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.
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.