Vancouver (Herizons) – Lindsay Wong was a year ahead of me in secondary school and lived a few blocks down the hill in a sprawling neighbourhood of large but generic homes in Coquitlam, British Columbia, an hour’s drive from Vancouver. I met her through my best friend at the time.
In her darkly comic memoir, The Woo-Woo: How I Survived Ice Hockey, Drug Raids, Demons and My Crazy Chinese Family, Wong dubbed the suburb where we lived “Pot Mountain” because of the meth labs and marijuana grow-ops that surrounded us.
To make extra cash as a teen, Wong taught music history to studious Asian immigrant kids in her parents’ basement. I was one of her students, and, as we listened to Bach and analyzed the passionate lyrics of Carmen, I had no idea about the family drama that my smart and well-organized teacher was experiencing.
Wong’s grandmother had schizophrenia and Wong grew up with superstitious relatives who all believed in ghosts. One summer, when Wong was six years old, her mother brought her and her siblings to a mall food court every day because she believed the bright lights would protect them from the dead people who haunted their house.
“Crying will turn you into a zombie like Mommy,” Wong’s engineer father would announce. As Wong explains in the first chapter of The Woo-Woo, “crying was considered contagious; it made you extremely vulnerable to the Woo-Woo ghosts.”
Wong kept her emotions bottled up, except when she was playing hockey. When she was a pre-teen and her mother had disappeared for what felt like weeks, Wong resolved to become MVP of the league in hopes of making her “bloodthirsty” parents proud. (According to Wong, her parents encouraged her to play rough.) After an incident on the ice involving Wong that resulted in a broken leg for one of Wong’s fellow hockey players, she was conflicted about whether to feel guilty. Her father reassured her. “Are you loser or winner Lindsay?” he said. “No loser in this family, okay? We have to beat up loser.”
Many reviews of Wong’s book, which became a best-seller and award nominee, focused on the shocking actions of the troubled women in Wong’s life, such as her aunt who held the city of Vancouver hostage when she shut down traffic for hours on Canada Day in 2008 after threatening to jump off a bridge. However, some of the most revealing passages are ones in which Wong and her father were trying to grasp for control, such as when her father braided her hair and gave her pep talks before hockey games.
As luck would have it, I lived blocks away from Wong again in New York when we were both studying for master’s degrees at Columbia University: Wong’s was in creative writing and mine was in journalism. I knew she was working on a thesis that was a memoir about her family, but even then, she downplayed the severity of the mental illness issues that dominated her childhood. Our schedules were busy, but we went shopping together and shared a meal in Chinatown from time to time.
Over lunch in downtown Vancouver, I caught up with Wong to discuss the success of The Woo-Woo. One of the first things I wanted to know was why she had spoken so little about such serious problems affecting her life.
“My whole family suffers from mental illness, and it was never okay to talk about it. It was always blamed on ghosts or possession,” Wong said in her usual laid-back manner. “I was taught this only affects really weak people, like my grandmother who was diagnosed as schizophrenic and was considered [by family members] to be permanently possessed. We were taught we should hide it and fight it. Anything that could be considered shameful, you don’t tell people. Even your closest friends.”
Wong didn’t realize that her experiences were unusual until a creative writing instructor encouraged students to write about their families and share their work, and her classmates’ reactions taught her that her family was perhaps not as “normal” as she thought.
To fight the stigma of mental illness and encourage more people to talk openly about it, Wong decided to use humour, and the profanity-laced dialogue and dry observations make her book a page-turner.
In perhaps the most shocking scene, during a family RV “camping trip” that took place in a Walmart parking lot, her mother tried to wake Wong up by attempting to light her foot on fire, and then quipped: “It’s not like you need both feet, because you don’t move anyway.”
Wong weaves a double narrative throughout the story. She presents the authentic voice of her younger selves as well as the more analytical perspective of herself as an adult. We learn that her mother was probably suffering from postpartum depression, and her grandmother was likely traumatized as a result of living in poverty in post-war, rural Hong Kong after being abandoned by her parents.
“I did a lot of family research, and it made me understand why my mother was angry all the time and why my family was always upset. I think a lot of the reason is intergenerational trauma, and it is something that hasn’t been resolved in my family,” Wong said.
The Woo-Woo’s appearance in Canada is timely. At a time when there is resentment against Asian immigrants who appear to be financially well-off—particularly in British Columbia—Wong has countered such simplistic and stereotypical characterizations by revealing the complexities of her own family’s multi-generational experiences. Wong’s father worked hard at his engineering firm to provide for his family, and Wong’s mother didn’t let her sadness keep her from cooking constantly in order to show her love to her children.
When Wong was studying in New York, her mother overcame her fear of flying to retrieve her daughter, who had suffered a rare neurological order that gave her vertigo and hallucinations. Her mother then prepared piles of food as she recovered, including “frozen dumplings [and] coronary-sized casseroles.”
After a doctor’s appointment, Wong’s mother pleaded with the angry spirit inside her daughter: “New York Ghost, come out now! Ghost from New York, get out of my retarded kid’s body! I will let you stay as long as you want in mine!”
Wong senses that her parents are proud of her for the success of The Woo-Woo, even though she says they were likely not too pleased about some of its content. Readers were almost robbed of this important story. Wong recounts that many publishers rejected the manuscript because they thought it was too outlandish and “niche.” In the end, The Woo-Woo was published by Arsenal Pulp Press, and the story has revealed itself to be a universally recognizable tale of family dysfunction, trauma and love.