After learning some sad news last night, I’m feeling weird, so I thought I’d keep with the mood and post about something that’s been weighing on my mind. Writers Carolyn and Lisa See (mother and daughter respectively) are “Chinese American.” But you’d never know by looking at them.

(Seriously, when I first went to Lisa See’s Wikipedia page, I thought someone had put up the wrong picture.)

It shouldn’t bother me, and maybe “bother” isn’t even the right word, but it does make me feel… strange, to see these non-Chinese-looking women so clearly and easily labeled as Chinese American. Maybe it’s because I, who am half-Chinese, have struggled over the years with my own appearance and identity.

(Eyes too small. Face too flat. Pretty hair. Tall. (HAHA.) Too skinny. Not skinny enough. Can’t speak Mandarin. Doesn’t know traditions. Bad pronounciation. The only brown head in a sea of black at Chinese school. The only one of my friends learning pin yin instead of zhu yin fu hao. “La China” in Spain. Chinese among Americans, American among Chinese.)

Did these women struggle similarly? With one quarter and one eighth (I think) Asian-ness in their blood, can they really identify as Chinese? Can they understand what it’s like when no one would ever mistake them for being anything other than “white”? What in their body of experiences gives them the — sorry to use this word — right, to claim that heritage, the one that I am so tentative to take, because I worry that if someone were to challenge me on it, they might decide I don’t have enough evidence to support my stake?

I don’t know enough about them to come to any conclusions. All I have are questions. Questions that aren’t even really about Carolyn and Lisa See. It’s not personal. It’s just another reminder of all the issues I have yet to resolve within myself.

And none of it has anything to do with their writing either. From what I have heard, Lisa in particular is a fabulous writer, and I may go see her when she comes to Cincinnati to speak in a few months. (Would it be too weird of me to ask her some of these questions, in a non-offensive way? I’m really, really curious about her take on it.) Personal weirdness aside, I’m more than happy to learn what I can from them.

From a conversation between Carolyn & Lisa See:

Every writer has to be a little bit delusional about his or her work. We have to know it’s good. Even if we hate it, we have to know it’s good. Perseverance, stubbornness, has everything to do with keeping on. When I started writing, I was the wrong age, too young, the wrong gender — not all that many women were writing for a living then — and on the wrong coast, the west one. But you just have to put all that aside and go on working.

4 responses to “Can you See the Asian-ness?”

  1. Marci Avatar

    From Lisa See’s Website:

    Why do you write about China?

    I’m part Chinese. My great-great-grandfather came here to work on the building of the transcontinental railroad. My great-grandfather was the godfather/patriarch of Los Angeles Chinatown. I don’t look at all Chinese, but I grew up in a very large Chinese-American family. I have hundreds of relatives in Los Angeles, of which there are only about a dozen that look like me.

    All writers are told to write what they know. My family is what I know. And what I don’t know – nu shu, for example – I love to find out whatever I can and then bring my sensibility to the subject. I guess what I’m trying to say is that in many ways I straddle two cultures. I try to bring what I know from both cultures into my work. The American side of me tries to open a window into China and things Chinese for non-Chinese, while the Chinese side of me makes sure that what I’m writing is true to the Chinese culture without making it seem too “exotic” or “foreign.” What I want people to get from my books is that all people on the planet share common life experiences – falling in love, getting married, having children, dying – and share common emotions – love, hate, greed, jealousy. These are the universals; the differences are in the particulars of customs and culture.

    Seems pretty reasonable to me, if you are looking for an explanation. Might be neat to talk to her one on one about it if you could though.

  2. Kristan Avatar

    Yeah, I saw that page on her site. I guess I still don’t understand how she could “know” Chinese culture from her family when their bloodline is clearly very diluted. I mean, maybe they were much closer than my family is (geographically), but I think you know how hard it can be, even as a first generation born here too, to maintain that knowledge about your heritage.

    I’m not intending to criticize her, but I’m a little in awe (and clearly a little doubtful) of how close she seems to feel to the culture. I’d be really interested to know more about her upbringing — kind of “compare notes,” you know? Maybe she has some secret answer that can help me, lol.

  3. Phhhst Avatar

    I haven’t read the writer’s you are referring to, but can give an opinion on looking white when that is just a part of who you are. My husband is 25% Chinese; so my son is 1/8. My son is also 1/8 Filipino from his father. However, my son pulled strongly from the 1/32 of my husband’s Irish lineage and my mainly white bloodline. He has sandy blond hair and freckled skin. He used to connect most strongly with his Chinese and Filipino heritage. His Filipino great granmother lived with us the first six years of his life. Then he was also the first great grandson to carry on the Chinese name and as such his Chinese relatives paid a lot of attention to him; he was given pivotal roles in Taoist ceremonies.

    After the age of 10 he took a lot of shit for looking haole. Where we live in Hawaii there are not a lot of caucasians. After awhile he developed a tough skin and an edginess for being different. We do not travel to the Mainland often, but took a month long trip last summer, visiting my relatives in California and Florida. How sad that my son felt so comfortable not being “different” and could finally blend in.

  4. Kristan Avatar

    Very interesting. I feel like that’s similar to the problem I had, i.e., looking white when I was among Asians, yet feeling — and/or wanting to feel — like I belonged to them.

    I wonder if your son had stayed on the Mainland longer, if he wouldn’t have eventually felt out of place there too, because he does have a legitimate role in the Asian side of his family and heritage, which most Americans wouldn’t be able to understand. (Well, maybe more so in Cali, since there are so many Asians there.) Even my dad’s relatives don’t really understand what I get from my mom’s side, though, bless their hearts, they try.

    Either way, it sounds like your son is really special to everyone in his family, so I would imagine that (like me) he appreciates and enjoys his bi-racial, bi-cultural upbringing, regardless of whatever identity issues occasionally arise.