Of Abject Fathers and Angry Mothers: Chia-Chia Lin’s The Unpassing

March 2020. Published at tropicsofmeta.com.

Chia-Chia Lin’s The Unpassing (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2019) is the most Taiwanese American book I’ve ever read. By that I mean – with all of the presumption and ignorance of a second-generation immigrant – that it resonates as true for me. It resonates in the marrow of my bones, in the goose flesh on the back of my arms, in my heartbroken dreams. It haunts me. The abject father and the contemptuous mother. The cleaver and the telephone. The reading of emotion in postures rather than words. The cruelties, big and small, which can never be taken back. And the way the kids make meaning through love and fear of the landscape. They know they will never belong and yet they yearn for it and strive to make new worlds and find the homes they lost before they could speak or really remember.

In the world Lin creates in The Unpassing, the narrator’s father, Tsung-Chieh Hsu, works as a plumber and contractor, but tells his children that “he used to be a genius, that he had an advanced degree from Taiwan.” The narrator, the ten-year-old Gavin, continues, “My mother never denied it, so I know it was true.”

I think my father, Edward Teh-chang Cheng, used to be a genius, too. Like Gavin’s father, he came from a native Taiwanese family and grew up under martial law in the early years of Chinese Nationalist (Kuomintang) rule. In the 1970s, following one of the only pathways out of Taiwan, he came to the United States as a graduate student in nuclear engineering. A stubborn, iconoclastic child – the youngest of three sons in his pragmatic and rather joyless family – he dreamed of being a professor. After receiving his Ph.D., he was in talks with his alma mater in Taiwan regarding a faculty position there, but because of his active participation in Taiwanese student organizations in the United States, he was told by government officials not to come back, that there was no job for him there. He knew then that he was on the Kuomintang’s notorious blacklist. Unable to secure a faculty position in the United States (the only open position at the time for his specialized field was in Alabama and they didn’t know how to do the paperwork to hire a foreign person – or so they said), he found a job at General Atomics in San Diego, chipping away over the years at the details of how to make fusion energy a viable source of power for the world.

By the 1990s, working alone in a rented office with paltry grants from the U.S. Department of Energy (or “dee-oh-ee,” as my father called it, in his deliberate, Taiwanese-inflected English), having traveled through the rapidly changing post-Cold War world to nuclear labs and symposiums from Tennessee to Berlin to Beijing, he felt not much further than where he had begun – the world no closer to viable long-term energy production, and that much closer to environmental and political collapse.

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