Subverting the Chinese Immigrant Story


Arts & Culture

San Francisco’s Chinatown.


The first time my parents read my fiction, my mother had just one comment about the short story, which featured a server at a Chinatown restaurant: “Chinese can be more than waitresses.”

On a visit home, in my early thirties, I’d given them a copy of the literary magazine that had published my story. I’d recently quit my newspaper reporting job, taken the leap into an M.F.A. program, and for the first time, I was showing them the result of my labors. Of all the reactions I might have anticipated—pride or excitement or maybe boredom or disappointment—I hadn’t foreseen that one. My mother seemed to feel that I should portray Chinese Americans only as model minorities, highly educated engineers and doctors who live the American Dream.

She didn’t know that for a time, I’d stopped writing about Chinese Americans at all. For a year or two in college, I had convinced myself that if I wanted to be considered a real author, all my characters had to be white—as if those were the only worthy stories to be told. After all, that’s what I’d grown up with and what I’d studied in school.

Even though we didn’t share the same race or place, I’d recognized myself in feisty aspiring writers in children’s literature: Jo March in Little Women, Laura Ingalls of the Little House series, and the titular Anne of Green Gables. As a girl, I also read and reread Laurence Yep’s Dragonwings—published the year I was born—about the Chinese immigrant son of a master kite maker in San Francisco’s Chinatown in the early twentieth century. But I didn’t identify with the main character, even though we were both of Chinese descent; he was a boy, and he spoke often of demons, which my scientist mother and engineer father never mentioned. 

I was still in middle school when Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club was published. I don’t remember exactly when or how I got a copy, but I cherished the interlocking stories about mothers and their daughters, their secrets and their struggles, in China and the San Francisco Bay Area. I related to the push and pull of homelands adopted and ancestral, and the unspoken expectations that passed between parents and their children. Our parents had given up their language and culture and family to make a life here. We, their children, owed them a debt we felt we could never repay.

I discovered more family secrets in Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts, which opens with these lines from her mother: “You must not tell anyone what I am about to tell you.” But Kingston proceeds to do just that in her pioneering book about her childhood in Stockton, California, and the Chinese myths and secrets that shaped her. She writes about her aunt, the No Name Woman who gave birth alone in a pigsty and then killed herself by jumping into her family’s well. Kingston has said she wanted to bring her aunt back to life. “We’re going to find a meaning for her life … giving her immortality by writing it down.”

Eventually, as I gained more exposure to Chinese American authors as well as those from various diasporas—Dominican, Nigerian, Haitian, Peruvian, and more—I realized I wanted to tell stories that emerged from my unique worldview, from my experiences, and from my interests, even if they fell outside the canon or what appeared in the pages of a newspaper or magazine.

Our community is not a monolith—we never were. We don’t think the same way, act the same way, or look the same. Stereotypes that cast us as hard-working, dull strivers erase our individual histories, flaws, and dreams. In my journalism and in my fiction, I’ve tried to shine a light on untold stories that subvert traditional immigrant narratives. Today, at a time when the country is so divided, such stories are more important than ever. Immigrants and their children are under attack. Denying someone’s story is a way of denying their humanity.

Recent Chinese American narratives have moved away from the weight of World War II, and contemporary economic and social forces are giving rise to a new generation of literature. Asian Americans are the fastest growing ethnicity in the United States. There are nearly five million Chinese Americans in all walks of life, in all parts of the country. In one story from May-Lee Chai’s forthcoming collection, the insightful Useful Phrases for Immigrants, a family settles in Southern California during the recession, feeling as if they’ve come too late, after the earlier Chinese “bought real estate when it was cheaper, started mindless businesses, and made a fortune.” Lillian Li’s darkly comic Number One Chinese Restaurant is set in Maryland, in the D.C. suburbs. Leland Cheuk’s hilarious The Misadventures of Sulliver Pong takes place in a Southwest town founded by the protagonist’s great-great-grand uncle. Jade Chang’s The Wangs vs. the World is a riches-to-rags tale, with a rollicking road trip from Bel Air to upstate New York, with stops in Phoenix, Austin, and more cities along the way.

In Wendy Lee’s absorbing The Art of Confidence, an immigrant Chinese painter in New York forges a masterpiece. Esmé Weijun Wang’s The Border of Paradise—which moves from Brooklyn to Taiwan to an isolated country house in Northern California—is a gothic, multigenerational saga. Kathy Wang’s forthcoming Family Trust is a satirical, sharp-eyed examination of the impact of an immigrant Chinese patriarch’s bequest on his Silicon Valley family. Yang Huang’s poignant My Old Faithful follows one family from China to Boston and North Carolina over the course of three decades.

The traditional extended clan of meddling aunties and uncles has begun to change, and so, too, the narratives. China’s one-child policy, adopted in 1979 to curb population growth, and the culture’s traditional preference for boys rippled across the ocean as thousands of families gave up baby girls for international adoption. Mei Fong’s fascinating One Child: The Story of China’s Most Radical Experiment investigates the origins and fallout of this policy (which ended in 2015). Chinese adoptees appear in Lisa Ko’s The Leavers, Celeste Ng’s Little Fires Everywhere, and Peter Ho Davies’s The Fortunes, novels that raise difficult questions about family, blood, and belonging.

Yiyun Li’s lyrical memoir, Dear Friend, from My Life I Write to You in Your Life, is a meditation on depression, national identity, and the power of literature. Li, born in China, has spent much of her adult life in the United States. Yet China’s rapid economic development has also attracted migrants in reverse—those who might have otherwise stayed in the United States after earning their degrees and establishing their careers. In Kirstin Chen’s engrossing Soy Sauce for Beginners, the protagonist, an ethnic Chinese woman in San Francisco, returns to the family business in Singapore. The Zhen family in Lucy Tan’s compelling What We Were Promised leaves New York and returns to Shanghai­.

Going to the motherland is a chance for self-examination, an opportunity to think deeply about your values and upbringing, as in Lenora Chu’s fascinating Little Soldiers: An American Boy, a Chinese School, and the Global Race to Achieve, a nonfiction account of when she moved to Shanghai and enrolled her son in a top elementary school. So, too, in Kevin Kwan’s Crazy Rich Asians—which has been adapted for the silver screen and won the box office several weeks in a rowwith the middle-class striver and economics professor Rachel Chu at its center.

Though Lenora Chu and Kwan’s Rachel are both of Chinese descent, they’re outsiders among those who they believed might possibly be of like mind. And in a departure from past depictions of China as backward and poverty-stricken, these books reveal the economic and technological advancement in the region. The latest generation of young female narrators subverts persistent stereotypes of dutiful daughters and submissive girlfriends. The protagonists in Ling Ma’s Severance, Weike Wang’s Chemistry, Jenny Zhang’s Sour Heart, Rachel Khong’s Goodbye, Vitamin, Yi Shun Lai’s Not a Self-Help Book: The Misadventures of Marty Wu, and Bonnie Chau’s All Roads Lead to Blood seem like kindred spirits, young women who are figuring out life, muddling their way through their relationships with men and their parents, with observations incisive, funny, and charming. Other young women narrators include the protagonist of Anelise Chen’s So Many Olympic Exertions, an intriguing autofiction about sport and success. Winnie M. Li’s harrowing Dark Chapter explores rape and its aftermath from the perspective of the Taiwanese American victim and the perpetrator, an Irish traveler. Charles Yu’s Sorry Please Thank You: Stories and Ted Chiang’s Stories of Your Life and Others examine the uncertainty and strangeness of the world through the lens of science fiction.

Even with the expansion of Chinese American life, here and abroad, and the subsequent expansion of narratives, Chinatown remains a jumping-off point for new immigrants and for new stories. Lauren Hilgers’s Patriot Number One: American Dreams in Chinatown is a riveting nonfiction portrait of a Chinese family navigating this country. The characters in my novel, A River of Stars, find a haven in San Francisco’s Chinatown, the oldest in the United States and one of the most densely populated neighborhoods in the city. Though tourists flock there, buying knickknacks and snapping photos of the architecture and the busy markets on the ground level, the inner lives and interpersonal struggles of its residents don’t typically figure in the public imagination.

In my travels, I’ve sought out Chinatowns—those neighborhoods that serve as cultural and community centers for the sixty million Chinese living in the diaspora—all over the world: in Panama City, Lima, Buenos Aires, Siem Reap, Tel Aviv. The familiar scent of musty dried herbs and desiccated fish, the elbowing grannies, and the clack of mah-jongg tiles tell me that I have arrived home wherever I am.

Years ago, over drinks in Washington, D.C., I was chatting with another journalist, a white woman who’d reported from Hong Kong.

“Did you grow up in Chinatown?” she asked.

I stiffened. As worldly as she was, she couldn’t conceive of someone like me growing up in the suburbs, just like her. Back in middle school, we might have both permed our hair, donned Guess jeans and Benetton Rugby shirts, and carried Esprit tote bags along wide, leafy streets. I’d visited San Francisco’s Chinatown many times to poke at the hairy rambutans and the scaly lychees, to ogle at the fish and turtles flopping in the tanks, and to get dim sum from a bustling palace where the cart ladies hawked egg tarts and shrimp dumplings. But I didn’t claim the neighborhood as a native.

“Chinese are everywhere,” I told her.

It could have been that the journalist hadn’t known many Chinese Americans wherever she had grown up. Or it could have been that her imagination had been shaped by the same beloved childhood books that had formed mine, the ones that didn’t feature anyone who looked like me. It would be sentimental and naive to consider all Chinese Americans my long-lost cousins, yet I am drawn to their stories, to all those yet unwritten. I hope this explosion of new literature will deepen the collective understanding of our very different lives and will pave the way for even more stories in the future.


Vanessa Hua is the author, most recently, of A River of Stars.