Reading Group Guide
This reading group guide for Beautiful as Yesterday includes an introduction, discussion questions, and ideas for enhancing your book club. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
Mary Chang, a Chinese immigrant living in Northern California, is a devoted wife, mother, churchgoer, and a high-tech professional. She is torn between fulfilling her filial duty as the oldest child and admitting her true feelings towards these obligations. Mary’s lukewarm relationship with her fifth-generation Chinese husband and her estranged sister, a political self-exile who prefers her bohemian friends’ Latin culture to her own, only complicate things further. And when her widowed mother, Wang Fenglan, a state factory retiree, travels from China to the United States for the first time at Mary’s request to explore the possibility of emigrating, she awkwardly reunites the family and unknowingly stirs up buried family tensions and secrets.
Stretching from mid-century China to both of the coasts of the U.S. at the turn of the millennium, Beautiful as Yesterday explores issues of immigration, acculturation, family, friendship, love and loss. It is a penetrating exploration of what it means to belong, what it means to be a family, and the impact of history and memories on one’s life.
Questions for Discussion
1. “Though Mary visits China every year for a week to see her mother…she has always been called by her friends there ‘a half-foreigner’ or ‘a Chinese-American’” (p. 6). How does Mary define her ethnicity to others? To what extent does her suburban American lifestyle prevent her from embracing her Chinese heritage, and in what respects does it inspire her to be more assertive in seeking out old connections to her family and Chinese friends?
2. To what extent does the tension in the sibling relationship between Mary and Ingrid seem to stem from their parents’ treatment of them as children? Why do they seem to revert to the stereotypical roles of older and younger sister in their behavior toward each other? What role does envy of the other’s situation play in their sibling connection?
3. “Perhaps it was because of her fear of dying alone that she agreed to emigrate to the United States, to live with her older daughter and her family” (p. 39). How do Wang Fenglan’s preparations for her trip to America betray her anxieties about leaving China? How does her living situation in China compare to what awaits her at Mary’s home in Silicon Valley? Why does Wang Fenglan resist her daughters’ efforts to have her emigrate to their adopted country?
4. How would you characterize Mary and Bob Chang’s marriage? What keeps them together as a couple, and what threatens to pull them in different directions? How does the presence of Mary’s mother in their home affect their relationship? What roles do Bob’s inability to speak Chinese, his lack of religious observance, and his intense workload play in Mary’s level of marital satisfaction? To what extent does Bob’s treatment of his wife reveal his feelings about their marriage?
5. “As [Ingrid] lay on the bed after a satisfying orgasm…it struck her that what she had been doing was an attempt to sever her ties with the past, with her innocence, ignorance, and naïveté, everything in her that wasn’t American” (p. 106). What does Ingrid’s rebellion against her family’s expectations for her reveal about her character? Why does she feel so conflicted about her filial obligations? To what extent would you describe her as a “liberated woman”?
6. What do the central male characters in Beautiful as Yesterday have in common? What does their depiction suggest about the traditional role of men in Chinese culture? How is Bob Chang depicted as a father and husband, and how does his portrayal compare to that of Wang Fenglan’s husband? How important is Alex—the only male child—to the other characters in the novel?
7. “In fact, in all her previous visits to China, [Mary] has never hugged her mother, not even when saying goodbye—it is just not the custom there” (132). How would you describe Mary and Ingrid’s respective feelings toward their mother, and Wang Fenglan’s feelings toward her daughters? Why does Wang Fenglan share the secret of Ingrid’s conception with Mary, and what does their conspiracy reveal about the unique nature of their family’s dynamics? By American or Chinese standards, to what extent do the relationships between Wang Fenglan and her daughters seem suggestive of a dysfunctional family?
8. How does the return of Han Dong, a figure from Mary’s romantic past, threaten her domestic contentment? What might Han Dong represent to Mary in light of her marriage to Bob? Given her religious beliefs and her commitments to her family, why does she agree to meet with him, and then go with him to his hotel room? How is she complicit in her own seduction? To what extent does their erotic encounter uncover a complexity to Mary’s character hinted at in other moments of the novel?
9. “Since coming to the United States, [Ingrid] hasn’t participated in any political events—she just cannot bring herself to be passionate about American politics, about which she knows little to begin with” (289). How does Ingrid’s exposure to Chinese politics in the 1980s protests in Tiananmen Square in Beijing affect her? Why might a recent immigrant to the United States feel some degree of political indifference? How does Chinese history inform Wang Fenglan, Mary, and Ingrid’s political and social perspectives in Beautiful as Yesterday?
10. How does Mary and Ingrid’s return to China at the end of the novel impact their sibling relationship? What does their experience in China with their extended family reveal to them about their own individual trajectories as Chinese natives who have become American citizens? Why do you think the author chose to bring Mary and Ingrid back to their native country, and what might such an ending represent to these characters, and this story?
Enhance Your Book Club
1. Did the experience of reading Beautiful as Yesterday kindle your interest in learning more about the book’s author, Fan Wu? If your book club is interested in reading additional interviews with the author, attending one of her book signings, or reading more about her life, visit www.fanwuwrites.com for an in-depth, intimate glimpse at this author and her work.
2. The political fallout from the Cultural Revolution and the crackdown against democratic activists in the late 1980s resonate for the characters of Beautiful as Yesterday. When you think about your life, and your family’s life, what are some of the key political and social events that shaped you? If you were writing a cross-generational novel about your family, which events and which family members would you choose to include and why?
3. Food plays an integral role in the lives of the characters of Beautiful as Yesterday. As Mary Chang cooks and serves meals with her church friends, they share memories of their lives in China, as conveyed in the flavors and preparations of the foods they eat. What are some foods that carry extra meaning for you, and why? How do these foods link you to your family or your history? You may want to consider a potluck meal with your book club, where each member brings a dish that carries additional memories or significance.