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Biography & Autobiography Cultural Heritage

The Woo-Woo

How I Survived Ice Hockey, Drug Raids, Demons, and My Crazy Chinese Family

by (author) Lindsay Wong

Arsenal Pulp Press
Initial publish date
Nov 2018
Cultural Heritage, Dysfunctional Families, Personal Memoirs, Asian American Studies
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    Oct 2018
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In this jaw-dropping, darkly comedic memoir, a young woman comes of age in a dysfunctional Asian family whose members blamed their woes on ghosts and demons when in fact they should have been on anti-psychotic meds.

Lindsay Wong grew up with a paranoid schizophrenic grandmother and a mother who was deeply afraid of the “woo-woo”—Chinese ghosts who come to visit in times of personal turmoil. From a young age, she witnessed the woo-woo’s sinister effects; at the age of six, she found herself living in the food court of her suburban mall, which her mother saw as a safe haven because they could hide there from dead people, and on a camping trip, her mother tried to light Lindsay’s foot on fire to rid her of the woo-woo.

The eccentricities take a dark turn, however, when her aunt, suffering from a psychotic breakdown, holds the city of Vancouver hostage for eight hours when she threatens to jump off a bridge. And when Lindsay herself starts to experience symptoms of the woo-woo herself, she wonders whether she will suffer the same fate as her family.

On one hand a witty and touching memoir about the Asian immigrant experience, and on the other a harrowing and honest depiction of the vagaries of mental illness, The Woo-Woo is a gut-wrenching and beguiling manual for surviving family, and oneself.


This publication meets the EPUB Accessibility requirements and it also meets the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG-AA). It is screen-reader friendly and is accessible to persons with disabilities. A Simple book with few images, which is defined with accessible structural markup. This book contains various accessibility features such as alternative text for images, table of contents, page-list, landmark, reading order and semantic structure.

About the author

Lindsay Wong is the author of the memoir The Woo-Woo: How I Survived Ice Hockey, Drug Raids, Demons, and My Crazy Chinese Family, finalist for the Hilary Weston Writers' Trust of Canada Prize for Nonfiction. She holds a BFA in creative writing from the University of British Columbia in Vancouver and an MFA in literary non-fiction from Columbia University in New York. Her fiction and non-fiction have appeared in No Tokens, The Fiddlehead, Ricepaper, and Apogee Journal. She is the recipient of many awards and fellowships, including from The Studios of Key West, Caldera Arts, and the Historic Joy Kogawa House. She lives in Vancouver.

Lindsay Wong's profile page

Excerpt: The Woo-Woo: How I Survived Ice Hockey, Drug Raids, Demons, and My Crazy Chinese Family (by (author) Lindsay Wong)

Prologue: Brain Child
“Miss Wong, you are seriously ill,” the neurologist in a midtown office said, preparing to offer me a sympathy tissue, but I was dry-eyed and benignly frosty, my way of responding to shitty news. It wasn’t like me to fake a lady-like smile or even to cry.
“The visual disturbances aren’t going away,” he continued, as if he were delivering a lecture in one of my writing workshops at Columbia University. “Migraine-related vestibulopathy isn’t like having a cold. Objects and people are going to float around you. You’re going to see bright auras. You’re going to feel like you’re moving when no one else is. This means that you could have vertigo for the rest of your life. You might have to spend many more months in bed. I don’t even know if you’ll get your ability to read back. You might not be able to finish school. What this means, is that you have to start thinking about your future.”
There was a dramatic, intentional pause -- the kind that customer service and people speaking at funerals like to use.
“Have you thought about who will look after you? Do you have any family that you can go to?”
I was twenty-two years old and had been on my own in New York City for four months, a good two thousand miles away from my crazy Chinese family, who were still exorcising fake demons -- The Woo-Woo -- they called them, from anyone whose opinion they flagrantly disliked. That had included me, and it looked like The Woo-Woo had caught me anyway.
This was normal in our family, who believed that mental illness or any psychological disturbance was caused by demonic possession. The Woo-Woo ghosts were sometimes responsible for cancers, unexplainable viruses, and various skin afflictions like mild cirrhosis.
Growing up, my superstitious mother always believed that going to the bathroom alone could lead to possession, whereas my father said any emotional weakness would bring on symptoms not unlike those dramatically thwarted in The Exorcist film. “Lindsay, you cry and your eyeball will fall off,” he would explain seriously, while clutching his head like he was having a moderate-sized seizure. “Ghost use any opportunity to possess you, okay? Don’t be weak or it’s game over for you.” According to the neurologist, I had an extraordinary disease with no cure and a mysterious source. My brain was one hell of a light-headed mess. Electrical nerves had somehow gotten tangled and unplugged from their loose sockets. The feral wiring had somehow gotten wet and the damage had zapped the pupils and left me scrambling to understand why everyone and everything was jumping and leaping in polar directions; why the sky sometimes swapped with the versatile ground; why I had fallen face-down in his office when he asked me to walk in a straight line.
My vestibular case (MAV-Migraine Associated Vertigo) was particularly rare (unlike anything the doctor had ever treated), and he seemed impressed by how severe my symptoms were, and was very excited to investigate my monstrous head. In Canada, I had not been able to get off the waiting list to see a decent neurologist, but in New York City, you could book one on a Sunday afternoon in less than 48 hours -- a mind-shocking luxury of American healthcare, which I was so happy to have as a student.
The neurologist thought I’d be particularly thrilled to know that a famous pop star, Janet Jackson, shared this exclusive brain disorder with me. How nice to know that I was officially un-Woo, I thought, although he was diagnosing me with a lifelong disorder which left me paralyzed in bed and frequently unable to read or write. I had a disease that gave me strange visual hallucinations like my severely schizophrenic grandmother on my mother’s side that we called Poh-Poh. I had a brain affliction, which made me feel like I was falling from a broken parachute and coated my vision with a dirty angelic glow. For several months now, for 24 hours, the intensity of these visions and nausea had worsened. I could not sleep. I could not eat. I frequently shat myself when I could not make it to the bathroom on time. “Well,” I said, “you never want to have anything in common with the Jacksons.” And that was all I said to him in our three-hour examination that wasn’t related to my bizarre symptoms.
I must have taken my diagnosis remarkably well, because the doctor looked a bit startled by my comment, and I had waved away every tissue. The truth was: I was in shock. I had been trained not to cry in front of strangers; I was trained not to “boo-hoo” -- as my father called it -- at all. “Crying will turn you into a zombie like Mommy,” he would often announce, making the cuckoo sign around his earlobe whenever he referenced the wild breakdowns on my mother’s side. In our family, crying was considered contagious; it made you extremely vulnerable to The Woo-Woo ghosts, which was why, as an older teenager and then an adult, I became too scared to cry, convincing myself that I did not suffer from any extraordinary affliction of sadness.
There was no cure for my particular disease, the neurologist said, but we might be able to control it by experimenting with a concoction of epilepsy drugs and beta-blockers and anti-anxiety medication; eventually, we’d concoct a potent mixture that “might make things better.” There would be blood and stool tests every month, and the side-effects would include balding, epic constipation, weight gain, liver destruction, hearing deficiencies, kidney failure, migraines etc.
Of course, he had no idea that the childhood I had survived in my neighborhood of meth labs and pot grow-ops and the most dangerous of all -- my crazy parents -- made this look like a cakewalk.
I had stopped listening to the neurologist, and I saw myself being chemically dissolved, every part of my body disfigured, just so they could stabilize my brain, whose instability -- my father had already explained when I was sent to Special Ed in elementary school for not speaking English -- was caused by my low IQ. Born from the extreme darkness of the Chinese loony bin by way of Vancouver, I had been already diagnosed by my parents as “crazy.” To freeze the vertigo, the neurologist had to Botox the rambunctious nerves in my head, which had previously defined me as being “slow” and “dumb-thinking.”
I had never before acknowledged that there were other things besides mental illness, which affected the structure and neurons of the brain.
After all, how could I have? My mother said that if I left home, an angry ghost would murder me. My father said that if I demonstrated stupidity/vulnerability in my graduate studies at Columbia University, New York City would make my brain implode violently. Of course, what made it dark and frightening and semi-prophetic was here it was coming true in a doctor’s office.
I hadn’t begun a separate, Woo-Woo-less life yet; I had no close personal connections or relationships or whatever normal people in their early twenties were supposed to cultivate, at least no one who would look after me, and I was being sent back to my childhood home. New York had been disorienting -- Americans, especially ones my age, were obsessed with discussing their feelings, and always wanted to know how you felt, enthusiastically greeting you at least a dozen times a day. My Columbia classmates, roommates and professors had seemed obscenely Santa-Claus-like, unreasonably cheerful to me, and I didn’t know where one crazy ended and the other began.
Not to mention, I worried that my untrustworthy brain, defined by my father as The Woo-Woo -- meant that I was not employable, and I had no money. At the risk of sounding nauseatingly self-pitying or self-important and even a little tragic, just after leaving the doctor’s, the news that I had a rare form of migraine vestibulopathy snapped me. At first disbelieving and disoriented, I finally let myself break into insect-sized pieces of sludgy sadness and disgusted, paroxysmal rage. I became a nasty vortex as I stalked around the midtown shops, as the vertigo, sensing my dark mood, began to swirl faster and transformed me into a gloomy human cyclone. Miserable, I elbowed a woman in front of me for walking too slow, but this didn’t make me feel much better.
At the subway station at Columbus Circle, I surprised myself by suddenly having a first-rate cry. I didn’t know what the hell was wrong with me. I hunched on the people-swarmed stairway and wailed so much I thought my eyes must have been bleeding. So I cleared out my clogged eyeballs. The water had probably been sloshing around for decades and frying my disgruntled nerves in their circuits. Yes, that was it. I needed to cry to clean out my dirty, robotic system.
Even though I had done my best to reinvent myself, I still felt that I was some thing with the emotional capabilities of a second-hand appliance. But here I was, trying my best not to excavate my tumultuous childhood, but it had soccer-kicked me in the ass.
I couldn’t remember the last time I had cried, but the best thing about crying in New York was that I could sprawl on a chaotic staircase and Whole Foods fabric grocery bags and designer purses might thump you in the forehead, but no actual person would really notice. I could be noisy and as sloppy as I wanted, howling all day as the trains zoomed by.
Eventually, I became hungry from my wailing. But I learned a valuable lesson I never got growing up: It was very relaxing to cry, and I could see why people did it so often.
Then I started laughing; I couldn’t stop giggling because I wasn’t what my family had termed Woo-Woo: I was only medically damaged -- the spirits that have plagued my Chinese family for years be damned. Thank god I was a freak with terrible, mutinous genes, but at least I was not turning into my permanently sad mother, my suicidal Auntie Beautiful One, and my grandmother, Poh-Poh. There might have been a horrible tsunami of hatchet-thumping pain thumping my scalp, sadistic firecrackers blowing up in my frontal lobes, but at least I wasn’t Woo-Woo (for now). A certified neurologist had declared me sane, so I wasn’t like my family, and even if I couldn’t walk straight or saw everything through a hellish hallucinatory vision, I wasn’t nutso. Who cared if I couldn’t read or finish graduate school? I wasn’t Woo-Woo. It was fitting that my brain was malfunctioning, but at least I had my own type of craziness that was different than my family’s. I laughed so hard from pent-up relief that I vomited from the nausea of swaying back and forth on the stairs, and got beige colored puke on my shorts. As far as I was concerned, laughing was the same as crying, and the only similarity between real people and those of us who originated from The Woo-Woo was that laughing was much easier on the eyes. I must have looked so incredibly monstrous because someone stopped on the staircase and handed me a dollar. This did not make me feel better, but I got on the 1 Train and spent it on a chunky chocolate chip cookie at Nussbaum and Wu’s at West 112th Street.
I knew that I could not re-invent myself anymore. The Ivy League graduate student in New York City who had escaped her crazy Chinese family: it was such a trope, a perfect reality show. That summer, I also had a prestigious publishing internship, where I was supposed to compete with other millennials, jostling with them like affectionate piranhas on the subway, in our mid-town office, in fancy fish-tank bars. And I had been so desperate to outrun the wreckage of my ghost-festered past. I had tried, anxiously, to leave my family’s mental illness behind, to abandon The Woo-Woo in Canada, as if it could stay there rain-drenched and forgotten. But that summer, balancing had become impossible and I could not toddle in a near-perfect straight line, like I had suddenly become rubbery and deflatable. I could not make soup on the stove without my brain making me think that I was falling inside the pot and being dissolved. So I had no choice but to go back to Vancouver, or Hongcouver, as we not so affectionately referred to it. This was how it ended, how running away worked: a tremulous, circular route through the tricky universe that brought you back to the arthritic Pacific Northwest of your crazy Chinese family’s cul-de-sac, where the world thought you belonged. Laughing hysterically, because I was both sad and relieved, I continued my walk to my apartment on West 114th street, and passed out on the floor before I could get to bed, right before the ceiling dropped on me and the walls turned into squirming black holes.

Chapter One: From Dumpster

We were supposed to be nice people, at least by our choice of Chinese immigrant décor: yellow-white wallpaper and kitschy knickknacks of prancing bovines clutching signs like “Udder Chaos Lives Here.” My mother, who was known as Quiet Snow in Cantonese, even had a miniature teaspoon collection of twenty or twenty-one exotic American states that she asked people to pick up on their travels. I think there’s this stereotypical belief that Chinese are docile, or at least muted and agreeable most of the time. After all, you typically don’t see ballistic freak-outs of my people on the news. But like anyone else of color, the news and the truth were separate.
“Oh, fuck you!” my mother screamed, and hurled her dinner at my father. At six, I was terrified, squatting under the table as I watched as her spongy chicken thigh tumbled to the floor. My mother’s plate had become a flying mallet, cracking a cupboard off its hinges.
My father, rolling his eyes and imitating her jerky facial spasms, mimicked my mother’s high-pitched hysteria. “Why you trying to renovate the house, huh? Nothing wrong with kitchen. But everything wrong with your head!”
This was normal in our family, downplayed as The Woo-Woo’s fault. The ghosts had possessed my mother again. Yet it was always frightening to be in the midst of such a supernatural siege, to pray that I was invisible under our IKEA plastic table. Even as a child, I could see that our household’s World War III was going to be won with wooden chopsticks and cheap dishes. The kitchen hadn’t been cleared in a week: newspapers, strewn in precarious-looking towers, moldy teacups and chicken carcasses were mountained on the counter. Definitely not the houses on the Chinese soaps my mother watched or the houses of playmates whose counters were sparkling and commercial clean. One of my mother’s tantrums had produced clumps of maggoty-looking rice and fermented fish, which were sprinkled like confetti on the linoleum. There was even some mice poop, which I had hungrily mistaken earlier for chocolate chips.
Until I left home at twenty-one, I never knew when the domestic wars would break out. But my mother knew where all the kitchen utensils were, which meant that my father, whose name meant Confucius Gentleman, was at a distinct disadvantage.
“We’re moving to the mall, you retarded piece of shit!” my bony, bird-like mother, all five feet and ninety pounds of her, yelled at my father, as he fled to the bathroom, where he would hide for hours.
“Good idea!” my father would holler through the locked door. “I get whole house to myself. Save money on electricity and heat!”
And I would usually remain huddled beneath the table, a small kid trying to find the humor, I suppose now looking back, to cope with what terrified me: a bizarre volatile world steered by my mother’s fierce and unpredictable mind.
My world became a strange and terrifying place, when our family first became sad unearthly versions of ourselves.
The Woo-Woo ghosts first came to visit when I was six, in 1992, when my baby brother was born and a month later, at 2 or 3 AM, “the aliens” supposedly had an international stopover in our kitchen. My mother knew that she had acquired powerful psychic abilities, as she said excitedly “like Superman,” and because she had a fourth grader’s English vocabulary and loved swear words, she often described her ability to see what was coming a “Batman’s spidey sense or some shit.” Yet she’d never cuss in Chinese, arguing that it was repulsive. Later, I’d recognize that her fireball language was unlike most mothers. After all, what mom wakes up her daughter in the middle of the night by long jumping on her bed and yelling that she was “very afraid, help!” Most nights, she’d sleep opposite from me on my kid-sized mattress, her bunioned feet resting on my head.
As a child, I found her physical presence to be both comforting and terrifying, her feet funny-shaped, spam-smelling, and certainly irritating, but this was a means to receive her attention. Most mothers do not need to be comforted by their six-year old daughters, but I see myself as that chubby little Chinese girl, moon-faced and urgently afraid of the dark, needing my mother to be more typical and less fickle of a mother—to generously soothe my whirlwind nightmares when we dozed together, yet she was always gone when I needed her most.
One day after my mother’s delusions started, early one morning, when it all began, as she had fumbled for baby formula in the pantry at my brother’s feeding time, she later told me the next morning, there had been a hot, staticky voice in her head that seemed to possess her. Look over here, the voice had demanded, and my mother’s eyeballs and neck robotically swiveled to the doorway as if by pure synaptic sorcery. You’re okay, the voice reassured her. You’re going to be absolutely A-okay.
“Lindsay, it was an alien or a ghost!” she wailed, grabbing my shoulders. “It took possession of my brain and body!”
Too young to understand, I shrugged her off and walked away. But I wanted to know why we weren’t happy or even nice to one another, like The Flintstones or The Jetsons on Saturday morning television.
This was the first hallucinatory “vision” that made her insist she had been hosted by The Woo-Woo. “They came here, right into the kitchen and hugged me!” she continued, clutching her belly, following me to the kitchen where I was searching for leftover Halloween candy for breakfast. “Oh my god! Then the ghosts or aliens put fire in my body and gave me magical powers! So everyone in our family has to listen to me from now on!”
“Okay,” I said, wanting to show her that I heard her, “but does that mean I can have more chocolate?”
Unfortunately, in our large Chinese family, mental health was not a strong suit. I already had a grandmother whom had been medically diagnosed with serious paranoid schizophrenia, whom everyone said was mentally weak (suffered from embarrassing ESP.) But too many of us were inclined to nervous breakdowns, mainly in exciting, psychotic instalments. And many years later, when I was twenty years old, on Canada Day 2008, my Auntie Beautiful One, the youngest of my mom’s five sisters, would take the city of Vancouver hostage, trapping over 200,000 people as she threatened to leap off the Ironworkers Memorial Bridge. According to what I would now describe as 17th century Chinese psychobabble, it was thought that we were somehow more prone than other people to “demonic possession.” This wisdom, said to be common knowledge, was superstitious folklore that my family wholly believed in. It was a standard belief, like brushing your teeth, that had been handed down by my ancestors and perpetuated among our particular clan.
Later, when I was in high school and briefly took Psychology as an elective, I saw my mother’s picture next to the definition of “psychotic delusions.” But of course, no mention of the Woo-Woo, whose foul moods ruled our household. Our family insisted that supernatural outcasts chartered our bodies because we were born with watery minds and a squishy hearts, which meant that anything dead could rent us for free. Randomly leaping inside us, these ghostly villains rotated among their hosts at least once a week. It’s in our DNA and cultural belief that almost every village Chinese family thinks they are being haunted by ghosts, gwei, every so often, especially if a new baby is born exceptionally ugly or someone gets a shocking grade on the SAT. But our family’s Woo-Woo was the most horror worthy and innovative.
And as a kid, unlike my mother, aunties and grandmother, I did not have this peculiar super power, and as a kid, first finding out that my mother was in terrible trouble, and not entirely understanding the consequences, I desperately wanted to belong. No matter how hard I tried, or how much I peeked inside cupboards and closets, I could not see a single ghost. My family was so mistrustful of all breeds of outsiders and American or Canadian newspapers, choosing to champion rambling phone gossip and ancient bullshit tradition: “Aiya! If you have the shit gas, go outside and hit yourself fifty times in the ass with a bamboo stick and it will go away! Fever? No problem. Run around in the snow. Naked.”
As a small child, not having the Woo-Woo power, was like not being invited to a birthday party whose host you detested, yet everyone you knew had been invited and came back raving about the laser tag and the seven layer ice cream cake. Even though my parents' fights scared me as a child, I also found their brand of crazy fascinating, like a car wreck. I couldn’t not look.
To solve her supernatural problem at home, which in the real world of our kitchen was a case of severe depression and anxiety, my mother took my two siblings and me into our suburban shopping center after school, so at the beginning, the mall, with its colorful stores and cheap deep-fried smells, was thrilling—a novelty fairground that was a parallel reality from school and home. It was where you could chug down unlimited Pepsi, choose sugary candy bars from magical vending machines, and ride a purple choo-choo train for 75 cents -- a burgeoning, wonderland sense where my mother wanted to exclusively spend time with me, a mini-holiday.
“You can have whatever you fucking want,” she would say, handing me her purse like she was the patroness of both Chinese New Year and Halloween.
But by the third day, I was so tired of the unrelenting chaos and crowds, and just wanted to stay at school, hurling sand in the playground and enthusiastically challenging other kids to ant-eating contests and kicking them if I did not win. But Monday through Friday, we stayed in the food court from opening to closing time, only leaving to attend school. Eventually, I became sulky and punched the back of her driver’s seat whenever she drove—I did not want to stay in the food court, but at 3 p.m., she robotically scooped up my sister and me and we sat there until 9 or 10 pm. Anxious and infuriated after the first week, I was forbidden to return home if my father wasn’t there because she said we were all in terrible end-of-the-world jeopardy.
“Sears is not as safe as Hudson’s Bay because it’s not as bright,” she would exclaim. “Look for lots of lights and sunshine!”
She thought that if we hid out in retail paradise, the elevator music, hot dazzling display lights, and blasts of delicious fatty food smells would comfort and sustain us. There was less chance of getting killed if we were always surrounded by an anonymous daytime horde: housewives with strollers, all unaware of vicious Chinese Woo-Woo who was afraid of crowded places, according to our mother. Our situation was not at all unique, as my extended family would often stay at shopping centers after funerals or crises to cleanse us from bad luck. In our family, we were simply saving ourselves.
To keep us busy and to find answers to her scary “vision,” my mother usually made all of us loop around the mall thirty times, me and my sister barely keeping up with the stroller while she forged ahead. Complaining that I did not like to run around the mall nonstop, I was promised a bucket of cheese fries and maybe two hot fudge sundaes if I did.
“What do you do if an alien or Woo-Woo attacks you?” my mother asked us, insisting that running would help us if the evil ghost somehow found our mall outside Vancouver. This was the only way that she knew how to care for us. “Go to The Bay,” I screamed in a sugar-high, convulsing monotone, while my sister nodded in unison. This seemed to satisfy my mother, but then she’d ask us again, needing our unwavering, childish reassurance, a million times.
We wore mismatched, unwashed sweatshirts and leggings with weird kaleidoscopic patterns because our mother didn’t pay much attention to our clothes. The Wongs, she said, were not a vain people unless there were family connections to impress. She randomly dressed herself and handed us whatever -- I wore florescent green overalls and boys’ orange t-shirts, all from my older cousins who had outgrown their wasted, shitty-are-you-sure-they’re-not-from-the-sixties clothes, most likely passed on from other people in Hong Kong. The hand-me-downs were sequined leftovers with funny, misspelled messages, which I didn’t notice until I learned how to read. My overalls had glittery “Rain in Spring run Mainly in Plaine” on the sides and my beachy orange t-shirt said “Luff Thee Mother.” We were thriving suburban bums, self-made Hongcouver hippies, living in our self-imposed exile. It bothered me on some instinctive level that my clothes looked like figure skating costumes, but it did not become so apparent until kids in the older grades mocked my outfits, which meant that I had to chuck rocks at their brains during recess.
Obviously, we showered twice a month to save money, and a kindergarten teacher at a new Montessori school called my mother in one day to convey the stinky verdict.
“Does Lindsay shower?” the woman asked, a naïve new teacher straight from college, having absolutely no clue that she was confronting an ogress. “We’ve had countless complaints.”
“Do you think my kid smells like shit?” My mother became enraged. I stared at my desk, which I was defacing, intently, with a felt tip marker. “Tell me, out of all the teachers in this school, how come we got stuck with a bitch?”
“Come on, Lindsay, let’s quit this school!” she suddenly snapped at me. “You won’t learn anything from a crazy woman who thinks you smell like poo. She’s picking on us because we’re Chinese.”
But the next week, as was customary, she forgot about the argument and sent me back because we had tried almost every elementary school in the district, and I was already very resistant to any education that did not have an immediate cash reward. Though I was six, I could not read or write yet, and I wasn’t even sure if my parents knew the English alphabet -- no one had bothered teaching me letters or numbers. But to instil in me a burgeoning work ethic in, my parents paid me to go to school: 25 cents per day. My Chinese parents understood the value of monetary pride, but my teachers complained about my compost stench, and were too stingy to part with a nickel or a dime, which annoyed me, like a nagging stomachache. I tried not to show it, but it worried me that I was the sad, radioactive source of such freakish ping-pong screaming between my mother and teachers.
I did not know this at the time, but my mother liked to lose herself at the mall, a kind of fragile ghost woman -- enormous Canto-brown eyes and fried hair from the 80s that made her look permanently electrocuted -- who was teetering into a protracted nervous breakdown with three little kids in tow. She must have wanted to be a proper suburban housewife. Even though it was 1993, three kids meant that you had achieved a certain financial status. She could not stop having children until she had produced a boy, because she would not be blessed, according to our Chinese superstitions. And after all, a son made you the envy of everyone in the Chinese community, no matter where you were in the world. It was like suddenly becoming the owner of a fancy new Porsche, while being the mother of a girl was like leasing a Toyota.
This was what, I would come to believe, also led to her breakdown -- she had been waiting and waiting for the birth of my baby brother and when it arrived, there was no starry-eyed revelation, where the skies ruptured and the universe thanked her by raining pellets of gold. Instead, my mother got depressed—in retrospect, it might have been post-partum depression and treatable. But instead, she used the mall, where she was hoping to be saved, muttering apprehensively to herself about divine intervention. But what I also didn’t see then, was that this nervous breakdown was supposed to be fun: she enjoyed the frenzied bustle in her own emotionally stunted way -- freedom from our asylum-colored house.
“Pizza? Hot dog? French fries?” she would yell, enthusiastic when she picked me up from school. “At the mall, you can eat whatever you want! We’ll be safe and I don’t have to ever fucking cook!”
“Whatever,” I said, ignoring her heady excitement, and secretly wondering when we could permanently move back home. To emphasize my monstrous displeasure, I kicked the back of the driver’s seat over and over, but she did not seem to notice or care.
Maybe my mother also saw our relocation as an active, unwifely rebellion from my father, who was afraid and unsupportive of her reaction to her ghosts, so he would be responsible for making his own wonton noodle lunches and ironing his own collared shirts.
Looking back, we were superstitious, paranoid, Chinese suburbanites who were trying our best to fit in. We were haunted by The Woo-Woo ghosts, to the point where if someone fell down or cut their finger, it was blamed on a nasty spirit -- “Aiya! Get the Polysporin! But make sure there are no ghosts in the fucking medicine cabinet!”
After a week of whirling around the mall, all I wanted was a mother and father who inspected what I wore to school, who made me lumpy purple jelly sandwiches for lunch, and read to me at night. As fascinated as I was by my volcanic parents, I thought maybe that I had been born into the wrong family. That loud-mouthed aliens with poor hygiene and cantankerous manners had kidnapped me. It was devastating, not to mention, a pure tragedy, in my probing kid-mind, that we weren’t similar to any cartoon family on TV.
As the oldest child, I did not appreciate my brother and sister, and certainly had no attachment to these screaming things, and assumed that these noisy creatures had been shipped overnight in the mail.
While I certainly wished my sister and brother no harm in the food court, if it came down to them or a new toy, I’d trade both siblings, even if it were only for a bag of gummy bears or powdery sour keys that stuck in the uneven gaps of my teeth. If a stranger waltzed up to me, asking to see my assembly of toys (yes, my sister and brother belonged solely to me), out of perverse familial loyalty, I told myself that I would only sell my siblings for a decent sum. My sister is worth at least $2.50! I would argue heatedly.
Like many firstborn kids, I now know that I wanted the world to be exclusively mine. But until I was about thirteen, I refused to imagine that other children could exist besides me in our family. Each mother, especially mine, who had such limitations to begin with, should only be assigned one child in case they did not have enough affection. Mine didn’t, as she tossed us spare change from her purse in lieu of physical warmth, as if feeding bread to ravenous geese. “Just buy candy from the machine, okay?” she said, half-crying and violently shaking. “And don’t talk to me until you’ve eaten at least 20 gummies each? I have a fucking headache, okay?”
Moaning like an undead cartoon villain, my mother fed us candy for breakfast, lunch, snack, and dinner, but would forget to brush our hair and did not scold us for not cleaning our yellow-splattered teeth. In our family, a mother was someone who made sure her children were never hungry, and she tried as much as she mentally could. But at that point, fed up with our life in the court, I saw that my mother had been born with the heart the size of one of my doll’s shoes, and would have benefited from some family downsizing—like maybe if it were only me. Besides, even though I was only six going on seven myself, I didn’t think I had ever been a baby or a toddler because of the famous Wong family procreation myth, delivered with the also famous Wong half-funny-half-cruel-all-too-confusing-to-untangle wit, which explained that my parents had fished me out of a downtown dumpster.
“That’s why you’re garbage,” my father would explain, boasting that my origin story was extraordinarily funny. “All garbage have low IQ. Not like Daddy at all. I’m very, very smart because I’m from library.”
“Then why you get me from dumpster?” I had asked at the start of kindergarten, speaking in a churlish mix of babyish Chinglish. Being sensitive yet spacey, I took his every answer at hurtful, no bullshit face-value.
“It’s free,” my father declared, sounding somber. “You think we want to pay money for you? Mommy and I know how to save money on unimportant things.”
“Why I not important?” I said, feeling sad and a bit resentful.
“Because you are from garbage.”
This was the typical response that you expected from my father, a robotic, joke-like, unhelpful statement that drove my mother absolutely batshit; it was characteristic of him to carelessly wave a hemorrhaging red cape at a rabid bull, for my mother did not understand humor or indirectness. How they met and married is still a complete mystery to me. It was never once spoken about in our family, and deemed irrelevant and irritating as small talk.
“I found your Mommy in garbage can,” my father joked when asked.
“What she doing there?” I said.
“Just like you, no one want her. Like Mommy, like daughter.”
They did not have any wedding photos, and I imagine that my parents’ courtship was nonexistent, their wedding to be a dour but efficient signing of papers. To this day, I have never seen my parents touch one another, as my father kept my mother and everyone at an emotional and literal physical distance of exactly two feet.
Now it seems exceptionally cruel to mock a small child while taunting a panicky wife, but all this happened before cable television became financially mainstream, and there were no strong male role models, like Dr. Phil, to provide complimentary domestic counsel.
“It’s like talking to the fucking answering machine!” my mother often complained about my father when he joked about my/her dumpster origins or made fun of her thinning scalp. “What the fuck are you supposed to say? Talk to you later? Have a nice fucking day?”
My parents possessed no shared interests and didn’t seem to communicate in the same language.
And even though I find my father’s jokes funny now, his black humor wounded me as a child. Believing that I was from a non-discriminatory downtown dumpster instead of the clean office wastebasket of my engineering father was like a dull axe through the skull. As adults, my father and I speak an analogous dialogue now: one that is equally foul-mouthed, sarcastic, blunt and narratively black. We can laugh sadistically at ourselves, but back then, his jokes could break my papery sense of self.
I was so desperate to be noticed that I would do nearly anything for attention. After all, my parents were too busy battling The Woo-Woo between themselves. Once I got older and saw a world where ghosts didn’t live, I relaxed. You didn’t have to see me to love me. In those food-court days, just a sprinkling of my mother’s strange affection, even a mild screaming, some trademark volleying of swearing from her -- anything to make me as important as her ghosts, whom she spoke to at length, saying “Hello, good morning, good afternoon, leave me the fuck along, goddamnit!” And if I couldn’t get it from my mother, I’d get it from the teachers at Montessori, earning me a reputation as an-above average bully who used her superpowers for the purposes of irking the headmistress and my special needs teachers, who believed that I had ADD and autism. I screamed and howled like a wounded rhinoceros for their attention -- mimicking my parents because I thought this was acceptable social behavior.
“Lindsay, why did you take off your clothes and throw them in the garbage can?” the headmistress asked me in her office, her face haggard with worry.
“I don’t like clothes,” I announced, jumping on her desk and beating my chest. “I’m from garbage!”
“Put your clothes back on or I’m calling your mother!” she yelled, and my mother would arrive two hours late, shrugging and unapologetic, with two Mcdonald's cheeseburgers and a carton of fries. It seemed that she existed just to feed me. And her arrival with tasty McDonald's only encouraged me: I punched a little girl with Downs, snipped another girl’s braid off, and then happily smashed a little boy in the back of the head with my favorite Dr. Seuss book (Green Eggs and Ham), which got me sent to time-out in the cloakroom.
At first, I was terrified to be left alone in the dark, my nose pressed against the cold tiled wall, among the mildewed jackets and the sweetly souring smells of half-eaten sandwiches and fruit. After all, the untrustworthy gloom was where ghosts took your unsuspecting body hostage, which I imagined, based on the grown-ups constant neurosis about corporeal possession, was supposed to be as unsettling and scary as visiting the doctor for my bi-weekly suppository. Yet after a while, after my second or third transgression, I felt hope and optimism. Alone, I could imagine that I was my mother, surrounded by shadowy shapes, and that shoes and backpacks and gym strips were whispering ghosts too.
In the cloakroom, there was a nasty desperation that was brewing inside me, something so similar and frantic to my raging mother’s. It was like a poltergeist was trapped inside my ribcage, banging against my small and insignificant heart. It was like a cyclonic hurricane of rank supernatural premonition.
It was like waiting for someone in my family to get possessed.
Essentially, there was too much sadness boiling inside us, which was why, I like to say, we blew up.

Editorial Reviews

"Lindsay Wong’s The Woo-Woo is a brave, funny, and heartbreaking memoir that takes on the mysticism so regularly sold to us as part of the Asian American experience, and presents a side we don’t often see: that of a young woman struggling to survive her family’s adherence to a belief system she knows will doom her and them both." —Alexander Chee, author of How To Write an Autobiographical Novel

"The Woo-Woo will break your heart then bind it back together. With luxurious prose, dark humor, and a sharp yet tender gaze, Lindsay Wong gives us an unforgettable memoir that mines the truth of her explosive family and its everlasting ripples as they follow her into adulthood." —Lily Brooks-Dalton, author of Motorcycles I've Loved and Good Morning, Midnight

"How anyone survives childhood is a mystery, but how Lindsay Wong endured hers is a revelation. Extraordinary in their cruelty and blacker-than-midnight hilarity, Wong's family in The Woo-Woo is unforgettable. Equal parts appalling and riveting, Wong proves that a sense of humor can get you through the most dire circumstances. A riveting, unbelievable family epic told in exquisite, visceral prose, you won't believe it's not fiction." —Elizabeth Greenwood, author of Playing Dead: A Journey Through The World Of Death Fraud

"That Lindsay Wong is even alive to write this book is amazing. That she can make it into the hilarious, touching, and tragic story that she's given us here is proof that books still have a purpose. Her black humor combines with compassion: she represents the realities of mental illness in her family while still telling us the story from their perspective: that of people haunted by The Woo-Woo. After you read this book, you may be, too -- in the best way." —Sarah Perry, author of After the Eclipse: A Mother's Murder, A Daughter's Search

"Here's a memoir so alive and full of 'you can't make this stuff up' that you’ll find yourself wincing and snickering and possibly weeping long after reading the last eloquent sentence. The Woo-Woo is both heart-wrenching and batshit insane, and is also beautifully rendered and fearless in its whip-smart humor. Lindsay Wong spares nothing, not even herself, in her search for clarity amidst madness, while the specificity of her prose reminds us of the woo-woo lurking within every family tree." —Sean Madigan Hoen, author of Songs Only You Know: A Memoir

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