Hometown Humbling: Delia Cai’s Central Places

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To answer the slightly racist question “Where are you from?” with “Illinois” as a Chinese American person can be confounding for those standing on either end of the pointed question. The Midwest is widely imagined, if imagined at all (the derogatory term “flyover states” comes to mind), as white and rural. The Asian American experience, as Steven Yeun puts it in an interview with Jay Caspian Kang, can feel like “when you’re thinking about everyone else, but nobody else is thinking about you.” Where and what is the intersection between these two sometimes conflicting, often ignored identities?

Delia Cai’s debut novel, Central Places, follows protagonist Audrey Zhou on her trek back home to Hickory Grove, Illinois, a tiny town outside of Peoria, Illinois, a good 170 miles away from Chicago. With her diehard New Yorker and professional photojournalist fiancé Ben in tow, Audrey is spending the week of Christmas relitigating mixed feelings about her hometown and attempting to stay out of her highly critical mother’s line of fire. She hasn’t been back since she left for college eight years ago, partly to avoid the crushing weight of her immigrant parents’ hopes and expectations, and partly to avoid the thought of who she was when she lived there.

Audrey spends most of the novel the way many of us spend our time at home during the holidays: descending into a muddled nostalgia for childhood and backsliding into the idiosyncrasies of adolescence. She shows Ben around town and he feigns interest well enough, though his New York superiority complex is evident. Her parents are embarrassing, but she only needs to make it through one week. Hickory Grove might be where she’s from, but New York is where her life is now. With an intense job, a doting fiancé, and future parents-in-law who are “fluent in both Latin and the lingua franca of the Upper Both Sides” and are financing Brooklyn apartment ownership, Audrey might have everything she ever wanted. But Audrey’s life in perpetually forward motion comes into question as she returns to haunt her hometown.

In a Walmart parking lot, Audrey and Ben run into Kyle, the former close friend and longstanding crush that defines her memories of late high school in the way only an adolescent infatuation can. While hanging out with Kyle supplies some of the tension between Audrey and Ben, this novel is no Hallmark romcom where a hometown reunion resolves all. It becomes clearer, as the novel progresses, that Ben had accepted Audrey’s previous broad dismissals of Hickory Grove and shares a similarly dim view of the place. But your hometown might be one of those things where you get to hate on it because it’s yours, and it just isn’t the same when someone else does it.

Yet the disconnect that Audrey and Ben experience is a secondary effect of the unreconciled and underprocessed parts of Audrey’s experiences growing up in Hickory Grove. The ambient childhood racism experienced as one of the only Asians in a very white school in a very white town is often flattened in popular discourse into anecdotes about smelly lunches, but Cai illustrates the experience far more deftly. No one incident is “that bad” if you’re measuring relative harm, but the accumulation of 18 years of being othered is still dehumanizing and discomfitingly psychologically formative. Being accosted in the local bar by a man asking “What are you?” immediately sends Audrey spiraling into childhood memories of being chased around called “snake eyes” in elementary school and of an Applebee’s waiter mocking her dad’s mispronunciation by answering that “no, the fajeetas were not velly spicy.” The shame is cumulative. Suddenly lacking the buffer of geographical distance and her New York preoccupations, Audrey can’t easily divert attention from her fraught childhood.

It’s not just about the girls next door bullying six-year-old Audrey for mispronouncing thank you by saying it the way her parents do. It’s when she tells her mom about the incident, “thrilling slightly at the fantasy I had where she would transform into the kind of sitcom mom who would march me back down to the neighbors’ house and tell those girls off for me.” In reality, her mom faults Audrey for making the neighbors dislike her. She ”had given [Audrey] an exasperated shake and asked what it was that [she]’d done to make the neighbors not like [her].” Somehow her mom is never on her side, and Audrey never feels as though she is doing enough, or is enough to meet her mother’s exacting standards.

Wanting social relationships to operate in a way that fits neatly into 22-minute episodes is a pretty common experience for kids. But the contrast between TV fantasy and reality can be particularly sharp for kids with immigrant parents, who came all this way and sacrificed so much only for us to be embarrassed by them, to veer off course from their American Dream, to spend our lives puzzling over their unarticulated emotional lives. To move to a foreign country with limited funds and a tenuous grasp of the language and culture requires a special type of bravery, but living in said foreign country is more often defined by a special type of fear and sense of precarity. Audrey thinks to herself:

That was the hallmark of my childhood here, I realize, my parents’ fear. There was so much to be scared of: tornados and kissing diseases and carcinogens and loud music and pain pills and not going to the right college and gun owners and the huddle of teens at the mall food court who were some of the only Black people my parents had really seen in their life outside of the TV screen.

It’s both understandable and deeply, deeply frustrating to consider. Behind every critical comment is her mother’s well-intentioned fear of her child being unprepared, of making a hugely consequential mistake.

How can Ben even begin to understand any of this when Audrey is just beginning to? How can Ben even begin to understand any of this when he isn’t even trying to? He’s the white boyfriend to the Chinese American girlfriend, an increasingly visible trope with numerous variants and centuries of baggage, and he says, “Come on, I never bring your race up. Ever,” in an argument.

What propels Central Places forward is the fact that Audrey is self-aware but not quite self-aware enough, as she becomes entangled in a series of interpersonal conflicts she can almost see coming but is never able to defuse while they’re happening. It’s deeply relatable—knowing better doesn’t always mean you’re immediately able to do better. Mid-argument with Ben, she thinks, “I know if I could step back for a moment, I’d see how I’m fighting with him exactly the same way that my mother fought with me and with my dad: by shutting myself down and then feeling for all the soft parts of his psyche and sharpening my knives.”

It is both delightful and stressful to watch Audrey outgrow the stories she’s been telling herself about her family, her relationship, her estranged childhood best friend, her unrequited crush. The first person narration keeps the reader close to Audrey’s interpretation of Hickory Grove. But as old resentments get dredged up and surprise run-ins occur, both Audrey and the audience see how she has sometimes flattened the people she loves in her imagination. Her kindhearted but passive father clandestinely checks her Instagram posts and tries to recreate a fancy roast chicken she posted once; her mother has been diligently volunteering at the church not just for herself but in the hopes of securing it as Audrey’s wedding venue. Audrey loves that Ben is decisive, but she’s starting to see that his certainty doesn’t always leave room for her to be an equal partner in the plan. Kristen, her former best friend, is the only one who successfully tells Audrey outright that she needs to stop acting like everything is happening to her. Audrey can’t keep treating Kyle as a symbol of her senior year of high school if she wants to have an actual friendship with him now. An early Goodreads review of this book compared it to the song “‘tis the damn season” by Taylor Swift. I would add “You’re On Your Own, Kid” and “Anti-Hero” to the mix as well.

By the end of the trip, Audrey has seriously reevaluated what growing up in Central Illinois means. She can no longer maintain an impenetrable wall between Hickory Grove Audrey and New York Audrey, nor does she want to.

Delia Cai’s writing is vulnerable, sharply observant, and compelling. Part of me wishes there was a lengthier or more thorough resolution between many of the characters, but I also think that Central Places is pragmatic the way it is. Letting your neuroses get the best of you and trying to nail down an ironclad understanding of everything is both futile and ultimately unhelpful. Sometimes the repair or readjustment of a relationship is mostly about moving forward, together, as Audrey and her parents and her friends do. You find a way to belong, Midwestern Asian or otherwise, not necessarily by escaping and finding a new place or assiduously defining yourself into belonging, but by generously accepting others and allowing them to do the same for you.





Anson Tong (she/her) is a freelance writer based in Chicago. Her work has appeared in the Chicago Reader and Peste Magazine. She writes the newsletter Third Thing, which has no theme and more than three things. You can find her on Twitter @ansonjtong. More from this author →