Jack Cheng’s family has nightmares. His father screams in his sleep and his five year-old sister, Annabel, sleepwalks after her parents leave her side at night. His mother works late hours at her semiconductor plant and never planned to have a family in the US. For an eleven year-old, Jack feels it’s up to him to protect his family.
Like the young protagonist in this debut novel, author Simon Han was born in Tianjin, China, and moved to Texas as a young boy. Han sets Nights When Nothing Happened mostly in the outskirts of Dallas, Texas, now an area with a large Chinese community, and explores issues of abandonment and belonging, both in the context of immigration and within a family. Jack and Annabel’s parents, Patty and Liang, are somewhat a mismatched couple. They met in China when she was a star physics student and he the class photographer.
She was one of the rare women in Nankai University’s physics department, a fixture at the top of the class. It was in that role that she’d posed with the rest of her graduating class on the last week of school. She’d even gone home with the photographer.
Patty, from a somewhat stable family, is destined for a great career, while Liang became motherless as newborn and is plagued by abandonment issues. Liang’s father told him that his mother now lives in the moon, just as in the tale of Chang’e, the woman who flew up to the moon after saving the life of her husband, Houyi, the tale surrounding the Mid-Autumn Festival. But Liang’s family’s story is not as romantic as Chang’e and Houyi’s, although no one in Liang’s family would talk about it. Liang carries this trauma with him in his nightmares.
But Patty has other plans. Like Liang’s mother, she doesn’t want to be tied down and moves to Houston for graduate school after her son, Jack, is born. Jack and his father, Liang, stay behind in Tianjin with Patty’s parents. Liang soon decides he wants to join his wife. He won’t be abandoned again. Jack stays back in Tianjin with Patty’s parents until he’s six, just in time to start first grade. Like his father, Jack suffers from abandonment issues, too, and feels he needs to be the perfect child so he won’t cause his parents to regret their decision to bring him to the US.
The immigrant family allows Han to examine features of American culture—active shooter drills and lessons in school to teach kids to distinguish between good and bad touches—from an outsider’s perspective. It’s confusing for a six-year-old like Annabel and even eleven-year-old Jack, who goes on a class field-trip to the site where John F Kennedy was assassinated.
By the second week at Logan Elementary School, Annabel had taught her classmates all about Lee Harvey Oswald.
“After Lee Harvey Oswald died,” she said, “he went to China.”
A group of five other children crouched closer to Annabel on the sidewalk. Ian, a blond boy who wore Hawaiian shirts even in the winter, asked, “But what about John F. Candy?”
“Don’t be dumb,” Annabel said. “All presidents go to heaven.”
These confusing lessons bring the family almost to ruin during a Thanksgiving party at the Cheng house. Annabel speaks out—this time about inappropriate touching—and Jack, determined to protect Annabel, does not want to admit in front of a dozen adults that his sister lied.
Han’s impressive debut shows a changing Texas shaped by the rising numbers of Chinese immigrants. In the end family—and home—prevail. In a flash-forward many years later, when twenty-something Annabel visits China for the first time, she appreciates her upbringing.