As adults, we can forget that we were once part of a crew that, if we were lucky, did damn near everything together. Maybe these crews still get together, but maintaining friendships becomes harder as the rituals that centered these relationships, like college or shared housing, fade. Adulthood is defined by building your own community—in other words, a family—but what about those ancestral and chosen families that helped shape you?
Hua Hsu’s memoir, Stay True, shows how such shared experiences matter, and also how quickly they can be taken away. The New Yorker staff writer builds the book around his unlikely collegiate friendship with Ken—a frat-pledging, Swingers-inspired political science student with a soul, who’s a perfect foil to Hsu’s alternative, SPIN-reading, zine-making cool.
Stay True is bookended with Hsu’s takes on his youth in Cupertino as a second-generation Taiwanese American. Although his parents try to find their footing in Silicon Valley, economic forces propel his father back to Taiwan for more upwardly mobile work as the author starts high school. A fax-machine correspondence ensues, as Hsu and his father rely on homework questions and discussions of Guns N’ Roses to diminish the distance, physical or otherwise, that separates them. The warmth of these scenes stands in contrast to images of Hsu’s father dying his hair for his stateside job, testing his willingness to assimilate beyond recognition. A key observation—“The first generation thinks about survival; the ones that follow tell the stories”—highlights the intergenerational lens Hsu uses throughout Stay True to address both the differences and the similarities between his parents and himself.
At UC Berkeley, Hsu enters the world of student activism that his parents once embraced. (They escaped Taiwan still under martial law.) “They were trying to shield me from something,” he writes, describing the way they gloss over their activist pasts. Hsu, meanwhile, explores his own definition of Asian American identity by volunteering with other “twenty-year-olds teaching teenagers how to live for the future.” For him, the term Asian American represents “a messy, arbitrary category, but one that was produced by a collective struggle.… Similarities that cut across nationality and class: the uncommunicative parents, the cultural significance of food, the fact that we all took our shoes off at home.” Still, he recognizes key lessons from the support system that ensured his parents’ safe transition from Taiwan to the United States: “What they had to show for their work, I thought, was their friends.”
Something similar, it turns out, is true for Hsu. In that sense, Stay True becomes a testament to the friendships that create, replicate, and substitute familial bonds across borders and generations. It recalls the art of bumming cigarettes and creating a coded language that mimics telepathy. We see this when Ken and Hsu ask each other to go for a smoke, or trade nicknames, like Hsu’s “Huascene.” The two seek “a modest kind of infamy” through a philosophical, nicotine-fueled camaraderie, one built on mutual respect and love. Hsu describes himself as the guy in the crew who carefully curates the cassette mixtape that one of his friends immediately ejects. He and Ken focus on their shared experiences of television, music, and conservative chat rooms as ways of understanding life. We get the sense of Hsu conjuring this book, which was 20 years in the making, as he would a zine, both in terms of the numerous ephemeral references tactilely described and the pure care taken to represent characters in all their multidimensionality.
Interspersed with photographs by the author, Stay True is also an homage and archiving of mid-to-late 1990s Berkeley. I admire Hsu’s understanding of the generational yearning to remain in the moment, to lead lives principled to the jangly guitars of Pavement, not to grow up before the time is right. East Bay locals will appreciate the many references to long-gone places like Cody’s Books, “across from Amoeba [Music] that had the biggest selection of magazines I’d ever seen in my life.” Even Southern California makes a cameo when Hsu goes with Ken to his hometown of El Cajon, “eating burritos from places that ended with ‘-berto’s.’ ”
The friendship, though, is brutally cut short when Ken is murdered during a carjacking and robbery. The killing shatters their circle of friends. Hsu faces the reality of mourning while fearing that his memories might be delusions or projections. He keeps Ken’s belongings close to affirm the impact of this tragically brief relationship.
An homage to a dear friend, Stay True is a tremendous memoir about holding family close as life pulls its shared spaces apart. In its pages, we’re reminded that we remember those places and memories and faces and laughs through the stories we tell ourselves to confirm that yes, we were there, together.•