The Strength of Water

My debut book, The Strength of Water: An Asian American Coming of Age Memoir, is due out 2022, from Balestier Press. Stay tuned!


Water is fluid, soft, yielding. But water will wear away rock…what is soft is strong.

Lao Tzu

In 1920s Detroit, King Ying stands on a box to iron clothes in her parent’s laundry business and endures taunts of Ching-Ching Chinaman on the playground. She dreams of a home and the elegance of her Jane Arden paper dolls. But when her father incurs steep debts during the Great Depression, he sends her far from hope to live in his ancestral village.

In remote Tai Ting Pong in the Guangdong province of China, King Ying feels as foreign in the land of her heritage as she did in the country of her birth. There, she must survive hunger, deadly superstition, and Japanese invasion. When a guardian angel helps her return to California, it’s a chance to seize her American dream … if she can overcome mid-20th century racism, those who prey on the economically vulnerable, and her family’s toxic expectations about marriage.

In this debut memoir, Karin K. Jensen records her mother’s transpacific quest for identity, survival, and new world dreams. The Strength of Water is a work of Asian American history told through one family’s experiences.


The Strength of Water is an Asian American memoir spanning nearly a century that touches on themes of identity, racism, and stereotypes while offering exquisite period details of immigrant life in the U.S. and third-world conditions in China. It is a story of dual identity and life on the margins, revealing the humanity behind the stereotypes of Chinese American laborers, how they lived, and what they felt.

First-generation memoirs starting in the 1920s are hard to find as there are not many still living who recall it and who had the education and opportunity to publish such accounts. King Ying is an everyday heroine who is at once relatable in her working-class struggles and extraordinary in her unique background of starting life poor in the U.S. and returning to the greater deprivation and horror of 1930s rural China on the eve of war. There she overcame unimaginable difficulties to survive and return to the U.S.

We also see a fascinating portrait of life as a Chinese American woman in the 1940s and ‘50s in the San Francisco Bay Area, not only through King Ying’s experiences as a waitress but also through her and her sisters’ experiences as live-in domestic workers. Finally, we see the unique challenges of an interracial relationship when such marriages were still illegal in much of the U.S.


From the Author

Throughout my childhood, my mother told stories of growing up in her father’s Detroit laundry business during the infancy of the automobile industry and later in a Cantonese village on the eve of the Sino-Japanese war. She also spoke of what it was like to survive on her own as a teen waitress in mid-century California.

These stories felt like a mythology, so far removed from my experience as a middle-class girl growing up in the Bay Area. However, in later years, the stories became a guiding star for surviving difficulties, feeling compassion, and holding onto dreams. They are a tremendous gift to me and I hope to others. When I decided to set them down, I could hear my mother’s voice so clearly that I wrote in the first person.