Wendy Lee’s “Happy Family”

From author Wendy Lee’s web site:

When Hua Wu arrives in New York City, her life seems destined to resemble that of countless immigrants before her. She spends her hectic days working in a restaurant, and her lonesome nights in a crowded tenement, yearning for those she left behind in Fuzhou, China.

But one day everything changes for Hua, when she meets Jane Templeton and her daughter Lily, a two-year-old adopted from China. Worried that Lily will know little about the country of her birth, or her native language, Jane eventually decides to hire Hua to be her nanny.

From the moment she steps into Jane’s West Village brownstone, Hua finds herself in a world far removed from the cramped streets of Chinatown or her grandmother’s home in Fuzhou. Soon she is deeply attached to Lily and her adoptive parents. But when cracks show in the beautiful façade, what will Hua do to protect the little girl who reminds her so much of her own past? An elegant and poignant debut novel, Happy Family is an entrancing exploration of love and loss, the familiar and the foreign, and the ties that bind strangers together.

A few thoughts and questions:

  • I appreciated that this story wasn’t told from the adoptive parent’s perspective. I thought having the protagonist be a fellow Chinese immigrant (by fellow I mean that both the main character and Lily are immigrants yet how they are perceived and the way they get to America are so contrasting) offered a perspective and juxtaposed American/Chinese values of just what makes one “Chinese” more thought provoking than from a purely white/adoptive parent perspective (see also Wang Ping’s poem from her book, The Magic Whip).
  • I’m curious whether the narrative distance in the relationship between the main character, Hua, and the adoptive parents contributed or offered more or less empathy than some of the other books where the story is told from the perspective of the adoptive parents.
  • Having read “Digging to America”  and “The Love Wife” which also feature Asian adoption but from the perspectives of adoptive parents, how do the adoptive parents in “Happy Family” compare? Are they more stereoptyped? Less? The same? I find some common characterizations in all of these books, as well as an especially specific “type” of adoptive mother portrayal in these novels.
  • Do you think this story is making a statement about international adoption? Or is the adoption story a vehicle for Hua’s character development?

What are your thoughts?

Author: JaeRan

Assistant professor at UW Tacoma, writer, and researcher.

10 thoughts

  1. Here is my comment from the initial post on this book, with some added thoughts on the Evan character. I would be interested in other people’s thoughts on this book.
    [Warning: Plot spoiler…]
    I thought this was a well-written novel, and I enjoyed it.
    I thought it was very ironic that Jane adopted from China partially b/c she was afraid of a domestic birth parent coming back to steal the baby, yet her daughter is kidnapped anyway by someone who was close to having been a Chinese birth parent. I loved that irony.
    You asked about empathy… do you mean empathy with the adopted child? With adoptive parents? With Hua? I certainly felt empathy for Hua. I felt anxious when she was poking around Jane’s apartment (b/c I feared she might be caught at any moment) but I felt that her looking through Jane’s things, and even trying on her clothes and makeup, made it a bit more believable that she might kidnap Lily.
    As for stereotypes… I think that Bitsy in _Digging to America_ (a book I also liked) was extremely stereotyped, to (effective) comic degree. She did everything that parents and adoptive parents are told to do (e.g., stimulating an infant with black-and-white images, exposing a child adopted internationally adopted child to her culture – though in a superficial way), but not exactly effectively. _Happy Family_ did not seem to be to be so self-consciously *about* adoption; the characters seemed more unique and real to me.
    Yet, even though I think _Happy Family_ was more about the characters than about adoption, I do also think the author was commenting on international adoption (esp. with the kidnapping incident). While Jane clearly wanted a child, she also seemed to have a China fetish that Lily was helping to fulfill. (And I also think the book was about the development of Hua’s character.)
    One random thing… I didn’t think it was realistic that Jane would refer to Lily’s birth parents as her “real parents.”
    How about the Evan character??? He also somehow fits into what the author is saying about white Americans and their attitudes toward Chinese culture and people… Is there supposed to be a parallel between Evan using Hua to fulfill a China fetish and Jane using Lily in a somewhat similar selfish way? And, on thinking about Evan further, I’d say he is key in Hua’s character development, too. She was snookered by men twice. I guess he had me snookered too, b/c I initially thought he might be the way up for Hua.

  2. Sharon, thanks so much for re-posting your comments from before, because I think they were so thought provoking.
    I also really got the two types of fetishizing (is that a word?!?) happening in this story. Yes, Evan is totally what we Asian women call a man with “yellow fever” and I’ve met plenty of them in my life. The first two, creepily, were when I was in my early teens (14) and on family vacations. One of them was a fellow teenager but the other was a man in his 30’s who revealed that he only dated Asian women and was very curious about what my “ethnicity” was. He knew how to say “Hello” and “I love you” in several languages. He began by saying “Hello” to me in Korean and when I didn’t know what he was saying, chastised my parents for not teaching me my language. He didn’t know I was adopted (I was trapped on a 15-minutes ski chair lift so I couldn’t walk away). This man dated any Asian ethnicity – his last girlfriend was Japanese but he’d dated Koreans and Filipino women too. Ick.
    But back to the story, the character of Jane also , but less consciously, used Hua to fulfill her Chinese fetish. The world of Chinese culture that Jane had clashes with Hua’s knowledge of culture – leading me to emphasize again how often Americans/Westerners “think” they know what culture is. Culture is not merely artifacts in a museum but the subtle communication and everyday living experiences. It’s the way the school girls interacted, the relationship expectations between Hua and her grandmother – the eye contact and the unspoken rules of society that one follows. These are all things that Jane can not teach Lily. Which is why, I think she wanted Hua to teach these things to Lily even though they will never be natural lessons and will seem forced.
    Another example of this – at the playground when she asks Hua about Lily’s doll, talking about how difficult it is to get Asian looking dolls and what did Hua play with – again, the expectations that little girls in China (or Korea) have these dolls, or even want to play with them, is a very American ideal. When Hua turns the doll over and shows Jane that it says, “Made In China” it was especially ironic. In Korea, there aren’t dolls for little girls that look Korean – it’s all Barbie and blonde baby dolls just like in the U.S. The “ideal” for beauty is light skin and white models are used a lot in advertising. Even though there are a lot of Asian models, I am always surprised to see so many white models in advertising when I am in Korea (for Korean products, not just global products).
    I think this book also shows the ways in which America is fetishized for its perceived culture just as Americans fetishize Chinese (or Korean) culture. It’s clear that the Chinese in this book think America has all this opportunity and don’t have a realistic understanding of how difficult it is for immigrants with few resources like Hua. Even that Hua has some family makes her much more able to get by.
    In terms of empathy, I definitely empathized a little more with Jane in this story than with Bitsy in “Digging to America,” a book I did not like very much. I’ll comment more on my thoughts about “Digging to America” on another post.

  3. Where can I purchase Harlow’s Monkey Book Club T-shirts and Coffee Mugs?
    I’m behind – I have not yet finished “Happy Family”, but enjoying it thus far.

  4. I just finished Happy Family and when I closed the book, I exhaled a deep “Hmmmm”. My DH asked what was wrong. I’m still trying to figure that out.
    The first thing that hit home with me (an AP of four years) was the question Hua asked after Jane proposed the nanny position: “Are you asking me only because I am from China?” I have struggled with this exact thing ever since you (Jae Ran) wrote your “Inviting Me to the Party” article on your blog last September. I struggle with wanting my children exposed to Chinese culture (not the Americanized version) by spending time with Chinese people, but I don’t want to offend anyone by approaching them and asking for their help solely based on their being Chinese. But how do I approach them in the first place until I’ve established a relationship with them? And how do I establish that relationship without common ground? This is a struggle. We are very fortunate to have a Chinese student who tutors our children, but I see a big difference in the way we treat her compared to the way Jane in the novel treats Hua. This leads to my next observation of the novel.
    I felt that the author stereotyped the adoptive parents in making them educated upper-class white Americans with little regard to the feelings and interests of Hua. Jane treated Hua as more of a servant than as the valuable gift she is. All of the APs I personally know consider it a privilege to have any Chinese adult interested in the upbringing of our children. I cannot imagine expecting our Chinese tutor to care for a bunch of other kids at a birthday party. Examples like this in the story made adoptive parents out to be selfish, inward thinking idiots. We are not all like that.
    While reading the story, I kept batting around the question of whether this novel was more a commentary on being an immigrant in America or a commentary on international adoption. I believe the weightiest part of it was the struggle of being an immigrant by choice, and the connection Hua felt with Lily, an immigrant not by choice. And I felt that the undercurrent of the story was the need to “save” the child from her circumstances. More than once in the story Lily’s (or the countless other girls’/second birth children’s) potential fate in China implied she had been saved from a meaningless life, or even abortion, through adoption. However, from Hua’s point of view, Lily needed saving from her circumstances of being raised in a broken home.
    Empathy? Wow, I had a hard time feeling empathy for anyone. I felt for Hua as she struggled with her job as a waitress, trying to eke out a living in a foreign country, but lost much of that when she started nosing through Jane’s stuff and lifting an object here and there; it’s not that the objects were valuable, but my sense of integrity was insulted. Goes to show how much our personal values get caught up in interpreting a story. I don’t think I ever felt much for Jane. I immediately picked up on the Chinese “fetishizing” as well, and found it very offensive. I will have to read some of the other books mentioned before I can compare whether empathy generated for Hua or Jane was a result of the author’s point of view. As an AP, I did not find myself drawn to Jane’s character at all, however I really did find Hua’s viewpoint interesting and deserving of more empathy.
    I have other thoughts on some of the questions at the end of the novel, but this post is long enough already. Hope it fits on the comments section of your blog. Thank you again for bringing this book to my attention.

  5. I’m late to the party, but I just finished this book this weekend, and am so glad to read Sharon’s and your analyses, Jae Ran–which I will want to spend more time pondering. (I also flagged Jane’s unlikely use of the word “real parents” to describe Lily’s mother and father in China–there were just a few small details like that that I wasn’t sure quite worked/rang true to me).
    One small thing I’m interested in, which may be really obvious: I couldn’t help but think of the concept of the “outsider within,” both as used by Jane Trenka’s book to describe the transracial adoptee’s position in the home AND as derived from Patricia Hill Collins’s original essay “Learning from the Outsider Within” which begins by discussing the role of Black women serving as domestic servants in white homes. How Hua and Lily are both outsiders within this home, and thus “privy to some of the most intimate secrets of white society” (in Collins’ words).
    Hua’s pilfering small objects, first the stone and then the knife, from the people who are fetishizing her is disconcerting, and deliberately so, particularly for readers who are coming from a white, middle class: she is by all the rules that govern this society SUPPOSED, by white people, to want what white people have, to want their lives. …
    But she’s not to touch. She’s also supposed to be always and ever just not quite capable of actually acquiring what they have, their position–and if she does come close, she’s supposed to do so on terms that are “comfortable” to them, on terms of happy subordination. She’s supposed to be “in awe” of white culture. But inevitably she notices the flaws, its contradictions, and has her own perspective, ideas, desires, etc.
    In fact, a few months ago I was in England looking at objects from their former colonies that are still in British museums. The plaques often made it clear that the objects were, in fact, stolen, often during colonial wars, but they typically used a passive voice to do so. “This object passed into the hands of Colonel X, after the original owner was arrested in his home…”–read the plaque on a memorable wooden tiger in the Victoria and Albert, stolen from a revolutionary Indian aristocrat who refused to acknowledge British rule.
    (As an American, I suspect it’s easier for me to “see” this in British museums.)
    The fact is, Western museums, like the one Jane worked at, DO often acquire objects from other cultures through processes little different from theft.
    So, yes, Hua is “flawed,” perhaps an unreliable narrator?, but is she more flawed, less reliable than the white people and their institutions, who are “legitimate”? That’s the question the novel makes us ask.
    The more I think about this book, the more I like it.
    Petrie, your phrase “the valuable gift she is” is, well, kind of troubling–I hope you might reconsider it.
    One of the things I am learning and relearning from Jae Ran and other adoptees is how MUCH most literature about adoption–and there’s now a sizable chunk of it out there–and virtually all mainstream media discussions of adoption 1) are dominated by or cater to adoptive parents, and therefore typically 2) reinforce a view of APs as not just good, but in fact rather heroic.
    If that weren’t the case, then your (Petrie’s) conflating of this novel’s portrayal of one adoptive couple with “all adoptive parents” would be more understandable. But, as it is, you come off sounding, to me, like any negative portrayal of APs in works of fiction is unfair and somehow reflective of you. That’s not fair.
    To me, that’s like when white readers act like any negative portrayal of white characters in black literature directly indicts them, specifically and personally.
    However, the fact is that race and class privilege does tend to make the people who benefit from it into “selfish” people who don’t need to “think” too much; if you’re aware of that reality and resisting that pressure, then you don’t need to feel threatened by this portrayal of people who can’t see the way their privilege is affecting them.
    Me, I have made, and continue to make, so many stupid errors as a result of my own race and class status and adoptive parent privilege (and other privileged positions), that I find portrayals like this both helpful and oddly comforting. Because I do know that these privileges create real problems in the world, and that I need to work on them (and maybe am relieved that there are a few specific errors I haven’t made). I won’t ever be some perfect human, but I can keep working on being better, and using my power and privilege as wisely as I can.

  6. I found the book interesting in that it really gave a clear perspective on Hua’s interactions and dynamics with so many different characters – the sinophiles, immigrants, children of immigrants etc..- but I found the author didn’t really provide much insight in to Hua and Lily’s feelings for each other. I wonder if this was the author’s intention.
    I got the sense that Hua did not have an overwhelming affection for Lily, but in a way saw her as merely a symbol or vehicle for the family and sense of belonging which she had so abrubtly lost.
    I really thought the international adoption was just a vehicle for the author to explore varying levels of the modern Asian American experience.
    Thank you for the recommendation. Sorry I’m late to the book club discussion.

  7. Lori, I feel you are absolutely on target about the “outsider within” comment. Lee writes on p. 56, “In some ways it was that simple: Lily needed parents and Jane and her husband needed a child. But foreigners were forever meddling in business that wasn’t theirs, taking things that didn’t belong to them.” So here, Hua is describing the white Americans as foreigners who take things that don’t belong to them. But then there is the parallel (opposite? contrasting?) situation you note with Hua–as the foreigner in America–taking Jane’s belongings, and also taking Lily.
    BTW looking back at the novel again, I noticed that Jane and Hua do seem to have one deep experience in common, although it is not developed in the book in Jane’s character: The reason Jane sees a therapist is due to her “losing a child, wanting a child, having a child… (p. 163)” A difference is that Hua does not have her own child (though perhaps the book is suggesting that, if international adoption is “foreigners taking things that don’t belong to them,” then Jane doesn’t have her own child, either). Ironically, although Jane seems to project her own feelings onto Hua and believes Hua is like a younger version of herself, Jane has no idea they have the experience of losing a child in common.
    I actually didn’t think Hua was trying to save Lily from a broken home. I thought it was more that Hua felt a connection with her. Hua believed she loved Lily, and maybe she did, but I think that was partly due to the fact that Lily was the same age Hua’s own baby would have been. So, I wasn’t convinced that Hua really loved Lily (which Andy also seems to feel).
    Also Petrie, I was wondering if you found the *portrayal* of “Chinese fetishism” (as we’re calling it) offensive, or if you were rather saying that this behavior/attitude in general (i.e., when displayed in real life) is offensive. I would agree that such behaviors/attitudes are offensive (or at least, reflect a kind of shallowness on the part of individuals like Jane) but I did not find the book itself offensive. I tend to like novels that I feel portray human nature (even the negative aspects of it) in a realistic way; hopefully they help me gain insight into human nature.

  8. It’s been awhile since I wrote my comments so I had to go back and read them after reading Lori’s and Sharon’s posts. Lori, I consider many people in my life “gifts”, so I did not intend to use the phrase in an insulting way. I feel blessed that my children can spend time with an adult from China who can give them what I cannot. What I was trying to say is that I found it offensive that Hua was “used” rather than honored by Jane. I meant nothing more. As for me feeling insulted about the stereotype of AP’s, you got me. I do know that most literature out there is one-sided, and I know my comment indicated I took the stereotype personally. It’s an unfortunate personality trait that’s part of the package I am (I’ve heard “Don’t take it so personally” on more than one occasion). I’m not sure if I’m supposed to apologize or defend myself here…I’ll just ask that I not get flamed and that I be allowed to share the way I was affected by the novel.
    Sharon, it was Jane’s objectifying of all things Chinese, inlcuding people, that I found distasteful in her character. It’s the objectifying of a particular “kind” of person that isn’t based on knowing the person or caring about the person. It extends to that behavior/attitude in general as well, not just the portrayal of it in the novel. It’s just not nice to treat people that way.
    I do not consider either of Lori’s or Sharon’s comments as flames, but I was rather hoping this Book Club would be a place to discover some interesting reading, read some insightful comments, and enjoy a new perspective. Jae Ran asked particular questions and I thought we were trying to answer them. I hope I have not offended in my responses. None was intended.

  9. Petrie, thanks for following up! I am hoping this will be a site where people can present contradictory interpretations, ask questions, ask for clarifications, etc., and I sure hope this type of lively discussion will not be seen as flaming anyone. I love to read, but I feel like I miss a lot of nuances, so I love to get other people’s take on a books.

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