There are sexier identities than “writer of the suburbs.” Such spaces still call to mind images of picket fences, cul-de-sacs, and gated neighborhoods, uniformly and exclusively white. When someone asks me where I’m from—that familiar fraught question—I still catch myself saying that I grew up in Dallas, or at times the mythically vague “Texas.”
Plano, Texas, where I spent a decade of my adolescence, now boasts a quarter million residents, a quarter of whom were born in a different country. It’s the home of Pizza Hut, Frito-Lay, the bankrupt J. C. Penney, a host of global tech companies, and a recently relocated Toyota North America. And yet, there’s a cultural specificity to Plano. Its Costco sells edible bird’s nest, a Chinese delicacy that none of my family in China has had a chance to taste.
To call Plano a suburb may be a stretch when it’s bigger than cities like Orlando, Newark, and Madison. But beyond the swirl of language and music and food, a suburban state of mind persists. One can feel it acutely this year, as white-collar immigrants stay home and earn their usual salary while working-class immigrants mow the lawns, take away the trash, and maintain the roads. It’s there in the undercurrent of casual remarks: how the police are probably too scared to do their jobs now, how there’s been a horrific murder in a neighborhood like ours, how it could happen even here. Near my parents’ house in a suburb bordering Plano, a Muslim family sits in their driveway on lawn chairs, watching their kids scooter past a house with multiple Trump/Pence signs and a cute Pomeranian that won’t stop barking. Finally, the owner comes outside and snaps at the dog to be nice.
Suburban niceness was a product of people moving to live with the kinds of people they preferred to be nice to. In the thirties, New Deal programs helped middle-class white Americans enter the suburban housing market, while nonwhite, non-Christian, and poor people were largely denied access. Rather than curb neighborhood segregation, the federal government skewed property values by rating white suburbs at much higher grades than Black neighborhoods. Through the civil rights era to present day, suburban strategies of exclusion have endured, often taking different forms: land-use controls against affordable housing, resistance to school integration, and a lack of public transportation and social services to accommodate the growing number of low-income residents being pushed out of cities.
There’s a new wrinkle to the old narrative: since at least 2000, more than half of immigrants to the nation’s largest metro areas have settled in the suburbs. Among these immigrants are those who are university educated and upwardly mobile, beneficiaries of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965. Asian Americans, the fastest-growing racial and ethnic minority group in the suburbs, are the majority ethnicity in seven “ethnoburbs” in the Bay Area. In Plano, they make up 23 percent of the overall population. Lily Bao and Maria Tu, two first-generation immigrants from China and Taiwan, respectively, became the first Plano residents to break the “bamboo ceiling” when they were elected to the city council in 2019.
Asian Americans have reshaped the place where I grew up, but remnants of the original Levittown mindset live on in Bao’s and Tu’s platforms, namely in their resistance to apartments and high-density housing as a way to “keep Plano suburban” (Bao’s campaign slogan, with strong echoes of Trump’s current one).
And yet, there’s something about Bao’s conservatism that updates the old suburban talking points and separates her message from the polite company chatter of, say, Cheever’s Shady Hill characters. Perhaps it’s the way she leans into diversity—albeit a more exclusive definition of “diversity.” In an interview for Plano Magazine, Bao touts the benefits of welcoming highly educated and skilled workers, immigrants who love their country, drive their kids to excel in school, and receive acceptance in return. It’s a coded description, reminiscent of an observation that sociologist Noriko Matsumoto noted in the suburban New Jersey Asian American subjects in her Beyond the City and the Bridge: a “resurgence of ethnic pride” tied not only to “the growing numerical presence of Asians” but also their “visible socioeconomic success.”
“We [Asians] as ‘model minorities’ work hard and pay taxes,” Bao states, “but seldom have our voices heard.” Her call for greater Asian American representation in politics echoes those made in other areas of American life, particularly in entertainment. These calls are often raised and supported by people like me, progressives who grew up in America under vastly different circumstances than their parents, with the same justification as Bao’s: Look at how much money Crazy Rich Asians made. Asians are good business. We’ve paid our dues, and it’s time we get a seat at the table.
As a fiction writer, I’ve thought a lot about how Western conventions of narrative lean on differentiation and change. How does the protagonist change? How does the protagonist stand out from the rest of the characters? These are questions we learn to ask in high school English classes and creative writing workshops, ones that readers expect to be resolved. As we turn the pages, we trust characters will advance through emotional and physical terrain to end in a different place from where they began.
But as the suburban story has evolved, with new faces and entry points, so has its relationship to the narrative of change. Many newcomers to the suburbs are not only surviving but excelling. They are reshaping the story in their own image, but they are also living with the knowledge that such a story is precarious. Perhaps to preserve the new suburbs in which they finally feel at home, they also latch onto aspects of the old narrative, resisting the principles that gave them space to enter the suburban story in the first place.
I was wrestling with how a storytelling arc built on principles of change would play out with a Chinese immigrant family living in the suburbs. I wrote a novel centered on a family living in Plano in the early aughts, strangers not only to the American suburbs but to one another. A family that, in their previous life, had suffered as a consequence of standing out. More change was the last thing on their minds; they’d moved to the suburbs to avoid the very development that readers crave. Even as the cracks in their “model home” begin to show, and their status as “model minorities” collapses under pressure, the family refuses to reinvent themselves in a way that would satisfy my hopes for them. I wondered then how to sit with that tension, with characters who did not offer me any shortcuts to sympathy.
These days I find myself imagining the family beyond the page. What if they were here with us, in 2020? Maybe the parents have weathered the financial crisis, found an Asian church, made a few white friends. Maybe they dream in English. They’ve lived in the States (and Texas) longer than they lived in China. On WeChat, many of their friends who stayed in China have become increasingly nationalistic, defending the government crackdown on the Hong Kong protests and the internment of Uighurs in Xinjiang. The parents in my novel remember what they lost after war and through the Cultural Revolution: homes and possessions and loved ones, yes, but also the memories they never got to have. Everything they’ve endured in Plano, including the current pandemic, feels like a small price to pay for finding their rightful home.
Now I imagine them watching the video of George Floyd’s murder. I imagine them reading their children’s social media posts about anti-Blackness in Asian American communities. I imagine those children coming back from the big cities where they live in order to work remotely from their childhood homes. One day, the parents bring up the story of Black Lives Matter protestors crowding a white woman eating outside a D.C. restaurant. They say how much this reminds them of the struggle sessions during the Cultural Revolution, when crowds publicly humiliated individuals. The children roll their eyes. “It’s not the same,” the children say. “That’s such an oversimplification. That’s what they want you to think.”
The “they,” the parents assume, are the white people on TV telling them that the radical left are going to take over the suburbs. The parents see Trump tweeting to the “Suburban Housewives of America” that “Biden will destroy your neighborhood and your American Dream.” They see Patricia McCloskey, who along with her husband pointed guns at Black Lives Matter protestors outside their St. Louis suburban mansion. They hear her warning viewers that “what you saw happen to us, could happen to any of you, watching from your quiet neighborhoods.”
“Your American Dream.” “Your quiet neighborhoods.” The mother in my novel is an electrical engineer and the family’s breadwinner—worlds away from Trump’s “housewife”—but she is also an Asian American. She is adept at projecting herself onto the we and us and you that was never intended to include her. The father, a failed artist and small businessman, his photography studio now shuttered after the rise of smartphones, follows her lead. It has taken him a long time to feel that these suburbs could be his, and the thought of losing that, too, even if it is in the service of the greater good, fills him with dread. He is tired of the unknown.
When I started my novel in 2014, I didn’t consider whether my characters would vote for people and policies that I find abhorrent. To worry about such things felt outside the novel, a distraction from the writing of fiction, not to mention incompatible with a kind of “immigrant character arc” in which the change that the characters undergo tends to trend upward—if not socioeconomically, then morally. If the characters do not gain acceptance, they will at least learn a valuable lesson, something that nudges them closer to becoming the woke minority that a white liberal reader will willingly align themselves with.
In 2017, it seemed all of America—Trump included—was expressing horror at United’s forceful removal of one of their passengers, a Vietnamese American refugee who practiced medicine in the small-town suburb of Elizabethtown, Kentucky. David Dao was randomly selected to give up his seat on an overbooked airplane, and when he refused, security guards gave him a concussion, broke his nose and teeth, and dragged his unconscious body down the aisle.
While watching the video, I thought the words that Patricia McCloskey, of all people, would later echo: “What you saw happen to us, could happen to any of you.” But then the stories came out about Dao’s past. More than a decade earlier, he had been convicted of trafficking prescription drugs in exchange for sex. He’d lost his medical license, which had only been provisionally reinstated in 2015. He’d faced many complaints of anger issues.
For a while, I didn’t bother to read these reports, chalking it up to rumors and smearing. Dao’s background didn’t change the fact that what happened to him on the United flight was an injustice. But as Cathy Park Hong notes in Minor Feelings, to understand the complexity of Dao is to understand that he is not “some industrious automaton.” He did not fit an arc that I myself felt grafted onto: sacrifice + perseverance + hard work = acceptance. He did not become that friendly suburban doctor, quick to pick up the phone, ready to please you, make you feel better. His story did not seem to belong to suburbia at all.
To be clear, I’m not equating David Dao’s actions with my fictional characters possibly voting for Trump. I’m less interested in a character’s turn toward Trumpism than in my inability to imagine where exactly that turn would take them. Vietnamese Americans like Dao, many of them refugees and staunchly anti-Communist, are more likely to be Republican than Democrat. Chinese Americans include big pockets of right-wing voters, especially among a new wave of wealthy immigrants who move directly to the suburbs and couldn’t care less about the old methods of work-hard-speak-English-earn-their-love assimilation.
Asian Americans, on the whole, are less likely to belong to either political party. One reason for this, Hua Hsu argues in The New Yorker, may be how “they often seem too socially and linguistically fractured to effectively target.” Asian Americans are also the most economically divided group in the United States, and they’re experiencing huge spikes in unemployment during the pandemic, a shift that has gone underreported (as has the story of poverty in the suburbs in general, rising at a higher rate than in cities). When we look closer, the story of how we survive, find acceptance, and thrive is messy, even in the suburbs. For progressive Americans, there’s a temptation to read the headlines (even Republican Asian Americans prefer Biden!) and breathe a sigh of relief, as if all these people turning against Trump means that we’ll be okay. But there was never an easy we in this story of us.
The story of the suburbs is also a story of America. As Jason Diamond states in The Sprawl, “We don’t realize how suburban we’ve become, whether we live in a suburb or not.” It was only after I left Plano that I could look on it with fondness. I would remember how my dad would drive us past all those Taco Buenos, and never fail to creatively butcher the pronunciation of “bueno” to make me laugh. There was a comfort to that memory, how copies of a place could bring back a singular story from the edge of my mind.
I grew up among chain restaurants and sprinkler-fed lawns, highways stacked on top of highways and churches as big as shopping malls. I also grew up among faces that looked like mine, with languages that sounded like home, a home nevertheless built to be exclusive and far from the “integrated” spaces that Biden claims the suburbs he was raised in were. Now, after more than a decade, I’m living in the ’burbs of Dallas again. It’s different from what I remember, but it’s still a home, and like all homes, it’s hard to know what to make of it now. If we are to understand where we are going as a country, not just in November but beyond it, we ought to see the suburbs as they are. Because this feeling I get here is a contradiction, too: that there could be so many of us, yet there could be no we at all.
Simon Han is the author of Nights When Nothing Happened, forthcoming from Riverhead Books.