When a white man called my immigration story a trope
I was reading a book in a bar in Beijing when I heard a voice in my ear. “So, are you reading a novel there?”
I had spent the day wandering around, walking exactly 19,886 steps, or nine miles, most of which were due to me getting lost and circling back. By eight o’clock, weary and sticky, I decided that what I needed most was a drink. The bar was called “Café De La Poste.” It was an ex-pat bar, which I realized upon seeing the English bartender, the American couple at the bar, and a group of people joking in French. Still, I felt a little relieved; my Chinese was so bad that I had trouble ordering anything besides beef noodle soup.
The voice came from a white man in a yellow button-down. He was tall, with a large nose, deep-set, piercing eyes, and a wolfish grin. He had a slight accent too, one that could be either Russian or Irish. He looked like he was in his sixties.
I told him it was actually a collection of short stories by Alice Munro.
“I love her!” He sat down without invitation, beer in hand. His movements were big, and he leaned forward like we were lifelong buddies.
“Wow,” I said, still holding my book close to my face. “I’m surprised to meet someone in China who reads her too.”
“Are you kidding?” he said. “Allison Munro is the best.”
It turned out that he was a big fan of short stories. He was a finance guy, and had lived in Japan, Thailand, South Korea, and now Beijing. For the next thirty minutes, he tried to remember his favorite writers: John Cheever. JD Salinger. T.C. Boyle. William S. Burroughs. What had started as a quick interruption was now threatening to become a full-fledged conversation. He was splashed out across the table, touching my shoulders, arms, and hands intermittently, even though I was leaning so far back, I could feel the person sitting in the chair behind me. I noticed that his knees kept searching for mine under the table. All I wanted was to get back to my book.
“So,” he said finally. “You live in the States?”
“I was born in China,” I told him reluctantly. “I moved to America when I was five.”
To my understanding, a trope is a cliche, an overused theme or device. At 28, I’d been called many things. But this was a new one.
“Excuse me?” I said.
“Yeah, that’s right.” He took a swig of beer, looking smug. “All of my ex-girlfriends have been like that. Let me guess: parents left you to come to America. You followed them shortly afterwards. You grew up questioning where you belong and now you have an identity crisis because of it. Am I close?”
“Wow,” I said. He was more than close. He was right.
I left without getting his name or letting him pay for my drinks. I was angry for many reasons. Aside from misnaming Alice Munro, ruining my alone time, and straight-up insulting me, he had also dismissed the complexities of immigration—the dreams, traumas, and losses—and in doing so he dismissed my experience. As a writer who writes about being Chinese-American and trying to understand what the hyphen between those two words means, I found myself suddenly stripped of power and individuality. Above all, I was afraid there was truth to what he said.
In the past two years, publishers and media outlets have been more vocal about actively requesting stories from writers of color. There is more attention today than ever before on diverse experiences and voices. Do a quick search for “WritersOfColor” on Twitter, and you’ll see that most of the tweets are calls from publications and editors asking for pitches from marginalized voices:
“We are always looking for more writers/contributors in our quest to craft a more diverse and inclusive space.”
“Looking for diverse stories that NEED to be told.”
“…looking for freelancers. Pay per story. Women, POC & LGBTQ writers prioritized. All-inclusive.”
We all know the publishing industry hasn’t exactly been minority-friendly, but in recent years, it seems like the tiniest hint of a shift has begun. Following the 2016 presidential election, the publishing world appears to have recognized the severe need for diverse storytelling, sometimes exclusively seeking content by writers of color. Additionally, organizations like We Need Diverse Books, Representation Matters, and People of Color in Publishing have worked to champion and empower diverse authors. With the slew of publishers and editors looking for “underrepresented voices,” it’s almost as if being a writer of color is “in” right now. As a writer of color myself, I finally feel like my voice is sought after, that the stories I want to tell are finally considered important.
It’s amazing and long overdue, don’t get me wrong. But part of me wonders if it will last, if this isn’t just another fad within publishing made urgent by decades of backlash and our current political climate. Does the publishing industry actually care about representing diverse voices? Are our stories being commodified? Is my voice and story just a “fuckin’ trope” that will blow over in a few years? I am afraid that one day, this emphasis on diverse storytelling will come to an end, and we’ll be relegated to a special-interest section of a bookstore rather than part of the canon.
I think about this whenever I workshop stories in my MFA program, which is predominantly white. Am I a token minority with token stories? Sometimes, I find myself feeling embarrassed at the stories I turn in, because so many of them focus on trying to navigate a hyphenated identity. Can’t she write about anything else?, I imagine my classmates thinking. I guess you could call it imposter syndrome at its finest. At the same time, I worry that I am perpetuating what Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie calls “the single story” for Asian-American writers and stories. Am I driving my own characterization as a trope by only writing stories about being Chinese-American?
Toni Morrison famously said, “If there’s a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.” I think about this quote often in my journey as a writer. I graduated from an English program that prioritized a canon filled with dead, white men. It wasn’t until I emerged from undergrad that I discovered the huge wealth of Asian-American writers out there. They were writing stories that were familiar to me, finally. In those early years, I devoured Kimiko Hahn, Gene Luen Yang, Yiyun Li, Celeste Ng, Ha Jin, Cathy Park Hong, Ocean Vuong, and Chang Rae Lee. It was like everything I ever felt or thought was on those pages, and they made me believe that the stories I wanted to tell were worth sharing.
Asian-American writers have lately been dominating the literary landscape. Books like Celeste Ng’s Everything I Never Told You, Jenny Zhang’s Sour Heart, and yes, even Kevin Kwan’s Crazy Rich Asians have brought Asian-American writers into the spotlight in the last few years alone. Just this past month, Nicole Chung’s memoir about transracial adoption, All You Can Ever Know, was released to great acclaim, even earning her an appearance on The Daily Show with Trevor Noah. Across all these varied works, one theme pervades: the question of belonging to two cultures, histories, legacies, and identities, and trying to navigate that complexity. It is something that naturally underscores our stories—however subtly or obviously—because it is our lived-in experience. It’s the story of how we got here and how we continue to be here.
The guy at the bar was right about one thing: My immigration story, and the ongoing story of understanding my identity as a Chinese-American, is not new or unique. It is one shared by millions of Asian-Americans and, on a larger scale, by many immigrants in the U.S.
These are the stories that I want to read, and for that reason, I will keep writing them. I can only hope the publishing landscape will continue to push for a diversity of stories that reflects the reality of living in a nation of immigrants. One day, our stories will not be “tropes” but the norm. Until then, I’ll keep writing what I know to be true.
But here is a trope for you: A white guy walks into a bar. He talks to the first Asian woman he sees and tells her about her own culture (while somehow managing to slip in that he has dated Asian women in the past). The Asian woman walks out of the bar and writes an essay about it.