This past weekend I read Lan Samantha Chang’s novella “Hunger” and oh wow did it wreck me. The story follows Min, a Chinese woman who marries Tian, a passionate and mercurial violinist. They later have two children. To provide a short summary of what unfolds: Tian’s undealt-with family trauma and his failure to secure a permanent job – anti-Asian racism plays a huge part in him not securing a job – escalates to the point where he continuously verbally abuses one of his daughters and essentially neglects the other.
In the throes of reading this story, I literally struggled to sleep. I twisted and turned in the wide bed in my high-rise condominium in Atlanta, trying to force sleep so I could wake up at 6 the next morning to work out before the first day of my Psychology conference. I kept thinking: omg Thomas, what if you end up like Min and marry a man who you think is decent but then turns out to be an awful jerk with unresolved psychological issues? For some reason, the phrase “a good someone” reverberated in my mind, perhaps speaking to how even though I find myself most attracted to guys who advocate for social justice, I know that I have to prioritize a partner who treats me well and would treat our potential kid(s) well.
I thought of some tangible strategies to further ensure a healthy relationship so that I do not end up like Min (bless her heart). Though I am very skeptical of romantic love – I think out of all my friends I am the most weary of giving someone my heart – just in case some man manifests which I’m pretty certain will not happen until I’m reincarnated three times over, after climate change has ruined the planet I want to feel ready. Please share your reactions and your own strategies as well. As a disclaimer, these strategies also apply to platonic and familial relationships too, not just romantic relationships, which are often glorified because of patriarchy and heteronormativity.
1. I will actually know my partner. At the beginning of the story, when Min first hears Tian play violin in a concert, she feels “terrified” and finds herself “pulling away from him.” She asks herself “how could I have chosen such an unforgiving man?” These questions may stem from how Min actually does not learn too much about Tian before marrying him; in the story, Lan Samantha Chang incorporates little detail about what attracts Min to Tian besides his confident self-presence and his dedication to his music. Toward the end of the story, Min reflects to herself “that love is best entered unaware; it best happens without thought, like a sudden plunge into deep water.” When I read that line, I literally said “girl, what!?” I was like, Min, you’re a human worthy of compassion, and yet, you witness this man transform into a sullen monster who abuses your daughter and your takeaway is that love is best entered unaware? Have we learned nothing?? Omg??
My takeaway from this fallout is that I’m gonna actually take the time to know my partner – or any close person in my life – before I get too serious with him. I’m going to ask about how he’s coped with his trauma, how he treats people with less power than him, and how he has difficult conversations when he disagrees with people he cares about. I get that sometimes things unfold gradually and that you cannot plan for everything, and yet, no way in heck am I going to settle for some man who can’t maintain a baseline healthy relationship.
2. If my partner abuses me or our potential kid(s), he is out the fucking door. So anyone who knows me knows I love a good plan, and yet, perhaps even if I ask all these questions to know my partner, he could still turn into abusive trash. When Min reflects on the first time she hears Tian verbally abusing their daughter Ruth, she “can still remember [herself], a young and desperately hopeful woman, ironing a faded blouse and trying not to listen.” When Anna, their elder daughter, asks Min years later why Min did not intervene, Min tells Anna, “Let’s not talk about it now.”
I understand there are complex gendered and racialized reasons as to why Min did not stop Tian. Analyzing her decision not to intervene would require a separate blog post with lots of analysis of Chinese/Asian parenting styles, the effects of domestic abuse on bystanders, etc. But I’m just here to say that if my partner – or anyone, literally anyone – hurts my future kid(s), or myself, they are out the door in a heartbeat. No compromises. Honoring my power to protect myself and others gives me room to breathe, to know that even if I somehow end up in proximity with an abuser, I can and will escape.
3. I am a complete, happy, and fulfilled person without a romantic partner or kids. At the beginning of the story, before meeting Tian, Min plans to learn English. But after she meets and marries Tian, Min never learns English which compromises her ability to get a job. In line with traditional gender roles, she expects Tian to function as sole breadwinner. When Tian’s own work trajectory suffers, he projects his unfulfilled desire for a successful musical career onto his daughter Ruth, relentlessly verbally abusing her and forcing her to practice to the point where she runs away (honestly a relatable move @Ruth, I also ran away from my parents once). I don’t want to solely blame Min and Tian because white supremacy plays a huge role in their downfall – the glorification of speaking English and the inaccessibility of resources to learn English, the racism Tian experiences at work, etc. are all contributing factors here. And yet, I also want to hold them accountable for their actions, especially Tian, who could have dealt with his pain in so many other ways than tormenting his daughter.
I also want to hold myself accountable to my friends, students, and potential future partner and kids. I hold myself accountable by cultivating contentment, happiness, and fulfillment as my own person – through my Psychology work, my hobbies, my obsession with BlackPink – so I do not expect any of my friends, or my potential future partner or kids, to fill some void that I could and should have just addressed within myself. I recognize that connection with others is integral to individual mental health and that some cultures, like collectivist cultures, may view relationships as an inseparable part of one’s own happiness. And yet, I feel that for myself, I can function best in relationship with others when I feel confident in my relationship with myself, as I do now.
What are strategies you’d recommend to ensure a healthy and fulfilling relationship, with friends, family, romantic partners, etc.? What are your reactions to “Hunger” if you’ve read it, or how do you feel about the glimpses I’ve shared in this post? Hope you are all well and until next post!