[Photo: A stack of books, from top to bottom: The Flower Drum Song by C.Y. Lee, Fifth Chinese Daughter by Jade Snow Wong, Eat a Bowl of Tea by Louis Chu, Polite Lies by Kyoko Mori, The Accidental Asian by Eric Liu, The Necessary Hunger by Nina Revoyr]
When did you first see yourself in a book?
Ever since diversity and inclusion became a major part of the book world discourse, I’ve been asked this question over and over. I’m often tempted to say Little Women or Anne of Green Gables, but I know that I’m expected to respond with a book about a character that shares my race or sexual orientation.
That’s a hard question for me to answer, because I’ve never read a book that features an Asian American lesbian who feels just like me. There have been similarities, but never a character I identify with entirely. Sometimes I wonder what that would be like. Would it be rewarding? Transformative? Many readers say that’s what it’s like, and I have no reason to doubt them.
And yet I wonder if I would feel that way. I suspect it would feel surreal to see myself reflected directly on the page, like looking in a fun-house mirror. I suspect I would feel uncomfortable.
Contemplating this might feel weirder for me than for a reader who is not a writer, because I spend so much time creating characters who are like me—but not exactly. Every main character I’ve written has been me, except with key differences. I view my characters not as mirrors of myself, but as variations.
I see myself in all my books, but not exactly.
The first time I deliberately read a book about Asian Americans was in high school, when my well-intentioned English teacher suggested I read The Woman Warrior by Maxine Hong Kingston. It didn’t go well, and I’ve written about it before.
To be fair, I was a science fiction and fantasy fan in my adolescence, and any literary or realistic novels were hard sells for me. I resisted pretty much every part of Amy Tan’s Joy Luck Club. I turned the pages thinking no, no, no. Not because the book was inaccurate, but because the story did not fit my family’s story, and yet it was presented almost universally as the One True Asian American Story. Spoiler alert: There isn’t one.
If only Chimamanda Adiche’s TED talk on “The Danger of a Single Story” had existed in 1990.
Nonfiction was a different matter, and in my twenties I started to seek out essays and memoirs about the Asian American experience in an effort to solve the mystery of where I fit in. One stuck with me more than the others: M. Elaine Mar’s Paper Daughter (1999). This is a memoir about immigrating to and growing up in Colorado, the same state I immigrated to and grew up in. The setting is probably why I remember it, and I still own this book. I’ve shipped it across the continent multiple times as I moved from Massachusetts to California and back again.
When I picked it up the other day, I remembered the feeling of reading it: my stomach knotted with tension, poised on the edge of mortification for the author because she wrote with such unflinching honesty. I remember being turned off by the way she described sex with a boy she liked. I found it difficult to read about her family and their sacrifices. They weren’t exactly like my family, but I knew the place names, and that made it feel closer to home: uncomfortable and ill-fitting. Is that what it’s like to identify with something?
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One of my favorite movies as a kid was The Goonies, which came out in 1985. If you watch it now, the ableism and fat-shaming is horrifying, as is the easy acceptance of toxic masculinity. But what about racism, you might ask. Doesn’t The Goonies also include an Asian American kid who is ridiculed for his thick accent?
Yes and no. If you’re not familiar with the movie, it’s about a group of kids who go on a search for pirate treasure in their home town of Astoria, Oregon. Among that group of kids is Richard “Data” Wong, a brainiac James Bond fan who designs all sorts of ridiculous contraptions like the Slick Shoes, which squirt out oil to foil followers. Data is a stereotypical Asian nerd on one level, but on another level he’s a delightful counter-stereotype, and actor Jonathan Ke Quan played him with wonderful, wide-eyed enthusiasm. Data loves his contraptions, and he loves his friends. Thankfully, his friends love him back. He’s one of them.
As a kid, the one thing I wanted more than anything was to be accepted by a group of friends. That’s one reason I loved The Goonies so much. Data’s friends accept him. He doesn’t have to explain his identity to them.
When I was researching Last Night at the Telegraph Club (coming in January 2021!), which is set in 1950s San Francisco, I read a number of early Asian American books as research. Two were especially interesting to me: Jade Snow Wong’s Fifth Chinese Daughter (1950) and The Flower Drum Song by C. Y. Lee (1957). Both books are set in the San Francisco Bay Area, and both were huge bestsellers when they were first published.
Fifth Chinese Daughter is a memoir written like a novel, in a third-person voice. It tells the story of Wong’s childhood in Chinatown and her education at Mills College in Oakland. Eventually, Wong becomes a ceramicist and opens a successful pottery store in Chinatown. Her tone throughout is moralistic, but it’s also engaging as she writes about finding her way between her family’s traditional expectations and America’s ambitious individualism.
The Flower Drum Song, which was adapted into the 1958 Rodgers and Hammerstein Broadway musical, as well as a 1961 movie, surprised me with its breezy, gossipy tone. It’s not at all like the movie, which flattens much of the story and delivers, instead, a heavy dose of stereotype. The novel is about a young Chinese American man who is finding his way between his father’s traditional expectations and America’s ambitious individualism. Sound familiar?
This is the story that so many books about Chinese American identity tell. There are variations on the theme, but the theme just won’t die. It could be viewed as a stereotype in itself, but it’s also the path that coming of age in America takes, regardless of race. Breaking free from parental expectations and discovering who you are is the core story of growing up.
What happens when cultural expectations continue to limit identity past adolescence? As an Asian American, I know that I’m expected to be hard-working, over-achieving, and self-effacing—at best. At worst, I’m expected to be a foreigner, one who deserves to be excluded, interned, deported, and blamed by our elected leaders.
These expectations deny the humanity of Asian Americans, and our right to forge individual identities free from these stereotypes.
When I visit my parents, sometimes I feel as if I’m regressing back to my adolescence, which is the last time I lived with them. I think many people have experienced this kind of regression, and not only with parents. When you reconnect with people who knew you at an earlier stage in your life, sometimes they can’t see you for who you’ve become. It’s a natural human mistake, and it takes awareness to step into the present.
Expectations about Asian Americans are like this regression. How exhausting it is to be reminded, over and over, that others can’t or won’t see you for who you are.
When did I first see myself in a book? I saw parts of myself in many books, from Little Women to The Flower Drum Song. I wrote parts of myself into all of my novels, and I probably always will.
But more importantly, I’ve come to realize that I don’t need to see myself in a book. I need to see myself in the world.
I need to become comfortable with claiming a space for myself in a world that includes people like me and people unlike me. I need to teach myself how to not regress into other people’s expectations. I need to believe that I belong here, in reality, and that I don’t need to explain my identity to anyone.
Books and movies have shown me that these things are possible. Rather than asking when you first saw yourself in a book, perhaps a better question is: What book showed you a possibility for who you could be?
The trick is realizing that we can always see new possibilities. There is no end until the end.
My Writing Diary
I’ve begun The Revision, as I call it. This is how: I’ve printed out the entire manuscript. I’ve flagged every chapter with a post-it, and I’ve flagged key scenes with a different color post-it. I’ve begun going through the paper manuscript and marking it up with a green pen. I draw squiggly lines in the margins to indicate something has to change. I circle things; I cross out other things. I write notes to myself at the top of chapters; some are instructions, some are questions. I can see how this whole manuscript is going to shapeshift now. It’s not going to become something entirely different; it’s going to become more of what I’ve dreamed it can be.