I really wanted to like this book. It sounded like the kind of quirky memoir I would enjoy. I was curious to read Wong’s portrayal of Vancouver and her story of her crazy Chinese family. I thought I’d find more here that was familiar, even if my family doesn’t believe it’s haunted by ghosts, because, after all, who in Vancouver hasn’t lived next to a grow op?
First of all – and this is a minor point – I didn’t much recognize Wong’s Vancouver. As she freely admits, she grew up in a wealthy suburb. And while her neighbours are largely Chinese immigrants, they seem to be living very different lives than the neighbours I had. Wong doesn’t really branch out of her suburb within the confines of this memoir (at least not until she leaves the country completely). This is all something that likely wouldn’t matter to most readers but I was looking forward to reading about Vancouver and this isn’t a story about that at all.
Most of all though, my issue with The Woo Woo was that it is repetitive. The central premise is that Wong’s family is afflicted by what they refer to as “the woo woo”.. This includes ghosts and demons who enter you when you show weakness, such as crying, or going to the bathroom by yourself. It’s a sort of catch-all for craziness or, as the reader quickly realizes, mental illness. Wong’s Chinese immigrant family doesn’t acknowledge mental illness or agree with the diagnoses of the doctors and psychiatrists some of them do see (her grandmother is diagnosed as schizophrenic). While a certain amount of superstition and distrust of western medicine isn’t atypical to Chinese families, Wong’s family takes it to the extreme.
Beyond this, there isn’t much depth to the story. Wong tells us of her awkward adolescence and her difficulty making friends. Her aggression as an ice hockey player and her struggles in school. Her parents are emotionally and physically abusive. Her mother is ruled by her own mental illness and acts out against her children in a misguided effort to protect them from ghosts. Her father rains down insults even as Wong works hard to impress him. She tells us that she has since learned that it is only his sense of humour to refer to her as retarded and that now she and her father trade insults but I couldn’t help feeling sad that she has grown up only to accept this view of herself.
In fact, it was hard to say what Wong has learned as an adult. The story begins and ends with her diagnosis of an actual, physical brain disorder. Her brain doesn’t work but it isn’t mental illness; she isn’t “woo woo”. But there is no change or development within her family. And while I know these are things that don’t change easily, or even at all, it makes for an unsatisfying story and again leaves me wondering, Why this story?
That was the luxury of my generation – born in a different time and a very dissimilar place, which was what my mother both gave to me and resented about me, that First-World safety. And ultimately, that was what made me different from my mother and my grandmother, two characters that I feared I’d become. But how could I have known that then?
This quote seemed to me to come closest to the delicate heart of this family’s story. That of the new generation and the old. Wong tells us some of her mother and grandmother’s stories – their childhoods in the slums of Hong Kong, their poverty and the added difficulty of being a girl in a society that values boys. Wong is born into a lifestyle and comfort that her own parents and grandparents can’t completely understand, even as they live in the same home as her own. (And honestly, I can’t quite understand Wong’s privilege as she tells of more than one occasion where she is given an all-expenses vacation to an exciting location and then promptly burns those relationships to the grown with inexplicably poor behaviour.)
But instead of delving into this story, Wong holds it at arm’s length with dark humour and a shoulder-shrugging I-don’t-really-care attitude. While I can accept that maybe Wong didn’t want to tell another immigrant story, I’m not sure what story she was really trying to tell here and I didn’t find it that funny or that personal.