Chinese-American writers…and doctors and engineers

Maybe you don’t expect a Chinese-American writer to have a name like Tess Gerritsen. On the other hand, as an ABC (American-born Chinese), it’s unsurprising that she has an American first name, and if she then marries a man named Gerritsen… So it makes sense after all.

There are, of course, some well-known Asian Americans who are published authors. But if you visit any suburban high school — take Weston, for example — you will find that many of the Asian students are frustrated by the stereotype that they’re “supposed” to be good at math and science and then go on to become doctors or engineers. The society at large seems to expect this. Their classmates expect this. In many cases their parents expect this. It’s hard to fight the stereotype and say, “I want to be a writer.”

In Tess Gerritsen’s case, she first became a doctor and then switched careers to become a writer. In the 4/17/07 post in her blog, concerning the Virginia Tech murders, she’s painfully conscious of what’s expected of Asian Americans:

Here’s a childhood memory of mine: our family, about to leave the house to go out to eat at a restaurant.  My mom looks at my dad’s jacket (a favorite old U.S. Army-issue jacket) and she notices that the shoulder seam’s coming apart. “You can’t wear that out of the house!” she says. “If people see that, they’ll think that all Chinese people are sloppy dressers!”

All Chinese people. That’s what growing up Asian taught me: that if I step one foot over the line, if I do something embarrassing or shameful, it will reflect on every other Asian person in the country. Conversely, if an Asian anywhere in the country does something horrible, it will reflect on me. 

I don’t know if this is the sort of thing that crosses the minds of other minorities in this country, but I suspect it does. 

I was born in the U.S. and consider myself an American right down to my marrow, but it only takes an incident like this to make me feel as if I’m standing on quicksand in this country. 

This post came three days after a post about Asian-American novelists:

China does indeed have a long literary tradition.

But for a long time, I’ve been aware of a dearth of Chinese-American novelists. Once you get past Amy Tan and Maxine Hong-Kingston, how many bestselling Asian American writers can you name? Asian Americans make up about four percent of the population, but we don’t take up four percent of the bestseller slots.

I distinctly recall a moment years ago, when I attended my first Romance Writers of America convention. I looked around the room, where a thousand writers had gathered, and did my usual “race check.” It may sound weird to some people, but it’s automatic for me (and I suspect it’s true for other minorities as well) to scope out how many non-whites are around. That night, I counted exactly three Asians, including me. In a room of 1,000 writers.

So where are we?

Part of the answer can be found in an email I received some months back from an Asian-American man who enjoys my books. He told me that he works in computer engineering and even though he’s making a great living at it, he hates his job. He only went into engineering because his parents pushed him into it. He didn’t want to be an engineer! His dream as a young man — and it’s still his most heartfelt dream — was to become a fashion designer. But his parents told him he was nuts, that he’d starve, and that he should choose a career that would pay the bills.

You know what? My dad told me essentially the same thing. “Writing’s a nice hobby,” he said when I told him that what I really, really wanted to do was study journalism. “But you’ll never make a good living at it.” Like countless other Asian American parents, he told his kids that science was the way to go. “Choose medicine or engineering and you’ll never starve.” Not starving is a really big deal among immigrant families.

So I became a doctor.  And so did my brother.

Maybe in another generation or two, we’ll see more Asian-Americans in the arts. We just have to stop listening to our parents.

Categories: Life, Weston