn’t look like my mother at all,” and develops allergies from the local seafood. A local girl calls him a “huan-á” (a foreigner or barbarian). The deep bodily belonging that Gavin hoped for eludes him. Instead, he reflects, “It was a kind of violence, what my father had done. He had brought us to a place we didn’t belong, and taken us from a place we did. Now we yearned for all places and found peace in none.”

In stark, profound, and often brutal ways, The Unpassing details how in a single family, immigration is alienation – from self, land, family, and history – even as it also is, for the lucky, a chance at new life and relief from old oppressions.

But the land, like all beings, is never a blank slate. The land, like people, remembers. The woods come into the house. Mushrooms grow in the seams of the Hsu family bathroom; flying squirrels invade the attic. Natty, the otherworldly little brother, believes the squirrels, who pound the floors of the ceiling above the kids’ room at night, are ghost children – including the ghost of their dead sister, Ruby. The landscape and its non-human beings become symbols and proxies for all that has been lost or is being repressed by the human family.

In the end, a sliver of redemption occurs only through memories of the dead and what might have been; what never was.

I still see my father sometimes. The wary eyes and smooth brown face of a man passing me on the hiking trail. The customer in a faded bucket hat, behind us in line at Costco. Not yet cancer stricken / but already the kind of man / who knows nothing. In 2001, just under a dozen years before his diagnosis, he had predicted his own fate.

On a sunny afternoon at the UCLA hospital, a year into his treatment, I brought a list of questions for us to pass the time while a nurse stabbed into a vein in his arm to start the chemotherapy drip. “If you could go back in time to your thirties,” I asked (thirties perhaps not coincidentally being my own age then), “what would you have done differently?”

In the brief silence that followed, I thought of the crippling tension that often pervaded our household when I was a child. I remembered broken dishes, my father lying on the ground screaming, the cutting remarks that sliced through our days. The time when I was a teenager and we were in the backyard – the cloying scent of hundreds of spring blossoms in the air – and he said, his face hard and pointed, “Maybe I will just go away.” And all the ways I thought – or my parents had told me outright – that they had disappointed each other, all the ways that my brother and I were never enough.

He looked at me with a slightly puzzled expression, as though he had no idea why I would ask such a question. “Nothing,” he said simply. “Everything turned out well.”

Wendy Cheng is Associate Professor of American Studies at Scripps College. She received her A.B. from Harvard University in English and American Language and Literature, her M.A. in Geography from UC Berkeley, and her Ph.D. in American Studies and Ethnicity from the University of Southern California. Her research focuses on race and ethnicity, comparative racialization, critical geography, urban and suburban studies, and diaspora. Her book, The Changs Next Door to the Díazes: Remapping Race in Suburban California (University of Minnesota Press, 2013) develops a theory of regional racial formation through the experiences and perspectives of residents of majority nonwhite, multiracial suburbs, and won the 2014 Book Award from the American Sociological Association’s Section on Asia and Asian America. Her coauthored book, A People’s Guide to Los Angeles (with Laura Pulido and Laura Barraclough; University of California Press, 2012), for which she was also the photographer, is a guide to sites of alternative histories and struggles over power in Los Angeles County. Cheng is also a key contributor to our edited collection, East of East: The Making of Great El Monte (Rutgers, 2020). Her current research focuses on the political activism of Taiwanese student migrants to the United States.