“Friends aren’t just those who confirm you and know you,” said author and professor Hua Hsu to a full house at Books, Inc. in Berkeley, California. “They’re also the people that complicate you.” Hsu echoed this insight in his beautiful, tragic, heart-wrenching, and witty memoir, Stay True, labeled one of “The 10 Best Books of 2022: in The New York Times.
When I first read Stay True, it startled me how Hsu and I had been so alike in undergrad. I too was a Californian-born Asian American who attended University of California, Berkeley and nursed a deep interest in the humanities, and I too masked my insecurities with a veneer of coolness and pseudo-intellect, passing judgment on other people’s tastes in books, movies, and music to protect my fragile ego. Reading his memoir felt like peering into the mind of every Asian American who stubbornly wandered off the traditional Asian immigrant pipeline to pursue the arts, so when I learned he was coming to the Bay Area to speak for his book tour, I knew I had to see him.
I tell myself I’ll take notes and get to the bookstore 20 minutes early to find a good seat. Yet Hsu has a disarming manner about him that doesn’t necessitate my studiousness: he spoke to the crowd as if he were speaking to a student during office hours, casually joking about whether the mic was working or not, or else firing off the occasional witty quip to loosen up the crowd. His conversation with Tommy Orange, acclaimed author of There, There, flowed so naturally that multiple times, I forgot my goal was to take notes. I was aware that this conversation in particular was significant. Berkeley is where Stay True takes place, where Hsu came of age and met Ken, his eventual best friend and a central character in Stay True, and where Ken was ultimately kidnapped and murdered.
They neatly filled two archetypes of the college student: that of the elitist, hyper self-aware, condescending hipster and the happy-go-lucky, golden retriever fraternity brother.
The memoir traces in detail their unlikely friendship from beginning to untimely end. Hsu writes that the first time he met Ken, he hated him. According to Hsu, Ken was boisterous and confident, while confident people “aroused suspicion” in Hsu. Ken would ask questions out of “earnest curiosity,” but Hsu asked questions that were “skeptical or coolly condescending.” During his talk in Berkeley, Hsu described Ken as a dreamer, while Hsu described himself as someone reluctant to admit he’d dream about anything whose failure could disappoint him. They neatly filled two archetypes of the college student: that of the elitist, hyper self-aware, condescending hipster and the happy-go-lucky, golden retriever fraternity brother.
With surgical precision, Hsu’s writing extracts the idiosyncrasies that tell us everything we need to know about a person—or more importantly, what it’d be like to experience college with them. Through Hsu’s anecdotes about helping Ken take revenge on a rival fraternity by breaking their windows or barreling down the freeway singing “God Only Knows” as off-key as possible, Stay True reads less like a sequence of events and more as a deeply researched character study and how, in the right circumstances, characters find they have more similarities than they realize.
For Hsu and Ken, the right circumstance was their ritual smoke breaks on their balconies. These smoke breaks became a nonchalant method of checking-in with each other at parties or study sessions. Slowly and unexpectedly, they grew closer. In Stay True, Hsu cites the philosopher Jacques Derrida on friendship: “the intimacy of friendship…lies in the sensation of recognizing oneself in the other. We continue to know our friend even after they are no longer present to look back.” It was these late-night smoke breaks on the balcony that allowed Hsu to recognize himself in Ken, not only feeling confirmed by Ken but being complicated by him in the best way possible.
It was these late-night smoke breaks on the balcony that allowed Hsu to recognize himself in Ken, not only feeling confirmed by Ken but being complicated by him in the best way possible.
Of the two, Hsu would be the one to continue knowing his friend. Ken died right before their senior year started. Hsu had left Ken mid-conversation after a mutual friend had interrupted that evening’s smoke break. On the way home from the party, Ken was kidnapped and murdered. Hsu never got the chance to finish his conversation with Ken, something that Hsu said haunted him for many years after.
In the aftermath of his death, Hsu began to journal his half of continued conversations, telling Ken about his relationship woes, about watching The Matrix, about how the San Diego Padres were doing. At his talk, Hsu told the audience that he never envisioned his memoir as something to be published. Instead, the contents of Stay True were scraps and fragments of letters written to the deceased Ken to continue the conversations they never finished and the ones they would never get to have.
It was something about the turn of phrase Hsu used about finishing conversations; halfway through the talk, it struck me that I also had a friend who passed away unexpectedly. And immediately afterwards, I had to ask myself: why did this not occur to me while reading the book? Why did it take this long to remember? If a little strange, the simplest way to put it is this: I don’t actually believe that my friend Prianka is dead. I don’t mean that in some bizarre denial of the objective truth. It is true he passed away. It is true he is not alive. But I have never allowed myself to know of it.
I don’t actually believe that my friend Prianka is dead...It is true he passed away. It is true he is not alive. But I have never allowed myself to know of it.
Everything I know about Prianka’s death is secondhand. I remember checking my phone in the parking lot right after therapy. I had several missed WeChat calls from an old coworker in Shanghai, where I’d met Prianka and had worked for a year before returning to Los Angeles. When I called my coworker back, he told me that Prianka had very suddenly passed away after a planned heart surgery. I knew Prianka had a heart condition; he often talked about how he wasn’t supposed to have lived for this long. It was the reason why he was so appreciative of every day. I dismissed his appreciation as kitschy Millennial mantra, judging him with the condescension of someone who’d never had a serious brush with mortality.
Learning about his death felt like learning a scientific fact that you know is objectively true, but can’t possibly fathom. It was like learning about the existence of atoms or the infinite vastness of space: something objectively, scientifically true, but requiring a good amount of persuasion to become human true. And I’ve never really arrived at the human truth of Prianka’s death.
I went about my day normally, partly in shock, partly in an attempt to return to normalcy. On the drive home from therapy, I went through the lifecycle of our friendship. Just like Ken was for Hsu, Prianka wasn’t somebody I thought I’d become close with. He was a pretty boy, meticulous with his appearance, a socialite prone to gossip. During our lunches, he would tell me his stories of clubbing in New York, or explain the racial dynamics of Grindr, or tell me who was dating whom and the latest tea on so-and-so, all with a devious, boyish smile. I remember him recounting the one time he attended an event at the Waldorf Astoria. I looked at him, confused, asking, “What’s the big deal about a hotel?” He gave me a look between incredulous and alarmed. “It’s the Waldorf Astoria! What do you mean?” (To tell you the truth, it’s still lost on me.)
During this time of my life, I was still concerned with portraying myself as coolly aloof, an intellectual who considered joyful and fun things like gossip and clubbing as shallow and thus beneath me. But Prianka’s friendly, accepting nature eventually won me over. That, and drinking. Copious, copious amounts of drinking. Every weekend was filled with late-night shenanigans at the downtown office working overtime and in the bars of Shanghai’s French Concession. Heavy drinking was almost always followed by karaoke, where one of our American expat friends would inevitably queue “Take Me Home, Country Roads” to temporarily dispel our occasional bouts of homesickness. After the drinking came to a stop, we’d share a taxi back to our neighborhood and furiously—gleefully—prattle on about the events of the night the whole ride home.
He’d send a message and I would respond a week later. I’d send a message and, because he was a better friend, he’d get back to me in a day or two.
I left Shanghai in 2018 and moved home to Los Angeles. He stayed in Shanghai and moved in with his boyfriend. The time zone difference gradually forced our interactions to become asynchronous, almost like exchanging handwritten letters. He’d send a message and I would respond a week later. I’d send a message and, because he was a better friend, he’d get back to me in a day or two. I thought back to our very last interaction: on Instagram, he’d direct-messaged me with questions about the Hong Kong democracy protests in 2019. He’d wanted to know my thoughts as someone with cultural and familial ties to the city and had asked about possible solutions to its thorny, seemingly unsolvable political issues. I’d read through his messages, determined that it would take too long to respond, and told myself I’d respond later, leaving him on read for several months. He passed away before I answered him.
There were no seven stages of grief. I don’t recall any sadness or anger. I only experienced a blunted shock. Perhaps it was because he’d passed away on an entirely different continent, or because the only interactions I’d had with him after moving home were completely through text. It was like he was simply too busy to respond at the moment. Prianka hadn’t occupied a physical, corporeal presence in my life for years, and for that, he was a little less real, a little less urgent. I don’t even know if his body was sent back to New York, where he’d grown up. I only knew that if I responded to his message now, nobody would be there to answer me.
I only knew that if I responded to his message now, nobody would be there to answer me.
During his talk in Berkeley, Hsu talked about how when a friend is alive, every conversation is an ongoing one. You simply pick up where you left off when you see them next. But when a friend passes away, you spend the rest of your life trying to complete these conversations. It was the basis of Hsu’s letters and journals to Ken and largely the basis of Stay True. Although this memoir was now published, Hsu told the audience that writing to Ken is something he still does.
Likewise, even though I knew Prianka had passed, I often find myself imagining what he’d say if I were to tell him about my life. This act of remembrance is never intentional; I might be driving to work when Prianka suddenly materializes in my head. I imagine him sitting next to me in the passenger seat, his boyish face lighting up as I tell him about the relationships I’ve been in since we last saw each other, or else nodding solemnly along to the drama in my life, pensively offering me advice. I can hear how he’d react to my now-obscenely long hair, so different from the neat fade I sported back in Shanghai. I can hear the shock in his voice upon learning that I was now a high school teacher.
I am not as brave as Hsu. I’m scared to respond to Prianka’s messages because the subsequent silence will tell me the objective truth I’m afraid to know.
For me, the human truth is that Prianka is still alive. And perhaps that’s why I’ve never been sad about him. Because at any time, I can ask him a question and will hear the lilting cadence of his voice or his child-like laugh. You can call it delusion if you’d like. I am not as brave as Hsu. I’m scared to respond to Prianka’s messages because the subsequent silence will tell me the objective truth I’m afraid to know.
I’ve never properly grieved for Prianka. But maybe that’s a good thing. It means I haven’t entombed him yet, and as long as I can converse with him, I keep him alive. Call it selfish, but I don’t want him to rest. Instead, I want him to sit with me, side by side in a taxi, deep into the Shanghai night, talking about nothing like good friends do.
Published on January 10, 2023
Words by Kelvin Mak
K.K. Mai is a writer and high school English teacher residing in California's Bay Area. When he's not furiously planning for the next day's lessons, he often finds himself stuck in Wikipedia rabbit holes, wandering around his neighborhood at night, and neurotically cycling through his memories before he sleeps. Sometimes he writes, too. Follow him on Substack or on Twitter at @radishgalaxy.