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An Interview with Amy Tan
Read, Watch or Listen! Learn more about this author's life

Becoming American
A PBS Bill Moyers' presentation on the Chinese experience

Additional Resources
Power of Prose Index

Power of Prose

Asian Americans

American literature is unique in the number of voices and cultures it conveys, giving it the power to transform opinions and challenge stereotypes in both obvious and subtle ways.  Christa Smith Anderson explains that Asian language speakers face unique linguistic and cultural challenges in America’s multi-ethnic society.

Chinese-American writer Amy Tan has written that the terms “fractured” or “broken English” are inadequate because they imply that the speech of immigrants whose native language is not English is “damaged” and should “be fixed, as if it lacked a certain wholeness and soundness.” Tan’s own writer’s voice came into its own after she considered this in regard to her own mother and, indeed, envisioned her reader as her mother. Then, she says, “I began to write stories using all the Englishes I grew up with: the English I spoke to my mother... the English she used with me..." [1]

The result was Tan’s The Joy Luck Club, whose cross-generational and cross-continental span makes the inadequate adequate and in so doing enables communication (and understanding) between American daughters and their immigrant mothers. Even when exact translations seem out of reach, the daughters do their best to make sense of their mothers’ words and expressions. Lena St. Clair says of her mother, Ying-ying, “She has a Chinese saying for what she knows. Chunwang chihan: If the lips are gone, the teeth will be cold. Which means, I suppose, one thing is always the result of another. [2]

Rose Hsu struggles to translate the words of her mother…

Rose Hsu struggles to translate the words of her mother, An-mei, who tells her, “A psyche-atricks will only make you hulihudu, make you see heimongmong.” An-mei is upset that Rose will speak with a psychiatrist about her failing marriage, but will not speak with her own mother. Referring to hulihudu and heimongmong, Rose thinks, “These were words I had never thought about in English terms. I suppose the closest in meaning would be ‘confused’ and ‘dark fog.’” [3] At first Rose attributes the difficulty in translation to the possibility that only Chinese people can truly experience hulihudu. By chapter’s end, Rose has discovered otherwise. To the surprise of Ted, her Anglo-American husband, she refuses to settle to his terms for a divorce. When he realizes that she will not give in to his request that she move out of their house, Rose knows from his expression that, “I saw what I wanted: his eyes, confused, then scared. He was hulihudu. The power of my words was that strong.[4]

Lee elucidates misconceptions faced by some Asian Americans in a multi-ethnic society

Writer Gus Lee elucidates the misconceptions faced by some Asian Americans in a multi-ethnic society. In China Boy, narrator Kai Ting lives in a predominantly black area of San Francisco, explaining, “I was trying to become an accepted black male youth... This was all the more difficult because I am Chinese.” The novel points out the differences and the similarities among the languages and ways of speaking in Kai’s community. “Chinese hwa, language, and the black patois of the Panhandle depended on inflection and musical tone and were indifferent to conjugation. We came from societies that honored families, war, percussion, and elders." [5] But in many situations, for Kai, “These similarities, however, were not presently evident.” [5] Kai often finds himself on the defensive, disparaged by his Anglo stepmother, Edna, whom he describes as "nahgwangning. Foreign country person,” because she comes from “an inner circle of elite Philadelphia society. [6] 

In one scene Kai asks Edna for dinner: “When tsow mien?” he asks, certain that the cross-cultural popularity of noodles will guarantee that Edna knows that he’s asking for them. Instead, “She studied me, like bird droppings on a Rolls-Royce. ‘What is sow men?’” she asks. “Tsow-mien,” he repeats, louder. She responds: "I cannot understand that barbaric speech," and she tells Kai, “Do not talk to me unless you are prepared to speak English.[7]

Kai’s speech also draws the ire of classmates and others in his neighborhood. He orders French fries from Rupert, a cook at the local Eatery: “Flies, please,” Kai says. “Fries! Crap! Boy, how long you bin in dis country? You bettah learn how ta talk, an’ you bettah have some coin, and don be usin no oriental mo-jo on me. Don job me outa nothin!” Rupert replies. [8]

Kai’s speech makes him stand out among his classmates

Kai’s speech makes him stand out among his classmates. “Yau pungyou,” he says at one point, anxious and surrounded by neighborhood kids who are making fun of him. But the phrase’s meaning — “I want to be friends” — is lost on the kids. “Yow? Yow what!” they respond and laugh.[9] The insults that Kai hears, from kids who sometimes interchange racial epithets about Chinese and Japanese people, makes for not only a challenging environment but a confusing one as well. It would take some time to understand his heritage: “I would later learn to my great relief that my mother and father did not attack Pearl Harbor.[10] 

Rock Garden reflects the discrimination experienced by Japanese Americans following the attack on Pearl Harbor

Wakatsuki Houston’s story Rock Garden reflects the discrimination experienced by Japanese Americans as a result of the widespread fear that followed the attack on Pearl Harbor. The story is set in a Japanese internment camp, where Reiko, whose father has been taken by the FBI from his North Dakota home, finds in an old man named Morita a reflection of her Japanese ancestors, whom she’s only seen in pictures. She wants to forge a connection: “‘Good morning, Morita-san.’ Showing off how she knew some Japanese, she added, ‘O-hai-yo-gozai-mas. Good morning.’” [11]

Morita tells Reiko that in meditation he speaks to the Indian spirits that roam the internment camp, which happens to be built over Indian burial grounds. Reiko asks what they say. Morita replies: “They happy Japanese people here in desert. Say we come from same tribe across ocean. [12]

Suggested Reading/Additional Resources

  • Amy Tan, Learn more about one of America's leading authors.
  • Gus Lee,  This writer focuses on the misconceptions faced by some Asian Americans in a multi-ethnic society.
  • Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston,  The Japanese American author spent  three and a half years in an internment camp during World War II.
  • Of Civil Wrongs and  Rights: The Fred Koremotsu Story, From PBS, one man's struggle against the internment of Japanese Americans during WWII.
  • The Asia Society, K-12 humanities resource.
  • Pearl Harbor, The 1941 attack by the Japanese that brought  the United States into World War II.
  • Chock, Eric, James R. Harstad, Darrell H.Y. Lum, and Bill Teter, eds. Growing Up Local: An Anthology of Poetry and Prose from Hawai’i. Honolulu: Bamboo Ridge Press, 1998.
  • Gillan, Maria Mazziotti, and Jennifer Gillan, eds. Unsettling America: An Anthology of Contemporary Multicultural Poetry. New York: Penguin Books, 1994.
  • Harstad, Cheryl A., and James R. Harstad, eds. Island Fire: An Anthology of Literature from Hawai'i. Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Curriculum Research and Development Group and University of Hawai'i Press, 2002.
  • Kingston, Maxine Hong. The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts. New York: Vintage International, 1989.

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Christa Smith Anderson holds an MFA in Creative Writing from George Mason University and received her Bachelor of Arts from the University of Virginia. After several years producing and writing television news, she is now a federal government employee by day and a fiction writer the rest of the time. She received the 2002 Cynthia Wynn Herman Scholarship from George Mason University and has published non-fiction in So to Speak, a Feminist Journal of Language and Arts.

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  1. Tan, Amy. "Amy Tan on Writing: Setting the Voice." An  Introduction to Fiction.  8th Ed. Eds. X.J. Kennedy and Dana Gioia.  New York: Longman,2002. 151
  2. Tan, Amy. The Joy Luck Club. New York: Putnam, c1989. 149
  3. Tan, Amy. The Joy Luck Club. New York: Putnam, c1989.188
  4. Tan, Amy. The Joy Luck Club. New York: Putnam, c1989.196
  5. Lee, Gus. China Boy. New York, N.Y., U.S.A.: Dutton, c1991. 62-63
  6. Lee, Gus. China Boy. New York, N.Y., U.S.A.: Dutton, c1991.56
  7. Lee, Gus. China Boy. New York, N.Y., U.S.A.: Dutton, c1991.58
  8. Lee, Gus. China Boy. New York, N.Y., U.S.A.: Dutton, c1991.2
  9. Lee, Gus. China Boy. New York, N.Y., U.S.A.: Dutton, c1991.62
  10. Lee, Gus. China Boy. New York, N.Y., U.S.A.: Dutton, c1991,.61
  11. Houston, Jeanne Wakatsuki. "Rock Garden." Listening to Ourselves: More Stories from "The Sound of Writing." Eds. Alan Cheuse and Caroline Marshall. New York: Anchor Books, Doubleday, 1994.99.
  12. Ibid.

Sponsored by:

National Endowment for the Humanities Hewlett Foundation Ford Foundation   Arthur Vining Davis Foundations Carnegie Corporation

National Endowment
for the Humanities

William and Flora Hewlett
Foundation

Ford
Foundation

Rosalind P.
Walter

Arthur Vining
Davis Foundations

Carnegie
Corporation of New York