Alexandra is a 25-year-old contract tech reporter in the Silicon Valley with a dilemma: should she stay in a job with neither benefits nor prospects, or move to Ithaca, New York with her boyfriend for five years while he pursues a PhD at Cornell? Alexandra Chang’s debut novel, Days of Distraction, is a fictionalized account of her own move to Ithaca for her husband’s graduate work, but, even more, a treatise on Chinese American history, and the racism that runs through it and continues today.
Chang’s innovative construction involves fragments of other material: histories, thoughts and, in particular, e-mail messages. In order to bring us, as well as her boyfriend J, up to speed on Chinese American history, throughout the book Alexandra e-mails him articles of stories of Chinese-Americans over the last two centuries. J doesn’t read them—no time, apparently—and Alexandra is aggrieved at this dismissal of her experience as a Chinese American and the racism that has defined her life to date.
She also avidly follows the news. In one instance taken from life, the actress Constance Wu speaks up about the dearth of Asian-American roles in Hollywood and why the only roles are usually demeaning and stereotypical. Chang works in texts from hostile Asian men on platforms like Reddit: instead of supporting Wu, these men attack her for dating a white man. Alexandra the character reads the comments with dread because she often feels like she’s also under scrutiny for dating a white man. But she can also understand this anger.
I am sick reading the comments. Not because I agree with them, but because I hear where they are coming from, I can see how they got there, the hurt and shame and anger behind the words, the histories weighing them down. The questions are ones I’ve asked myself. Is it a betrayal? A betrayal to whom? And what is being erased in these comments? It’s as if being white is the one thing that defines me, J said. But not all of us are lucky enough to get to choose how the world defines us.
Alexandra finds life in Ithaca dull and monotonous, even as she works a couple of part-time jobs. One is at the Ithaca Historical Society, where she comes across an old photo of a Chinese-American woman named Kin Yamei. After digging more into Yamei’s history, Alexandra learns she was an important American figure who has all but been erased from American history.
Born in China, Yamei was the first Chinese female doctor in the US. She also introduced tofu to the United States Department of Agriculture. Alexandra becomes especially interested in Yamei’s divorce from her husband, a Hong Kong-born Portuguese named Hippolytus Laesola Amador Eça da Silva. As she learns more of Yamei’s history, Alexandra understands why she chose to divorce Hippolytus. He engaged in trafficking Chinese girls for prostitution.
Alexandra’s parents have themselves split up some years back. Her father, an eccentric character with a heart of gold, asked Alexandra after the split to check into flights to various cities in China to see which cost the least. Zhuhai fit the bill, so her father left California to move there. He had grown up in Shanghai, left for Macau as a teenager before moving on to Hong Kong. In his twenties, he immigrated to the US where he met and married a Jewish woman named Sharon. His drinking contributed to their divorce, and to his divorce from his second wife, Alexandra’s mother, also a Chinese immigrant.
Alexandra’s boredom in Ithaca finally has her take up her father’s offer to visit. In one of the most touching scenes in the book, she flies to China to visit her father while she rethinks her relationship with J. Her father takes Alexandra to Hong Kong to show her where he spent his teenage years. As they walk around, he points out the area where he had lived in Kowloon, although now there’s a new, modern building in its place. But there are other parts of Hong Kong he can no longer remember.
Here, we are constantly getting lost. He asks shopkeepers for directions. We walk up and down blocks, and end up farther away, with no sense of return, and then somehow, are back where we started, without having reached our intended destination.
Her trip to China, Hong Kong, and Macau brings on another set of questions about her identity and her relationship with J.
I envision what could have been had I been somebody else, or even if I had been a different version of myself, a self who had “returned” to China or Hong Kong, if I’d ever had the interest to do a year abroad in college, if I’d never begun a relationship with J, fallen in love, if I hadn’t been so intent on distancing myself from this place in my adolescent years… if I had been a self who had known more than I knew then, or know now, then what could have been? Would I have been happier? Would this have been a better fit?
Since Chang names her main characters after their real life counterparts, it’s tempting to try to figure out what about her story is autobiographical and what is fiction. No matter, the messages are what’s important in this novel about Chinese identity, cross-cultural relationships, and the unconditional love of families.