A Bill Moyers Special - Becoming American: The Chinese Experience

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Public Affairs Television "Becoming American: Personal Journeys" Interview With Gish Jen

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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.


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?


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?


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.

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