Subverting the Chinese immigrant story
(From The Paris Review. Link to the complete article given below)
The first time my parents read my fiction, my mother had just one comment about the short story, which featured a server at a Chinatown restaurant: “Chinese can be more than waitresses.”
On a visit home, in my early thirties, I’d given them a copy of the literary magazine that had published my story. I’d recently quit my newspaper reporting job, taken the leap into an M.F.A. program, and for the first time, I was showing them the result of my labors. Of all the reactions I might have anticipated—pride or excitement or maybe boredom or disappointment—I hadn’t foreseen that one. My mother seemed to feel that I should portray Chinese Americans only as model minorities, highly educated engineers and doctors who live the American Dream.
She didn’t know that for a time, I’d stopped writing about Chinese Americans at all. For a year or two in college, I had convinced myself that if I wanted to be considered a real author, all my characters had to be white—as if those were the only worthy stories to be told. After all, that’s what I’d grown up with and what I’d studied in school.
Even though we didn’t share the same race or place, I’d recognized myself in feisty aspiring writers in children’s literature: Jo March in Little Women, Laura Ingalls of the Little House series, and the titular Anne of Green Gables. As a girl, I also read and reread Laurence Yep’s Dragonwings—published the year I was born—about the Chinese immigrant son of a master kite maker in San Francisco’s Chinatown in the early twentieth century. But I didn’t identify with the main character, even though we were both of Chinese descent; he was a boy, and he spoke often of demons, which my scientist mother and engineer father never mentioned.
I was still in middle school when Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club was published. I don’t remember exactly when or how I got a copy, but I cherished the interlocking stories about mothers and their daughters, their secrets and their struggles, in China and the San Francisco Bay Area. I related to the push and pull of homelands adopted and ancestral, and the unspoken expectations that passed between parents and their children. Our parents had given up their language and culture and family to make a life here. We, their children, owed them a debt we felt we could never repay.