What does it mean to be a good friend? That is the essential question in New Yorker writer Hua Hsu’s new memoir. As the son of Taiwanese immigrants, he grew up in Cupertino and went to UC Berkeley. He was an artsy, introverted kid who loved alternative music, wore second-hand clothes, and created a zine.
During his freshman year, he met Ken, who was in a frat and liked the Dave Matthews Band. They couldn’t have been more different — except they were both Asian American. Ken was of Japanese descent. Less than three years after they met, Ken was killed in a carjacking. Hsu writes about their friendship in his new memoir, “Stay True.”
When Hsu met Ken, the author described himself as an “insufferably pretentious kid” while Ken was mainstream.
“I was judgmental about other people's judgments. I really took it to another level of just wanting to be different, not only from my family and friends, but just even the people closest to me. I was just really fascinated with discovering new things and esoteric knowledge,” he tells KCRW. “I just thought, ‘I'm gonna meet so many people who are into the exact same obscure things and obscure bands as I am.’ So when I got to college, the last thing I wanted was someone who was into stuff that was on MTV or whatnot.”
Hsu says Ken was the complete opposite of who he thought he was at the time: open-minded, generous, and always wanting to learn about other people’s interests.
“He believed in a lot of things, and he dreamed of things that I was afraid to really admit that I wanted. And so I think there was a real energy and vitality to him that drew people to him, not just me,” Hsu says. “It was so different from how I wanted to present myself in the world. I wanted to be cool and unflappable. And that meant not really expecting too much of the world. And I think Ken was someone who showed me that we should ask for more. That we should be demanding more of the culture that produces us.”
Hsu says he also wrote off Ken due to his Japanese heritage, partly since that community appeared more acculturated than other Asian groups.
“Their families seemed more assimilated. People didn't speak with accents. And so from the outside, you would just look at us and say, ‘You're just both Asians,’ but within the community, there are these slight gradations that only we noticed sometimes. And it was something that I really saw on him. But it also blinded me to some of the nuances of his own experience too, to assume that he was so comfortable.”
But as their friendship grew, Hsu says he learned more about Ken’s true identity, hopes, and dreams.
Hua Hsu’s new book is “Stay True.” Credit: Penguin Random House.
Hsu started writing what would become “Stay True” the day after Ken died. He wanted to memorialize their friendship, including the inside jokes and whatever else he could remember.
“I really wanted to just be able to describe things about him, about how it felt in that moment. And so all of these years, I've really been chasing that feeling of being able to describe the past, being able to capture some of it in language,” Hsu says.
While he and Ken only knew each other for about three years, Hsu says that death forever changed who he is.
“We all change each other's lives. We have the luxury of not having to dwell on it because we're still in each other's lives. And it’s this reminder that we should just hold tight the people in our lives, and that all friendships change us. We don't necessarily have to narrativize them or reflect on them, because those stories are still ongoing for most of us.”