Meet Me Tonight in Atlantic City
Tin House | May 16, 2023
Jane Wong’s debut memoir, Meet Me Tonight in Atlantic City, opens with a photograph of her as a child with the classic Chinese bowl cut and her smiling mother. The memoir-in-essays, which takes its name from the famous Springsteen song, documents Jane’s childhood as a restaurant baby to a creative writing college professor. The speculative throughline of Wongmom.com, Jane’s mother as an internet chatbot, threads the essays of her life as a source of comfort and advice through Jane’s various trials and tribulations. But the memoir is also a window into the open secrets, like illegal dentists in Chinatown and cleaning bins of MSG as a restaurant baby of the working class Chinese American immigrant community.
The first (and titular) essay, “Meet Me Tonight in Atlantic City,” starts with a description of the tourist train in Camden, New Jersey heading to Atlantic City. Casinos have long preyed on Asian immigrant communities by instilling a sense of hope and meaning, a chance of making the Dream, for people who have given up every familiarity to live in America. “Among vulnerable communities who may feel powerless in their everyday lives, this is one way to take action,” Wong writes. Her father’s gambling addiction eventually causes her family to lose their restaurant, and her mother works various jobs to support Jane and her younger brother, Steven. “Days after our father left, my brother dug out his old dinosaur toys from a broken cardboard box and lined them up on his windowsill, a parade of vegetarians. A green brontosaurus and an orange stegosaurus, one after the other, “in case he forgets which house is ours.” Eventually, her mother gets a job working the night shift at USPS after her father leaves, which provides some stability for the family. But Jane and Steven return to her father’s memory again and again: “How can I describe to you what it feels like to protect my brother from our father’s refusal to be in our bloodline?” Meet Me Tonight is not afraid to show the grisly ways society preys upon Asian Americans and working-class immigrants.
In the essay “Root Canal Street,” Jane remembers how her mother was one of many immigrants who could not pay the thousands of dollars for a tooth extraction at a dental office, “At first, I thought I was there to keep her company during these ‘bonding’ trips. But then, I saw my presence as something else entirely. I was there to witness, to document, to make sure she was okay—not hurt—at the end of it all.” New York’s Chinatown is full of doctors and dentists from China who were unable to pass the certification exam due to English-language skills. While some health professionals who operate illegally are legitimate in every sense except for an American certification, the lack of regulation makes many of these visits dangerous or unnecessarily painful. But the community often has no other options due to financial or lingual barriers.
But unlike immigrant stories which focus solely on the achievement (or lack thereof) of the American Dream, Meet Me Tonight moves from Jane’s childhood to her adult dating life. My favorite essay, “Object of Love,” traces all the small and big ways that men have tried to control her. “When he would fuck me, he liked to do so in front of the mirror by the door…He liked pulling my hair back and covering my face with his hands, pressing my head down so he couldn’t see me…I floated above myself, watching this scene, this woman and this man. Was she supposed to like it? Turn around and kick him, I wanted to say. Fucking kick him!” These pages were propulsive because Jane, even as she was in these relationships, was self-aware of the abuse she faced. “Object of Love” is in the middle of the memoir, but even when the essay ended, I wanted to know how she was, how everything ended and if everything had ended.
Meet Me Tonight in Atlantic City reminded me that Asian American literature could be more than stories of poverty or prestige porn. Reading it is not always comfortable—some anecdotes are sad, squeamish, and cringe-inducing, but it is an honest look at a working-class community that is too often forgotten. Meet Me Tonight in Atlantic City refuses summary with its sprawling essays of how love, community, and writing make us resilient.