In Val Wang's memoir, an intimate portrait of Beijing's transformation
Val Wang, A&S '03 (MFA), moved to Beijing looking to lose her way. She ended up finding her voice. Both of her parents left China separately before the Communist takeover in 1949. By the time they met and married in the United States and settled in suburban Washington, D.C., to raise their family, they knew their children would grow up to be good, upstanding Chinese-Americans. They would have five-year plans that led to careers as doctors, lawyers, businesspeople.
Their daughter had other ideas. "I grew up in a very sheltered, suburban life," she says, "and I wanted to be somewhere a little bit out of control and out of my depth. China was the perfect place to go. I thought I was going to go for a year, teach English, come back, and have a proper life. It just kind of snowballed."
Wang recounts the years she spent as a young journalist in China in her new debut memoir, Beijing Bastard, due from Gotham in October. The book is a comically touching and intimate portrait of a city's transformation, and her own. She lived in Beijing, first with relatives, then in an apartment in a red-light district, from 1997 until she entered Johns Hopkins in 2002. While there, she witnessed the Chinese capital begin to reinvent itself in the run-up to hosting the 2008 Olympics. As an editor for City Edition, a startup English-language magazine, she developed a knack for finding intimate stories amid the sweeping changes. "I think all of the stories that I pursued at that time were about that transformation," Wang says, "How does the economic transformation of the country affect the social and cultural life of the city? What kind of people and what kind of stories can I find that will tell that story?"
Her curiosity to find something new in the everyday is part of what drew her to Beijing. In the 1990s, she was struck by an emerging generation of Chinese artists and filmmakers who explored what it meant to be Chinese in a post–Tiananmen Square era. They questioned authority and tried to find a rudder in the roiling seas of radical change. For Wang, these artists were epitomized by the film that lends her book its title: director Zhang Yuan's Beijing Bastards, a gritty, improvisational movie about young people drinking and smoking too much as they slouch toward adulthood.
She not only met a number of these artists and covered the underground galleries sprouting up around the city, but she also began providing the English subtitles for their films. She and her friends would go dancing in gay bars, hit avant-garde art exhibitions that required taxi rides out to derelict areas of the city, and stay up all night working on projects. She witnessed filmmakers as they went into a fishing village or up to a crowd of old men sitting on the sidewalk and asked questions, "just trying to observe and figure out what was going on," she says.
This awareness of an intimate window into bigger ideas became a hallmark of Wang's multimedia journalism. Now based in Boston, she created OpenCourt, an online portal to give the public better access to what goes on in a local courthouse. In 2012, she created Planet Takeout, another Web portal that uses Chinese takeout counters as a locus for storytelling, interviewing the people who work there or pass through. Hosted by Boston public radio station WGBH, Planet Takeout's collection of stories forms an offbeat portrait of the city.
Today Wang is an assistant professor in Bentley University's English and Media Studies Department. "I wasn't somebody who went to China thinking I'm going to write a book," she says. Although she was editor of the student paper in high school, she never considered writing as a way to make a living. When she first arrived in Beijing, however, the work options for expats were few. "You could be an English teacher, you could be a diplomat, work at a nonprofit, or be a journalist. You had to choose one. [Journalism] was the closest to what I thought I might want to do. And it turned out to be really well suited to me."