The 2003 series Becoming American: Personal Journeys was a three-part series of conversations with five prominent Chinese Americans who have contributed greatly to American life. In Bill’s conversation with writer Gish Jen, they discussed her ethnic identity and her Irish American husband’s identity, and what it means to Chinese American or Irish American. You can access the original Web page for this program at the archived Becoming American: Personal Joruneys website.
BILL MOYERS: You once said that writing depends on an amiable irritant. What exactly is an amiable irritant?
GISH JEN: Yeah, well, that’s not my phrase. That phrase is from Philip Roth. I think he developed it under circumstances that are similar to mine in the sense that he had identities assigned to him by society which he found very irritating. I know that these irritants help me over come other anti- writing feelings such as, general sloth, embarrassment, whatever, a desire to make a living.
But yeah, for me growing up Asian American, having been a child of immigrant parents– all of that difficulty did serve as a kind of amiable irritant, the grain of sand that hopefully produces the pearl.
BILL MOYERS: So, you think your writing would have been different had you not been the daughter of immigrant parents?
GISH JEN: Absolutely. I’m not even sure that I would have been a writer.
BILL MOYERS: Why?
GISH JEN: Oh, I don’t know. In many ways I’m very social. Maybe too social to be a writer. I think I am a person who on one hand can find deep satisfaction in holing up with my computer day after day after day. But in another way I could have done something very different, if I hadn’t had so much stuff to deal with. I kind of had to become a writer. Sometimes I imagine that someday I’ll be done with my stuff and then I won’t write anymore. But that day has not come.
BILL MOYERS: Stuff. What kind of stuff?
GISH JEN: Well, early on, of course, it was the whole business of trying to make sense of two very different worlds that I was living in. The immigrant world and the mainstream world and all that that meant.
It really just wasn’t a matter of: you ate with chopsticks and they ate with forks but the whole difference in the way that people thought. I came from a world where– in every sentence– in everything they did there was this idea that there were obstacles everywhere that one could not simply go out and do what one wanted. That one had to be canny and one had to be smart because the world opposed you.
And then I would go out into the mainstream world where it was assumed that you got what you wanted. Wasn’t that what the world was for? To provide for us?
BILL MOYERS: Did you feel between two worlds?
GISH JEN: Absolutely. And of course, I grew up in a time before we had that phrase “between two worlds” ? So I didn’t even have that. I simply had this feeling that, “My goodness, I know people who think so differently about the world, in the most fundamental ways.” Well, what am I gonna do with that?
I don’t think I asked myself that explicitly but I did have this feeling that you could step through a door and step into a completely different reality at any moment. And I think that that dissonance led me to become a writer.
BILL MOYERS: You were born in America of immigrant parents?
GISH JEN: Yes.
BILL MOYERS: Where were they from?
GISH JEN: My parents are from China. My mother was from Shanghai from the city. And my father was from outside the city.
BILL MOYERS: Talk about how they got here.
GISH JEN: Well, they both came in the 1940s. My mother came for education. At that time, it was called “gilding the lily”. It was something the upper class families did. They sent their girls abroad for a little graduate school. Not that they were ever gonna have to earn a living or anything. But it was sort of a nice thing to do.
And my father came as part of the war effort. He was a hydraulics engineer. And back at the end of the second World War there was talk of opening a second front against the Japanese in Shanghai. And so they needed some harbor engineers to come over and help coordinate that.
And so my father was sent, overland of course because the Pacific was too dangerous to cross. He was sent over the hump, as they say, over the Himalayas into India and all the way across Europe, all the way across the Atlantic. By the time he got there the war was over. (LAUGHTER)
BILL MOYERS: Typical Army papers, right?
GISH JEN: Exactly. Exactly.
BILL MOYERS: But [things didn’t] go that way.
GISH JEN: Exactly. And then by the time he got here he said, “Well, maybe I’ll stay and go to graduate school.” And so he did. Neither one of my parents ever planned to stay. For them it was a little adventure. But of course, that was before the Communists took over.
BILL MOYERS: And they couldn’t go back?
GISH JEN: Yeah, it was one of things that was very complicated about the time and what not many people realize is that a lot of the Chinese technical students were held here illegally against their will. They actually wanted to go back. My father and his fellow students wanted to go back. A lot of them did. Of course, their families are there. you can imagine if you were in China and something happened here. Of course you want to go home.
But the US government was afraid that they would help the Communists. And so they kind of cut a deal with the Guo Ming Dang [the KMT] to keep the students here. Or at least that’s what my parents always told me.
BILL MOYERS: When did your father come actually?
GISH JEN: It would have been about 1945.
BILL MOYERS: Well, at that time I wouldn’t think many Americans thought Chinese knew very much about the world, right?
GISH JEN: Yes.
BILL MOYERS: I mean, Chinese Americans were a very small number at that time. And there was a great deal of indifference if not outright hostility that grew out of the past.
GISH JEN: Oh, absolutely. And of course, this business of keeping the technical students here because they’re so valuable well, three years earlier it was perceived that they probably don’t even know very much math.
My father worked– was out in the field with some engineer. He’s actually a very highly trained person. They would give him algebra books and he would give them back and say, “Well, I can do that.” And they would give him a trigonometry book and he would hand it back and say, “I can do that too.” They really didn’t quite believe it.
BILL MOYERS: What was the story of the bridge?
GISH JEN: There was a very funny story where my father was out in field and there was this bridge. I guess it’s a trust bridge and it needed repair and they were having trouble getting this piece in. So, my father said, “Well, if you park a truck on the end of the bridge it basically take the stress out of the piece, then you’ll be able to fix it.”
But of course, this was in the days when no one thought that Chinese could do engineering. They just kind of said, go back to your trig book, right?
So they struggled for another three or four hours and my father says again, “If you park a truck at the end of the bridge you’ll be able to fix this.” And they were like, “– ” , I’m not sure if they really understand what he’s saying.
And so they go on and after about eight hours someone finally said, ” What’s with parking a truck on the end of the bridge?” And sure enough they fixed it just fine.
Something very interesting about my dad. I think a lot of people would have told that story with great bitterness. Look at that, they looked down on me. All those assumptions all day, all that prejudice. My father always thought it was the biggest joke in the world.
BILL MOYERS: How did he feel when he was told he could not go back to China, go home?
GISH JEN: Well, that was not so funny. I think there were all those students were offered citizenship under a refugee act. And my father said, “I am not a refugee.” I mean, they were very insulted, and they did not think it was funny.
My father refused to become a US citizen with the result that for many years he was in this country with no status. He was not a citizen of any country.
BILL MOYERS: He was not even between two worlds; he was–
GISH JEN: No, he was in no world. Yeah.
BILL MOYERS: You grew up in Yonkers, a suburb north of New York City. What was it like for you there?
GISH JEN: Well, I have to say that a lot went on in that suburb that was not so easy, and it was not funny. We were the only Chinese family in that area, and it was kind of a rough neighborhood. So, definitely people threw rocks at us. My brother was beaten up so frequently that my mother finally sent him to judo school so that he could learn to defend himself. I mean, it was not pretty.
BILL MOYERS: This is a working class neighborhood?
GISH JEN: A working class neighborhood.
BILL MOYERS: You were clearly the outsider.
GISH JEN: Sometimes, when I’m talking to my son, and I’m trying to explain to him what my childhood was like and I say to him, “You gotta understand, when someone threw a snow ball we never knew whether or not there would be a rock in it.” To him, it was of course, why would anybody throw a snowball at you with a rock in it?
BILL MOYERS: You were very young, right?
GISH JEN: Yeah, I was probably five or six.
BILL MOYERS: What does this do to your psyche, the way you see the world?
GISH JEN: That’s a good question. I mean, I have to say that, it did make us pretty defensive. And it did have a tendency to make us wary, more apt to depend on family than on outsiders.
And don’t get me wrong, a lot of people were very kind to us. Of course my parents are proud people. It was a little hard to accept the kindness also. I mean, they had been aristocrats and then all of a sudden people are like, “Oh, we’ll take your daughter to ballet?” On one hand they had to accept. On the other hand it was not easy for them.
BILL MOYERS: Then you moved to an upscale community, Scarsdale? Did things change for you?
GISH JEN: Yes, it’s a very, very, very, very different kind of community. For one thing. Scarsdale is predominantly Jewish. I think probably it was really maybe 40 percent Jewish. But there were enough Jews so that it was felt to be quite a Jewish community.
And so they were acquainted with what it meant to be a minority. So, this was a place where a minority was sort of the majority. And of course, as a community it was completely committed to being open and embracing and so on.
It was still awkward there too in many ways. But always in well intentioned ways. People would sort of say, “We’d love to hear more about your traditions.” Maybe I didn’t really want to talk about my traditions. But in any case it was never mean. Nobody ever threw anything at us.
BILL MOYERS: Talk about the differences in the culture inside the Chinese home and the American home and how these came to play out in how you were raised?
GISH JEN: Well, we could talk for an entire hour just about that. But, certainly there were some things about the Chinese family that I was happy to escape, I will say. There was a view that the girl’s education was not as important as the boy’s. I know it’s true of a lot of immigrant families. It’s very pronounced in a Chinese family.
Certainly there were a lot of views about what a nice Chinese girl did and that did not include becoming an author, I hardly need to point out. There was a way that, if I had not grown up in Scarsdale, New York, in a culture where writing was this great thing, I don’t know that I ever would have thought to pick up a pen. So, in that way, I’m deeply grateful to the mainstream culture.
On the other hand certainly in my home culture, this kind of familiarity, it might not always be a complete picture of peace. But certainly, you have a feeling of contact with other people. The kind of anime (PH) and isolation that I see in a lot of mainstream family experiences. You don’t experience that in a Chinese family. Everybody is close.
BILL MOYERS: Once your parents had to stay here, did they say, “Well, we know our children are going to be American and we’re going to raise them as American?” Or did they still want to raise you within the traditional Chinese ethos?
GISH JEN: Yeah, well, for my parents, it took them a while to realize that they were really, truly stuck here. These Communists were not going away; they really had taken power.
But once they finally accepted that they decided on a move which was considered quite progressive at the time– to bring us up English speaking and to bring us up as Americans. And my mother said that she hoped that our English would be good enough that somebody listening in the next room would think that our parents were American.
And they succeeded. When I was in college, one of my boyfriends said, “Okay, if you close your eyes and listen to Gish, what do you hear?” And they all said, “New York Jew.” (LAUGHTER)
BILL MOYERS: So, your parents succeeded then?
GISH JEN: They did. All too well maybe.
BILL MOYERS: Did they speak Chinese in the home?
GISH JEN: Yeah, they did. But mostly around Christmas time as it was always for things that they were trying to keep secret from us. I have to say today of course I greatly regret this. I have taken beginning Chinese 100 times and I’m still working on my Chinese.
BILL MOYERS: You’d like to know Chinese now?
GISH JEN: Of course.
BILL MOYERS: You don’t need it now.
GISH JEN: Well, now I need it more than ever.
BILL MOYERS: Why?
GISH JEN: Well, I think I do because I am 47– I’m gonna be 48 later this year — I’m at that age where you suddenly realize that your parents are not gonna live forever and all your heritage [is going to die]. If you don’t know what happened in your family, if you don’t speak the language it’s gonna die.
I mean, you suddenly realize like, “Oh, my God.” You can’t depend on your parents to translate things for you forever. Now it seems greatly life enriching. And I guess, (UNINTEL) growing up, you just want to define yourself, you want to make yourself.
BILL MOYERS: You want to be like everybody else.
GISH JEN: Well, partly that partly you want to be yourself. You don’t want to just be your parent’s daughter. You want to be yourself. I don’t know that becoming a writer is exactly like being everybody else either.
GISH JEN: In the beginning, you want acceptance. And then later on you want self realization. Maybe that is a way of being like everybody else here in America.
BILL MOYERS: Well, that’s very American, isn’t it?
GISH JEN: It is.
BILL MOYERS: The business of inventing ourselves?
GISH JEN: Yeah, it is. But one hopes that one will somehow bring some inner essence out and make it manifest.
And of course, one hopes has nothing to do with one’s parents whatsoever. And also I have to say, in a context where so much of the world is telling you, “You’re Chinese, you’re Chinese, you’re Chinese”, there is a way in which you want to say, “Actually that is one part of what I am. But it is not all of what I am. It does not define me. So, there is a way in which you try to push it away from you a little bit because it threatens to color everything.
BILL MOYERS: Has this informed your writing? Is this one of the reasons you write?
GISH JEN: Well, sure. Part of my writing has been an effort to claim my American- ness in a way that does not deny my Chinese heritage. People ask me, “Oh, those Chinese shoes? You must know where to get them.”
There’s something baffling about Chinese politics. I think pretty much every Asian American has had the experience of being in some meeting and everything is going along fine and something comes up with Asia and everybody turns to look at them.
And I will point out that, it’s not just the things having to do with China, it’s things having to do with Japan or Indonesia or whatever. They still look at you as if you must have some insider knowledge.
But early on, my project, like everybody, was define myself as an American, to define myself irrespective of my parents, irrespective of these messages I was getting from society, to really be my own person.
In some ways I viewed it as probably dangerous to know Chinese, the same way that for women it could be a mixed thing to know how to type because if you can type, you will type. If I had spoken Chinese, there’s so much pressure for me to play this ambassador role. It’s difficult to resist.
Now, everybody knows that I wrote the book after turning Jewish and staying Jewish. (LAUGHTER) No one would dare ask me whether I spoke Chinese. But the whole idea is that my authority as a writer, it clearly does not stem from my knowledge of the old country. It clearly stems from something else.
Now, it’s kind of safe for me to go back. To really think. To get the old stories, to really bring up my language and my identity is born now. It’s not going to change.
BILL MOYERS: What were your parents’ expectations of you? They must have been huge?
GISH JEN: \Well, yes and no. Whatever their expectations were they were mostly worried that I would not get married. I think that their perception early on was that I was far too outspoken and headstrong for a nice Chinese girl and that was gonna be trouble.
BILL MOYERS: Was education important in their scheme for you?
GISH JEN: I have to say that as the years went on, it became more important. But early on they totally did not care. I was a girl, and that was not what was important.
Quite the contrary, I was often told that I was too smart. Again, too smart to be marriageable. It was fine if I was gonna be smart as long as nobody knew. I definitely got the mixed message about education.
As a result, I have to say, there have been good things about it. Oh, I don’t know. Today, when I look at these kids and how hard they work, I definitely never felt that I had to perform up to some level and I had to spend all of my time trying to get to that level or whatever. I had a great time and I paid no attention whatsoever to my school work. It did not seem to matter at all as far that I can tell.
And in a funny kind of way it might have fed my creativity that I had all this time. I was kind of on my own. Nobody really was paying too much attention to what I was doing.
BILL MOYERS: Did they applaud when you decided to become a writer?
GISH JEN: Oh, no. That was a disaster.
BILL MOYERS: Why?
GISH JEN: Well, by that time of course, they had begun to think that well, if nothing else I was going to have to have enough skills to support myself. I went to Stanford Business School for a year and dropped out to become a writer. I remember my parents were both very distressed about this.
My father said to me, “You have to have a meal ticket.” And interestingly he said to me– and this shows some evolution on his part too of course, he said, “If you don’t have a meal ticket your husband will treat you badly.” It was interesting. And so, you can sort of see their thoughts and how it had come quite a long way.
BILL MOYERS: And writing was not a meal ticket.
GISH JEN: No, it’s definitely not a meal ticket.
BILL MOYERS: Did you call home and say, “I’m gonna decide who I am. I’m gonna write a novel?”
GISH JEN: Oh, yes. And now that I’m a parent I completely understand where they’re coming from. People often ask me, “Well, would you want your child to become a writer?” And of course I would never prevent them from becoming writers, but I would start saving now. (LAUGHTER)
BILL MOYERS: So, you went to Stanford Business School?
GISH JEN: I did.
BILL MOYERS: Intending to get into business?
GISH JEN: I don’t know. It’s one of these things where I always say that I became a writer by process of elimination. I had already been pre-med and pre-law so that only left business school, one thing I had never been interested in at all.
And one thing about being able to write, you get into everything because you can write. But the minute I got there I was like, “What am I doing here?” I think I read 100 novels, and I spent the entire year taking writing classes. I never went to any of my business classes at all.
BILL MOYERS: What did your parents say when you told them this?
GISH JEN: Well, I didn’t tell them that I wasn’t going to class but by the time second year rolled around and it was just clear to me that I was– I think I over- slept the first day of class and then I overslept the second day. I overslept the third day. And by the end of the week it was clear to me that I was never going to class and I should just drop out.
And of course my parents would be very upset– very, very upset. My mother didn’t talk to me for almost a year. My sibs also. Everybody was like, “Will you please stop this. Do you realize you’re ruining Christmas? Just stop it?”
But it really wasn’t me. For whatever reason I’ve never been able to do anything I didn’t want to do. And I really didn’t want to do it.
BILL MOYERS: And why did you decide on writing? You had to make a commitment at some point. Why did say this is the way?
GISH JEN: There did come a point where I was able to get myself into whatever other schools and it always seemed that I could do other things. But I don’t know. One morning I woke up and I guess I realized that I was gonna be on my death bed someday. Someday, I’d be lying there and my parents would be long dead. And I realized that if I had not even tried to become a writer that I would be full of regret.
I mean, it sounds sort of morbid but it is true. And I think at that moment I realized like, “Oh, my God. My life is my own.” And I just realized that yeah, I would never forgive myself. And at that point, I just had to try.
BILL MOYERS: You were glib about it but you did pass beyond the point when I asked you about your parents’ response. I mean, this must have been somehow difficult for them to know that you were gonna become a writer. Because as I understand it, in the Chinese home there are expectations for the child. And they do expect you to fulfill those expectations. And for you to announce that you were taking this– not reckless but uncertain path, that you were going out to do something that was foreign to them. This must have been a blow.
GISH JEN: Yeah, it was scary to them. And of course, looking back, when I see how much instability they had lived themselves–the loss of the country, their home, I mean everything. When we were younger we had no money, we drank powdered milk, you know, that sort of thing?
Bit by bit they had built up the family, they had gotten us into good schools. Their daughter had gone to Harvard and then she had gotten into Stanford Business School and I was gonna throw it all away and go onto who knew what. Yeah, they were very upset.
BILL MOYERS: And for them to cut you off. As you said, your mother didn’t speak to you for a year?
GISH JEN: Yeah, for many, many, many, many months– many months. I think they couldn’t understand it. And it was also such an assertion of the self. It’s so I.
BILL MOYERS: So American. I think it’s so American.
GISH JEN: Yeah. I mean, besides the fact that I wasn’t going to business school I was doing something which is so individualistic, that was very counter to their whole culture.
BILL MOYERS: Did they cut you off financially?
GISH JEN: Yes. Yes, that was also very difficult for me. It was a very difficult period. I myself wondered what I was doing. Like I say, I had this feeling like I had to do it. I had this feeling like I had no choice. You know what I mean? I kept on seeing myself lying there dead– almost dead. And I just felt that I just couldn’t live any other way.
BILL MOYERS: When did they change their mind?
GISH JEN: Well, slowly, slowly. First they realized– Well, I think the first big step, in their accepting what I had done was when I married my husband who I have to say is the epitome of everything that they approved of. He had gone to Harvard. He had gone to Stanford Business School. He had a good job. So, when we got married I think a lot of their anxiety was greatly reduced.
BILL MOYERS: Was he an American of Chinese descent?
GISH JEN: No, he’s of Irish descent.
BILL MOYERS: So, you were marrying an Irishman?
GISH JEN: Well, you’ve got to understand the circumstances. I think I alluded to how unmarriageable they thought I was. My father had said to me, “We’d be happy if you married a dog.” (LAUGHTER)
BILL MOYERS: No comment.
GISH JEN: No comment. But they were just relieved that some nice guy was going to marry me. And really and truly my husband is a very, very nice man.
BILL MOYERS: I’m sure of that.
GISH JEN: — except that he had, you know, blue eyes and a beard.
BILL MOYERS: Here you were, you were becoming a writer and you were marrying an Irishman.
GISH JEN: Yeah, like I said they were just relieved. (LAUGHTER) They were relieved I was getting married at all.
BILL MOYERS: When you married “outside the Chinese-American community”, how did they react?
GISH JEN: I think they could see it coming. I mean, I think that they could see that I didn’t have a lot of Asian-Americans around me.
Today if you go to Harvard, there are tons of them, tons. But back when I went to school, we were still a very, very small minority. And the numbers were just against us. Plus, I think that my parents recognized, early on, that I was so far from the Chinese-American ideal. (LAUGHS)
I think they understood that early on, that I was never gonna be the sort of wife who made the soup just right and went and got slippers. And they could just see that. I don’t think by the time I got married that this was any great shock.
BILL MOYERS: Even though it was an Irishman?
GISH JEN: Even it was an Irishman. At least he had degrees.
BILL MOYERS: And so much irony in that, because then the past, it was the Irish who–
GISH JEN: Oh, I know. No kidding.
BILL MOYERS: –took all the Chinese out in California–
GISH JEN: That’s right, that’s right.
BILL MOYERS: But that’s the American story you’re writing here. You’re living it here. You’re not writing it. You’re living it here.
GISH JEN: That’s right. But you know what? My parents, because they immigrated so late, had really no awareness of that history, I mean, the dimmest awareness. And they did not identify with those Chinese, either. As far as they’re concerned, those are the California Chinese. They were railroad workers; we were educated, so on and so forth. They didn’t see themselves as related to them at all.
BILL MOYERS: What did they think when TYPICAL AMERICAN, your first book, was such a success?
GISH JEN: Well, they were happy enough. It was fine. But there was a moment where suddenly it became more than fine.
It actually became great. I had been in THE NEW YORKER and I’d been in TIME MAGAZINE, you name it, I had been there. None of this really meant very much to them. I mean, they would still look at the notices. They would say that’s fine. But then I was in the WORLD JOURNAL, which is the Chinese newspaper. And they ran this piece on the front page of the paper.
(LAUGHS) And it was like a wedding announcement. It was, “Gish Jen, daughter of Norman and Agnes Jen,…” And of course, all of their friends called. People called from Canada. And just like that, it was alright.
BILL MOYERS: Like a wedding announcement?
GISH JEN: Yes. (LAUGHS)
BILL MOYERS: One of the reasons I was eager to talk to you is because in your work, you keep wrestling with this question of what it means to become an American, to be an American. And I’m wondering if you come to any conclusions about what it means to be an American today.
GISH JEN: Well, I don’t know if you can actually say that there’s one definition. But it is striking to me that Americans ask themselves certain kinds of questions.
And it does seem to me that by the time you ask yourself, “Well, what does it mean to be Iranian-American, Chinese-American, Jewish-American, Irish American,” you are American ’cause it’s not a question that people ask in other parts of the world.
BILL MOYERS: A reviewer said of your work, “If the American immigrant experience is most often construed as a process of merging and gradual assimilation like traffic on the freeway, then Gish Jen’s version resembles a busy intersection with everybody laying on the horn.” Is that an accurate description?
GISH JEN: Probably. Probably. I’ve always been interested, in my books, not only just in capturing the Chinese-American experience, but the whole American experience.
And all the many groups kind of jostling and intermingling and banging against each other and coming together both.
BILL MOYERS: Like bumper cars?
GISH JEN: It is like bumper cars. I’ve always tried to capture that quality, rather than simply write about one group in isolation.
BILL MOYERS: What’s interesting about your work is it’s not just for Chinese-Americans. I mean, the rest of us learn something about us in it, about what it means to become an American.
GISH JEN: Yeah, I hope so. I hope so. I am writing very much with this idea that the American experience includes the Chinese-American experience.
And the Chinese-American experience is very much part of that experience. But that it’s a larger phenomenon.
BILL MOYERS: Do you think that you can write true to one’s ethnic past and true to the American experience too? They are the same, aren’t they, in effect? They merge at some point?
GISH JEN: I do think so. I don’t think that you need to erase all the particulars of the Chinese-American experience in order to capture the essential American experience.
There’s this idea that if you want to make it American, that you have to erase the particularities. But I don’t think that’s true at all. I think you can write right through them and still come out with something which is recognizably American.
BILL MOYERS: Talk to me about what it’s like raising two children when their mother is American of Chinese decent and their father is American of Irish decent. What’s it like for them? What’s it like for you?
GISH JEN: Well, for us it’s perfectly normal. It’s just our family. Do you know what I mean? It’s not like we have another idea of another family that would be more normal. To us, this is normal. And in quite a wonderful way.
It is true that there’s been kind of a tendency, I think, from society, to just make us more Asians, or more Asian-American than we are Irish American, which has been sort of interesting. But we’ve tried to resist that, as best we have been able.
And we’ve tried to make something which is not about just kind of two things coming together. Biracial kids are called half/half, but–
BILL MOYERS: Half Chinese, half American?
GISH JEN: Yeah, it always sounds like mismatched socks or something. (LAUGHTER) You know what I mean?
We try to make something which is not half/half, which is something whole and new and integrated.
BILL MOYERS: Tell me about your two children.
Now, do they look like their Irish father or their Chinese mother?
MALE VOICE: Interestingly, they look like each other. They look like both me and my husband. But I don’t think they look more like my husband than they look like me, or vice versa. Their facial features are very alike– so alike that if you looked at their black and white baby photos you could not tell them apart. Interestingly though, their hair color is very different. My son has straight black hair and therefore is often kind of typed as Asian-American, whereas my daughter has very light brown hair and therefore is often typed as Caucasian.
BILL MOYERS: Do you talk to your son about this?
GISH JEN: Yeah, I talked to him a little bit about it. He’s not that interested. He’s in a school where there are lots of Asian-Americans, lots of biracial kids- multi-racial kids. To him, it’s no big deal one way or the other.
He’s never experienced a moment of discrimination that he can remember. It’s a relatively minor part of his childhood.
What’s been very interesting to us is the way my daughter was treated, which is quite differently than the way my son is treated. I mean, there is a sense that maybe she’s not quite my daughter.
I noticed this from strangers. I do wonder about the effects of this gaze on her. People will ask me, “Is she yours?” For awhile, we had a German au pair six-foot-two, blond. And everybody assumed that she was the mother and I was the nanny. It’s made me think a lot about what we consider natural, how much we depend on things matching in some way, kind of the visual cues are so important to us somehow in our idea of what a natural grouping is. And I do think that as a society, we need to get beyond that.
BILL MOYERS: Who do you think we are now? Where do you think we are in this whole question of becoming American? More immigrants have come here in the last ten years than in the last 100 years. Where do you think we are with inventing this new identity?
GISH JEN: Well, I think sometimes it’s going well, and sometimes it’s not going so well. Obviously, since 9/11, things have not been going so well.
I think before that, we’d experienced a rate of (UNINTEL) change which is really very remarkable. From the time of Civil Rights until 1990, it was unbelievable, truly. Just as a writer, I know that. Like I say, this is such a small window onto what was happening. But I went from a writer where I was writing stories today would be seen as being between worlds but early on, were seen as totally baffling, as maybe not about anything.
I had this story called “In the American Society” which today every college freshman can tell you, “This is about being between worlds.” But when that story first came out, editors wrote to me. It was like, “Well, wonderful writing. But what’s it about?” They couldn’t see.
‘Cause there’s a laundry list of things that a story might be about, man and nature, coming of age. If it’s not any of them, it must not be about anything.
So we went from this old kind of thinking to this new kind of thinking where, “Oh well of course.” You just called this book “Typical American.” It’s about Chinese-Americans. Can we really do that?
I still remember my agent. “Well, what is this story about? It’s about coming to America.” Today it’s, “Oh, it’s an immigrant novel?” Yeah well, in 1990, people were all like, “What are you gonna call this?” I’ve seen a fantastic amount of change, kind of (UNINTEL PHRASE) change that has very much married the social change. It’s been incredibly fast.
First blacks said, “I’m black and I’m proud.” Then, “I’m Jewish and I’m proud.” Now everybody’s proud.
Now we have the opposite problem. There are so many groups on campus, they all have their own dorms. That’s its own problem. But that all happened in what, 30 years or something? But I have to say that I think now since 9/11, I do wonder–
BILL MOYERS: A lot of people still face terrible discrimination and economic difficulties.
GISH JEN: Yes. I have to say both. But compared to many other societies where they don’t ever see that kind of change to begin with, there was something there that was fast and American and full of possibility. But even that kind of leading edge of change —
BILL MOYERS: How do you think this will all play out in your children’s lives? You’ve got Irish and Chinese in there.
GISH JEN: I think my children will be fine. I’m hoping. I mean luckily my children are not from the Middle East. [My children] are not gonna be the first target of a lot of the backlash.
But I have to say that as a country, I think that so much of the progress we were able to make was based on a sense that we were secure. We could be open. We’re like the Tong Dynasty, we were the top of our gig. We could afford to start to be open. I think now people are worried and afraid. I hear it’s already very much more difficult for immigrants to get visas. I don’t know what will happen. But I have to say it doesn’t feel very hopeful.
BILL MOYERS: What are you going to do in China next month?
GISH JEN: Oh, well, it’s a personal thing. I am going to China for six months on a Fulbright. I’ll be teaching. I am bringing my two children. My husband is gonna come visit. Unfortunately, he can’t stay the whole time. But I’m going for many reasons. Partly, of course, I want to bring my children. Partly I want go while my parents can still go. My father’s 84. There won’t be too many more trips. And partly, I guess I do realize that I’m at the age where I have to know all the family stories, that I can’t rely on my parents to be the repository. I’m not always gonna be able to ask them. So I am going in some ways, to really make that link with China as strong as I can, just so that it’s not lost. Like I say, I don’t think it defines me. But that’s our heritage. I don’t want my children not to know where my parents came from. I want them to know.
BILL MOYERS: So, it’s a roots trip?
GISH JEN: Yeah, it’s a roots trip. (LAUGHS) Finally, who can believe it?
BILL MOYERS: And yet, all of your experience has been in this country as an American?
GISH JEN: I’ve been to China a couple times to visit. I mean, I was there to teach in ’91 and I’ve always been interested, but I’ve been more interested in sort of the journey from the old world to the new world than I have in just the old world per se.
I’ve always been interested in the becoming, in the transition. Well, this is a little bit different. This is all different.
BILL MOYERS: Helen Zia says in her book and told me when I interviewed her, “The issue for us isn’t anymore becoming an American.
“We’ve shown that we are American in every way of our– we like hot dogs. We like baseball. We like fast cars. The issue still for us is being accepted as an American.” Do you agree with that?
GISH JEN: I think there were times when it’s still an issue. I think two things. One thing as– what I have come to realize is that this business of not being accepted an American does not only affect Asian-Americans.
It affects so many people. You sort of wonder who really feels unequivocally American, honestly. It seems that many, many people are subject to this feeling of slight estrangement. That’s the first thing.
And the second thing I would say is that in my experience, if you claim America, no one will dispute your claim. No one’s gonna hand it to you but if you say, “Well, this is mine,” no one is gonna stop you, either. And that’s been very empowering for me.
BILL MOYERS: Thank you very much.
GISH JEN: You’re very welcome.