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Asian, but not an Asian author

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I’ll have enough trouble doing that myself.  While I’m not taking back what I said, my own feelings on being an Asian-Canadian writer have evolved.  After all, I will be there promoting my new novel, Beauty Plus Pity, a novel about a young Chinese-Canadian man and—this is where the autobiography stops—aspiring male model who grapples with the memory of a father, a failed filmmaker who seemed ambivalent about emigrating and longed to move back.  

While I remain uninterested in writing historical fiction, I felt an urge to represent the immigrant experience in an age of increased mobility, where the culture of the place that’s left wafts easily across the ocean via satellite and broadband links.  For some of my relatives, Canada wasn’t a place where prosperity found, but an extended vacation spot where passports and university degrees were acquired.  Asia is still the place where one finds wealth, family, and the kind of bustle and frenzy that Canada will never be known for.  “Vancouver is so peaceful,” I was told recently by one woman in her thirties who’d recently emigrated from Hong Kong.  “It’s like an afterlife.”  

Working on Beauty Plus Pity, I aspired to document this latter-day immigrant experience, but I didn’t want my characters to be preoccupied with their ethnic identity.  After all, I don’t wake up in the morning wondering how to straddle two cultures or deciding how much moon cake I will eat. When my hyphenated upbringing does enter my mind, it comes indirectly.  For instance, even though I strenuously avoided “Asian” writing, some of my favourite authors, including Kazuo Ishiguro and Haruki Murakami, are ethnically Asian.  I’ve begun to wonder whether it’s not because I find myself relating to an emotional reticence in their work that could be described as Asian (if not also English and Japanese). 

Emotions aren’t expressed in books like the Remains of the Day and Norwegian Wood so much as they come from a failure by their circumspect narrators to conceal them.   In the past, the word “inscrutable” might be used.  In May, Wesley Yang took a more socio-political look at this emotional inaccessibility in a New York magazine cover story about the plight of the “bamboo ceiling” experienced by Asian-Americans who he suggests have been bred to be studious and industrious, but have not been instilled with the social skills and self-confidence to become CEOs and entrepreneurs.

“One of the big things I see with Asian students is what I call the Asian poker face—the lack of range when it comes to facial expressions,” says one of Yang’s interview subjects, a “pick-up artist” who gives seminars to romantically inept young Asian men. “How many times has this happened to you ... You’ll be out at a party with your white friends, and they will be like—‘Dude, are you angry?’” 

Looking at the protagonist in Beauty Plus Pity, I can see how he (and its author) might also be described as poker-faced. The personality of that character (and its author) is shaped by growing up in an immigrant Chinese household in other ways.  This kind of family doesn’t spend their weekends hiking and skiing like other Vancouverites.  Instead, parents take their children to their friends’ homes, where they let them stay up all night playing computer games with their friends’ kids as they played mah-jong.  

In a Chinese immigrant household, family, food, and material well-being are of primary importance.  When your family is from across the ocean, your fathers can’ teach you to skate; your mother doesn’t bake (Hong Kong apartments are generally too small for ovens) or make Halloween costumes from scratch.  And because your parents are raised in a different culture, it means that they don’t carefully vet the movies and TV shows you watched. I now suspect that my own appetite for TV and films—and, later, books and music—was my own way of gaining a cultural fluency I lacked.
Are all Asian-Canadians poker-faced, indoors, night-owlish, and culture-obsessed?  Most definitely not.  I understand that I am making generalizations even as I shy away from others that are foisted on me.  But these are qualities I choose to define myself as an Asian-Canadian writer.

Read an excerpt from Kevin Chong's latest novel, Beauty Plus Pity.

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