A discerning novel of ethnic identity

Alexandra Chang’s new novel examines the experience of being a minority in predominantly white, male spaces. It’s narrated by a 25-year-old Chinese American girl caught between honoring her ethnic identity and wanting to belong. It’s a beautifully written debut published in March during what’s being referred to as “the great silence” in the book world, when book tours and stores and festivals have been closed because of the pandemic. Days of Distraction should not fade away in this silence. Long after the last page, I’ve remembered the observations, feelings and struggles of the young narrator.

Her name is Jing Jing, and she’s a savvy, staff reporter writing about glitzy gadgets and billionaire start-ups for a tech publication in San Francisco. Jing Jing is bright, hard-working, dependable and struggling to be recognized. She wants to write feature stories, but the editors think she lacks the flash and flare of strong opinions that go mega-viral. Meanwhile, J, her boyfriend of five years — a white Irishman, considerate and unafraid to see life under a microscope — announces he plans to get a PhD in biochemistry, which could mean they’ll need to leave California.

Chang’s discerning talent explores themes of discrimination, ethnic identity and inter-racial relationships to poignant effect. She intimately draws us inside her narrator’s confusing world, especially in the beginning where subtle office racism plays out. When a senior editor insensitively vents to Jing Jing about the problem of workplace diversity in the tech industry, her rambling comes across as shockingly rude, and blind to Jing Jing’s life in the office, let alone her intelligence.

Once you start hiring based on diversity, everyone in the newsroom is going to feel uncomfortable, like women are only diversity hires and not the ones who deserve the job based on skills and abilities. And where does it stop? Will we need to start hiring Asians and African Americans and Mexicans just because they are Asian or African American or Mexican?

A stunned Jing Jing replies, “It’s complicated,” before she bolts from the room.

She is the lowest paid writer on staff. Her requests for a raise get lost in a massive reorganization. Each time she asks for an update, she gets brushed aside by one manager and then another. When J accepts graduate work at Cornell in Ithaca, New York, she’s offered the option of long-distance writing for the publication, but the continued disrespect from the editors drives her to seek other employment.

Author Alexandra Chang’s background includes working at Wired and Macworld magazines. She also lives in Ithaca. This bears mentioning for the personal experience and authenticity she brings to her fictional story.

In Ithaca, J works long hours in the lab while Jing Jing works at home in a new job, aggregating tech news for an app. He is her only anchor in the sea of white faces, the only one who can calm her anxieties, but he’s rarely home. Feeling “incredibly visible and sickeningly invisible,” Jing Jing falls down a rabbit hole researching online articles about Chinese Americans in the labor force and Chinese Americans married to white Americans, seeking wisdom for her confusion.

It is difficult to parse which parts of me come from my family, from being Chinese, from being Asian American, from being American, from being a woman, from being of a certain generation, and from, simply, being.

As her life stagnates in Ithaca, so does the dramatic action, burdened by endless self-analyzing and growing misgivings about being in an inter-racial relationship. The pages feel heavy with Jing Jing’s inability to find peace and without sufficient dramatic spark. When she decides to get away by visiting her father in China, the moment is a dull thud of a turning point, as her contemplative build-up renders it more softly understandable than worrisome and potentially unsettling of the norm.  

Days of Distraction is written in sectioned prose, i.e. separated long and short paragraphs and dramatic pieces. The style allows for the juxtaposition of disparate incidents and insertion of commentary, as well as family and colleague emails, texts, phone conversations and article excerpts from Jing Jing’s research. It’s highly effective, creating texture and depth for Jing Jing’s bewilderment and the story’s thematic messages. Also, Chang demonstrates elegant control, the style flowing evenly, neither interruptive nor choppy.

When J meets Jing Jing at the airport on her return from China, they drive home on a snowy night. Jing Jing lets go into the comfort of J’s understanding and the feeling she’s exactly where she should be, “where everything was deeply quiet, yet deeply alive.” How she will fare in the future remains uncertain.

A version of this review aired on NPR member station WOSU 89.7 FM. Days of Distraction is published by Ecco, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.