It began insidiously.
I was a comparative literature major. Fellow students and professors alike assumed I studied English and Chinese, rather than English and French. They were puzzled when I said I was interested in the Romantic movement, and one of my professors was incredibly discouraging about grad school when I said I didn’t speak Mandarin or Cantonese (Why she thought Mandarin or Cantonese would help me understand the nuances of second wave European Romanticism remains a mystery to this day). When I mentioned my parents were coming to visit, everyone asked about the flight or the cost—something I found odd until it came out that everyone assumed my parents were flying over from China.
I didn’t know what to make of it. The bibliography I had internalized was not the same one everyone saw, written into the color of my skin and the shape of my eyes.
It became painfully clear to me my senior year when I was being witty at the expense of Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland. Alice ends her journey of self-actualization by deciding to open China to British trade. Tim Burton had the luxury of forgetting that Sino-British trade was only made possible through the Opium Wars. I did not. By that point, I was hyper aware of any mention of China, rejoicing even in throwaway references. To be given this, stripped as it was from a conflict that had caused my own ancestors to first come to America, seemed an insult.
One of my housemates interrupted me to say, “You should be grateful for the Opium Wars. Without them, you wouldn’t be here.”
She smiled complacently, as if she had just scored a point in a fencing bout, and thereby won the match.
In the moment, I didn’t know how to react to it. I’d like to think the silence of the rest of my housemates was because they, too, were too shocked to process it. Later, when I understood that this girl expected me to be grateful for the history of my people’s suffering and marginalization, I reported it to our RA. Nothing was ever done. The incident was never formally addressed.
I consoled myself in the knowledge that it hadn’t been that bad. There had been a black face incident earlier that year which had been much, much worse. The school authorities responsible for racial issues, whoever they were, surely had their hands full. There was no literary precedent to assist me. Elizabeth Bennet never had to correct Lady Catherine on a matter as fraught as the Opium Wars. Shakespeare’s Othello didn’t offer any practical advice about racial Othering. The canon I studied could not help me, and my rights to them had already been questioned for three years. And yet my own imperfect understanding of my history was now being exposed to the same treatment. Did I even have a right to claim it, or feel about it as I did?
Like many bookish people, I remember my life almost as an impressionistic bibliography—not the neat lines of author, title, publication year, but a haze of text overlaying the quotidian. It is more of an early modern map than anything else: a colorful and somewhat disjointed history, told more in anecdote than fact. Ah, I’ll think to myself, vaguely, that was the year I read only Les Misérables, in half-a-dozen translations of varying quality. That was the year I waited in line to have Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets signed by J.K. Rowling. That was the year I saw Hamlet for the first time, and tried, with scant understanding, to read the whole thing in my father’s Riverside Shakespeare. That was the year I realized how beautiful Oscar Wilde’s stage directions could be. That was the year I read every Amy Tan book in the library, as others might pore over guidebooks before embarking on some kind of journey.
This outlook isn’t rare, and I’m fortunate to have surrounded myself with people who speak more easily of stories than of anything else. As an adolescent, I’m sure I was an intolerable reader—the sort of person who would, had she been able to drive, have stuck ‘I’d Rather Be Reading’ bumper stickers on the back of her car. But surrounding myself with fellow readers has mitigated that sense of snobbishness.
Nowadays, I treat reading as a social activity. I am delighted when people lend books to me, or want to debate how stories should be told, or compare the various translation choices that could have or should have been made. Books and stories have become helpful intermediaries in social interactions. If I venture into another person’s private concerns, I feel oddly as though I’m trespassing, but asking someone if they’re carrying a Hufflepuff lanyard is like meeting a fellow countryman in some wondrous but neutral place. There is less chance of misstep or offence, and a greater chance of shared delight.
When I think of myself, I have no mental image of a half-Chinese girl, with an unwise perm or straight hair or bangs or any of the varying permutations of self-expression I have forced upon my physical features. Instead, I feel myself staring out of the back of my skull with a sense of calm, almost detached interiority, and a sense that I’ve been clever enough to protect all that could be hurt behind barricades of books. The storms and wrecks of adolescence always shook this self-conceit, but never enough to dethrone it. I knew to look only at the world to laugh at it. I was the Reader whom Jane Eyre so earnestly assured. I was the one who pulled back from the mess to roll my eyes, the one who learned how to sharpen my wit on the whetstone of the Western canon.
Not that I had much need to deploy my rapier wit—I was launched early onto the AP track, stuck with the choir kids, and never thought to venture farther afield than the school’s mock trial team or religious-based service club. My friends and I unironically created the nineteenth century novel enthusiasts club and were met with the happy indifference of the rest of the school body. They were all trying to come up with the right amalgamation of clubs and activities to get into Ivies or Seven Sisters or the small liberal arts colleges in the top twenty list in Newsweek. Our eccentricity was accepted as another way to pad the C.V. Any slights flung my way for my unabashed nerdery were rare. I felt even mild failures so deeply people tended not to aim personal attacks at me (there were some benefits to being socialized to immediately apologize and look stricken at any hinted misstep).
College, I thought, would be much the same. By and large it was.
The only outrageous slings and arrows of commonplace conversations were racially based.
In high school, there wasn’t much cause for racial Othering. I can’t really recall any incidents where my race came into anything, aside from a box to tick off on applications. I would occasionally posture and pretend to be more knowledgeable about Chinese culture than I really was, out of the terrible adolescent fear of being thought ignorant.
My parents had thoughtfully provided me with a steady diet of Laurence Yep books as a child, so it never occurred to me that there was something strange about being Chinese-American. I felt satisfied and comfortable knowing—via his historical fiction—that there had been Chinese people in America during the San Francisco earthquake, or the Great Depression. We didn’t much learn about these early Chinese-Americans in school, but we didn’t learn about many things there: how to write a check, to format a cover letter, or to deal with disappointment. As I grew older, and my relationship with my Chinese mother had to bear the weight of the complicated feelings I had about my race , I remember putting aside Laurence Yep’s books and studying Amy Tan’s with a sense of neutral objectivity as I might approach one of Sir David Attenborough’s documentaries. I read them not to understand myself, but as a field guide to my mother and her siblings. In Lindo’s and Waverley’s disputes over Waverly’s accomplishments and Americanization, I saw the familiar patterns of arguments between my mother and grandmother; in Pearl’s ignorance of and fascination with her mother’s history, I more guiltily saw myself, always fascinated by my grandmother’s stories of growing up Chinese-American during the second World War. As a third-generation Chinese-American girl, I felt I had no right to claim these stories since they weren’t my own. But to claim them as my mother’s was an easy way of avoiding disputes. I could inherit Tan’s narratives and place them on my mental map of the world, as dangerous shoals already got through.
Books had always shaped and confirmed my understanding of the world, and I often felt I had only to look back into a favorite volume, or dig deeper into stacks of recommendations to find a path to follow in every valley or shadowed forest of life.
It sometimes feels like impossible cheek to look at the blank spots where ‘Here be lions’ or ‘Here be dragons’ are usually inscribed as a shorthand for ignorance, and to try and fill them in myself. ‘I would much rather appeal to the canon than improvise my own,’ I think, when I’m at a loss for a reaction to new microaggressions to calls in Cantonese I cannot answer, to expectations of gratitude for the Opium Wars; I would rather return to books that have yet to give me the answers I need. I entertain an image of myself stowing away a quill pen and leaving the map half-formed.
In college I took a couple of courses on Chinese literature. I had no real interest in the subject, just a vague sense that I ought to like Chinese novels, and a recommendation from a good friend that the professor herself was a paradigm shift. She was, though not as anyone could have expected. I pored over the post-modern texts my professor assigned, thinking, as I had when I was a child, that I was not quite clever enough or well-informed enough to know why the books were good. I wanted very badly to like them. But I did not grow into them. I did not feature their coastlines on my mental map, as I had with Yep and Tan.
Here, I thought to myself, are people who look like me on the page. And yet, the uncharted stretches of sea remained empty. I could not capture the Chinese dragons with which I’d hoped to fill them.
Chinese culture and Chinese-American culture are not the same, I realized, feeling stupid I hadn’t known this before. I don’t think I realized until then how few Laurence Yeps and Amy Tans there were in the world, how uniquely they spoke of me, and my history, and my situation. Yep and Tan satisfied a need, but I did not let the tendrils of my imagination sneak through the gaps in their sentences the way I did with Jane Austen or Victor Hugo.
It was more of an exercise—an adventure even—to frolic back into the past, to countries I could claim only as places of interest instead of places of origin, to revel in this strange old world, with such oddly recognizable creatures. Sometimes I would be obscurely troubled as I re-read passages of Les Misérables, wondering if in a comma in the middle of a phrase I might insert myself into the narrative, if anything in my experiences echoed what was on the page. Was there a place for me, in these works I was taught were universal? I put great effort into imagining myself in the streets of nineteenth century Paris, or in sprawled on a divan in Victorian England, drawling out some witticism.
I never needed to imagine with Yep and Tan. But, then again, it isn’t difficult to imagine yourself in situations you have lived through.
There have been many excellent pieces on why we need diverse literature and why representation matters. I can hardly add anything but my wholehearted agreement. Without Yep and Tan to navigate the shoals of life, I’m not sure I would be comfortable saying I’m Asian American.
But I think, too, that one of the difficulties of being seen first as Not White is how one is simultaneously denied the story of one’s particular experience, and denied any right to claim the Western Canon—held to be the collection of universal stories—as one’s own. It’s also a problem to which I have no solution. The history and experiences of Chinese-American people are mine, and so are Shakespeare, Austen, and Wilde. But I can’t make the rest of the world accept this as easily as I myself do. I can only go to the blank spaces of my mental maps and write out in a flourishing hand, “Here be dragons,” and know that I have amused myself, at least, with the double meaning.
Elyse Martin went to Smith College, and currently works at the Folger Shakespeare Library. Her other writing can be found on “The Toast.” Lea Salonga once tweeted a link to one of her essays. She has yet to get over this career high.
If writing defies “common sense,” if it seems to go against traditional modes of thought, norms, and histories, the idea of that common sense no longer makes sense, or might make sense if we’re allowed to reinvent ourselves. That’s what I’m looking at with the literacy narrative, the coming-into-language story. I want to hear yours: when you first “clicked” with a language, whatever it is; why you questioned the modes of your Englishes; how you wrote “poetry,” but looked at it again and called it “lyric essay.” I want to see your literacy narrative in its scholarly, creative, and hybrid forms. Send your literacy narratives to Sylvia Chan at email@example.com. Stay tuned for more literacy narratives from yours truly and others.