Alexandra Chang’s debut novel, Days of Distraction, offers a thoughtful reflection on gender, relationships and racial and ethnic identity in 21st-century America, as seen through the observant eyes of a young Chinese American woman.
Employed as a Consumer Technology Reporter for a San Francisco-based publication, Chang’s narrator Alexandra (Jing-Jing to her family) writes “about gadgets for people with money to spend.” Between her dissatisfaction with the emptiness of her job and the not-so-subtle discrimination against women working in the tech world, she’s ready for a change.
With her white boyfriend, identified only as “J,” Alexandra embarks on a cross-country drive from the West Coast to Ithaca, New York, where J will enter a Ph.D. program in biochemistry at Cornell. She abandons her writing for a part-time job with a “major social media company that shall not be named” that pays her $30 an hour to do nothing more than “keep an eye on tech news and upload stories into the app.”
Along the way, relying on an accumulation of narrative fragments that defines Chang’s style, Alexandra gradually begins to unearth stories about the lives of Chinese immigrants in the U.S. when they began to arrive in large numbers in the 19th century, especially the unsubtle prejudice against them that included bans on interracial marriage. Among the most interesting is the story of Yamei Kin, the first woman of Chinese descent educated at an American university (Cornell), who went on to carve out a distinguished career as a nutritionist. Kin’s marriage to a white man provokes Alexandra to ruminate on the challenges in her own interracial relationship, ones that transcend the ordinary tensions that accompany the young couple’s uprooting and relocation.
Days of Distraction is less noteworthy for its action or plot twists than it is for Alexandra’s precise, fresh insights into life in a country where people who look like her have ultimately thrived. But as the novel reveals, that eventual acceptance sometimes has a steep price.