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How Writing a Memoir Can be Therapeutic

Becoming an author was like making the thing I do best into a full-time job

In the summer of 2016, I went back to Beijing to visit family and friends after 10 years of living abroad. I first moved to New Zealand, then Canada, then the US. I’d been an author for 20 years at that point, and I have friends in the publishing industry. At one gathering, we talked about my immigration journey. A publisher was interested in my story and encouraged me to write a book about it. A growing number of Chinese people have entered the ranks of the middle class and for a number of reasons—cleaner air, better education for their kids—they’re resettling in Western countries. My book would certainly sell if I could work my history into a manuscript.

I started working on it immediately after returning to California. I’ve always been introspective, so writing a book about myself was like making the thing I do best into a full-time job. I soon began wondering why I moved from place to place instead of picking a spot and staying there? I had reasons, of course, but what did those reasons say about me? When I looked back on my life, I saw a wanderer. 

When I graduated from college in 1988, I landed a job at a Japanese company. The position paid well, but I had to find a place to live. At the time, most college graduates were employed by work units controlled by the state and lived in state-allocated residences. Foreign companies couldn’t provide housing for their employees, and there wasn’t a rental market yet, so I moved in with my grandmother and paid her 50 RMB per month. We were both happy. 

Several months later, the Tiananmen Square Protests began. My boss was concerned that the movement would affect investments the company had made in China. He sent me to Tiananmen Square to take photos for him to send to headquarters in Tokyo. After the infamous massacre, my grandmother destroyed every picture I’d taken at Tiananmen Square. We had a huge fight and she kicked me out. 

The Chinese have a saying: While your parents walk the earth, never disappear over the horizon. I was raised by my grandmother and she was by far the family member I was closest to.  Still, she kicked me out. Our blood bond couldn’t stand up to her fear of China’s totalitarian regime. After cutting ties with her, I never stayed in one place for more than a few years. In retrospect, I see that this falling out left me with a cynical attitude toward family, or really any place I lived. 

I started my manuscript with the memory of my grandmother. I recalled the commune-style apartment building she lived in. I recalled how every morning I ventured from that dilapidated, dimly lit place to my office at the bright and luxurious Beijing Hotel. Along the way, I witnessed the full spectrum of social and economic inequality. More importantly, I recalled my boss’ belief that the Chinese people were protesting partially out of frustration with China’s emerging market economy. I felt a jolt when his theory came back to me.

In the US, a market economy is as natural as the air. Americans may not understand why Chinese people might fear the concept. From the founding of the People’s Republic in 1949 to the end of the Cultural Revolution in 1976, China’s economy was strictly planned, which meant productivity was limited. In the early 1980s, the Chinese government realized that a planned economy wasn’t sustainable, so they began implementing a partial market economy. That small sliver of open market unleashed ferocious productivity. People’s living standards improved, but those changes also brought about inflation, corruption, and inequality. 

My grandmother lived in a former office building that had been remodeled into commune-style apartments. Each story had a long corridor with more than thirty rooms on either side. In the 1970s, the corridor was always bright. Pretty much everyone led the same kind of life, so no one saw the point in shutting the door. Most people left their doors open except when they slept. In the 1980s, increasing economic inequality began distancing people from their neighbors. Rich people didn’t want others to see what they had, and poor people didn’t want others to see what they lacked. Doors began to close, meaning the corridor was pitch black even in the day. Not only did everyone shut their doors, but someone deliberately destroyed all the lights in public areas. That was because the electricity bill was divvied up equally among all households, and the poor didn’t want to pay the same as the rich. 

Thirty years ago, I easily dismissed my boss’s theory because I firmly believed that a market economy would allow people more freedom than a planned economy and that people had no reason not to embrace the change. Now, when my writing touches upon the past, I realize that even those who embrace freedom might not love the price they must pay to get it. Not everyone wants to be dumped unceremoniously into a free market where they don’t know what to choose. I began to see things that I had overlooked.

During martial law in May 1989, all public transportation stopped. The company gave me 20 RMB a day for taxi fare, but I pocketed the money and walked 5 miles each way, which took me past the square twice a day. I remember hearing the students sing “The Internationale.” The song was born during the back-alley uprising of the Paris Commune. Karl Marx regarded the commune as a prime example of a “dictatorship of the proletariat.” Because of that, I slightly doubted if the students’ ideal society looked the same as mine. I remember starting to worry. 

Those worries disappeared when the government opened fire on the evening of June 3rd. After the massacre, I was as indignant as any decent citizen. The Chinese government didn’t allow people to discuss it back then, and that censorship still carries on. The suppression made me remember the protests as a movement fighting for democracy and freedom and remember myself as unquestionably passionate and sympathetic. When I started writing, I gradually released that there was a time when I didn’t support the students entirely.

I felt relieved when I finally admitted that I’d once been cynical. I’d resisted doing so for so many years. As I continued writing and probed further, more came back to me. As my self-awareness of my thoughts and feelings grew, a new strength rose up from within. Now looking at the process, I think the writing of a memoir is like a therapy. By remembering myself as once was, I’ve learned who I really am in the present. 

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