“Your English is so good!”

Tuesday, Jul 19th, 2005 @ 03:27 pm

I’m always amused when someone says this to me. I never take offense because I’ve had such temporary lapses of common sense myself. I remember, in Paris, hearing a woman scold her dog in French and being momentarily amazed that the dog seemed to understand her. (As if a French dog wouldn’t understand French!) So when someone here seems amazed that I speak perfect English (the language of my birth, by the way) I understand the reason for their temporary confusion. I mean, look at my author photo. That’s no blond chick you’re looking at, folks. That’s — my god — that’s a CHINESE gal there!

Not the face one automatically identifies as AMERICAN.

But I grew up in an English-speaking household. Yes, my mom was from China, and my dad’s parents were from China, but my mom and dad spoke completely different Chinese dialects, so their only common language was… English.

Well, a sort of English.

I have a distinct memory of being six years old and asking my mom how to spell the word “grape.” She said, after thinking it over long and hard, “G-R-A-P.”

I learned pretty quick that my mom’s spelling was not to be trusted.

I have another memory of being about ten or so, and seeing my pet dog run over by a car. I was too upset to go to school the next day. My mom wrote the school an excuse note: “Her dog died. She was so sharked she had to stay home.”

This is a country of immigrants. A country where even the kid of a refugee mother can grow up speaking perfect English and write bestselling novels and live in a house by the sea. But I often feel caught between cultures, and never so much as when I’m asked the question: “Why don’t you ever write about Asian-Americans? Why do you deny your own ethnicity?”

I was asked that a few years ago, during a meeting of the Asian American Journalists Association. People there wanted to know why I don’t write under my Chinese name (Tom), why I write mostly about white characters, why I don’t write a novel about “my” heritage.

The answer to the first question — about my name — is easy. I’ve gone by my married name for too many years now to suddenly change it just to be more “ethnic.”

As for why I write about mainstream characters, and not Asians, I must make a confession here: I’m a commercial writer. I support my family with my writing. Some years ago, I spoke candidly with an editor from my then-publisher and asked her about the prospects of my writing a book with Asian-American characters. Her frank answer: those books don’t sell. Her publishing house had done extensive market research and discovered that books with Asian American themes were big disappointments in the marketplace. They had tried, again and again, and the experience was always repeated. She knew she risked offending me by her honesty, but she felt she had to share that.

And I listened.

You’ll still find Asians throughout my books — from Vivian Chao in HARVEST to Yoshima in the Rizzoli series. I try to include the full ethnic rainbow of America. But I’m not sure the American readership is ready for a thriller series with an Asian in the lead.

A sad, but not sharking, truth.

2 Responses to ““Your English is so good!””

  1. rmlillian says:

    I’m slightly confused by this. Do you mean just in the thriller genre? There are Asian American writers who seem to sell very well in the general market, such as Amy Tan, and others who sell well in their genres, such as mystery writer Laura Joh Rowland. Their characters are all Asian as well, albeit much in Tan’s stories occurs abroad and in the past, and all of Rowland’s is set in medieval Japan. However, I’m not arguing with the publisher — they calls it the way they sees it.

  2. Tatiana says:

    A little (!) late on this, but I was reading one of your books (I forget which one) and you had an East Indian (I think) coroner in the scene. The ethnicity wasn’t of any consequence to the plot, but I appreciated that bit of diversity being added to the story.

    Now every time I create a character or a universe I make sure to put some thought into ethnic diversity. Thanks.

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