I am an American, steeped in American values. But I know on an emotional level what it means to be of the Chinese culture.
I think I’ve always been somebody, since the deaths of my father and brother, who was afraid to hope. So, I was more prepared for failure and for rejection than for success.
At the beginning of my career as a writer, I felt I knew nothing of Chinese culture. I was writing about emotional confusion with my mother related to our different beliefs. Hers was based in family history, which I didn’t know anything about. I always felt hesitant in talking about Chinese culture and American culture.
I write because I know that one day I will die, and thus I should experience as many deliberate observations, careful thoughts, wild ideas, and deep emotions as I can before that day occurs.
Words to me were magic. You could say a word and it could conjure up all kinds of images or feelings or a chilly sensation or whatever. It was amazing to me that words had this power.
My mother said I was a clingy kid until I was about four. I also remember that from the age of eight she and I fought almost every day.
There are a lot of people who think that’s what’s needed to be successful is always being right, always being careful, always picking the right path.
I was intelligent enough to make up my own mind. I not only had freedom of choice, I had freedom of expression.
I felt ashamed of being different and ashamed of feeling that way.
God, life changes faster than you think.
Writing is an extreme privilege but it’s also a gift. It’s a gift to yourself and it’s a gift of giving a story to someone.
There is this myth, that America is a melting pot, but what happens in assimilation is that we end up deliberately choosing the American things – hot dogs and apple pie – and ignoring the Chinese offerings.
I saw my mother in a different light. We all need to do that. You have to be displaced from what’s comfortable and routine, and then you get to see things with fresh eyes, with new eyes.
In America nobody says you have to keep the circumstances somebody else gives you.
People talk about this ‘bucket list’: ‘I need to go to this country, I need to skydive.’ Whereas I need to think as much as I can, to feel as much as I can, to be conscious and observe and understand me and the people around me as much as I can.
I’d like to be more forgiving. There are times when I’ve had a hard time forgiving people who have betrayed me.
My parents told me I would become a doctor and then in my spare time I would become a concert pianist. So, both my day job and my spare time were sort of taken care of.
I also thought of playing improvisational jazz and I did take lessons for a while. At first I tried to write fiction by making up things that were completely alien to my life.
I did not lose myself all at once. I rubbed out my face over the years washing away my pain, the same way carvings on stone are worn down by water.
I thought I was clever enough to write as well as these people and I didn’t realize that there is something called originality and your own voice.
My parents had very high expectations. They expected me to get straight A’s from the time I was in kindergarten.
You write a book and you hope somebody will go out and pay $24.95 for what you’ve just said. I think books were my salvation. Books saved me from being miserable.
I have survivor skills. Some of that is superficial – what I present to people outwardly – but what makes people resilient is the ability to find humour and irony in situations that would otherwise overpower you.
I would never require anyone to read any book. That seems antithetical to why we read – which is to choose a book for our personal reasons. I always shudder when I’m told my books are on required reading lists.
When I go back and read my journals or fiction, I am always surprised. I may not remember having those thoughts, but they still exist and I know they are mine, and it’s all part of making sense of who I am.
I like to go somewhere where I learn something I didn’t know before, like the Dry Tortugas between Florida and Cuba.
I learned to forgive myself, and that enabled me to forgive my mother as a person.
It’s both rebellion and conformity that attack you with success.
Who knows where inspiration comes from. Perhaps it arises from desperation. Perhaps it comes from the flukes of the universe, the kindness of the muses.
It’s a luxury being a writer, because all you ever think about is life.
No one in my family was a reader of literary fiction. So, I didn’t have encouragement, but I didn’t have discouragement, because I don’t think anybody knew what that meant.
The forbidden things were a great influence on my life. I was forbidden from reading A Catcher in the Rye.
You can get sucked into the idea that, ‘Gosh, this is impressive. Maybe I should do this. It will look good.’ Or ‘I’ll write like this because it will impress that critic.’
I didn’t fear failure. I expected failure.
I have a writer’s memory which makes everything worse than maybe it actually was.
I loved fairy tales when I was a kid. Grimm. The grimmer the better. I loved gruesome gothic tales and, in that respect, I liked Bible stories, because to me they were very gothic.
I used to think that my mother got into arguments with people because they didn’t understand her English, because she was Chinese.
I would find myself laughing and wondering where these ideas came from. You can call it imagination, I suppose. But I was grateful for wherever they came from.
My mother had a very difficult childhood, having seen her own mother kill herself. So she didn’t always know how to be the nurturing mother that we all expect we should have.
Placing on writers the responsibility to represent a culture is an onerous burden.
She said ‘I’m by commission. You don’t have to pay anything until you sell anything.’ I said, ‘Well fine. You want to be my agent and not make anything.’ I thought, ‘Boy, is she dumb.’
People think it’s a terrible tragedy when somebody has Alzheimer’s. But in my mother’s case, it’s different. My mother has been unhappy all her life. For the first time in her life, she’s happy.
We are the kind of people who obsess over one word… but we have only one shot to get it right in concert. It was hard the first time I practiced with them. I was so nervous that my vocal chords were paralyzed for about a half-hour.
I’m open to reading almost anything – fiction, nonfiction – as long as I know from the first sentence or two that this is a voice I want to listen to for a good long while. It has much to do with imagery and language, a particular perspective, the assured knowledge of the particular universe the writer has created.
I don’t steer clear of genres. I simply haven’t steered myself toward some of them.
My writing often contains souvenirs of the day – a song I heard, a bird I saw – which I then put into the novel.
I started a second novel seven times and I had to throw them away.
I read a book a day when I was a kid. My family was not literary; we did not have any books in the house.
I wanted to write stories for myself. At first it was purely an aesthetic thing about craft. I just wanted to become good at the art of something. And writing was very private.
I would still like to have that luxury, to be able to just sit and draw for hours and hours and hours. In a way, that’s what I do as a writer.
That was a wonderful period in my life. I mean, I didn’t become an artist, but somebody let me do something I loved. What a luxury, to do something you love to do.
My favorite anything is always relative to the context of present time, place and mood. When I finish a book and want to immediately find another by the same author and no other, that author is elevated to my favorite.
Chinese artists have been subversive over thousands of years, taking what they think of the government and embedding it in their art. There might be censorship of not going as far as they might.
I went to an exhibition at San Francisco’s Asian Art Museum about Shanghai, about how courtesans had been influential in bringing western culture to Shanghai. I bought a book and in it saw this striking group of women in a photograph called ‘The Ten Beauties of Shanghai’.
My mother left behind three daughters when she went to America and started a new life. I certainly felt abandoned when my father died of a brain tumour; I felt he had abandoned me to this terrible, volatile mother and I had no protection.
I read academic books on courtesan culture at the turn-of-the century in Shanghai such as Gail Hershatter’s ‘The Gender of Memory’. The diaries were mostly in the form of letters from courtesans to a lover who had disappeared or taken their savings.
I recognise why I have such a strong inability to forgive certain people who betray me. It’s chiselled in, like a name on a tomb stone.
Mothers have this huge influence, and I feel like they’re always teaching us from the day we’re born what to be afraid of, what to be cautious of, what we should like, and what we should look like.
Popularity is given to you, and if you think that just because you’re really popular you’re a better person, it could be a real crash when you find the popularity goes down.
My mother always thought if her mother hadn’t left her, she would have been happy. All the problems she had never would have happened.
That’s part of the character of Shanghainese people. They’re good negotiators, they’re very persistent, and you grow up in an atmosphere like that – very competitive. That becomes part of your personality: Shanghai personality becomes part of yours. Just like New Yorkers – they’re often like that.
I’m usually woken by a vibration on my up-band. It’s the gradual vibration for about ten seconds, and then the chimes of my blue light. It’s just a way to wake gently. It all gently puts me into awake-mode. I play music off of my Sonos playlist. ‘The Rachmaninoff Concerto 3 in D-minor’, 1st movement.
My breakfast is usually a wholegrain cereal or porridge, with walnuts sprinkled in it, berries, a tablespoon of honey, and chia seeds. I have coffee and a little cherry juice with seltzer. I have a seat by the window, and I look out at the view.
For books I want to keep reading, it’s definitely the voice. It must be a voice I’ve never heard before, and it must have its own particular intelligence. By ‘voice,’ I don’t mean vernacular. It has to have its own particular history and world that it inhabits.
My grandmother. She’s someone I never met, and I would’ve loved to have met her. She’s been a huge influence on our entire family, not just me. She is a mystery. It’s not clear exactly what about her is truth and myth.
In the mid-1800s, they were known also as ‘singsong houses,’ and the courtesans were actually master musicians.
I was shocked, and I ended up contacting three academics to find out if it could possibly be that my grandmother was a courtesan.
For many courtesans, it was over by age 22.
In a second-class courtesan house, the courtship was much briefer. It could even be one night; usually it went on a little bit longer. But as the years went by, that period of courtship was shorter and shorter.
Poetry. I read Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, and Jane Hirschfield. I like to read Billy Collins out loud.
I grew up with Bible stories, which are like fairy tales, because my father was a minister. We heard verses and prayers every day. I liked the gorier Bible stories. I did have a book of Chinese fairy tales. All the people except the elders looked like Italians. But we were not a family that had fiction books.
My older brother and I read all the time. My father read, but only things related to religion. One year, he did read a set of stories that was called something like ‘365 Stories’ out loud to us. They followed a family for the year, a page a day. They were about kids with simple problems – like a wheel coming off their bicycle.
No one can travel your own road for you; you must travel it for yourself. My faith in this stems from my childhood. I grew up in a family with a system of religious beliefs handed down to me.
My mother believed in curses, karma, good luck, bad luck, feng shui. Her amorphous set of beliefs showed me you can pick and choose the qualities of your philosophy, based on what works for you.
My mother’s openness has remained inspiring to me. I strive to be a skeptic, in the best sense of that word: I question everything, and yet I’m open to everything. And I don’t have immovable beliefs. My values shift and grow with my experiences – and as my context changes, so does what I believe.
Our uniqueness makes us special, makes perception valuable – but it can also make us lonely. This loneliness is different from being ‘alone’: You can be lonely even surrounded by people. The feeling I’m talking about stems from the sense that we can never fully share the truth of who we are. I experienced this acutely at an early age.
I measured my success by how many clients I had and how many billable hours I had.
When my mother read ‘The Joy Luck Club’, she was always complaining to me how she had to tell her friends that, no, she was not the mother or any of the mothers in the book.
Until the age of five, my parents spoke to me in Chinese or a combination of Chinese and English, but they didn’t force me to speak Mandarin. In retrospect, this was sad, because they believed that my chance of doing well in America hinged on my fluency in English. Later, as an adult, I wanted to learn Chinese.
Luck is in every part of China. Many Chinese stores and restaurants have the word ‘luck’ in their names. The idea is that, just by using the word ‘luck’ in names of things, you can attract more of it. I think that’s true in my life as well. You attract luck because you go after it.
I have many reasons why I think reading is really important. It provided for me a refuge, especially during difficult times. It provided me with the notion that I could find an ending that was different from what was happening to me at the time.
When you read about the lives of other people, people of different circumstances or similar circumstances, you are part of their lives for that moment. You inhabit their lives, and you feel what they’re feeling, and that is compassion. If we see that reading does allow us that, we see how absolutely essential reading is.
I just feel very lucky to be able to write fiction because I think, otherwise, I would have had to spend a fortune on a psychiatrist – and I still wouldn’t get 1/100th of what I get writing fiction.