Joan Is Okay (pub. January 18, 2022) by Weike Wang, follows NYC resident, attending intensive care doctor Joan through the aftermath of the death of her father in China, and the weekend she took away from work to attend his funeral. It follows her through a forced bereavement leave, through the start of the coronavirus situation that begins in Wuhan, China.
Content warning: There are many descriptions of characters’ heights and weights–Joan recites them each time she describes a new person that’s not in her family. The book begins with Joan thinking about “how much space a person takes up and how much use that person provides.” She describes herself as just under five feet tall and just under a hundred pounds, and seems taken aback when a patient “in a backless gown and nonslip tube socks”, “five six and 290 pounds” was wary of her because she looks like a mouse. There are no explicit judgments made of people based on their height and weight, but the implication from the start of the book was that how could a patient of such size be afraid of her, being so small in comparison to him? So I was very apprehensive that the book would be full of anti-fat bias. I was pleasantly surprised that the first page was probably the worst of it. There was one place where she described China after she returned, that both the people and the buildings were “taller and fatter” and that “obesity would soon be a problem, since food was ubiquitous.” But that’s the extent of anti-fat bias that I read. Mostly there is no mention of fatness.
There is the implication that Joan is on the autism spectrum, but her differences could also be cultural, as she was raised in the U.S. by immigrant parents from China who went back to China after she turned 18 and went off to college. In a flashback, she remembers that school counselors had wanted her to be tested because she “has trouble connecting with peers, is rigid, inflexible, things have to be done a certain way according to Joan” but because of the language barrier with her parents, that never happened, and once she got to medical school, she never had time for counseling. She hates the term “different.”
She has a complicated relationship with the rest of her family–her mother, who comes to visit and stays with her brother in Connecticut after the funeral–and her brother and his family, who constantly put pressure on her to start a family of her own. But Joan has never had a boyfriend or any sort of romantic relationship. To her, work is everything. She enjoys being a cog in the wheel of the hospital, so being forced to take bereavement leave has her at a loss. And her brother is a very successful businessman, so his advice to her about her career in a teaching hospital often doesn’t make sense.
It’s something of a “slice of life” book without an action-defined plot, but I enjoyed it nonetheless. Joan does grow through the book, though, realizing by the end that “wasn’t I at least a person of two languages and two cultures?” and standing up for herself more. She and her brother learn how they can communicate better, especially when their mother is stuck in the U.S. because flights to China are canceled for months.
Sometimes the author will explain a Chinese character–the pieces that make it up and thus, the many-layered meaning of the character, which I loved. Overall, I would recommend reading it to learn the perspective of a Chinese-American intensive care doctor in New York and her extended family at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, with the caveat that there is some anti-fat bias at the beginning and many mentions of height and weight..