Author Jade Chang On Writing New Kinds of Immigrant Stories

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In her debut novel The Wangs vs. the World, Jade Chang takes on the American Dream. Set during the financial crisis of 2008, the novel tells the story of the Wangs, a wealthy Chinese-American family, who lose their fortune and take an adventure-filled road trip across America. It’s a heartfelt and sharply funny exploration of the American immigrant experience, and the trail of broken dreams and empty bank accounts left behind by the financial crisis. In the video above, Chang explains why she wanted to tell a new kind of immigrant story, and advises first-time writers to embrace their ambition. Check out the interview highlights below for more insights from Chang.

mental_floss: Why set the book during the financial crisis?

Chang: I really wanted to set the book during the financial crash of 2008 because it was such an electric time in both a horrible and fascinating way. I was working at a luxury magazine in 2008, and I got a real front row seat to some very wealthy people freaking out. During that time, I went to this party for the Trump Tower Dubai, which never ended up being built. The party was held in a very lavish mansion in Bel Air, where Cirque du Soleil performers on stilts were mingling in the crowd, and Wolfgang Puck was throwing gold dust on hors d’oeuvres. After the party, as I was driving away, I just felt like it was the beginning of the end—like the country was about to collapse under the weight of its own excess.

mental_floss: Why write about a road trip?

Chang: I’ve always been interested in our American idea of the “Great American Novel.” It’s a thing we love to talk about, and puzzle about, and declare someone the winner of. I think that was one of the things that moved me to want to write a novel that literally tried to take in all of America. I was a journalist for a while before I wrote this, and I wrote a lot about cities, and how we live in them. I was interested in seeing this family interact with different cities across the country. I also just love a road trip book.

mental_floss: The novel packs in all of these really diverse topics, ranging from the financial crisis to stand-up comedy and contemporary art. It also travels clear across America, from Bel Air to Upstate New York. How did you research the different topics you address in the book?

Chang: I did do a lot of research for this book, in part because I just love research. I enjoy falling into a kind of Google whirlpool, where one piece of information leads to a revelation about something else. I did a ton of research for each of the “worlds” I was writing about. I think I’ve always wanted to be a comedian of some sort—it feels like such a fun, but also brave and vulnerable, thing to do—so I watched a lot of stand-up comedy, and took improv classes.

For the financial stuff, I’ve always been interested in different systems of valuation, and how we collectively decide on value, sometimes arbitrarily. I think that applies to both the finance and art worlds. I did a lot of non-fiction reading about both of those worlds, and tiny things would spin into character and story.

I also did a lot of research that wasn’t necessarily as high-minded. For example, I’ve been to every place I wrote about, but I haven’t driven that exact route, and I wanted to know all of the highways I was writing about. So I found this community of long haul truckers who make dashboard camera videos of their routes and put them on YouTube. They’ll post a video that’s like “Austin to New Orleans: My Route,” and then people comment and are like, “Awesome route, dude.” I watched a lot of those. I’ve seen many miles of American highway speed by me on YouTube.

10 Reusable Gifts for Your Eco-Friendliest Friend

Disposable tea bags can't compete with this pla-tea-pus and his friends.
Disposable tea bags can't compete with this pla-tea-pus and his friends.
DecorChic/Amazon

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By this point, your eco-friendly pal probably has a reusable water bottle that accompanies them everywhere and some sturdy grocery totes that keep their plastic-bag count below par. Here are 10 other sustainable gift ideas that’ll help them in their conservation efforts.

1. Reusable Produce Bags; $13

No more staticky plastic bags.Naturally Sensible/Amazon

The complimentary plastic produce bags in grocery stores aren’t great, but neither is having all your spherical fruits and vegetables roll pell-mell down the checkout conveyor belt. Enter the perfect alternative: mesh bags that are nylon, lightweight, and even machine-washable.

Buy it: Amazon

2. Animal Tea Infusers; $16

Nothing like afternoon tea with your tiny animal friends.DecorChic/Amazon

Saying goodbye to disposable tea bags calls for a quality tea diffuser, and there’s really no reason why it shouldn’t be shaped like an adorable animal. This “ParTEA Pack” includes a hippo, platypus, otter, cat, and owl, which can all hang over the edge of a glass or mug. (In other words, you won’t have to fish them out with your fingers or dirty a spoon when your loose leaf is done steeping.)

Buy it: Amazon

3. Rocketbook Smart Notebook; $25

Typing your notes on a tablet or laptop might save trees, but it doesn’t quite capture the feeling of writing on paper with a regular pen. The Rocketbook, on the other hand, does. After you’re finished filling a page with sketches, musings, or whatever else, you scan it into the Rocketbook app with your smartphone, wipe it clean with the microfiber cloth, and start again. This one also comes with a compatible pen, but any PILOT FriXion pens will do.

Buy it: Amazon

4. Food Huggers; $13

"I'm a hugger!"Food Huggers/Amazon

It’s hard to compete with the convenience of plastic wrap or tin foil when it comes to covering the exposed end of a piece of produce or an open tin can—and keeping those leftovers in food storage containers can take up valuable space in the fridge. This set of five silicone Food Huggers stretch to fit over a wide range of circular goods, from a lidless jar to half a lemon.

Buy it: Amazon

5. Swiffer Mop Pads; $15

For floors that'll shine like the top of the Chrysler Building.Turbo Microfiber/Amazon

Swiffers may be much less unwieldy than regular mops, but the disposable pads present a problem to anyone who likes to keep their trash output to a minimum. These machine-washable pads fasten to the bottom of any Swiffer WetJet, and the thick microfiber will trap dirt and dust instead of pushing it into corners. Each pad lasts for at least 100 uses, so you’d be saving your eco-friendly friend quite a bit of money, too.

Buy it: Amazon

6. SodaStream for Sparkling Water; $69

A fondness for fizzy over flat water doesn’t have to mean buying it bottled. Not only does the SodaStream let you make seltzer at home, but it’s also small enough that it won’t take up too much precious counter space. SodaStream also sells flavor drops to give your home-brewed beverage even more flair—this pack from Amazon ($25) includes mango, orange, raspberry, lemon, and lime.

Buy it: Amazon

7. Washable Lint Roller; $13

Roller dirty.iLifeTech/Amazon

There’s a good chance that anyone with a pet (or just an intense dislike for lint) has lint-rolled their way through countless sticky sheets. iLifeTech’s reusable roller boasts “the power of glue,” which doesn’t wear off even after you’ve washed it. Each one also comes with a 3-inch travel-sized version, so you can stay fuzz-free on the go.

Buy it: Amazon

8. Countertop Compost Bin; $23

Like a tiny Tin Man for your table.Epica/Amazon

Even if you keep a compost pile in your own backyard, it doesn’t make sense to dash outside every time you need to dump a food scrap. A countertop compost bin can come in handy, especially if it kills odors and blends in with your decor. This 1.3-gallon pail does both. It’s made of stainless steel—which matches just about everything—and contains an activated-charcoal filter that prevents rancid peels and juices from stinking up your kitchen.

Buy it: Amazon

9. Fabric-Softening Dryer Balls; $17

Also great for learning how to juggle without breaking anything.Smart Sheep

Nobody likes starchy, scratchy clothes, but some people might like blowing through bottles of fabric softener and boxes of dryer sheets even less. Smart Sheep is here to offer a solution: wool dryer balls. Not only do they last for more than 1000 loads, they also dry your laundry faster. And since they don’t contain any chemicals, fragrances, or synthetic materials, they’re a doubly great option for people with allergies and/or sensitive skin.

Buy it: Amazon

10. Rechargeable Batteries; $40

Say goodbye to loose batteries in your junk drawer.eneloop/Amazon

While plenty of devices are rechargeable themselves, others still require batteries to buzz, whir, and change the TV channel—so it’s good to have some rechargeable batteries on hand. In addition to AA batteries, AAA batteries, and a charger, this case from Panasonic comes with tiny canisters that function as C and D batteries when you slip the smaller batteries into them.

Buy it: Amazon

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Miss Blockbuster Video? New Kiosks With Free Movies Are Popping Up Around the Country

Got a VCR? You still might be able to make it a Blockbuster night.
Got a VCR? You still might be able to make it a Blockbuster night.
Pete, Flickr // Public Domain

With just one remaining Blockbuster Video store in the world located in Bend, Oregon, the venerable video rental chain has largely disappeared from sight. Streaming services can queue up thousands of movies, making the ritual of wandering through store aisles virtually obsolete.

For residents in and around Los Angeles, Philadelphia, and other locations, however, grabbing a tangible DVD from a Blockbuster is still an option. Stephanie Farr of The Philadelphia Inquirer reports that a number of small, newspaper-type kiosks (also called newsracks or boxes) have popped up in areas bearing the familiar Blockbuster logo and sporting several movies that people can “borrow” for free.

The kiosks, which are dubbed Free Blockbuster Video, are the work of Brian Morrison, a Los Angeles resident who noticed the empty newspaper kiosks and decided to repurpose them by branding them with the Blockbuster logo and supplying a small inventory of DVDs or VHS cassettes. Others have followed his lead in Oklahoma, Virginia, and elsewhere, using not only movies but books and even popcorn.

People are encouraged to take an item and leave an item. In Richmond, a kiosk recently sported a library containing VHS copies of 1993’s Demolition Man, 1984’s The Terminator, and a box of Skittles.

“There are a lot of abandoned newspaper boxes around L.A.,” Morrison told the Inquirer. “We’re a city that loves movies, and free movie boxes seemed like a great way to rehabilitate commercial blight.”

Morrison’s site, FreeBlockbuster.org, provides artwork for those looking to repurpose the kiosks, which have often been abandoned by area newspapers. Those that are no longer being stocked with papers may be marked for removal by the city, though that depends on local laws.

[h/t The Philadelphia Inquirer]