Minnesota Now with Cathy Wurzer

Minnesotan Connie Wang explores mother-daughter relationship in new memoir

A woman poses with a book
Connie Wang's latest book is “Oh My Mother!: A Memoir in Nine Adventures”.
Courtesy images

Mother-daughter relationships can be messy. So it's probably fitting that in Chinese, the closest expression to the expletive “oh my god” translates in English to “oh my mother.”

That's the title of a new book by Minnesota-raised writer Connie Wang. It's a memoir, told through her relationship with her mother over the years. She'll be at Magers and Quinn bookstore in Minneapolis on Wednesday in conversation with Star Tribune columnist Laura Yuen.

Connie Wang joined MPR News guest host Emily Bright to talk about her memoir.

Use the audio player above to listen to the full conversation.

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Audio transcript

EMILY: Well, mother daughter relationships can be messy. So it's probably fitting that, in Chinese, the closest expression to the expletive "oh my God" translates in English to "oh my mother". That's the title of a new book by Minnesota-raised writer Connie Wang. It's a memoir told through her relationship with her mother over the years, and she'll be at Magers & Quinn's bookstore tonight in conversation with Star Tribune columnist Laura Yuen. Connie is on the line right now. Welcome to Minnesota Now.

CONNIE WANG: It's so good to be here, Emily. Thanks for having me.

EMILY: Well, I'm glad you're here. So you were born in China. You were raised in Minnesota. And I have to say, you don't write too kindly about your hometown Eden Prairie. You write about spending your time, quote, "searching for uniqueness within a palette of beige." So take us into your headspace as a kid growing up in the Twin Cities suburbs.

CONNIE WANG: Yeah, that's right. Well, I got to say a little caveat. I might not remember my time in inner Prairie from the '90s very fondly. But I'm currently calling from you from my parents' home in Eden Prairie, the same place that I grew up in. And I got to say this place has changed so spectacularly in such tremendous ways. And I'm really heartened to see even the city's capacity for change because I write about that in the book about our people's capacity for change. But I love seeing cities change as well.

But yes, I grew up in Eden Prairie for the majority of my childhood, I would say, from second grade all the way up to high school. And that's really where my mother and my adventures really began. We came and immigrated to the United States almost unintentionally. It was a situation that neither of us expected. We didn't expect to move to the United States.

But when we found ourselves in Minnesota, we started to travel with more intention. We started to live with more intention. And that's where our adventures really started.

EMILY: Yeah, you talked about an unintentional immigration or unexpected immigration. Was that the phrase?

CONNIE WANG: Accidental immigrants--

EMILY: There we are.

CONNIE WANG: --I think is what I said. [LAUGHS]

EMILY: So this is a memoir, but it's a book about your mother as much it is about you. For people who have not read your book yet, how would you describe your mother?

CONNIE WANG: My mother is almost indescribable. And I think that that is-- I spent an entire book attempting to describe her and attempting to understand her. But in many ways, I think that she is her own unique person. She is someone who believes very strongly that she is a very special individual, and I think that a lot of people, when they say that they're special, sometimes they're not. But I can say with 100% confidence that my mom is a truly individual person.

She always manages to find the bright side in any situation, including circumstances in her own life. And the entire origin of this book was basically her refusing to see her own story as a series of traumatic events and insisting that her story in her own life has been a series of adventures, which was such a really profound understanding of not only her story but sort of the immigrant story as well that I had to do something with it. I had to write about her life and my own by proxy.

EMILY: You speak of your mother in the book. You use her first name and your father's first name. Was that helpful in trying to create a narrative, where you weren't always thinking about her just in the relationship as the parents who raised you?

CONNIE WANG: Oh, absolutely. I'm so happy that you pointed that out. Her name is Qing Li. And I think I read a lot of memoirs, where people describe their family members only through like their familiar-- the names mom, dad, et cetera. But there was something about stepping outside of that relationship and trying to describe her and, in describing her, understand her more completely as a person who had no context with me, a person trying to understand her own place in this world as a professional, as a woman, as a wife sometimes, as a mother sometimes, but as a person first and foremost.

And writing her as Qing rather than my mother or mom was really helpful in that exercise. It also didn't hurt that we were actually-- in the process of writing this, she was actually with me during the pandemic. She was living in Los Angeles for a large stretch of time. And so we were able to have these conversations as not just like mother daughters but attempting as peers and as two women trying to understand their place in a rapidly changing world. But helping-- but describing her as Qing was really, really helpful. But it's not like I call her Qing.

EMILY: No, of course not. As a writer, I totally get it. So wow, what was that like, to be together during the pandemic, to be working on this memoir about her, to be having these conversations? To make sure you get the details right and the stories right must have felt like a family therapy sessions at points.

CONNIE WANG: Oh, yeah. So I think a family therapy session is probably a good way to describe it, so not all pleasurable and enjoyable, it was very high highs and pretty low lows. Sometimes it got pretty dicey. We probably sometimes, during very difficult conversations, where one of us found our own limits, we probably wouldn't speak to each other for a day. But the thing that the pandemic really showed me and I think that showed a lot of us in this world is that the people that we have in our lives that we consider to be family, those are things that can endure.

And it's so important to keep trying to understand one another when those are the really important things in life. So during the pandemic, I was a new parent. I had just had a baby. And so my mom was with me, and she was with me to help-- do child care during a time when we were all stuck at home. Child care outside of the home wasn't really an option. We had no idea what was going to happen. And so I was so lucky and so fortunate that she was able to be with me and my husband as we were embarking on this thing that the two of us had never done, me and my husband.

But at the same time, we were working on something new. We were trying to birth together something new, which was this book. And that was a project and like a nurturing in a series of conversations that was just our own. And that was really powerful.

EMILY: Well, one of the things I wanted to talk about was how each chapter is centered on different travels you did as a family. And now I'm hearing this in a different way, knowing that you wrote it during the pandemic when you couldn't travel. But tell me about some of those travels and how thinking about that unlocked a structure for this book for you.

CONNIE WANG: Yeah. I think that when-- well, first of all, our even being in the United States was a trip gone wrong. So my mother was actually on vacation to visit my father, who was in grad school in Nebraska, and she was only intending to stay for like, at most, maybe a year. It would have been very long vacation.

But then through a series of events and Tiananmen Square, they had decided that it wasn't wise to go back to China. And so she had brought, I think, two suitcases with her, clothes that were just intended for this moment in time. And then she never ended up going back home. So it was supposed to be a trip, ended up being for keeps.

And then I came a year afterwards. I was being raised by my grandparents at that time. And then my sister was born here. And of course, now that she had two kids, she wasn't going back to China, where there was a "one child per family" policy, just wasn't going to be in the cards. And so that was the beginning of our origin story in the United States. It was a vacation.

And then through the years, every single time that we went and stepped outside of our comfort zone, even physically, geographically, it unlocked something for us. And some of those unlocking moments were quite painful. Some of them were humiliating. Some of them were really shocking.

But we got to a point, the further we traveled and the more exotic I think the locations were-- and I use the word exotic maybe in a different sort of way than most people. I think Cabo to us feels-- and a big resort feels exotic whereas going to small villages in China might not feel so exotic. But each time we did something like that, we found other sides of ourselves.

We found other aspects of our relationships. We found ourselves being more confident, and unafraid, and also sometimes more invisible but in a very good way that felt powerful. And it's through these travels, and through these adventures, and through understanding ourselves in each other, those are just big leaps in our lives. And so I structured the book in this way because each one of them felt like a lesson unto itself, even if the lesson was quite funny.

EMILY: Well, it really is a lovely book. I should have led with that. I enjoyed it. Also we have one minute left, but I wanted to mention you wrote a great piece for The New York Times that went viral this summer about Generation Connie, where you researched why so many Asian Americans are named after Connie Chung. And that essay--

CONNIE WANG: That's right.

EMILY: --in your book, you write so beautifully about loneliness and the search for belonging and home. It's silly. There's all sorts of stuff. So I'm wondering, what's it like to put something so personal out there, in a few seconds?

CONNIE WANG: Well, it's great. It's all the emotions. It's also really hard. But I'm so happy I did it.

EMILY: Well, Connie, thank you for your time. Good luck as you celebrate your new book.

[MUSIC PLAYING]

CONNIE WANG: Thank you so much.

EMILY: That's Connie Wang, journalist, editor, and writer, and mother, and author of the new memoir Oh My Mother, which is out now. And this is Minnesota Now. Thanks for being with us today.

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