Jan Wong manages to infuse humor and hope into bleak subject matter in this memoir.
Thoughtlessly snubbed friendships, callously abandoned lovers, betrayed confidences—almost everyone has an ethical lapse that keeps them up at night. But few of us possess one as potentially ruinous as renowned journalist and author Jan Wong. And rare indeed is the person fearless enough to not only publicly admit to her transgression but to also actually travel halfway around the world to probe its consequences—and then publish a book about it.
In 1972, in the heyday of the Cultural Revolution in China, the Canadian-born Wong became one of the first two Westerners allowed to study at Beijing University. A Kool-Aid–drinking Maoist, Wong embraced all things Red, and so when approached by a fellow undergrad, Yin Luoyi, who told her of her dream to move to America, Wong was aghast. Sensing an opportunity to help a slipping comrade (and not comprehending how dire the punishment for “thought crimes” were), Wong ratted on Yin to a Communist Party stalwart.
Three decades later, armed only with Yin’s name, Wong returned to find out if she was still alive and, if so, what horrors befell her as a result of Wong’s misguided gum-flapping. That’s no easy task in a country where 40 percent of the population shares 10 surnames. But a hopeless, humorless morality tale this ain’t. Despite the bleak subject matter, Wong manages to spin an uplifting, surprisingly hilarious tale that also serves as a helpful primer on China’s history, society, food, and Byzantine code of etiquette. Wong comes off as a brainy Clark Griswold on her own National Lampoon’s Chinese Vacation with her unbridled optimism in the face of certain defeat, her eye-rolling teenage sons, and her supportive, bemused husband. This joie de vivre provides necessary comic relief for what is, after all, a story of life and death. And Wong never lets us forget it.