Last year, Kelly Ng wrote in the Atlantic about the phenomenon of “satellite babies”: Chinese American infants sent to their immigrant parents’ home country, where relatives raise them until they are old enough to attend school in the United States. This reverse migration solves the day-care problem, but it can cause other difficulties when the kids reunite with their parents, including culture shock, lack of familiarity with English and familial estrangement.
In Simon Han’s debut novel, “Nights When Nothing Happened,” Jack Cheng lives in China for the first six years of his life before joining his parents in Plano, Texas. When he boards the airplane to move to America, Han writes, Jack’s parents “seemed to him not people so much as a destination he did not want to visit.”
Jack feels unsettled in America, but in truth, all four members of the Cheng family suffer dislocation from each other and their surroundings. A sense of disconnection and a lack of synchronicity with the rhythms of the day pervade this novel, which opens when 11-year-old Jack wakes in the night to discover his 5-year-old sister Annabel has gone sleepwalking outside, and he decides to track her down.
Before Annabel was born, Jack’s mother, Patty, was accepted into a Ph.D. engineering program in America. She left her husband, Liang, behind with baby Jack, but six months later Liang left Jack with Patty’s parents and followed her to Texas. The funding for Patty’s graduate program was cut, so she took a job at Texas Semiconductor, managing a team of engineers in India. At Patty’s work and home, everyone exists in different time zones, and she becomes a workaholic, rarely returning home before the kids are asleep.
While Patty grew up in middle-class comfort in Tianjin, Liang was a country orphan who made his way to the city to work as a photographer. Even after they marry and move to the U.S., Liang lacks Patty’s sophistication. He establishes a photography business and takes the lead in raising the kids, but he always seems to be chasing an ever-retreating Patty.
Into this milieu enters Annabel, a blunt-talking firecracker of a kid compared with her reserved and watchful older brother. Annabel’s actions ignite a chain of events that jar the family from its uneasy stasis and imperils it when the white American parents of Annabel’s friend interpret her miscommunication about a “bad touch” from Liang as an indication of a criminal act.
The Chengs moved to Plano “in order not to be scared,” Han writes. “Plano had the lowest crime rate in Texas, highly ranked schools, churches bigger than schools, lighted tennis courts, malls that closed before 9 p.m.” This novel suggests that even amid safety, people will invent or create fears and enemies. Han excels at depicting bright, bland Plano, a suburb of “sprinkler-fed grass,” “vanilla-scented pine cones” and “oven mitts and motion sensors.”
“Nights When Nothing Happened” builds from a somnambulant beginning to a dramatic conclusion as the Chengs’ choices, based on what they think will be safest for the kids, actually endanger them. Even in carefully planned, hermetically sealed Plano, there’s no controlling the cascade of events that ensue when a wild child is unleashed in a community that does not understand her family.
Jenny Shank’s novel, “The Ringer,” won the High Plains Book Award. She teaches in the Mile High MFA Program and her work has appeared in McSweeney’s, the Washington Post and the Atlantic.
Nights When Nothing Happened
By: Simon Han.
Publisher: Riverhead Books, 262 pages, $26.