The days went like this: We bundled up and trekked for over an hour on the L from campus to Chinatown in search of canned baby corn and bottles of oyster sauce. We dug out Bernice’s rusted box of a Corolla from the snow and drove 45 minutes to the Empty Bottle to sway in the dark to our favorite indie rock bands before making it back for a few hours of sleep and class the next morning. We lay on the floor of our friend’s kitchen, cookies baking in the oven, and talked about confounding relationships and the futures we couldn’t quite imagine yet.
Of the universities that accepted me, I decided on the one that was furthest away from home. Here, in Chicago, 1,100 miles away, I found my people. We sang karaoke into the wee hours. We came home from nights out, our clothes doubly smoky from cigarette smoke and Korean BBQ grilled at the table. We were a crew.
Hua Hsu’s wrenching memoir, Stay True, took me right back to those college days of finding comfort in a group –and the intensity of youth. On the cusp of adulthood, figuring out who we were, we felt everything deeply. “Back then, your emotions were always either very high or very low,” Hsu writes, “unless you were bored, and nobody in human history had ever been this bored before.”
At its center, Stay True is a coming-of-age story about a formative friendship and the grief that follows when that friend is killed. But it is also about Taiwanese immigration to Silicon Valley, Asian American identity, relationships with parents, music and mixtapes, film, philosophy, and art.
Hsu writes with a specificity that is rare, conjuring a portrait of a particular time in the ’90s and of a microgeneration right at the edge of Gen X and millennials. I found myself nodding along as I read: Yes, it was exactly like that.
I am the same age as Hsu. Like him, I am the American-born child of Chinese-speaking immigrants who met at an American university. My engineer father, like his, came to the U.S. for a better education (mine from Hong Kong, his from Taiwan). Like Hsu, I sulked around thrift stores and record shops, judged people by their musical tastes, and did not trust people who tucked in their shirts (a sign of being very uncool). While I did not start my own “earnest yet cynical” zine, I wrote for my friend’s. I, too, joined the Asian American publication on campus.
Even if you are not a college-educated Asian American of a certain age, Hsu’s writing captures the urgency of adolescent friendships with precise prose that pulls you back to what it was like to be 18 or 19. He writes about how time seemed to stretch on and on at that age; how you stayed up deliriously late; how you laughed so hard that you thought you might die; how you moved in packs even while yearning to set yourself apart.
“Back then” is a refrain in the first chapter, signaling a nostalgia for those youthful days, but also an elegiac look back with a middle-aged lens. Back then email was a novelty that was checked weekly, and photos were only taken at special events worthy of film. “Back then, there was no such thing as spending too much time in the car. We would have driven anywhere so long as we were together,” Hsu writes in the opening lines.
When Hsu first meets Ken, who lived one floor above in their dorm at UC Berkeley, it is not friendship at first sight. Hsu and Ken didn’t have much in common except that they were both Asian Americans who had grown up in California. But their experiences were vastly different. Ken’s Japanese American family had been in the United States for generations. They were an all-American family so assimilated that Ken’s high school girlfriend was “white and blond and conventionally pretty.”
Hsu, meanwhile, grappled with the “discomfort at a molecular level” that beset the children of immigrants. Feeling like an outsider was something he shared with his parents. His dad tried on the name “Eric” for a while. “There comes a moment for the immigrant’s child when you realize that you and your parents are assimilating at the same time,” he writes.
Assimilation, though, turns out to be “a race towards a horizon that wasn’t fixed.” “The ideal was ever shifting, and your accent would never be quite perfect. It was a set of compromises sold to you as a contract. Assimilation was not a problem to be solved but the problem itself.”
These opposite stances don’t seem promising for friendship. And indeed, Hsu initially dismisses Ken on many counts as “a genre of person I actively avoided – mainstream.” There was Ken’s taste in music (Dave Matthews Band, Pearl Jam), his clothes (Polo shirts and baggy jeans), his membership in a frat, his good looks, and his easygoing confidence. Plus, he was from El Cajon, a suburb of San Diego. “I felt people from southern California were superficial and unserious,” Hsu writes. “They spent too much time in the sun.”
And yet, Ken surprises Hsu, turning out to be more perceptive than Hsu assumed. When Ken makes the first gesture at friendship, asking Hsu, who dressed in grandpa cardigans and “an audible amount of corduroy” to help him shop for an outfit, Hsu realizes, “He noticed intentionality where others might have guessed I could only afford mismatched, multigenerational hand-me downs.” Ken also noticed that Hsu never went out, spending his Friday nights alone reading, listening to music, and writing letters. “More important, he noticed that I hoped to be noticed for this.”
This noticing and a genuine curiosity leads to rituals like smoke breaks and late-night drives. We learn about where the friends studied together, the films they watched, what they talked about, and the time that Hsu visited Ken in El Cajon over winter break. As their friendship grows, so do their ideas about themselves and what might be possible.
One day a casting agent for The Real World visits Ken’s fraternity. Ken asks why the reality TV show has never included an Asian American guy. “She told me we don’t have the personalities for it,” Ken recalled to Hsu. Ken wanted to see himself reflected in the world while it never occurred to Hsu – who eyed anything mainstream suspiciously – to be included in it. Hsu thought they were just goofing around when they made lists of the minor Asian characters who appeared on TV. “But Ken was piecing together a theory about the world.”
And then, Ken is gone, senselessly and violently murdered in a carjacking just as they are about to start their senior year. In the second half of the memoir, Hsu recounts how he was afraid that he would someday forget the sound of Ken’s laugh, how he could not bear to listen to anything from before, how he sometimes woke up to a moment of peace before remembering that his friend was dead. Hsu gravitates towards reading about other tragedies. He blames himself. “I believed I had somehow allowed all this to happen.”
And he writes. He writes Ken to tell him what he misses about him and what he’s missing out on. He starts writing that first night after learning Ken is gone and he never stops. “Mostly I became obsessed with the possibility of a sentence that could wend its way backwards. I picked up a pen and tried to write myself back into the past.”
Early in the book, Hsu shares letters that his father faxed to him after he moved back to Taiwan for work while Hsu was still in high school. Of Kurt Cobain’s death, his father wrote, “That’s the dilemma of life: you have to find meaning, but by the same time, you have to accept the reality. How to handle the contradiction is a challenge to everyone of us.”
What meaning is there in a senseless death? How do you live when your friend is gone? The book employs a circular structure, beautifully revealed, when Hsu realizes that the answer to what he’s been searching for, the answer to the dilemma of life, is the writing of the book itself.
Hsu eventually moves to Boston for graduate school, a city that Ken had dreamed of living in. The aspect of his course work that he finds himself most drawn to is archival research. “I was fascinated by the kinds of stories you could tell with the things someone left behind.”
Hsu himself is a collector of things, a self-described hoarder. He kept a padded envelope of Ken-related items. Stay True is peppered with photos and flyers. It’s this collection of ephemera, the descriptions and careful details in Hsu’s writing, that makes Stay True so powerful and emotionally resonant. Hsu describes Ken as loud, and himself as quiet. Quietly, with reflection and a wry humor, Hsu has collected the everyday moments that make up a life into a tender elegy to a lost friend and a moving ode to friendship.
—See also: Sarah Henry’s essay on the writing of Stay True.
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