I think George Bernard Shaw was the one who said, “If you want to tell people the truth, make them laugh otherwise, they’ll kill you.” The things that come out of Ali Wong’s mouth–and now through her pen in her book Dear Girls–often make me think of this aphorism because without the humour and the context that accompanies the things she says, she wouldn’t be so popular with such a large number of people.
I’m not referring to the things that people have been focusing on in mainstream media, like how transgressive she is because she talks about “gross” things like farts and pubic hair, as well as “raunchy” things like sex. I honestly find it quite odd, and perhaps it’s because I’ve grown up around people who are comfortable talking about these things with each other. It’s also strange to me when people act like women don’t talk about these things in real life, like are you all really surrounded by prudes out of a Victorian novel? One of my schools was a convent school, and it was there that I learned about the juicy sex scenes in historical romances, and our cooking class teacher once casually mentioned that if we wanted to know what a penis feels like, we just had to touch a raw chicken neck with the skin on it. (I leave it to you to decide whether she was justified in this analogy but I personally do not think it is entirely accurate.)
The things Ali says about the body and sex are the ones that are most familiar to me because it’s things that I hear people talk about all the time, so I’m not going to focus on them. Instead, I’m going to focus on the things that she manages to bring up that usually cause a huge backlash in some sad little camps because they don’t like being confronted with it, but she’s done it so masterfully that everyone seems to have just rolled over and offered themselves up to her (good for her!).
I’m going to get the most obvious one out of the way first: Ali pokes fun at how Asian men are disregarded in the West (and by Asian American women), regardless of how good-looking and decent they can be. This has been an inflammatory topic since the 1970s (or earlier, maybe?) but with her humour, Ali has managed to bring it into the mainstream without actually having people calling for her head. Just brilliant.
The other thing that I also appreciate is how she takes apart the Asian American experience in Asia–showing how it can be done with love, humour, honesty, and humility instead of the American baggage that certain people bring with them when they “return to the motherland”. There’s no weird colonial-type descriptions of “locals” and local culture as though she’s an expert anthropologist, just a frank admission that the experiences she had had more to do with her own background than with the country itself. I don’t see that a lot–many of these stories are usually framed in an East versus West narrative that either ends up becoming Heart of Darkness, the Asian American version, or any random Amy Tan book.
Actually, as a nominal Chinese Canadian, I really appreciate Ali’s attitude to Asian North American life and culture. She can acknowledge the friction she had with her mom in her youth without throwing being Asian under the bus. She doesn’t feel the need to prove herself as one thing or another, which is such a relief. She treats her family with compassion and understanding, something that is also very rare these days.
The other major thing that I think also doesn’t get enough attention from other people is the relationship she has with her husband, Justin Hakuta. I have to be honest: I was surprised to find that these sections made me slightly uncomfortable because despite being a work-at-home-single-mom who understands the value and difficulty of childcare and household stuff, I found myself still not really 100% with the idea of a man who is a stay-at-home father. But I’m glad Ali and Justin, without being preachy–well, maybe Justin a little bit, he reminds me of my friend Alvin who works in the Chinese environmental protection department in Beijing–are able to show an alternative to how relationships can work.
And again, I can’t stress enough that Ali addresses all of these things in a funny way–she finds the ludicrousness in everything, and that may be the greatest thing she can ever share with her kids (aside from her vaunted tracksuit collection).
If, even after all of this, you’re still not sure about the book, here’s an excerpt from the audiobook narrated by Ali the Great herself. Do yourself a favour, go get a copy!