I'm Not a Member of the Joy Luck Club

By Angela He (High School Senior)

Growing up, I tried to fit myself in the worlds of dysfunctional-yet-perfect families in children’s books to no avail. While I shared many similarly-themed problems as characters, I rarely found another Chinese-American. As a first-generation Chinese American, the paucity of Chinese-American literature in the mainstream shocks and disappoints me. I’m familiar with Maxine Hong Kingston and Amy Tan, but the mainstream neglects the stories of Chinese-Americans who came after the Gold Mountain generation.

For mainstream America, to be “authentically” Chinese-American is to have grown up in San Francisco’s Chinatown with parents who owned laundromats or Chinese restaurants, to be docile and delicate. These stereotypes are perpetuated by the domination of Gold-Mountain-era novels in the Chinese-American literature sector. While I enjoy Kingston’s prose in The Woman Warrior, these stories do not represent my Chinese-American experience.

China is one of the world’s largest countries and it has drastically changed in the past fifty years. For one thing, China is no longer ruled by an emperor but the Communist Party. That alone has completely changed China’s dynamic and its people, whether they’ve immigrated to America or stayed in China. The experience of many contemporary Chinese-Americans is much different than the ones represented in Kingston and Tan’s novels.

My parents, along with those of many other Chinese-American millennials, grew up in Maoist China, with few Chinese mythological stories or traditions, due to the Cultural Revolution. Their experiences have influenced the way they’ve parented me and the values they’ve passed down to me. Chinese-American literature should grow and to reflect other Chinese-American stories. Where are the stories of those who grew up during the Cultural Revolution, and why they are not as prevalent as Gold Mountain generation stories? My theory is that the market for Chinese-American literature does not want these stories. Rather, exotic and exciting elements, like consuming monkey brains and human back carving, as in Kingston’s The Woman Warrior, are much more appealing. Flamboyant details like these are much more appealing than Chinese engineer students or businessmen. Wenguang Huang and Madeleine Thien, whose works represent a newer generation of Chinese under Mao, are changing this dynamic, but deficiency in Chinese-American literature is still dramatic.

What’s the consequence of neglecting an entire sector? Misunderstanding. Fiction shapes our conceptions of experiences we’ve never had--think of how you first learned of what a cowboy was. With insufficient fiction comes misconceptions and misunderstanding. So what is there to do? Read nonfiction books about the Chinese-American history, like The Chinese in America, or other Asian-American novels like John Okada’s No-No Boy. By reading these works, you’re slowly, but surely, creating a demand for more Chinese- and Asian-American literature.

*Here's one way author Angela He suggests you can get involved: Asian American Literary Awards

Take Action Now: Asian American