Book review: Dear Girls by Ali Wong

(cover image courtesy Penguin Books Australia)

Forging your own way in life is never easy.

Society has a way, a very persuasive and often long entrenched way, of enforcing set ideas about appearance, behaviour, morality, sexuality and career choices, among a host of other things, that leave little wiggle room for those not inclined to adhere to them, fully or partially.

So, if you’re sensible, you do what comedian/writer/actor Ali Wong did, and is doing, and you say to hell with wiggle room, give me the whole damn thing on my terms.

She has, over the course of a successful and hard fought career, refused to accept the (spurious) notion that women aren’t funny. that they are the playthings of men and totally at their mercy when it comes to career longevity and success, that Asian American people shouldn’t have a profile and not being polite or demure is some kind of mortal sin.

That kind of attitude, while gloriously freeing, hasn’t come without its costs as Ali Wong aka Alexandra Wong details with invigorating honesty in Dear Girls, a book which comes in the form of a series of deliciously frank letters to her two still young daughters, in which she talks at length and with fearsomely funny honesty about what it takes to make it in this world as an Asian American woman.

While it is (very) often laugh out loud funny, reflecting Wong’s penchant for saying what we’re all thinking but are too (stupidly) polite to just come out and say, it is also painfully truthful much of the time too, admitting to a whole host of obstacles that arise when you dare to meaningfully challenge the system.

“My father passed away when I was twenty-seven years old, and I couldn’t imagine having to deal with his death without every single one of my siblings. Without the four of us, my mom would have been all alone to deal with her grief, the logistics of the funeral (choosing a casket is very overwhelming), and the rest of her life. Asian women live forever, and having kids is like a 401 (k) for companionship. When you two inevitably become widows for the second hundred years of your lives, you’re going to need some progeny to care about you and, most important, to owe you.” (P. 19)

One thing that becomes apparent quite quickly is that Wong has no problem with laying all her cards, body parts, drug-taking proclivities, fears, growing up issues etc out on a very large and lavishly articulated table.

If you are the kind of person who blanches at someone admitting they have farted, then there is a good chance you may find much of what Wong shares a little, or a  lot, confronting.

But having said that, if there’s one thing that Wong makes abundantly clear it’s that as well as facing down society’s often ill-thought out attitudes to a great many things, we owe it to ourselves to challenge prejudices, fears and barriers within ourselves.

As the host of two Netflix specials, Baby Cobra and Hard Knock Wife, both of which were filmed while she was pregnant with her daughters, and writer and star of romantic comedy Always Be My Maybe, Wong has learnt that the obstacles we have to demolish are without … and within.

Part of the honesty with which she approaches every last word in this gloriously well-written book involves taking a good hard look at herself and asking herself what is it she’s afraid of and needs to change; you may not think that is a recurrent theme as you plunge into letters which address everything from finding a husband (aka “Trapping Your Father”), “Tips on Giving Birth”, “A Guide to Asian Restaurants” and “Why I Went Back to Work” but it emerges again as she talks about dealing a myriad external struggles in her life.

Ali Wong (image courtesy official Ali Wong Twitter account)

Having said that, the book is devoted, for the most part, to a host of societal issues that in the main do not yet (thankfully) vex Wong’s daughters Mari and Nikki.

With a frankness that many will find bracing, Wong addresses entrenched gender discrimination in the stand-up comedy business and the entertainment industry generally, a bizarre coyness about sexuality and its many messy and thrilling intricacies, the unending challenges of parenting and why picking the right Asian restaurant is essential to a long and happy life.

Wong, who comes across as a bright, vivacious and inherently likeable person who knows what she wants and is willing to do what she has to to get it (though never in a mean-spirited or nasty way; just with the requisite amount of yield-no-ground tenacity), celebrates her Asian American-ness throughout Dear Girls, unapologetically telling an all-too-white world that it needs to not only expand its own inherently limited horizons but also accept that what constitutes a satisfying and happy life is far more expansive that it has hitherto acknowledged.

That is most evident in her ruminations on the U.S. entertainment industry which has failed, for the far greater part, to display the kind of diversity for which America is known; while recent films such as Crazy Rich Asians and The Farewell, and the increasing prominence of Asian Americans in movies, TV and stand-up comedy are a welcome step in the right direction, there’s a long way to go to create the kind of equality that should, in a just world, be the default.

“The answer to making it, to me, are a lot more universal than anyone’s race or gender, and center on having a tolerance to delayed gratification, a passion for the craft, and a willingness to fail. But it’s the number one question on their minds, because most people, including myself, are conditioned to define other people by race and gender. So much so that, whenever a friend lets me know they’re dating somebody new, my first question is: ‘What race are they?’ The answer is always: “He’s a white man, Ali, okay? Why do you always ask me that?!’ And my response is always to raise my eyebrows and stare into my poke bowl.” (P. 156)

It’s a massive issue to tackle, a hydra with many repeatedly clashing, complex heads, but by addressing many of its constituent parts in Dear Girls, in letters that as gloriously honest and gritty as they are hilarious, Wong brings a much need voice to the conversation.

One, I suspect, that many people will listen to simply because the arguments she makes are couched in such a funny and accessible fashion.

It’s the old “spoonful of sugar” approach at play, but it works a treat, forcing you again and again, in-between laughing like crazy, to confront many of your own inbuilt ideas about how the world should work.

Is Dear Girls necessarily a revolutionary book? Not really in so far as it’s as much an intimate love letter to her daughters and her desire for them to know their mother (and father) and how best to tackle a world that won’t always have their best interests at heart, but as it addresses a great many things people usually don’t want to talk about, at least those in positions of power aka far too many white men, it plays an important role in giving us insight into Asian American culture and how embracing it and a great many other cultures given short shrift by monocultural Western society can only be to everyone’s betterment.

But most of all, it’s funny, sweet, honest, real and vivaciously truthful about life, a book that tackles Wong’s life head-on, delivering in the process some sage advice to her daughters – which she hilariously makes clear they cannot access until their 21; “Put this damn book back on the shelf” – and to society as a whole, a read that is both laugh-inducing and thought-provoking and which may also, fingers crossed, ensure you end up eating at better Asian restaurants that might previously have been the case.

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