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: This is a working class neighborhood?

GISH JEN: A working class neighborhood.

BILL MOYERS: You were clearly the outsider.

GISH JEN: Sometimes, when I'm talking to my son, and I'm trying to explain to him what my childhood was like and I say to him, "You gotta understand, when someone threw a snow ball we never knew whether or not there would be a rock in it." To him, it was of course, why would anybody throw a snowball at you with a rock in it?

BILL MOYERS: You were very young, right?

GISH JEN: Yeah, I was probably five or six.

BILL MOYERS: What does this do to your psyche, the way you see the world?

GISH JEN: That's a good question. I mean, I have to say that, it did make us pretty defensive. And it did have a tendency to make us wary, more apt to depend on family than on outsiders.

And don't get me wrong, a lot of people were very kind to us. Of course my parents are proud people. It was a little hard to accept the kindness also. I mean, they had been aristocrats and then all of a sudden people are like, "Oh, we'll take your daughter to ballet?" On one hand they had to accept. On the other hand it was not easy for them.

BILL MOYERS: Then you moved to an upscale community, Scarsdale? Did things change for you?

GISH JEN: Yes, it's a very, very, very, very different kind of community. For one thing. Scarsdale is predominantly Jewish. I think probably it was really maybe 40 percent Jewish. But there were enough Jews so that it was felt to be quite a Jewish community.

And so they were acquainted with what it meant to be a minority. So, this was a place where a minority was sort of the majority. And of course, as a community it was completely committed to being open and embracing and so on.

It was still awkward there too in many ways. But always in well intentioned ways. People would sort of say, "We'd love to hear more about your traditions." Maybe I didn't really want to talk about my traditions. But in any case it was never mean. Nobody ever threw anything at us.

BILL MOYERS: Talk about the differences in the culture inside the Chinese home and the American home and how these came to play out in how you were raised?

GISH JEN: Well, we could talk for an entire hour just about that. But, certainly there were some things about the Chinese family that I was happy to escape, I will say. There was a view that the girl's education was not as important as the boy's. I know it's true of a lot of immigrant families. It's very pronounced in a Chinese family.

Certainly there were a lot of views about what a nice Chinese girl did and that did not include becoming an author, I hardly need to point out. There was a way that, if I had not grown up in Scarsdale, New York, in a culture where writing was this great thing, I don't know that I ever would have thought to pick up a pen. So, in that way, I'm deeply grateful to the mainstream culture.

On the other hand certainly in my home culture, this kind of familiarity, it might not always be a complete picture of peace. But certainly, you have a feeling of contact with other people. The kind of anime (PH) and isolation that I see in a lot of mainstream family experiences. You don't experience that in a Chinese family. Everybody is close.

BILL MOYERS: Once your parents had to stay here, did they say, "Well, we know our children are going to be American and we're going to raise them as American?" Or did they still want to raise you within the traditional Chinese ethos?

GISH JEN: Yeah, well, for my parents, it took them a while to realize that they were really, truly stuck here. These Communists were not going away; they really had taken power.

But once they finally accepted that they decided on a move which was considered quite progressive at the time-- to bring us up English speaking and to bring us up as Americans. And my mother said that she hoped that our English would be good enough that somebody listening in the next room would think that our parents were American.

And they succeeded. When I was in college, one of my boyfriends said, "Okay, if you close your eyes and listen to Gish, what do you hear?" And they all said, "New York Jew." (LAUGHTER)

BILL MOYERS: So, your parents succeeded then?

GISH JEN: They did. All too well maybe.

BILL MOYERS: Did they speak Chinese in the home?

GISH JEN: Yeah, they did. But mostly around Christmas time as it was always for things that they were trying to keep secret from us. I have to say today of course I greatly regret this. I have taken beginning Chinese 100 times and I'm still working on my Chinese.

BILL MOYERS: You'd like to know Chinese now?

GISH JEN: Of course.

BILL MOYERS: You don't need it now.

GISH JEN: Well, now I need it more than ever.


GISH JEN: Well, I think I do because I am 47-- I'm gonna be 48 later this year -- I'm at that age where you suddenly realize that your parents are not gonna live forever and all your heritage [is going to die]. If you don't know what happened in your family, if you don't speak the language it's gonna die.

I mean, you suddenly realize like, "Oh, my God." You can't depend on your parents to translate things for you forever. Now it seems greatly life enriching. And I guess, (UNINTEL) growing up, you just want to define yourself, you want to make yourself.

BILL MOYERS: You want to be like everybody else.

GISH JEN: Well, partly that partly you want to be yourself. You don't want to just be your parent's daughter. You want to be yourself. I don't know that becoming a writer is exactly like being everybody else either.

GISH JEN: In the beginning, you want acceptance. And then later on you want self realization. Maybe that is a way of being like everybody else here in America.

BILL MOYERS: Well, that's very American, isn't it?

GISH JEN: It is.

BILL MOYERS: The business of inventing ourselves?

GISH JEN: Yeah, it is. But one hopes that one will somehow bring some inner essence out and make it manifest.

And of course, one hopes has nothing to do with one's parents whatsoever. And also I have to say, in a context where so much of the world is telling you, "You're Chinese, you're Chinese, you're Chinese", there is a way in which you want to say, "Actually that is one part of what I am. But it is not all of what I am. It does not define me. So, there is a way in which you try to push it away from you a little bit because it threatens to color everything.

BILL MOYERS: Has this informed your writing? Is this one of the reasons you write?

GISH JEN: Well, sure. Part of my writing has been an effort to claim my American- ness in a way that does not deny my Chinese heritage. People ask me, "Oh, those Chinese shoes? You must know where to get them."

There's something baffling about Chinese politics. I think pretty much every Asian American has had the experience of being in some meeting and everything is going along fine and something comes up with Asia and everybody turns to look at them.

And I will point out that, it's not just the things having to do with China, it's things having to do with Japan or Indonesia or whatever. They still look at you as if you must have some insider knowledge.

But early on, my project, like everybody, was define myself as an American, to define myself irrespective of my parents, irrespective of these messages I was getting from society, to really be my own person.

In some ways I viewed it as probably dangerous to know Chinese, the same way that for women it could be a mixed thing to know how to type because if you can type, you will type. If I had spoken Chinese, there's so much pressure for me to play this ambassador role. It's difficult to resist.

Now, everybody knows that I wrote the book after turning Jewish and staying Jewish. (LAUGHTER) No one would dare ask me whether I spoke Chinese. But the whole idea is that my authority as a writer, it clearly does not stem from my knowledge of the old country. It clearly stems from something else.

Now, it's kind of safe for me to go back. To really think. To get the old stories, to really bring up my language and my identity is born now. It's not going to change.

BILL MOYERS: What were your parents' expectations of you? They must have been huge?

GISH JEN: \Well, yes and no. Whatever their expectations were they were mostly worried that I would not get married. I think that their perception early on was that I was far too outspoken and headstrong for a nice Chinese girl and that was gonna be trouble.

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