Saturday, April 22, 2006

identity

During my panel discussion (with my editor Alvina Ling and YA author Justina Chen Headley) at the North American Taiwanese Women's Association conference in Houston, I discovered that my book ,"Year of the Dog" is controversial. This was a bit of a surprise to me, as "Year of the Dog" is almost a memoir, filled with my personal childhood stories, interwoven with my mother's. I thought it would be an easy fit with the Taiwanese women.

But I had underestimated how deep politics run in people, so deep that it even effects their view of children's books. In my book, I easily interchanged the labels Taiwanese and Chinese--the two nationalities that I was considered as a child and which had blurred to mean the same thing to me. This, to some of the conference attendees was a gross mistake. The Chinese were the enemy.

When one or two of the women approached me later about the subject, I tried to defend my position. How I was trying to write books true to my experience, that my book was not about politics of Taiwan vs. China, but about being Asian American. That it was the Asian-American identity I was portraying, not the Taiwanese identity.

"That is because you are 2nd generation and don't know," one woman said to me, shaking her head, "You don't know. We remember. We saw the blood, we felt the oppression. If you did, you would never call yourself Chinese."

In the recent years, I have finally felt that I have come to terms with my identity. This is what has enabled me to write my stories and talk to kids about my experiences. Now, suddenly, I felt like that rock was being shaken.

"I can understand why it bothers some of them," Alvina said to me, "To them it is as if a Holocaust survivor wrote she was German. They feel like it is an insult to what they've suffered."

This fills me with mixed emotions. I would never attempt to downplay the suffering that the older Taiwanese generation felt by the Chinese, but I can't help feeling that there must be a way to remember without bitterness. The deepest and most hurtful racism I have felt in my life has not been from Caucasians, but from other Asians. Asians make up a huge percentage of the population, but they are rarely a force in American politics, media or children's books. There's no Coretta Scott King Award for Asian picturebooks (if there is, few have heard of it which goes to show how much less importance it is given). And perhaps that is because we cling to our specific labels so tightly. Maybe if the different Asian races could relax and bond together as Asian-Americans, we'd actually be a force in the US. Or, at least,be able to enjoy my book.

5 Comments:

Blogger alvina said...

Well, you didn't mention that being Taiwanese IS different from being Chinese. There's a whole different background and cultural experience beyond the politics behind it. It would be like someone who was German saying that they were French--ethnically, there isn't much of a difference to be sure, but culturally, there are many differences. There is a different language, a different climate, different customs, different foods. I agree that we should unite here in the US, and I think that many of the older generation is too reactionary, but I also think there is an importance to understanding what your background is, understanding where you came from. I would also never say I'm Chinese, because I'm not--I am Taiwanese. It's not just semantics. Of course, I think you can have a different identity than me, a different understanding, different priorities, and I think you should continue to write what is important to you, true to you. But it's important to understand where you came from, and I think you know that it's not so easy for someone who has seen the violence and the oppression first-hand to forgive, but it will get better, less divided, as the generations go on.

8:54 AM  
Blogger Grace Lin said...

Yes, all of that is true. And on a personal note, I'm not sure where that leaves me or my books as I suddenly am not sure if this reveals me as a hypocrit. For one of the first times in my book career, I felt as though I should be ashamed of the books that I had made; which perhaps is a sign that it's a good time to take a break from Asian-themed books.

But the more important point that I was trying to get across in my post was the broader issue. The other truth is that many 2nd generation Asians reject their heritage, especially those, who like me, grew up isolated. And that is partly because of the feeling of disapproval and judgement from other Asians. For those who are insecure enough just identifying themselves as Asian-Americans, the added criticsm of what kind of Asian-American you are is enough to send you over the edge. Case in point, when I approached my sister about attending next year's NATWA conference her words were, "I don't need to go to a conference to feel bad about myself, I can do that at home just fine."

2:34 PM  
Blogger alvina said...

YOU SHOULDN'T BE ASHAMED OF THE BOOKS YOU WRITE!!! And in no way are you a hypocrite. On the contrary, I think it's vitally important to have a diverse number of voices represented in children's books. You should be hugely proud of the books you write--they really do make a difference in so many children's lives. I just think it's important to keep learning, to keep thinking, seeing new points of view, and exposing others to different perspectives, too. Some of the NATWA members learned a lot from going to the Borders book signing and seeing all of the little Chinese girls with white parents. It was great experience for them to see how your book is "bridging the gap" in a way, is uniting people regardless of color or background. Anyway, you know how proud I am of YEAR OF THE DOG--if I never publish another book, I feel that my career has been worth it, has helped create something lasting.

6:35 PM  
Blogger Ji Hae Ju said...

Hi there. I found your blog through gracelin.com and have been following it for a while now. I'm a Korean-American public librarian and I want to let you know that I literally "whooped for joy" when I read the pre-release reviews for 'Year of the Dog'. Finally! - an asian-american themed book for grade school kids. Growing up, the Betsy and Eddie books were my favs too and it was so gratifying to read something similar w/ an asian bent. I'm hoping that you are planning on making it into a series, so I'm a bit dismayed to read that you're discouraged from recent criticism from fellow asian americans. Believe me, I have plenty of pride in my ethnic heritage and that is precisely why I feel your "ground-breaking" efforts are so important. We don't expect perfection Grace, just having an eloquent voice to represent us (and our children) is more than enough.

7:52 AM  
Blogger Grace Lin said...

Thanks for the nice comments, I really appreciate it; and I am mostly proud of my books. I wasn't "fishing", honestly. Just musing....

8:32 PM  

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