“Nights When Nothing Happened” immortalizes the story of an immigrant family

Nights When Nothing Happened is a heart-complex, sorrowful, and beautiful novel.

Udita Jonnala

“Nights When Nothing Happened” is a heart-complex, sorrowful, and beautiful novel.

In his heart-wrenching debut novel, “Nights When Nothing Happened,” author Simon Han illustrates the convoluted and intricate dynamics of a Chinese immigrant family in Plano, Texas. Han explores the pervasiveness of fear and anxiety in the immigrant experience and the sense of distance from their parents that children of immigrants often experience and the inability to understand their relationships that immigrant families are often plagued with. 

The novel circles around Patty Cheng and her husband, Liang. They immigrated to the United States in the 1990s, in search of a more financially secure future, and eventually raised their two children, Jack and Annabel in Plano, Texas. They moved to the United States for the ability to provide their children with the education and life they deserve, which to them, is all the American Dream is about. And they do, by all measures they strived towards, acquire the American Dream. However, it does nothing to erase the trauma and hurt that exists under the bright and happy surface of their family. 

It’s a world of tight-lipped smiles, whispers, and second glances that breed a different, more central anxiety, in the lives of immigrants, one that never truly goes away. 

Patty and Liang have a struggling marriage and find themselves failing to understand the other’s perspectives. Jack finds himself as a distanced piece of the family, too quiet, too perfect, almost a spectator to the dynamics of his own family, but never quite a member of it. And Annabel as a wedge in the middle of her parents, never quite allowing them to focus on their own relationship because of her neediness and attachment to her father. Further enabled by her parents partially as an avoidance tactic to avoid facing the difficulties in their marriage. 

Liang continues to suffer from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, a residual of his abusive father in China, which drives a wedge into his and Patty’s marriage due to his inability to talk about it. Patty begins to resent Liang for their unhappy marriage, coming to terms with the idea they should’ve never married, however continuing to endure their marriage for the sake of her family. Jack, who is dealing with the jealousy and resentfulness he holds towards his sister Annabel, who he believes is sleepwalking for attention, continues to feel distanced from his family. Annabel, who Patty believes is being bullied at school, but a closer look towards the situation reveals a more complex truth, Annabel who’s the perceived victim, may not be so innocent after all. 

On Han’s behalf, the novel itself is an ironic take on the American Dream. A family, in the epicenter of the suburban-American lifestyle, a consumer’s paradise, the land of opportunity, finds themselves more miserable than ever. Longing and often reminiscing of their time back in China, where to them, things almost seemed simpler, but at the same time, a place they needed to escape from. 

Many view the Immigrant Experience as more of an aggressive experience: name-calling, systemic racism, discrimination, taunting, etc. And it is, but, “Nights Where Nothing Happened” pulls front-and-center a new and more subtle kind of sadness and anxiety immigrants feel, navigating a world that doesn’t want them, but one that is too safe to have them experience it outright. It’s a world of tight-lipped smiles, whispers, and second glances that breed a different, more central anxiety, in the lives of immigrants, one that never truly goes away. 

And alongside that anxiety, a more pervasive and horrifying idea of not only existing in a world that doesn’t want you, but existing in a family that doesn’t understand each other. A world without a support system, scarier than any other experience the Cheng’s have endured.

Han’s elaborate cadence and rhythmic writing, alongside gut-wrenching dialogues, serves up the beautiful but disheartening story of a broken family, in “Nights When Nothing Happened”.