A Bill Moyers Special - Becoming American: The Chinese Experience

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Writer Gish Jen
Writer Gish Jen

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Becoming American

"I don't think that you need to erase the Chinese-American experience in order to capture the American experience."

By Gish Jen

Many Americans struggle with what it means to become American. What must they give up and what must they keep? The questions grow and change as our national politics do. Today the Muslims might find the issues to be more acute, tomorrow maybe it will be another group. The novelist Gish Jen, author of Typical American, Mona in the Promised Land and Who's Irish? shares her thoughts on this inherent tension in an diverse democracy.

It is striking to me that Americans ask themselves certain kinds of questions. And it does seem to me that by the time you ask yourself, "Well, what does it mean to be Iranian-American, Chinese-American, Jewish-American, Irish American," you are American. 'Cause it's not a question that people ask in other parts of the world.

You know, I've always been interested in my books not only just in capturing the Chinese-American experience, but the whole American experience and all the many groups kind of jostling and intermingling and banging against each other and coming together like bumper cars. I've always tried to capture that quality, rather than simply write about one group in isolation.

I am writing very much with this idea that the American experience includes the Chinese-American experience. And the Chinese-American experience is very much part of that experience. But that it's a larger phenomenon. I mean, I don't think that you need to erase all the particulars of the Chinese-American experience in order to capture the essential American experience. There's this idea that if you want to make it American, that you have to erase the particularities. But I don't think that's true at all.

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