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