On June 3, 1989, all eyes were turned toward Tiananmen Square. For seven weeks, Chinese protestors, most of whom were students, demanded democratic reform and refused to leave the square. However, on that particular day, the anger and exhaustion of the antagonized hit its climax against a wall of gunfire. A few hours before the world would be subjected to images of bloody concrete and the tank man who stood against an army of lead, a software engineer came to watch the demonstration with his co-workers.
That was the day Frank Gao’s father decided to leave China. In his memoir Escape Artists Don’t Look Back, Gao, a senior writing, literature, and publishing major and United States Marine, retraces his birthright to pave the road for self-rediscovery. Traveling on his journey toward the penumbra of the person he wanted to become is painful. It’s covered in self-doubt, anger, bruises, vomit, and sweat.
Learning to lie was the first hurdle. Eight-year-old Gao admitted to his father that he was caught bringing his toys to school, believing that telling the truth was easier than insincerity. Filled with anger and disappointment, his father reached for Gao’s Gator Golf set and began beating him with the plastic red putter. It was a long time before Gao was able to tell the truth again.
He writes about this disparity of culture with a simplicity that seems too humble for such complicated internal dialogue. “I remember, clearly, the first time I heard the word ‘chink.’ ” Gao goes on to describe his views on racism and hate, but does not captures the frenzy and confusion of the moment. He tells the story rather thanshowing it, which leaves the reader on the outside.
His distant and taciturn relationship with his father, consisting primarily of heated emails and tempestuous yelling, created a Great Wall of bitterness between the two. Often, Gao writes, they would not speak for months, even though they lived in the same house. This disconnection from his family transmuted into a withdrawal from his Chinese culture.
Born in China, but living in the United States for the majority of his life, Gao is trapped in the cultural purgatory that snares many immigrant children. Being “too Chinese to be American, but … too American to be Chinese” makes the search for personal identity twice as difficult. Upon returning to China with his family, revisiting the poverty of his father and the disparity of the people, Gao is trapped between the sorrow of what was and the pursuit of happiness. In escaping the fears of his forefathers, new fears presented themselves.
Gao’s search for identity is written in simple and clear prose, and reads like an old friend telling his life story for the first time. Although it is told chronologically, Gao, abruptly at times, uses clever and unexpected anecdotes from the past to relate to the present. However, the chronology becomes desiccated from stories that are imperative for the author, not the reader.
He decided to join the Marines after his first year at Emerson. Gao recounts his Marine Corps training — the pinnacle of his transition from limbo to manhood — from having to cover himself in suntan lotion and roll around in the sand pit, to being put through a gas chamber and grueling, seemingly infinite exercise. He chronicles his struggles, his determination, and his accomplishment in great detail, and it is clear that this experience has changed Gao’s perception of himself,and marked the end of a tumultuous journey of adolescence.
From the honesty, sincerity, and openness, it’s easy to tell that this book is an important exoneration for Gao. Although at times he may lose the reader, he never loses his voice.