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 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.
Some stories cry out to be told. Karin Jensen’s debut memoir, The Strength of Water, is such a story. This book is a must-read for anyone interested in the sociology of early twentieth-century China or the experience of Chinese immigrants. Ms. Jensen tells her mother’s story with clarity, wit, and a deft touch for the unvarnished truth.Tani Hanes, author of Obachan: A Young Girl’s Struggle for Freedom in 20th-Century Japan
From the Author
The Strength of Water is my mother’s memoir, as told to me, starting in the 1920s and spanning nearly a century, offering exquisite period details of immigrant life in the U.S. and village life in China. It is a story of dual identity, life on the margins, survival, and new-world dreams.
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 as a live-in domestic worker and teen waitress in mid-century California.
There were stories of gamblers, an American dream, dashed hopes, dangerous superstitions, war-time privations, folklore, those who take advantage of the economically vulnerable, racism in housing, and toxic expectations relating to sexuality and marriage.
One woman’s epic odyssey, one family’s story of striving in a foreign country, one generation’s unique memory. An amazing memoir where the “strength of water,” the power of resilience and adapting to any circumstance, is the common thread that flows throughout the whole family, connecting everyone’s lives. Touching, inspiring, and brilliantly written.Shen Yang, author of More Than One Child
There were also stories of persistence, resilience, the warmth and strength of family, the kindness of strangers, and fighting for one’s slice of happiness in this world.
These stories felt like mythology, far removed from my experiences growing up in the San Francisco Bay Area, yet vital to preserve as history. When I decided to set them down, I could hear my mother’s voice so clearly that I wrote in the first person.
The Strength of Water is a daughter’s careful excavation of her mother’s story; it is a mother’s disclosure of history, of trauma, of realities that mark not only her life but the legacy of her daughters’. This is a book written with tremendous love and authenticity. It is an important document of the Asian American experience.Kao Kalia Yang, award winning author of The Song Poet and The Latehomecomer
I hope you enjoy The Strength of Water as an engaging story of a plucky little girl born into humble circumstances who has big transpacific adventures and overcomes incredible odds to get her happy ending. I hope it inspires you to hold onto dreams and understand the power of small kindnesses. And I hope it inspires compassion for the immigrant experience and interest in Asian American history. Thank you for taking a look.
The Strength of Water is a heartening read about an immigrant daughter’s odyssey. Through her mother’s stories and family oral histories, Karin Jensen successfully provides us with a moving glimpse of Chinese American life in the last century, revealing the humanity of immigrant laborers, how they lived, and what they felt.Harvey Dong, Lecturer, Asian American & Asian Diaspora Studies, UC Berkeley