I read this in March 2020, just as everything was shutting down. Due to my stress level (#2020sucks), I did not write a post or make any notes. I did, however, highlight passages in my Kindle copy. I remember not really liking this book. But, in looking at the passages I marked, I felt like it worked pretty well for this challenge–what I marked gives us some interesting insights into growing up as a Chinese American in the Midwest.
I am reading my way across the USA–5 or so books from each state, with an emphasis on those where the setting becomes another character in the book, or those where we learn something about the geography, history, and/or people of the state. We are returning to Ohio after a pause of… most of 2020.
Everything I Never Told You is set in Middlewood, Ohio–a fictional town about an hour outside of Toledo in the northwest part of the state. The author, Celeste Ng, grew up in Pittsburgh, and in Shaker Heights, which is a suburb of Cleveland (and the setting of her book Little Fires Everywhere).
The main character (or at least the main focus of the book), Lydia, is a third generation Chinese American–her father’s parents immigrated to the US during the exclusion era, and he was born in California. Her mother is white, which confuses the people in Middlewood, and makes Lydia feel more of an outsider. Her father seems to enjoy people’s discomfort, however, and teaches US history at the local university, responding to people’s questioning looks by reminding them that he is, in fact, an American.
We learned a bit about the Chinese Exclusion Act through Ruthanne Lum McCann’s Thousand Pieces of Gold, when we were in Idaho, and we learned about the Japanese chicken-sexers coming to the Midwest and South in Indiana and Georgia, but Ng gives us another piece in the puzzle.
America was a melting pot, but Congress, terrified that the molten mixture was becoming a shade too yellow, had banned all immigrants from China. Only the children of those already in the States could enter. So James’s father had taken the name of his neighbor’s son, who had drowned in the river the year before, and come to join his “father” in San Francisco. It was the story of nearly every Chinese immigrant from the time of Chester A. Arthur to the end of the Second World War. …
While the Norwegians and the Italians and the Russian Jews ferried from Ellis Island to Manhattan, fanning out by road and railway to Kansas and Nebraska and Minnesota, the Chinese who bluffed their way to California mostly stayed put. In Chinatowns, the lives of all those paper sons were fragile and easily torn. Everyone’s name was false. Everyone hoped not to be found out and sent back. Everyone clustered together so they wouldn’t stand out.Celeste Ng in Everything I Never Told You
At one point, Jack asks Lydia what it’s like being the only Chinese Americans around. Her answer is full of the pain of being an outsider:
“What’s it like?” Lydia hesitated. Sometimes you almost forgot: that you didn’t look like everyone else. In homeroom or at the drugstore or at the supermarket, you listened to morning announcements or dropped off a roll of film or picked out a carton of eggs and felt like just another someone in the crowd. Sometimes you didn’t think about it at all. And then sometimes you noticed the girl across the aisle watching, the pharmacist watching, the checkout boy watching, and you saw yourself reflected in their stares: incongruous. Catching the eye like a hook. Every time you saw yourself from the outside, the way other people saw you, you remembered all over again. You saw it in the sign at the Peking Express—a cartoon man with a coolie hat, slant eyes, buckteeth, and chopsticks. You saw it in the little boys on the playground, stretching their eyes to slits with their fingers—Chinese—Japanese—look at these—and in the older boys who muttered ching chong ching chong ching as they passed you on the street, just loud enough for you to hear. You saw it when waitresses and policemen and bus drivers spoke slowly to you, in simple words, as if you might not understand. You saw it in photos, yours the only black head of hair in the scene.Celeste Ng in Everything I Never Told You
What I really remember liking about this book was the way that Lydia does not conform to the pervasive stereotype of the smart Asian. In fact, that’s at the heart of the book–she is very obviously the favorite child of both her parents, and yet still manages to disappoint and/or deceive them both by not living up to their expectations. Her father enjoys being the outsider, but Lydia is not confident enough in herself to manage that. She is socially awkward and teased about her “other-ness.” And her mother, who gave up her own plans to become a doctor when she became pregnant, transfers her hopes and dreams to Lydia, who isn’t interested and can’t quite make the grade academically. Both parents also overlook the gifts and talents of their other two children in their attempts to mold Lydia to their aspirations.
All of this results in a rather dysfunctional family, and has tragic consequences–in the opening pages we’re told that Lydia has been found drowned in the local lake. I have to admit that I was not at all satisfied with the ending of the book. I suppose it fit, but I was hoping for something more… definitive? This felt a bit… wishy-washy… But, then again, I suppose it’s another example of Lydia not quite meeting expectations, even of those who only know her peripherally.
“I dunno,” she said. “People decide what you’re like before they even get to know you.” She eyed him, suddenly fierce. “Kind of like you did with me. They think they know all about you. Except you’re never who they think you are.”Celeste Ng in Everything I Never Told You
Overall, Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng was a good addition to our reading challenge, but I feel like I’m developing a rather pessimistic view of Ohio. Lydia’s story doesn’t have the same type of bleakness as in the books that focus more on the Rust Belt aspects of the state (and there wasn’t as much football in this one, either), but it also didn’t exactly paint a heartwarming or optimistic picture of Ohio, either. (I’ve finished but not yet posted reviews of Ohio by Stephen Markley, Sworn to Silence by Linda Castillo, and I Am Number Four by Pittacus Lore.) More Ohio to come; hopefully we can find some more optimism.