Writing Excuses 15.46: Crafting Chinese-American Characters
Key points: Are there representations of Chinese-American characters in media? Literature, TV, and movies do have representative characters, but it’s not as deep as it could be. Mostly focusing on how do you merge the two heritages, and recent immigrants or second-generation learning about early trials. Good characters are aware of stereotypes, and control them. They are aware of language. And then there’s food! Tastes, emotions, a metaphor for making connections with heritage? Comfort! Make the influences from the past little nods, spice for the character. How can you write about a culture that you didn’t grow up in? Admit that this is just your viewpoint. Focus on one character, one place, don’t claim that it represents everyone, just that one character’s life.
[Transcriptionist note: (1) I may have confused Piper and Tempest. Apologies for mislabeling. (2) I may have confused emigrant and immigrant.]
[Mary Robinette] Season 15, Episode 46.
[Piper] This is Writing Excuses, Crafting Chinese-American Characters.
[Dan] 15 minutes long.
[Yang] Because your time is valuable.
[No. No. Laughter]
[Dan] And we’re not that smart.
[That just finishes… Garbled]
[Yang] See, I was a Chinese-American… [Garbled]
[Piper] Getting back to… I’m Piper.
[Dan] I’m Dan.
[Yang] I’m Yang Yang.
[Tempest] I’m Tempest.
[Piper] This is already off the rails. So… I get to be Howard this time. This is the best. All right, so. Welcome to the next episode… Our continuing episode about Writing the Other. We are here with Yang Yang Wang.
[Piper] You’re so awesome. You do so many things. But, yes, when I said I want to do these episodes and we’re going to do them in Seattle, Nisi Shawl, who is the godmother, the mystical goddess of Writing the Other, was, like, “You should talk to Yang Yang.” So I think…
[Yang] Oh, thank you. Whoever she is.
[Piper] Thank you. Thank you so much, Nisi. Yes. So tell us a little bit about yourself, as an author, is a Chinese-American, as whatever.
[Yang] So, currently, I am an author and actor. I mostly specialize in commercials. I’ve done everything… Every brand in the Seattle area, from like Amazon to Microsoft to Washington State Lottery. I think it’s cool that I found some success in that. I feel like it’s a combination of good timing and my own personal brand. I don’t know if… For those who have met me, I have a very good, what they call a developer look. Believe it or not, that is very hot in Seattle.
[Yang] [garbled]… A lot of tech companies.
[Piper] In my day job, I actually work with a software development company, and I agree, you have a great developer look.
[Yang] Oh, thank you. Yeah, so besides that, I’ve been dipping my feet into more on the production side. I wrote and directed a short film last year which took a best short film award at the Oregon independent film festival.
[Yang] I recently just opened a short film at the Wing Luke Museum, who’s doing an exhibition on Asian Americans in science fiction. You should definitely check that out. Like, it is an amazing exhibit.
[Piper] Awesome. How cool. Yay. It’s not often we get someone with acting and writing experience. So, I guess the first thing I want to ask is about when you’re thinking about the kind of Chinese-American characters that you do see in media, whether that’s like film media or even books, first of all, do you see many? And, the ones that you see, are they the kind of characters that you would say, “Yes, I enjoy that depiction. That seems amazing. I would want every person to want to look at that, forever and ever, amen.”
[Yang] So, first of all, I would like to start off by saying that my opinions do not represent everyone else’s opinions.
[Yang] Just my own. I think, growing up, I did see Chinese-American characters in literature and on television or in movies. I would say that I did recognize them. I wouldn’t say that I felt, like, misrepresented. But at the same time, I felt like it just… It waded in the shallow end of the pool, if you will. I felt like there was more that could be depicted. A lot of the narratives that I was seeing was centered around like people struggling with merging their Chinese heritage and their American heritage. It would be a story about recent immigrants or like second-generation learning about their parents’ trials coming to this country. Being… So, my own story is that I came over here when I was nine years old. I felt, like, while I recognized some of the trials that those characters faced, like, I was not picked on in school anymore than anybody else. My name was not made fun of. You know, when your name’s Yang Yang Wang, there’s a lot of wordplay.
[garbled… Yeah, yeah… Places…]
[Yang] I picked out one of the ones I wanted to highlight is somebody called me… You know, Yankee Doodle Dandy, but they called me Yankee Doodle Wanger.
[Yang] But, yeah. Kids… But I’d like to, again, stress that kids being who they are, I was picked on no more or less than like any other kid at my school. So, while I recognize facets of this, I didn’t think that that was the complete story. So, like for me, some of the things that I think good Chinese-American characters are highly aware of are (a) their relationship to stereotypes, like, you grow up hearing these stereotypes and you decide and you have control over how you relate to them or not relate to them, how you let them affect you or not affect you, whether you want to embrace and make it your own. Because there’s that… Let’s take the example of, like, martial artists. While there’s that stereotype, all Chinese kids know martial arts. But some Chinese kids love martial arts. By performing martial arts, it’s not that they’re perpetuating the stereotype, but they are definitely aware that that stereotype exists, but they are taking control over it, and not letting it affect their love of this thing.
[Yang] Another thing being awareness of their relationship to language. I think whether or not you speak the language that your family, your ancestors, etc., like, did, you are aware of your level of relationship to that language. Like, what do you know, like, just a couple of words? Like whether you know a phrase. Whether you can just order a couple of food dishes at a restaurant. Maybe that’s enough. But for other people, like, it’s not, and it’s a source of like common guilt from their family, etc. But I find that language… It is definitely something that a lot of Chinese-Americans, including myself, like, are hyperaware of.
[Yang] The last one, I mentioned it before, was food. Like…
[It always comes back to food]
[Yang] Yeah, absolutely.
[So many things about my life are food.]
[I’m there for you]
[Yang] Yeah. I find that, for me, like, food is something… I consider it like a safe space, like, where people can sort of like experiment with traditional…
[Yang] And like mixing different influences, like, safely. But something about, like, food that really resonates with me is growing up, even without, like, knowing what it’s called, I will have experience, something… I’ll have eaten something and remember the taste and certain, like, emotions around it. I might have even, like, forgotten about this, but like years later, either going to a restaurant somewhere in America or somewhere back in China, I will essentially, like, rediscover this food and maybe this whole… Maybe the whole time in the back of my mind, like, this flavor will be, like, lingering and I’ll seek it, like some sort of extended metaphor for, like… I guess you could take it as an extended metaphor for, like, seeking a connection with, like, my heritage. But you don’t have to. It could be for some people, it could definitely be that. But for me, it’s just like seeking, like, a comfort and an emotional connection.
[Piper] oh, I think that’s really relatable. Because, for example, I’m Thai-American. I was actually born here, but I spent many, many summers of my childhood in Thailand. We just went to Thailand over the past New Year, and I took my partner, Matthew, with me. It was his first time in Thailand. So, it was one of those things where as soon as we got there, I hit the streets for the vendors, looking for my favorite things that I just can’t get here or I can’t find here. Or if I do find it here, it’s not the same flavor. I was looking for that flavor. So I think that that idea of comfort foods or that feeling… Another friend of mine, Phillipa Ballantine, who’s an author in steam punk and also epic fantasy, she was just recently back in New Zealand, and she pinged me just as I was getting back from Thailand. She was in New Zealand eating foods that she hadn’t had for quite some time. She had grown up in New Zealand. She’s like, “There’s something about eating this food that brings you home.” It’s really, really all about sensory, not just what you remember, but what you’re smelling and you’re tasting and you’re feeling, the emotions associated with it. So, yeah, I absolutely agree with that.
[I feel like there’s… Garbled]
[Tempest] there’s not enough, I feel like, about that in depictions where it’s like… Not like own voices writing, it’s writing the other. About just, like, all the foods that make us feel like who we are. Because, like, food is so important to just literally everyone.
[Piper] Oh, yes. I try to incorporate that a lot in my series. In fact, it got to the point where some people thought that I was… That they would be able to re-create a Chinese dish based on my Chinese-American heroine’s looking that she was doing through the course of a scene that I was describing, because she stress cooks.
[Piper] The only way they can get any information out of her, she’s like, “Look, you want me to answer your questions? Stand there. Let me cook, and I will answer your questions clearly. If you make me try to sit down, it’s not happening.” But, yeah, I mean, all of my series… I have a Korean American character who does the same thing. She has comfort foods, because she ended up in the hospital. Got shot at. Or actually exploded. But anyway…
[Piper] Either way… It’s romantic suspense, man. But either way, it comes back to what you’re saying about the food and wanted to see that and see how food brings you back… And not necessarily back, but deepens insight into who you are.
[Yang] Yeah, I guess it all comes back to the fact that, like, it’s like these little nods. To your… To the influences from your past. Like, it doesn’t need to dominate a character. It just needs to be… It’s like the spice, to go with the whole food metaphor, right?
[Yang] It’s like the spice to a character. But it doesn’t need to be like something… The only thing that a character obsessed is about or thinks over.
[Piper] All right. I’m going to stop us here, because I’ve been politely reminded that I totally forgot…
[Piper] To watch the time, and it is time for the book of the week.
[Piper] That is you. Would you please tell us what the book of the week is?
[Yang] I was just reading All Systems Red by Martha Wells. I think it is probably one of the… It’s got one of the best characters, Murderbot, that I’ve ever encountered.
[Yang] I’m super jealous, I wish I’d thought of this character first.
[Yang] I wish I could, like, steel list character and like put it in like all the settings, all the time periods that can possibly exist. Yeah, I know I’m a little late in reading this reticular one…
[It is never too late.]
[Yang] Yeah. I can’t… I say that it does not diminish my enjoyment of it anyway.
[Dan] That is All Systems Red by Martha Wells.
[Piper] Awesome. Thank you.
[Tempest] So, one of the things that I know that some people who are either from a diaspora culture or they’re from… They’re like [garbled] emigrants, they were brought to whatever cultures their family emigrated to when they were very young, so, like, most of their experience is in, like, the new culture, is they worry about whether or not their writing about the home culture would be considered writing the other, because it’s, like, it’s sort of my culture, but it’s not exactly my culture, because my culture is this, the culture that I mostly grew up in, and whatever. I know that there are, like, two aspects of it, there is the aspect of, like, from the inside, the person whose, like, having that thought about themselves, but then there’s also, like, the voices from the outside are like, “That’s not authentic.”
[Tempest] Oh, Lord, we could have a conversation about authenticity all day long, and we won’t.
[Tempest] But I’m actually, like, more concerned with, like, how… What would you say to authors who, like, they’re from a… They’re Chinese-American or they’re Indian-American or whatever. They want to write about China. They want to write about India. What are the kinds of things that they can do to feel less… or to just be aware of the complicated issues around that?
[Yang] Right. I guess, one of the first things that they can do is just acknowledge the fact that they are representing it from their own viewpoint. Like, they are not trying to assume any sort of authority over the subject matter. I mean, to be fair, even citizens from like a country, such as China, can’t necessarily write about China with all the nuance and all the complexity to do it justice for various reasons. Right? But I think after going past that, it’s a matter of… So, whenever I read about a character, I always think about the author. Like, I look at the back of the book and I read the little, like, blurb about who they are and where they come from, and, like, I try to think about their relationship to the subject matter. I think that as long as they have, like, the proper research and they have access they don’t try to tell me that this is how the country is. As long as I can see that there’s, like, room that they think the country is this way.
[Their perception is theirs]
[Yang] Their perception… Yeah. As long as there’s enough of that fallibility, like… I think I’m okay with that. Because that’s the best that we can do, really. Like, we are all trying to have, like, some good intent and we want to explore and we want… It’s really like celebrate. Like, part of the reason why, I think, that people want to write in these other settings is that there’s something about setting that enraptures them. They want other people to love it, and they think it’s exciting, and they want other people to feel the same excitement. So, as long as they… Yeah, as long as… Sorry, I lost my train of thought.
[Dan] No, I wanted to add onto that, because I think that’s great. That’s one of the reasons, one of the things we talk about a lot in this series is that the more specific you get, when you’re talking about one character, then you have room for that fallibility. Because I’m not trying to say all Chinese Americans are exactly like this. But this one is. Then that gives us room. It doesn’t feel like were trying to represent an entire massive nation or culture, we’re just trying to show you one person’s life.
[Piper] Yep. That’s the most important thing. Cool. Well. Thank you so much.
[Piper] In wrapping up, I have today’s homework. This is super exciting. I love giving homework.
[Piper] Excuse me. So, for your homework, I want you to take a culture. It can either be a real-world culture or a culture that you have made up for your books. Then, I want you to create a character that is a descendent of emigrants from that culture. Then that character comes back to the home culture. How are they experiencing the home culture? What are they seeing? Are they saying, “Oh, that’s so familiar?” What are they seeing? Are they like, “I didn’t know they did it like that. Grandpa didn’t do it like that?” Write that scene. Just explore what it can be like to be the person who is, like, of a culture, but not of a culture inside.
[Dan] Awesome. Thank you, very much, Yang Yang, being on the episode. This was great.
[Yang] Well, thank y’all for having me.
[Piper] Thank you. All right. Listeners! You’re out of excuses. Now go write.