Read It for the Asians! by Wu Xueting
As an Asian, I have read fewer than ten books featuring Asian characters. Maybe half of them involve Chinese characters. Probably only two or three are written by Asians, not immigrant Asians in the West with cute acronyms like ABC, but born-and-raised Asians. I’m an enthusiastic supporter of the “We Need Diverse Books” campaign and I actively try to read more books written by and about women, the LGBTQ community, people with disabilities as well as people of various colours and religions. However, when it comes to the last category, I recently discovered that I have read a ton more books about African Americans, Africans, and Hispanic Americans than those about my own region. Even within Asia, I have probably read more books about Indians than about my own race, the Chinese. I’m quite proud of my efforts to read widely and I’ll certainly continue to, but I’m also stunned that I may have forgotten my own community as I cheer for Jacqueline Woodson’s National Book Award and Newbery win, and Gina Rodriguez’s Golden Globe win.
Have the Asian community and, more particularly, the Chinese community, become neglected in the campaign for diverse reading? Living in Singapore, I can say that I have had excellent access to Western culture and literature, so full of rich attractive ideas that it comes at the expense of my own Chinese and Asian literature. My first books at a young age were Enid Blyton’s books, English children’s classics like The Wizard of Oz and The Secret Garden, and English nursery rhymes books. I’m also an aspiring writer, but none of my supportive teachers and family ever asked me, “Why do all your characters have English names?” Sure, I don’t specify that they’re “white” or “American,” but I’m pretty confident everyone who read my stories imagined white characters. All my plans for future stories and books involve Americans, which I’m not, in beautiful states like San Francisco, where I don’t live and only visited once but fantasize about living someday. So when I watched Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s TED Talk about the dangers of having a single story about people, I felt simultaneously inspired and deeply upset that not only do I have a single story I imagine writing, but I also still find it difficult to fit my own people and culture into my stories.
I no longer plan to only write about white Americans living in America; I have glorious images of charming Chinese protagonists in my head. But the idea of completely ignoring them in my stories is both unfathomable and undesirable to me. Anyway, I believe the underlying reason why I’ve been neglecting books about Asians or Chinese is because I don’t read mainly for culture; while it’s important to me, I read for the most basic desire to explore a different world, a different person’s experiences, just anyone who isn’t me. I’m not going to change that. When I think through the few books about Chinese I’ve read, I recognize an unmistakable and essential theme running through them: the Chinese characters all struggle under oppressive Chinese rule or the insecure immigrant experience, especially creating generational differences. Now, I’m not saying that these stories are not important or irrelevant; there are still lots of such complex stories that need to be told. But these basic storylines also create a single story, or at least a few tightly categorized stories. I won’t be surprised if a non-Chinese asks me in shock, “Your parents speak to you in English? They actually watch English movies and they like them? No way, next thing I know you’re gonna tell me your grandparents didn’t have to escape during the Cultural Revolution.” I’m not proud to have read so little books about my own people, but honestly, the synopses of all the books I know about the Chinese put me off. There’s Rainbow Rowell’s Eleanor and Park, but I heard plenty of comments about its potential racism I’m a little wary. (This reminds me that it’s much easier to find Koreans than Chinese in YA books…) Steve Kugler’s My Most Excellent Year is on my long to-read list; I’m hoping the Chinese best friend plays a significant role. There are probably much more YA books with Chinese characters, but probably they are less well-known it’s hard to find them.
Where are the Young Adult books about Chinese teenagers struggling to understand boys and school bullies? Where are those Chinese detectives having nervous breakdowns because they see their own childhood ghosts in their new case? Where are those Chinese women discussing their awful one-night stand with their best friends during brunch the next day? I don’t only wish to see people like me in the books I read, but also to see them doing exciting, cool things. Why do the gorgeous Americans and British get to fight dark wizards and chase their figure-skating dreams, while us Chinese feel ashamed of our mothers in public, cry over A- grades, and suffer under terrible working conditions? Those historical accounts and distances from our parents because of modernization are all real and important, but where are the silly, happy everyday stuff?
If I sound like I have a narrow, single story about what stories are out there about Asians and Chinese, I probably don’t have a good idea of what’s out there. To all the Asians, particularly the Chinese, in Nerdy Book Club, what do you think? Do you also struggle to find books about us that appeal to you? Can you share some great ones you’ve read with me?
Wu Xueting lives in Singapore and is currently a freshman in the National University of Singapore, majoring in English Literature. Besides loving to read and write, she’s also a huge fan of many TV shows. She spends an outrageous amount of time on goodreads every day, so please follow and add her as your goodreads friend (https://www.goodreads.com/coolbee77). You can also find her on Twitter @bumblebeesbummy.