The Mixtapes of Hua Hsu

The Gift of a Mixtape

Hua Hsu’s memoir of music and friendship.


What do we owe our friends? Among other things, we owe our friends our discerning taste and sometimes, at the very least, a good mixtape—meticulously curated, every track selected with intention. Mixtapes have a theme, a mood, a message. They are given to friends for a birthday or a bad week. We anticipate what a friend might like, what might surprise them, what they might listen to when we’re not around, what might speak to their life separate from their relationship to us. Making a mixtape for a friend speaks to what we think we know about them and what we do not know—at least not yet.

In his memoir Stay True, Hua Hsu makes mixtapes for friends, a crush, a party, and people he meets on music listservs. Making mixtapes is one of the small gestures that constitute the debts of his relationships, which he details with the same soft focus and loving attention required for placing the right songs in just the right order. His mixtapes, he tells us, are a continuous and ongoing project, part of an asymmetrical, uneven exchange. You do not keep score of who does what for whom in a friendship; you lose track of the debts accrued, and that is both the means and the end of such an intimate bond. As friends, you remain indebted to each other; the balances don’t matter.

Except that Hsu cannot help but keep track of his debts to Ken, his friend from college. This is, in part, because in the summer before their senior year, Ken was killed in a carjacking. In his sudden absence, such debts—all the things that have been given and gained between them—are now freighted with the devastation and grief of loss. In the story of his friendship with Ken, Hsu asks us: How do we imagine ourselves in our friends’ likeness, even when they are no longer around? How can we tell a story about ourselves that must also preserve the memory of a friend? In staying true to ourselves, we must also stay true to our friends; one cannot be separated from the other.

Hsu and Ken became friends in their freshman year at UC Berkeley. “The first time I met Ken, I hated him,” Hsu admits. While Hsu was set on cultivating an understated, cool, unique persona with an alternative aesthetic sensibility, Ken was “mainstream,” handsome and confident; he loved high school and had been tapped by the “most diverse” fraternity at Berkeley. Hsu liked Pavement, and Ken, to Hsu’s bafflement, was an earnest fan of the Dave Matthews Band.

Ken, like Hsu, was Asian American, but this did not feel like something they had in common. Hsu was born in Urbana-Champaign, Ill., where his parents met after immigrating to the United States from Taiwan as part of the influx of students coming from Asia following the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965. Hsu’s family ended up in Cupertino, Calif., before his father moved back to Taiwan in the early 1990s for work. Ken grew up in a San Diego suburb, close to the beach, in “a typical, all-American family, bright and optimistic.” His family had been in the US for multiple generations; he had relatives who grew up in Japanese internment camps during World War II. “It’s one of those obscure parts of an already obscure identity,” Hsu explains. “We all look alike, until you realize we don’t, and then you begin feeling that nobody could possibly seem more different.” The presumption of sameness begets feelings of estrangement that one is left to navigate alone.

Hsu initially had no interest in getting to know Ken. But after a ritual of shared cigarette breaks on a dorm balcony, they became friends, “a mismatched pair moving through the world.” They had rigorous debates about the philosophy they read in their classes, logged on to conservative AOL chat rooms to pull pranks on unsuspecting users by touting socialism as the solution to all ills, and wrote a screenplay for a movie starring themselves and their friends.

Hsu and Ken also shared music. They took turns playing songs for each other, everything from Belle and Sebastian to Styx. When Hsu first came to college, he wanted to find people like himself, “variations on the theme of me.” But with Ken, Hsu realized that “all I wanted was friends to listen to music with. Someone curious enough to ask what something was and then reciprocate.” “Ken devoured the tapes I made him,” Hsu writes. “He left my tapes strewn about, on the floor of his car or in some dusty corner of the frat house, knowing there would be a new edition soon, requesting repeats of favorites.” Each new edition became a citation and reminder of previous conversations, of inside jokes that had long lost their origins yet stayed in rotation.

Stay True brims with Hsu’s ardent devotion to music. He lists the music exchanged with his father in Taiwan via fax machine (his father liked Guns N’ Roses but not the Red Hot Chili Peppers). He recalls what it felt like to hear Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” for the first time when he was 13 years old: “It was one of the greatest songs I had ever heard, mostly because it was the first great song I had chosen on my own.” He describes rolling up the car windows, mortified, whenever Ken played the Dave Matthews Band’s “Crash Into You,” and how, after Ken died, some songs became infused with new, richer meaning—songs like Bone Thugs-N-Harmony’s “Tha Crossroads,” which was played “at a meaningful volume” from a friend’s car after Ken’s funeral.

For Hsu, music organizes life. It fills out memories and lends them texture and traction. It gives a person something to hold on to. It summons you out of the present with a chord progression, harmony, or lyric, shuttling you between times and places, determining who and what you keep with you in the process.

In November of 1996, Hsu’s freshmen year, California was voting on Proposition 209, which would eliminate affirmative action policies from school admissions and government contracts. When Prop. 209 passed, Hsu marched in the streets. Afterward, he looked through Berkeley’s archives of movement papers and other ephemera from the 1960s, reading whatever books he could find on the Black Panthers in Berkeley and Oakland. The students and activists who had been a part of the anti-war and free speech movements, who had fought to establish ethnic studies and invented the term “Asian American,” were still around, Hsu realized. Some of them were his professors. The radicalism of his professors’ generation, and the promise of its resurgence with his own generation in 1996, left Hsu wanting to know: “What was it actually like back in the 1960s? Our proximity to this storied time somehow made it seem even more impossible.”

This impossibility became the impetus for Hsu to mine the present for a politics and sense of commitment indebted to the 1960s, but not wholly defined by its memory. Hsu knew that Ken felt the same way, even though he went about it differently. When Ken learned about the 1960s, he was inspired to start a club on campus called the Multicultural Student Alliance. Ken asked if Hsu wanted to join, but Hsu declined. “We should be fighting for something more radical than multiculturalist inclusion, I said. Why not devote ourselves to tearing the whole rotten system down?” Ken remained unfazed, but that did not protect him from the disappointments of other people’s cramped worldviews. Once, a casting agent for The Real World came to Ken’s fraternity looking for participants. When Ken asked her why the show had not cast an Asian American man, she told him they “don’t have the personalities for it.” Hsu reacted by making fun of the show. “We were too cool for that shit anyway,” he chides, and besides, he never expected to see himself in mainstream culture. “I had no problem toiling away in the margins, mapping out a smaller world inside the larger one,” he asserts. Ken, however, “wanted to see himself in the world. It was as though he were just now discovering that such a thing might not happen.”

Despite their different approaches and beliefs, Ken and Hsu grew closer. They did have something in common after all: They shared the desire to create a world in which they would belong, built on a culture of their own that need not be claimed as Asian American but would crucially derive from their experiences of exclusion that, in turn, fueled their search for new, odd bits of culture to dig up and give to each other. In guiding the reader through the music, films, and books he comes to like, Hsu explains that he does not want only to affirm what he already knows about himself, or what others think they know about him, as an Asian American or otherwise. Although Ken did not share Hsu’s outlook, Hsu writes without judgment of his friend’s efforts to be included, instead drawing out the ways that Ken, too, refused to settle for what he was offered.

One night, Ken showed Hsu the film The Last Dragon. Hsu had never seen anything like it. They stayed up until the morning, discussing the film’s exaggerated representation of Chinese stereotypes and its playful irreverence. “The absurdity of it all was intoxicating,” Hsu writes, “as was the sense that the film recognized something about being Asian American, even if that wasn’t its core intention.” The slant recognition in the excess of intention and stereotype, the slippery, almost accidental moments of identification that Hsu and Ken find in the film’s characters, allow them to sidestep the need to define what counts as true Asian American culture. Why must something be unambiguously authentic to many, if you have already made it your own in the night while everyone else was asleep? Perhaps you only need the consensus of one other person—a friend—to decide that something does belong to you and yours, and it need not speak to anything truer than that.

At some point, Hsu and Ken started jokingly signing off their letters to each other with the words “Stay true.” Although Hsu can no longer remember exactly when or why, the existence of this inaccessible memory, preserved in their correspondence, proves that what counts as true need not always be knowable to others or even to oneself with the passage of time.

Since high school, Hsu had been making zines, which offered him “a way of sketching the outlines of a new self, writing a new personality into being.” He kept working on zines in college, tucking copies into magazines and newspapers at bookstores, left for whoever might find them. For Hsu, his zines, like his mixtapes, were gifts. Marcel Mauss noted that gifts, intermittently given with the presumption of reciprocity, create a delay between giving and receiving. “That time lag is where a relationship emerges,” Hsu writes. Stay True lives in this time lag.

Like his zines, Hsu’s memoir tells a story of the self. A memoir promises to be singular, relayed through personal experience so that only the one who lived it can write it. But Stay True is made of more than just the self, and Hsu writes as if maybe, were Ken still here, Ken would already be privy to what Hsu has written. At the same time, Hsu does not write as if he and Ken knew everything about each other. Throughout the book, Hsu has bouts of hesitation and anxiety in which he wonders how much he really knew about Ken—and if his grief following Ken’s death was disproportionate to their friendship. When a friend asks, “Were you and Ken really that close?,” Hsu is taken aback. “I knew she was wrong—that our friendship was staged in private, on balconies, in cars, walking in search of pizza. But how could I ever be sure?” he writes. “What she said cast a pall over my memories, my ability to tell a story about myself.”

What Hsu remembers of Ken cannot be disentangled from what he thinks he knows about himself, and what before had been private is now given over to a reader with no guarantee that it will provide ample evidence of the intimacy shared. These doubts are not faults, and they are inevitable. Hsu loosens his hold on his narrative with sentences that drift between memories because he knows he can never be sure. This is the risk of friendship. We strive to know our friends, to get closer to them, and in doing so, we learn that there are parts of their life inaccessible to us and the stories we tell about them. Yet we try anyway, because we want to keep knowing our friends, and if our friends are no longer around, we want others to know what they are missing.

Hsu cites the philosopher Jacques Derrida’s The Politics of Friendship, a series of published seminar lectures. The lectures begin with a quotation attributed to Aristotle: “O my friends, there is no friend.” The saying, Derrida explains, is an address to friends that then undercuts the validity of such an address. It is an impossible appeal to another, but one we continue to make, with the hope that the other will someday soon, if not already, be a friend. Hsu offers his own reading on this:

The intimacy of friendship…lies in the sensation of recognizing oneself in the eyes of another. We continue to know our friend, even after they are no longer present to look back at us. From that very first encounter, we are always preparing for the eventuality that we might outlive them, or they us. We are already imagining how we may someday remember them or pay them tribute. This isn’t meant to be sad. To love friendship, [Derrida] writes, “one must love the future.”

What is it like to be recognized and loved by a friend, especially after they are gone? In the same way that one can never be sure of the future, one can never be sure of who will one day no longer be around, and dearly missed. A friend’s recognition, and what they give you, can then be grasped only after the fact, upon reflection and in their absence.

A particular memory appears more than once in Stay True. One night, Hsu, Ken, and some friends piled into Hsu’s car to drive to a doughnut shop. While the Beach Boys’ “God Only Knows” played in the car, Ken orchestrated a sing-along, something Hsu always hated. “But then it became a noise that felt safe, possibly better than the original,” he continues:

In the immediacy of the song, as its seconds tick away, you’re experiencing it as a community—as a vision of the world vibrating together. It tickles your ear, then the rest of your body, as your voice merges with everyone else’s. The violent dissonance when someone, and then another, slips off-key, and everyone ventures off toward their own ba-ba-baa solo. I finally felt in my body how music worked. A chorus of nonbelievers, channeling God. A harmonic coming together capable of overtaking lyrics about drift and catastrophe, a song as proof that people can work together.

The chaos of everyone’s company, each person with a clashing solo, supersedes the song’s perfectionist production and lyrics fathoming loss for a lighter, messier, immediate worldview. Everyone’s separate way of singing wrong resonates right. It is initiated by Hsu, who chose the song, and conducted by Ken, who brings it to life. The annoyance of friends impinging on you turns into the comfort of their noisy presence. “I’d heard these songs hundreds of times before,” Hsu says. “But to listen to them with other people: it was what I’d been waiting for.” Finally, in this moment, Hsu encounters what he is owed and what he knows he will readily give again.

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