By Samantha Pak
Northwest Asian Weekly
“Suck It, Wonder Woman! The Misadventures of a Hollywood Geek”
By Olivia Munn, with Mac Montandon
St. Martin’s Press, 2010
In this collection of essays, actress and TV personality Olivia Munn offers stories from her life, growing up half Chinese and half white. She also shares stories from her life of trying to break into show business.
While “Wonder Woman” is a biography of sorts, it’s not your typical memoir. The stories are not arranged in chronological order.
From one chapter to the next, Munn recounts tales of how she landed her first “boyfriend” (at age 13), the time she was asked to house sit for her first agent, and how her love of pie led her to jump into a giant chocolate cream pie. And among these stories are lists and observations on topics such as the greatest moments in geek history and what to do when robots invade (yes, when).
Munn, who currently stars in NBC’s “Perfect Couples,” doesn’t hold back about her life experiences. She doesn’t name names, but her encounters with some of Hollywood’s finest will have you laughing — and cringing. There is no business like show business. On the other hand, she also shares some very personal stories. One in particular is about her grandmother’s death, which will have you reaching for a tissue.
What I liked about this book is the variety of stories Munn included. Unlike other stories — fiction and nonfiction — in which the protagonist is a minority, Munn doesn’t dwell or focus on her background. She doesn’t use her race to define herself or her story. However, she does not ignore it, either. In one chapter, she revisits kindergarten life with her blonde, light-eyed stepsister and how the kids in their class treated the two of them so differently. In her 10-point presidential campaign platform, Munn states that she will require every American citizen to take an Asian-Recognition Course, which should drastically reduce the number of people who think she’s Japanese.
My favorite thing about “Wonder Woman” is how grounded Munn remains through everything. On multiple occasions, she brings up the love she has for her fans and how she would never be where she is now without them. She is also unapologetic about her geeky tendencies and actually embraces them, which I think is something we all need to do.
“Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother”
By Amy Chua
The Penguin Press, 2011
Amy Chua is not an average parent. Personally, I don’t think she’s even the average Asian parent, which we all know, through personal experience, is an entirely different animal from the American parent.
She never allowed her daughters Sophia and Lulu to choose their own extracurricular activities, watch TV, or partake in any activity most kids would describe as fun. Instead, Chua drilled the girls in math, enrolled them in Mandarin lessons, and made them practice piano (Sophia) and violin (Lulu) for hours at a time, even on lesson days.
In “Battle Hymn,” Chua recounts her experiences as a mother trying to raise her daughters the “Chinese” way in present-day America. Needless to say, it’s a struggle of epic proportions — especially with the younger Lulu. The word “battle” in the title can be taken quite literally, as Chua and Lulu constantly butt heads in vicious, often painful confrontations, mainly about her daughter’s unwillingness to practice and perform on the violin. The scene in which they finally come to blows was particularly emotional, especially when Chua describes how she was at a loss on how to proceed afterward.
What I liked about “Battle Hymn” is that the story of the parent-child relationship is told from the parent’s point of view. Having read countless recounts from the other side, I was refreshed by the new perspective.
Some of Chua’s parenting methods are extreme, to say the least. But throughout the story, the reader doesn’t doubt that she loves her daughters deeply. She wants only the best for them. She often makes comparisons between Chinese (or Asian/immigrant) parenting and “Western” parenting — seemingly sure the former will prevail. But as the story unfolds and her clashes with Lulu get worse, Chua questions herself.
As heartbreaking as it is hilarious, “Battle Hymn” is a story parents and children of all backgrounds should read.
But I especially think it’s something children of Asian parents should read because it gives us insight into why our parents do the things they do.
“Stealing Buddha’s Dinner”
By Bich Minh Nguyen
Penguin Books, 2007
In another memoir, Bich Nguyen recounts how her family moved from a war-torn Saigon to America in 1975 when she was eight months old. They ended up in Grand Rapids, Mich., a place where diversity was as foreign a concept as the local population of blue-eyed blondes perceived her family to be.
This is the story of Nguyen growing up in the late 1970s and 1980s, feeling like an outsider, even among her family. Her father worked hard and partied harder, her sister was considered “the pretty one,” her grandmother was devoutly Buddhist, her stepmother was Mexican, her stepsister was resentful, and on and on it goes. Nguyen, a shy and self-conscious bookworm, who wore thick glasses and needed braces, never knew where she fit.
In addition to reading, Nguyen also loved food. More specifically, she loved American food, which turned into a fascination. Throughout her life, Nguyen has used food as a marker of how “real” of an American she is.
Despite most of these items being processed, prepackaged, and unhealthy, Nguyen describes them in such detail and with such reverence that I began craving them as well.
Throughout the story, Nguyen learns who she is and tries to form an identity as she grows distant from her sister who is only a year older. She faces off with white “friends” who look at her with disgust and pity in their eyes because she’s not Christian. She tiptoes around the tension of her parents’ marriage, and occasionally wonders what happened to her birth mother.
What I liked about “Dinner” is, while the story of being an outsider is a common one I’ve read many times, the gastronomy lens Nguyen focuses through to tell it makes it fresh. ♦
Samantha Pak can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.