I went to Lisa See’s book signing last week with two work friends, Nat and Annie, both Asian. Confession: none of us had read her books but we’ve all heard of them and even were planning to read them someday. We were a tad late so we had to sit in the aisle on stools because the room was chock full of Empty-Nester aged women, some who seemed to have traveled a great distance to see Lisa See. An introduction was made and Lisa See stepped out. We all did a double-take … WTF? Lisa See is not what we expected to see. Described as an Asian American author, she didn’t look Asian at all. Furiously typing into our iPhones, we Googled her nationality. Yes, she is indeed 1/8 Asian (and we calculated: so that means a great-grand parent is Asian), and then, over our initial shock, we settled down to listen to her speak.
She’s fascinating and lovely. And in fact, more Asian than I am though I am 50% Chinese and 50% Chinese (and married to a Korean). She grew up in Los Angeles’ Chinatown. That alone makes her more Chinese than I am. I grew up driving one hour once a month to eat and shop there. (I wonder if we ate at the same restaurants??) She spent 5 years learning and speaking Mandarin. I spent one tortured year studying Chinese from a group of cold calling Tiger Moms and remember nothing.
OK, we’re the same. Lisa claims to retain nothing as well. I don’t believe her. She does speak her family’s dialect which I didn’t catch. I don’t. In fact, I don’t know what dialect my father’s town speaks. She knows an amazing amount of Chinese history. I studied Japanese history in college because it was a shorter period of time.
She may not look Asian but she’s definitely more Asian than I am!
My friend Nat found more fascinating information about Lisa See’s ethnic heritage in this interview: Stuck in the Middle (Time Magazine) by Lisa See
In 1871 my great-grandfather Fong See, an illiterate peasant, left his village in southern China for Sacramento, California, in search of his father, who had disappeared during the building of the transcontinental railroad. At about the same time, Letticie Pruett’s family crossed America in a covered wagon and homesteaded in Oregon. By the late 1890s, after years of manual labor, Fong See owned the Curiosity Bizarre, which manufactured underwear for brothels. Letticie had run away from home and ended up in Sacramento. When no one would hire a single, uneducated woman, she drifted into Chinatown and the Curiosity Bizarre, where she begged Fong See for a job. He hired her, one thing led to another, and they decided to get married.
It was against the law in California and many other states for Chinese and Caucasians to marry. It was also against the law for Chinese to own property in California, and unlawful at the federal level for Chinese to become naturalized citizens. These laws had grown out of the so-called “Driving Out,” when Chinese had literally been driven from Western towns�when they weren’t hung, shot, burned or stabbed by members of the white community, who had no fear of retribution because Chinese could not testify in court against Caucasians. What started as informal harassment was formalized with the Exclusion Act of 1882, which barred the immigration of Chinese laborers and led to even more institutionalized racism.
But with a contract marriage drawn up by a lawyer, my great-grandparents set out to achieve the American Dream. Fong See and Letticie raised five mixed-race children and ran five antique stores in southern California. Fong See became the patriarch of Los Angeles Chinatown. He was the first Chinese in the U.S. to own an automobile and was one of the few Chinese to do business with the white community by selling props to the nascent film industry and antiques to customers like Frank Lloyd Wright. Despite these successes, Fong See’s four sons — all American-born citizens — had to go to Mexico to marry their Caucasian fiances.
Drop down another two generations. I am only one-eighth Chinese, with red hair and freckles. People often ask me where I fit in and how I define myself. My answer has to do with where I grew up and what I saw around me. Fong See had four wives, as Chinese traditional codes dictate for men with great wealth and prowess, so the Chinese side of my family in Los Angeles numbers close to 400, with only a handful that look like me. It’s been 130 years since my great-great-grandfather left China, and we’ve become educated, changed our way of dress and lost our Cantonese. But there’s a deep core that connects to our peasant ancestors.
Many small rituals in my daily life mirror what I experienced as a child. I tell my sons to put only what they’re going to eat on their plates, and I still pick at their discarded chicken bones. When they want comfort food, I cook them rice. (Shortly after going to college, my older son called to announce happily that the girls next door had a rice cooker.) When my younger son boasted that he’d told his chemistry teacher to stop checking her e-mail during class, I made him go back the next day with a gift of a perfect orange and an apology.
I do look different, and nothing will ever change that or people’s reactions. At my baby shower, some friends mistook my father, a professor, for a Chinese waiter. I’ve had Chinese Americans and Chinese-in-China talk about me as though I weren’t there: “I had a cousin from the south who looked like her, but her hair is disgusting.” On book tours, Caucasians will often ask point-blank, “Why would you choose to be Chinese when you have all the privileges of being white?” Given my family and the era in which I grew up, I don’t know that I had a choice.
The last of America’s miscegenation laws were overturned in 1965. Intermarriage is common, and if you walk into a classroom today, it’s impossible to tell a child’s exact race, or what race or ethnicity he or she may identify with. You certainly can’t with my own sons, who are only one-sixteenth Chinese and otherwise Irish, English, Scottish, Spanish, Russian, German, Austrian and Polish. I tell them it’s up to them to choose their own identities just so long as they marry nice Chinese girls. They think I’m kidding. I’m not, really. Who, I wonder, is going to cook them their rice?
The ambiguity in which she grew up — Asian American but looking Caucasian — gives her a unique perspective reflected in her writing:
“At first glance, Lisa See would not seem to be a likely candidate for literary voice of Chinese-American women. With her flaming red hair and freckled complexion, she hardly adheres to any stereotypical conceptions of what an Asian-American woman should look like, however, her familial background has given her roots in Chinese culture that have fueled her eloquent, elegant, and exciting body of work.
See grew up in the Chinatown section of Los Angeles. Although she is only 1/8 Chinese, her upbringing provided her with a powerful connection to that fraction of herself. “I really grew up in this very traditional, old Chinese family,” she revealed in an interview with Barnes & Noble.com. “It was very traditional, but also quite magical in a lot of ways, because I really was in a very different culture then how I looked.”
See’s Chinese background was not the only aspect of her family that affected the course her life has taken. She also comes from a long line of writers and novelists. Her somewhat morose relatives initially led her to believe that writing must be the result of suffering and pain, which turned her off from literary pursuits at first. Ironically, despite her strong family roots, See only decided to try her hand at writing as a means of embarking on a lifestyle without roots. “I knew three things,” See said, “I never wanted to get married, I never wanted to have children, and I only wanted to live out of a suitcase. How am I gonna do it? And I was really thinking about it, and then one morning, I woke up, and it was truly like a light bulb went off — ‘Oh, I could be a writer!’ Many, many years later, here I am, married, I have children, [and] I am a writer.” Barnes and Nobles
Lisa See wasn’t at her book signing to talk about her ethnicity though she did touch upon it. In fact, she had a more interesting story to tell. It seems her oldest son upon graduating from Stanford, no less, was having a meltdown during a family vacation because he felt that his life had peaked. The more she comforted her son, the more depressed she became. When did she have her “moment?” Her family concurred, “Nope, you never had one.” This is despite having published four critically acclaimed novels and birthed AND raised two children!
Her epiphany was that, indeed, she did NOT have her moment and was going to dig deep for her next book. Her friends, agents, publishers, and family all agreed: “No one is going to want to read your new book about a friendship between two women set in China.” But she did not care and forged forward, going to dark and sad places that she had not had the courage to explore before.
The end result of this personal internal journey is Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, now out as a movie.
Have you seen the movie? What do you think? Did you read the book? She says the movie is very different than the book with a new modern story of the descendents of Snow Flower and Peony overlaid and woven through the story in her book. A kind of Julie and Julia twist, I suppose.
Her latest book is Dreams of Joy and the reviews are raves:
“One of those hard-to-put down-until-four in-the-morning books . . . With each new novel, Lisa See gets better and better.”—Los Angeles Times
“Once again, See’s research feels impeccable, and she has created an authentic, visually arresting world.”—The Washington Post
“A stunningly researched epic about revolutionary-era China.”—Los Angeles
“See is a gifted historical novelist. She illuminates a turning point in Chinese history when people still remembered the inequities of the feudal caste system, and in some cases embodied them. . . . See is unflinching in her willingness to describe it all.”—San Francisco Chronicle
“See’s fans will be glad to read more about Pearl, May and Joy, and See’s recurring themes of unbreakable family bonds and strong-willed women.”—The Oregonian
p.s. I didn’t realize that Snow Flower and the Secret Fan‘s producers are none other than Asian Trophy Wives Wendi Murdoch and Florance Sloan. I just read a great interview in Harper’s Bazaar here. And by “Asian Trophy Wives,” I mean that in the most flattering way: beautiful, smart and accomplished Asian women seem to be sought after by media moguls these days. I have a post on that here. Wendi Murdoch is mentioned in that article on Asian Trophy Wives though if you read the Harper’s article, she comes across as smart, accomplished and very, very together.
p.p.s Yes, this is the same Wendi Murdoch with the fast reflexes who deflected the shaving cream pie that was aimed for her husband, Rupert Murdoch. She may have clocked the assailant in the process, but, hey, he deserved it! Here’s a slow motion video of her.
Book Suggestions from Readers Along the Lines of Lisa See
Thank you to I Wu from her book suggestions.
Hi Mia-loved JadeLuckClub post on Lisa See! Suggest books:
1. Chinese novel Clear Sky + Serenity about local woman’s extraordinary journey pre-/post-Japan attack on China through Hong Kong, Taiwan to US, touching war, history, women in STEM, career/family balance, child/eldercare, immigration, multicultural themes.
2. How to Break the Glass Ceiling Without a Hammer: Career Strategies for Women Edited by Linda Ellis Eastman
To view any book more closely at Amazon, please click on image of book.