Messy Roots: A Memoir of a Wuhanese American is an autobiographical comic by Laura Gao. It tells the story of her coming to the United States at a young age and growing up with the competing influences of Chinese and (predominantly white) American culture. It’s another story about the Asian diaspora, with the author’s Wuhanese roots making it all the more striking in this current health and political environment. Although the story isn’t specifically about COVID-19-derived discrimination, it shows how the seeds of that racism were already planted amidst a more personal story of joy, sorrow, identity crisis, and self-acceptance.
The comic goes through Laura’s life from early childhood all the way through college. Along the way, she runs into the conflict of wanting to hold onto certain aspects of her Wuhanese roots that are discouraged by her parents while also looking to reject or minimize those which her parents want her to maintain. Traveling back to Wuhan at different stages of her life and feeling the increasing disconnect with her original home contributes to the fear of being neither Chinese enough or American enough to satisfy either side, while also feeling that leaning too far in one direction is also considered a mistake.
These feelings hit me right in the chest. There’s a moment early on in Messy Roots, where Laura brings lunch from home. When her classmates blanch at her dumplings and call them “stinky,” I could feel myself yelling in my head, “HOW DARE YOU? Your sandwiches or whatever are clearly nothing compared to what she gets to bring.” I love all foods, including White American food of the typical variety, but that stigmatizing of delicious homemade dumplings actually made me mad for Laura. The notion of people finding certain foods’ cultures inherently smelly is a recurring issue, I find.
Conversely, Laura joins the basketball team as a way to fit in with her American peers, but when she ends up wanting to quit due to unpleasant events at school and informs her parents about it, they fail to provide the support she’s looking for. Rather than asking if she’s okay, her dad talks about the money they’ve sunk into her basketball hobby that has now been wasted. That sense of your family’s culture prioritizing the value of the activity over the feelings of the individual is simply too real.
One aspect of the Asian-American experience that’s expressed well is the fear of being a “FOB,” the fear of being a naive bumpkin. When I was young, it wasn’t all that uncommon to hear Asian kids making the distinction between FOBs and non-FOBS, and at the time, I didn’t realize how deeply toxic that mindset is. I never had to learn English as a second language, so I don’t relate directly to my peers treating me like a complete outsider due to an accent, but damn if some of them didn’t try anyway. I should have known better, and I really didn’t care about what those kinds of kids thought about me, yet something about that mindset must have gotten internalized in me. Seeing Laura depict it getting called out was a welcome jolt.
Messy Roots makes me realize that certain feelings I find bubbling inside of me are not all that unusual. The feeling of wanting to escape or move past cultures because you’re being suffocated on all sides by them, only to circle back around to later in life and try to build back the bridges that were left neglected? It’s something I can definitely relate to.
Messy Roots ends up having a lot in common with other stories about the Asian diaspora in North America, such as Himawari House, Turning Red, and American Born Chinese—but I find that rather than feeling “samey,” it’s a reminder to me that these shared experiences can help us Asians be conscious of a mutual understanding and empathy when it comes to navigating our circumstances. We’re even seeing these points of connection transcend generations, as Laura makes specific mention of reading Gene Luen Yang’s American Born Chinese, and it having an influence on her. I hope Messy Roots and the others help to carry this legacy forward, and influence the next generations for the better.
Wuhanese very much feels like a middle point between Northern and Southern Chinese languages. It seems to carry aspects of both, which isn’t surprising. However, I never knew much about Whan before, and so it makes me want to learn more. Incidentally, a martial arts instructor/scholar I watch on YouTube is also from Hubei Province, where Wuhan is located.
I appreciate all the off-brands used throughout Messy Roots. My favorite is “Royal Danks” [sic]. That sense of disappointment when trying to find cookies (only to see sewing supplies inside that familiar blue tin) is a part of my soul. My earliest memories of butter cookie containers is that they never had cookies.
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