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