Study Guide

A Memoir of Misfortune

by Su Xiaokang

A Memoir of Misfortune Summary

Summary (Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

A Memoir of Misfortune is an emotional, extremely personal rumination on fate, family, and the meaning of life. When a tragic automobile accident severely injures his wife, Su Xiaokang is forced to reevaluate his existence, both past and present, and face some difficult truths about himself. This story of what can happen to a family when life is transformed in the blink of an eye will resonate with any reader who realizes that no one is immune from such an instantaneous change in their lives. As Su explains, “So far the world had treated me well. I did not understand why suddenly, on a quiet highway near Niagara Falls, it changed face without warning.” The accident reveals the depth of Su’s devotion to his wife, his guilt and anguish over her condition, and his discovery of what is truly important to him.

Up to now, the ends I had relentlessly pursued had been grandiose indeed—the study of the decline of civilizations and the rise and fall of nation-states, for one; and on a lesser scale, “enlightenment” and rousing the masses or creating shock effects for fame and achievement. These goals had pushed me on and on, right up to getting myself driven out of my country. Only then did it dawn on me that all those strivings were nothing more than chasing after will-o’-the-wisps.

Chinese journalist Su Xiaokang achieved prominence in his native country in 1988 by coauthoring the six-part television series River Elegy. This controversial documentary angered the People’s Republic of China’s totalitarian government and fueled the widespread debate which helped precipitate the Tianamen Square demonstrations and subsequent massacre of student dissidents by government soldiers on June 4, 1989. Persuaded by the student dissidents to speak at Tianamen Square (against his wife’s wishes), Su was named the fifth most wanted man in China and was forced to flee the country, leaving his wife and son behind. After spending some time in exile in Paris, Su settled in Princeton, New Jersey, along with a small colony of other exiled Chinese. Although separated from his family, Su enjoyed his minor celebrity as a Chinese dissident, and he and his fellow survivors of Tianamen Square were much sought after for interviews and lectures. These exiles created a Chinatown within Princeton, creating lives as much as possible like those they had left behind.

As the family of one of the most wanted men in China, Su’s wife, Fu Li, and son, Su Dan, were not allowed to leave the country. Forbidden to continue pursuing her medical degree, Fu Li was branded a danger to national security and harassed by government authorities. Finally, after a two-year struggle, Fu and her son were given permission to emigrate to the United States. Abandoning both the home she had worked hard to establish and her family, Fu Li was reunited with Su in Princeton, and began a very difficult period of adjustment. Fu quickly realized that the language barrier also presented a barrier to her medical career, and she was forced to reduce her ambitions to the hope of passing the R.N. exam. Stripped of her lifelong aspiration, disapproving of her husband’s rootless and aimless existence in America, and distressed at her son’s difficulty in adjusting to his new culture, Fu’s life in America was painful and unrewarding.

On July 19, 1993, this family’s pattern of exile life changed forever. On a sightseeing trip to Niagara Falls, after a late night conversation with Chinese students in Buffalo, New York, Su turned over the wheel of his 1993 Dodge rental car to a traveling companion in order to get some sleep in the back seat. Unbeknownst to him, the person to whom he entrusted his family’s safety had never before driven on a highway. Somewhere west of Buffalo on Route 90 the car flipped over. As Su recalls, “From that day onward, the world turned upside down and swallowed me up.” Su Dan escaped with minor injuries, Su Xiaokang was in a coma for a week but recovered quickly, and Fu Li suffered severe brain damage and paralysis. The lives of this small family, very far from home, were never to be the same. Su writes that “[i]t was as if the first half...

(The entire section is 1697 words.)