Apr 24

A Different Species: A Chinese American Writer in China

Written by guest on Saturday, April 24th, 2010 at 1:24 am
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When I first moved to China to research and write my first novel, I never knew what to say when people asked how I was doing. The truth seemed weak and unwriterly: I was lonely and I wanted to go home.

Instead, I’d ramble about the strangeness of being Chinese American in China, the shocking intensity of Shanghai crowds even to a New Yorker, the absence of family, friends, schoolmates, colleagues. Once, I was rambling in this manner to a new acquaintance, a Shanghai native, when he shrugged and said, “You’re a linglei”—literally translated, a different species. It was a matter-of-fact statement, one that seemed, in two syllables, to sum up my existence.

Four years before, I’d moved to Beijing for a year of postgraduate study with some notions of mastering my mother tongue and reclaiming my heritage. I hadn’t expected to feel at home, but I hadn’t anticipated feeling quite so alien. Like most Asian Americans, I’d always been asked the question, “Where are you from?” with the expected answer being China, or someplace equally foreign. Now, this question was asked even more relentlessly of me by Chinese people in China, but the answer never satisfied them. But you don’t look American, they might say—or, You don’t sound Chinese. They’d assure me that I wasn’t really American, even as their suspicious expressions made clear that I certainly wasn’t really Chinese.

At the end of the year, I joined my mother, my sisters, my aunt, and my grandmother for a tour of the mainland: Six strong, complicated women, with very different ideas about what China meant to us, if it meant anything at all, herded together for two weeks on a guided package tour. We had a few moments of sudden connection and transporting wonder, but overall, the trip was frustrating and tense. When it ended, I was relieved to leave China. I thought I’d never return.

Four years later, I hadn’t stopped thinking about that tour. It seemed a perfect window into my entire China experience. I scribbled a few notes and soon I was writing a novel, one that gave equal voice to all six women on the tour, one that took those very paradoxes and frustrations as its premise and then went further than I’d ever gone in shedding light on the vast complexity of China itself, of what it means to be Chinese American, of the very concept of returning to one’s roots.

Facing my last months as an MFA student and short of options, I applied for a Fulbright Grant to research and write my novel in China. When I learned I’d received a grant, I was thrown. I didn’t want to go back to China, but my novel had taken hold over me, and I knew that immersing myself in its setting might be the only way I could write it.

All through my post-MFA summer, which I spent back home in Queens waitressing at a sports bar, partying with high school friends, and hardly writing a word, I dreaded my departure. In previous years, I’d moved without hesitation to Auckland and Iowa, but on the day of my flight back to China, I turned from the security checkpoint and implored my bewildered parents to let me stay.

This time, I landed in Shanghai without an academic program, a workplace, a residence, or an acquaintance. There were a few other Fulbrighters scattered throughout the city, but their research projects, on such topics as public health and urban planning, seemed utterly pragmatic and clear-cut compared to mine. Without a thesis, I didn’t feel like I had much to contribute to the conversation.

I moved into a studio apartment in a traditional alley where my neighbors’ vigilance in watching me seemed matched only their vigilance in not speaking to me. The locals I met seemed less interested in getting acquainted than in handing out their business cards—according to which, no one ranked below Managing Director. Amid this modern Chinese version of capitalism, with its frenzied self-invention and incessant deal-making, my pursuit seemed inexplicable. Some people demanded to know how much money I would earn off my book. Others wondered why anyone in America would care to read about my characters. A few had heard of Fulbright—and concluded that I must be a spy.

To read the rest of this article, please visit: http://www.themillions.com/2010/04/a-different-species-a-chinese-american-writer-in-china.html

To learn more about the author and her debut novel, A THREAD OF SKY, please visit: http://deannafei.com

There are currently 1 comments highlighted: 67779.

20 Responses to “A Different Species: A Chinese American Writer in China”

  1. tanjin Says:

    Nowadays, we see quite some “me-too” China book just to cash out a host of superficial stories on China. Good luck with this one …

  2. Nimrod Says:

    The commentary about “linglei” (translation is more like, “oddity”) and “my pursuit seemed inexplicable … some people demanded to know how much money I would earn off my book…” are very true. Education in pre-Republican China used to be all humanities (wenke) — think civil service exams. Then, in the drive to modernize during last century, the sciences and engineering were emphasized, and indeed these days the money-driven culture has furthered this trend. The humanities in general are taken as useless in China, even the required civics/politics classes are a burden to most students. So many people don’t really care so much about the inner value of intangible pursuits. In other societies, a big driver of the humanities had at one time been religion/divinity studies. People have said that Chinese don’t have religion, but only superstition. Any foreign religion quickly turns to superstition. People just want things to happen for them in this life, which basically means praying for good health, harmonious family, and wealth. They don’t care about spirituality. As people get wealthier though, more understanding will come to pursuits that seem luxurious. China is already where Westerners are placing their hopes on for the continued patronage of classical music.

  3. TonyP4 Says:

    Hi D, it is nice to be young (usually healthy and beautiful come with it). You life now must be full of fun, excitement and adventurous, so enjoy it to the fullest. It is blessed to be different – if every one looked the same, the world is not much fun, right?

    Chinese in US as a group is not diversified in seeking our careers. Most want to be lawyers, doctors, programmers, accounts… It is nice to know you going into writing. It will not be easy as other traditional professions.

  4. Foxy Man Says:

    I’d be interested in reading stories like this if they weren’t all pretty much the same. I know that the author may intend to reach the “doesn’t know China” audience, but in fact this same theme – ethnic American goes back to ancestral homeland – has been done by writers of every ethnicity, and it almost always turns out the same.

    The laundry list:
    suspicious, slightly stereotyped natives
    bewildered guest, wondering where is the “homecoming”
    semi-awakening to one’s Americanness
    “I’m not eating that”
    language/dating/culture struggles – more stereotypes here, perhaps a little self-deprecating humor and some fake introspection
    ultimate, resigned but content acceptance of one’s 100% American-ness, probably followed by a trip to Chili’s for some buffalo wings and a flirtini to drink.

    Wait, except for those young men who go back to their ancestral homelands (Pakistan comes to mind) and get involved in terrorism and then try to attack the US/UK/Canada. Too bad they are intent on mayhem and carnage, they’d certainly make refreshing change in writing!

    The more I learn about how readily the Fulbright Scholars are to fill stereotypes that have a slight bit more sophistication than the average network news expose, the more I wonder how come I didn’t apply for one when I was unemployed and more self-absorbed. Honestly, with the head start of a stipend and a pretty face, is that the best this “scholar” can do?

    I get the feeling that any writer who went “home” to China/India/Africa/Mexico and liked it, got along fab with the natives, and didn’t come back… would never get published. Books like this are comforting back-scratchers for American readers.

    1.5 star

  5. Otto Kerner Says:

    Is it comforting? I would have expected that most Americans would find it disconcerting to think that Asian Americans feel conflicted to begin with …

  6. r v Says:

    Generally, these stories are the “Asian Americans’ realization of their American identity” type stories, ie. description of how the “home” in Asia is so alien to the expectation and imagination that they come to realize that they are “Americans” at heart.

    But the real essence is the Culture Shock/gap that still exists between the American mentality and the rest of the world, that even some European immigrants feel.

    It is comforting? I do not know.

    How would most Americans feel if they are confronted by different cultures outside of their country? Would most Americans even bother to confront these realities?

    Considering that most Americans are descendants of immigrants, I am surprised that they do not all feel disconcerted by the lost of their “roots”.

    Yet, most Americans don’t bother to think about it.

  7. Nimrod Says:

    When you are the #1 superpower, it is easy to forget that there are other societies that not only exist the way they do, but also have a worthwhile reason to exist the way they do, rather than simply “backwards”.

  8. raventhorn4000 Says:

    Although, to be fair, one’s personal journey of identity is always extraordinary. (but merely seems ordinary to other people).

    I always viewed myself as very Chinese, clinging onto Chinese traditions and ways.

    Yet, when I go back to China every now and then, I know my relatives see me as something different than a Chinese person on the streets.

    Perhaps it is a difference of perception, not so much whether I get along with people I meet in China.

    I know when I get off the airplane, I don’t look like an American Tourist, I speak the dialect, I’m not awkward in the crowd. (so I blend in like 1 out of 1 billion Chinese people).

    The extraodinary thing about the journey of identity, is not just how you see yourself, but how others see you.

    Sometimes, you thought yourself ordinary, and yet others see greatness.

    Sometimes, you thought yourself different, and yet others see you as the same.

    Whether you are a greatness that yearns to belong to the ordinary, or you are the same that seeks to be different, there is a place for each of us that we can create for ourselves.

    Once you have created that place, you belong.

  9. TonyP4 Says:

    The west/US interests in China due to the progress in China and China is really influencing the world by providing cheap consumer products and buying a lot of commodities/farm products…

    US particularly interests in Chinese females as they’re doing really good in college in quality and quantity (percentage wise). This may be why we have more female writers than male writers in US.

    The writers have to start some where, so a common Chinese theme is not a surprise. Be nice and encouraging. Chinese traditions/cultures really help them out. Amy is famous on the Chinese stories told by her mother. Iris Chang had two good books on Chinese topics but they all passed from the common Chinese theme.

    The Yale student got the DC design award could have something on Chinese philosophy of the line between earth and heaven. Same as the jokes with Joe, another mini post here. So, take advantage of our culture/tradition.

  10. Charles Liu Says:

    Gosh, I feel the need to defend Deanna from some of the honest yet brutal comments. While I identify with some of the things said, it’s a revelation for me that “linglei” feeling exists for fully integrated, firmly rooted N-th generation dash-Americans.

    Deanna had to go to China to realize her identity? It seems the China experience simply accentuated her awareness of her lack of identity, if call to “reclaiming her heritage” isn’t obvious enough. For example in America people ask me where I’m from and I tell them “Portland”, they are never satisfied. Do New Yorkers not go to Orchard Street to buy knock off suits that are unlined? Is Wall Street not full of hubris and boast, still? Deanna’s lack of prospect with Fine Arts degree not a reflection of American value on humanity? How about Bush’s “shock and awe”, “mission accomplished”, or Obama’s negative troop withdrawal?

    Many Americans do not realize what’s underneath America’s facade (a form of “Harmony” I suppose), may they be uninitiated main stream Americans or indoctrinated dash-Americans. IMHO we are not so different than the Chinese, only that their façade is less pretentious.

    Here’s a quick tip for you Deanna – when in China call on your ancestors to protect you; know where (province/town) they are from. That seems to work for me on gaining acceptance and identity in China. For us, in America you are accepted if you are not from here; in China you are accepted if you are.

  11. Steve Says:

    @ Fellow FM Bloggers: I’m in the process of reading this book and will write up a review once I’m finished. Based on Foxy Man’s comment (correct me if I’m wrong), it doesn’t sound as if he’s actually read the book as his remarks are more categorical in nature. I’m not sure how someone can accurately comment on a book if they haven’t yet read it without making a whole lot of assumptions as to what’s in there.

  12. Nimrod Says:

    Charles Liu,

    You are right, the humanities are also less valued in the US. We’ve all heard the jokes about the English Ph.D., and that’s the reality for many of them, so it’s not that different in this sense. And so we return to the idea that many differences are simply ones relating to degree of prosperity, like how the writer may feel a heightened sense of “linglei” for being a writer in China but perhaps, less so in the US. After all, the US can afford to pay her a Fullbright scholarship, not China, where everybody is laboring to make more money than the next guy, because, well, you have to or 100 people are lined up to take your place.

    Apart from that, I still think there is a bit of cultural context at work here … still think that religion makes a difference. I mean look at Tibetans, where even though they are poor as dirt, they are happy to support monks who read obscure sutras all day.

  13. raventhorn4000 Says:

    Perhaps some of us feel that US may be in more need of humanities and arts that we seek to tell stories that would disconcert the average American.

  14. hotmoney Says:

    #9 … “China … buying a lot of commodities/farm products…”

    You like to look at China in backward — typical one end of western POV.

    Volvo was just bought by Zhejiang Geely Auto. So don’t be upset if you drive a Volvo.

    Another end of western POV, popular among the journalist, both young and old, is “China is gonna to be world’s No. 1 …” and “it is a communist country …” in the same breath … The old guys probably stationed and traveled in China during and after the Cultural Revolution. The young ones, well, being fresh out of college, has no idea about other ways of life besides Americans and Europeans.

  15. Foxy Man Says:

    What I mean by comforting is that for many American readers, the idea of someone finding another country permanently more appealing is not really that glam, but the idea of someone rejecting another country/their ancestral homeland to return to their American-ness definitely appeals to a bit of warm nationalism. IMO, Americans aren’t really introspective about our nationalism, especially to it’s pervasiveness, which is part of the reason we love to needle the Chinese about theirs: smug comfort that we aren’t like that.

    Example: yesterday I went with some Chinese friends to a baseball game in Miami, their first ever. After the national anthem, during which I dutifully (and mindlessly) stood, hand over heart, fireworks were set off above the stadium and hearty applause erupted. The Chinese with me just kind of stood there, bewildered. I didn’t have the stones to ask, but I wondered if they thought “man, if this was China and we were doing this before a soccer game, they’d be calling us commie dupes!” I wondered if they had stayed sitting through the anthem, would we have gotten nasty looks? They actually had a foxy woman singing the anthem, and my friends thought it was a mini-concert before the game, except for the solemn tinge of the anthem.

    No, I haven’t read the novel, just what’s above. I do work in the publishing industry though, and I know exactly what the boundaries are for writers hoping to get published. Yeah, maybe too cynical and smarty-pants, sorry, but I hope that the poster who is actually going to read the novel through reports back and proves me wrong.

    As to the poster who doesn’t think there are many Americans who are disconcerted by their lack of connection to their roots, as a black American, I am always struck by the… I guess I could call it “loss of place” among people like me, who don’t have a romantic old country to yearn for, or I should say a romanticized old country to yearn for, like the descendents of Irish, Italian, etc.

  16. raventhorn4000 Says:

    US is one of the few countries that has a Pledge of Allegiance. (it is technically an oath of loyalty, and before the 1940’s, it was mandatory).

    Even China doesn’t have a Pledge of Allegiance that it required its school children to recite every day in the morning.

  17. Otto Kerner Says:

    Foxy Man: you’re quite right about the way that American nationalism is invisible to Americans. I remember speaking to a Chinese teacher in China who had visited the U.S. briefly — he remarked (I think without the intention to make any larger point) on how often you see American flags there. And it occurred to me that I had never really thought about it — American flags are almost invisible to me, but the PRC flags I saw in China really stood out — even though they really don’t fly the flag as much as we do.

    I am up in the air as to whether the average white American would find it more heartwarming that the Asian-American character chooses America in the end, or more disconcerting that it was ever a question for the Asian-American in the first place. Clearly, the most disconcerting of all would be for her to bring up the question and then end up rejecting America …

    As for the pledge of allegiance, it is thoroughly un-American. It wasn’t written until the 1890s, anyway.

  18. Steve Says:

    @ Foxy Man & Otto: I had the same experience that you describe when I became an expat. After observing the cultural myths of another country and how they are taken for granted, the cultural myths of my own country suddenly became very obvious. Things I never noticed before stood out like a sore thumb. I think if you use the time wisely, spending a few years as an expat really opens the mind.

    One cultural myth that extends to a part of the United States is held by evangelical and fundamentalist Christians. They have this belief that God created the United States to spread the word of God (which just so happens to be their version) to the rest of the world and that the success of the country was divinely wrought. Ugh, scary!

    I was never that enamored with my ancestral homelands in Europe, possibly because I had several of them but mostly because my grandparents thought their new country was so much better than the old one. I’ve had a chance to visit a few of them over the years and though I can feel some cultural connections and enjoyed my time there, I never felt like it was my culture. In fact, I felt just the opposite and if anything, felt more American than if I had never visited.

    Foxy Man, I should be writing up that review by the weekend. At this point, I don’t know what the final verdict will be since I haven’t finished it yet so I’m still taking it all in, but it’ll be a fair and honest opinion.

  19. raventhorn4000 Says:

    The African American experience of “loss of root” is one facet of the Cultural Shock of being a minority American, and it is similar to the cultural shock experienced by new immigrants and Asian Americans.

    Largely because the minority Americans are not in the dominant group, they do not identify themselves as fitting into the larger image of “Americans,” because their minority ethnic identity is only occasionally celebrated in the daily life, and often viewed as a curious byproduct of multi-ethnic diversity, and no genuine social celebration of emotions and minds.

    American pride in the multiethnicity is merely in the cold fact of “diversity” itself as a number, but not in the stories, songs, histories.

    A Chinese person understands that we cannot imagine ourselves as Chinese without our near constant celebration of our long traditions. (as we Chinese celebrate our traditions all the time).

    For an African American, it is often much harder to trace the African traditions.

    The real question is, what is the American Culture? Is it merely piecemeal combination of other cultures, or something more?

    Afterall, even Chinese culture is a combination of 1000’s of unique tribal traditions from Chinese history, modified in wars and dynasties. Yet, a southern Chinese would easily celebrate some unique northern Chinese traditions and call them his own, with little or no hesitation.

  20. Jing H Says:

    “When I first moved to China to research and write my first novel, I never knew what to say when people asked how I was doing.” So i’m assuming her Chinese parents never taught her any Chinese at all???? Wow. I wonder why she never learned Chinese.

    I’m not trying to judge her but I just think its really sad that she never took the initiative to learn and understand
    her own heritiage.

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