Peggy Wang knows a lot about the Internet. As BuzzFeed’s founding editor, she’s spent the past eight years or so combing the web for sharable oddities and LOLs. (She also spent several of those years moonlighting as the keyboardist and vocalist in The Pains of Being Pure At Heart — more on that here.) These days, she’s the Editorial Director of BuzzFeed Life, penning posts like “37 Cheap Ways to Make Your Ikea Stuff Look Expensive” and introducing the world to “walking tacos” via her cookbook (of sorts), Amazing Food Hacks (Random House, 2014). During a break from her regularly scheduled listicles, she tells us how a late-night Instapaper read helped her process her complicated feelings towards her Chinese heritage, all the while inspiring her to work harder than ever before.
What one piece of writing has changed the way you think about your own work?
I read Mary HK Choi’s essay “My Foreign Mom” during a very long couple of weeks I spent in Taipei. My grandmother had just died, and my mother wanted me to meet her in Taiwan for the funeral. I am such a terribly selfish person that my first inclination was to say no — I didn’t really want to spend the vacation days or the money on a plane ticket ($1300). But mostly, which I didn’t want to get into with my mother, was that it had been 20 years since my last Taipei visit, and I was terrified of being confronted with who my family had become in this elapsed time: The cousins I hadn’t seen since I was 12, now middle-aged with their strange jobs and strange children, my other still-living grandmother who was now 96 years-old and so slight and so frail that I had to push my bangs into my face to hide the tears that filled up the moment I saw her. And then what did they think of me? No longer the petulant, gap-toothed brat who asked too many obnoxious questions (in Mandarin, before my brain basically lost touch with the language), I wondered if the sort of person I had become made any sense to them. I didn’t know which was worse — the possibility that they would make me sad, or the other way around.
Lying next to my mom in a shared bed in that foreign city, reading the Instapapered essay in the glow of my iPad jet-lagged at 4 a.m., it made me silently weep to the point of feeling like I was going to throw up. “My Foreign Mom,” for me, has such a beautiful way of tying up all the guilt I feel when I think about, I mean really think about, my immigrant parents. It was a difficult reminder of all those times that I felt embarrassed by them, or felt embarrassed for being Chinese — shameful memories that I pushed away and disregarded as just by-products of my idiot youth, and yet they still resurface in unexpected ways. Like how sometimes I feel jealous of friends who have English-speaking families they can go home to at Thanksgiving, the kind who have scintillating conversations about career paths and politics and what NPR podcasts they’re listening to. As much as I want to love Gilmore Girls with its Sonic Youth appearances and Belle and Sebastian references, the truth is that I can’t stand the show because the idea of having a mom best friend is so utterly alien to me that it’s actually frustrating. I’m a Lane, not a Rory, and that always made me feel uncomfortable and disappointed whenever I really thought about it. When I was younger, these petty examples of feeling socially inferior trumped the sacrifices that my family had made in order for me to have the luxury of being petty about anything.
I have a lot of guilt stored up about being a shitty, shallow daughter. It took reading that essay in that particular time and place to make me realize that it is humanly possible to articulate the heart-swelling love that you have for a family you feel so much distance (physical, emotional, language barrier) from. The impossibility of being able to communicate it without an immediate burning sensation behind your eyes is a sort of heartbreaking-ness that she captures so fitfully. I’ve read that essay many times now, masochistically because it makes me so emo, enjoyably because it is so pinpointingly written. Right now, the only way I know how to show my family how much they mean to me is by not being a complete fucking disappointment — but deep down I know that’s the bare minimum. I’m still working up the courage.@IAM486