Loh and Behold
Humorist Sandra Tsing Loh knows all about unfulfilled dreams. And in her books, radio essays and stage shows, she uses tales from her life to become our laugh-out-loud poet of self-doubt and embarrassment.
Picture it: You're stuck in gridlock on a freeway in Los Angeles when suddenly you notice, a few cars ahead, a young woman standing on the back of a flat-bed truck. She calmly bows to the expanse of cars before her, then sits in front of a strapped-down piano and begins playing a concerto for rush-hour commuters. An original composition.
Or, you're walking down a Malibu beach at midnight, perhaps with a special someone and seeking a little privacy, and you come upon an orchestra -- a full orchestra! -- led by that same charcoal-haired woman. Squishing sand between their toes, the musicians are facing the ocean and lost in a rousing concert for spawning grunion. Another original composition.
There is, of course, an explanation for all this.
Sandra Tsing Loh, the woman at the piano in both cases, cares about her fellow commuters -- and about the propagation of grunion. There's also the fact that she's desperate for attention.
"With the freeway concert," Loh says, laughing, "I figured, commuters are buckled into their seats, they're facing one way -- they're the ultimate captive audience."
To be fair, Loh staged these self-titled "piano spectacles" when she was in her 20s and trying to make a name for herself as a performance artist/musician/playwright/mass-media curio. Today, she'll tell you -- albeit in an increasingly loud and panicked voice -- she's older. Nearly 40, in fact. So a certain maturity has set in.
Besides, she's kind of famous now -- without the wacky piano stunts. The LA native in recent years has become a bestselling humor writer, producing books -- including the just-released “A Year in Van Nuys” -- that chronicle her own messy life in slightly fictionalized form. Her growing success as an author has also led to a variety of other endeavors, including regular commentaries on public radio and back-to-back triumphs off-Broadway with one-woman shows -- all, again, about her own life.
She's even kept up with her music, composing and performing on the soundtrack of the Oscar-winning documentary “Breathing Lessons.”
And yet ... she isn't happy.
One reason for this: She's still not recognized-in-the-street famous, not movie-star famous. Another reason is more to the point: That's her shtick.
Sandra Tsing Loh has established an unusual niche for herself: She is our collective id of self-doubt and embarrassment. Always deeply personal, with her whole family thrown right in there, she culls her anxieties and failures for public consumption, making herself over into a hilarious, if sometimes pathetic, Everywoman.
Her oeuvre is kind of like a literary “The Truman Show.” Readers follow Sandra, book to book, from pressure-cooker childhood of ballet lessons and quirky parents (“Aliens in America”) through her temp-job-dominated, emotional-roller-coaster 20s (“Depth Takes a Holiday”) to her sitcom-pitching, career-frustrated 30s (“A Year in Van Nuys”).
Dedicated fans don't just get laughs along the way, they feel they know her, and they root for her like they would their own daughter -- or favorite soap-opera character. Dear, sweet Sandra, they gossip to one another, sighing at her latest misadventure. I'm so glad she finally found a nice man to marry -- though of course first she had to date that welterweight boxer who bagged groceries at the liquor store and the Mormon who burst into tears every time he saw her bra strap.
Not that a six-year-strong marriage to a great guy in real life (Mike Miller, a studio musician), a beautiful 9-month-old baby and career success have eradicated her problems. Indeed, she's almost 40 now and has ... eye bags.
"I have some photos that'll make you go, 'Whoa, o-kay! You look like Lincoln!' " she exclaims. "It's really not easy to take first thing in the morning."
OK, here's the thing: Loh does not look like Lincoln, either Abraham or Town Car. As a matter of fact, she's quite attractive -- which a cynical observer might suspect she plays down for her book-jacket photos because, if the truth ever got out, there goes her career.
After all, Loh, for an LA girl, strikes a remarkably un-Hollywood pose. Her charm is in her very ordinariness.
Loh first connected nationally with her brand of oddball everyday musings with 1996's bestselling “Depth Takes a Holiday: Essays From Lesser Los Angeles,” a brilliant collection of writings from her tenure at LA's now-defunct Buzz magazine.
The book's title might seem like an all-too-obvious slam at the shallowness of her fellow LA homies, but as Loh put it in the introduction, "Think of it more as Depth being tired of, well, of being so darn deep all the time. Depth yearns to don a jaunty Hawaiian shirt and have a hilarious outdoor adventure."
Amazingly, Loh delivered on this goofy premise, offering up breezy -- and painfully funny -- essays about bachelors over 30, living in the San Fernando Valley, even nude Vegas showgirls (on ice skates!).
The short-essay format showed Loh at her best, giving her just enough room to capture a queasy, instantly recognizable moment without bogging down in novelistic Sturm und Drang. It turned out to be a style perfect for public radio as well, and Loh soon found herself on “Marketplace” and the acclaimed “This American Life,” offering her take on everything from buying a sofa to Microsoft's plans for world domination. (In 1997, she proved she could hit the long ball, too, publishing her debut novel, “If You Lived Here, You'd Be Home By Now.”)
Suddenly, after years of struggling to make a living as a writer and performer, Loh had found her voice -- and an audience.
"She is unique and refreshing," says Yolette Garcia, assistant station manager at the Metroplex's KERA/90.1 FM, which carries Loh's commentaries on “Marketplace” every third Wednesday. "She is sardonic and clever, but she's also very frank, and that makes her immensely appealing. It's not just that she's funny, but there's great substance there, and people connect with that. She's very popular."
It wasn't supposed to turn out like this. Loh was going to be a scientist. Her father was a scientist, and Loh herself graduated from the estimable California Institute of Technology in 1983 with a bachelor's degree in physics. But in her senior year, it all began to go wrong.
"I took my [graduate entrance exams] and bombed so spectacularly," she says. "I was in, like, the seventh percentile. Something like 93 percent of the country did better than me in physics. I suddenly realized I was just flunking out, and I didn't know what to do."
So she decided to be practical and formulate a fall-back plan. Then she changed her mind and enrolled in a graduate program in English.
"I never had any clear idea what I was going to do next," she admits. "I kind of flopped from one thing to the next."
Her father, Eugene, was concerned at first when Loh abandoned her plan for a science career, but he now revels in her flowering as a writer. And why not? In a kooky, unexpected way, he's responsible for her talent bubbling to the surface.
Loh's breakthrough, her validation that there was a reason she was spending all those hours locked away in a tiny room typing, was a story she wrote about her father, a Chinese engineer who in the early '90s had been widowed for 10 years from Loh's German mother.
"I was writing fiction in third person, just regular fiction about people not at all like me," Loh says. "And then my father started marrying all these mail-order Chinese women sight unseen, and that was such a peculiar, unique and spectacular story in real life that it made all the stuff I was making up kind of pale by comparison."
Loh's telling of this story, “My Father's Chinese Wives,” won the Pushcart Pize for fiction in 1995 and later became part of her one-woman show and book, “Aliens in America.”
Since then, Loh's work -- which she says is "probably about 70 percent true" -- has been a family affair, with her got-it-all-together, sometimes bossy older sister joining Sandra and their father in a co-starring role.
"It's kind of weird sometimes," Loh admits of her quasi-memoir style, and it sometimes causes a bit of strain at family get-togethers.
"My father, at this point, is happy for any kind of attention, and he's always feeding me more stories," Loh says, laughing. "My older sister, Tatjana, whose name I've changed to Kaitlin in the books, she's gone through more of a struggle with it at various points -- though it's more of a good-humored struggle because, in ‘Aliens in America,’ people tend to like her character. But sometimes she feels frustrated that she doesn't have complete control over what her character does."
Still, Loh says she wouldn't do it any other way. She pauses, humming contemplatively to herself for a moment.
"I also have a middle brother," she adds. "He's a really great, pleasant, nice guy. He's just a sweetheart. In other words, just a terrible character for my writing, and I have no use for him."
– By Douglas Perry, published in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, 2002