Aliens in America by Sandra Tsing Loh

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Delivered in three outrageously funny monologues, Sandra Tsing Loh’s “Aliens in America” makes the alien feel familiar. Image courtesy: Amazon

One audio story told in three monologues, Sandra Tsing Loh’s “Aliens in America” pulls into focus a childhood with her Chinese father and German mother in Southern California.

“I guess a man looks better in a Buick than he ought,” Loh recalls of the fateful day when her parents first met. “Especially when it’s surrounded by Southern California in the ’50s, a palm-fringed, swimming pool-dotted utopia lit by a sun so bright you actually start to hallucinate.”

Thus starts a relationship between a German woman who survived WWII bombings and a Chinese man who’d been orphaned in Shanghai. Having survived tough circumstances and given them up for cheerier ones in the U.S. is where their similarities end. Their odd union eventually leads to two daughters, including Loh and her sister Kaitlin, and innumerable family clashes.

In an hour and 15 minutes, we hear Loh oscillate between a dramatic telling of her retired father’s decision to take a younger Chinese wife after her mother’s death (complete with gongs ringing out as punctuation), sing-song lilt as she recounts a family vacation (why spend money going to Hawaii when you can have free lodging in Ethiopia?), and the high-pitched squeal of a teenager totally in like with her drummer boyfriend (though the saxophonist seems super cool too).

Through Loh’s encounters, the listener begins to recognize that the alien in our midst isn’t always who you expect it to be. In fact, it’s conditional.

Sure, her dad’s decisions might come off as a bit eccentric when he goes through a Chinese wife or two before he finds The One. But in a line-up of locals in the Eritrean desert, he practically blends in.

Same goes for her mom. It might seem weird that she’ll only agree to allow her daughter to date if she wears her heinous musk perfume (either a clever ploy to entice the opposite sex or keep them at bay), but given her penchant for optimism, she finds a way to make herself feel at home just about anywhere.

Sometimes the real oddball in the bunch is Loh herself, the normal girl in the middle of it all.

Occasionally the way Loh tells the story feels larger than life, a little bit too melodramatic to be real. Her voice swoops and grates, following the rise and fall of the arcs in her short stories. (And there’s that gong again!)

Still, she could just as well be your comically animated friend telling you a couple anecdotes over beers in the living room. In that way, Loh makes the alien feel warmly familiar.

Sara Hayden

P.S. After listening to the audio version on Hoopla I went back and read Loh’s “My Ethiopian Vacation” essay on Mother Jones. It’s a great read as  a short story too!

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