Once Upon a Time in China

Photo by kazuend on Unsplash


I didn’t start writing stories with human characters until I was thirteen, and even then, I felt somewhat uncomfortable because I thought they needed to be white. At that time, I was living in Manila, having grown up in the Philippines and Taiwan surrounded by Asian people, and I did not know a single white person. But I believed that I had no choice but to put them at the centre of my stories.

The thing is, because I read in English, every story I encountered had white characters. It was impossible to imagine that characters who could go on these amazing adventures and have such rich, exciting lives could be anything other than white.

When I was a kid, I wrote around this problem by mostly writing about animals and robots. It’s kind of fucked up when you think about it: I had the imagination to think up anthropomorphic animal characters, but it was still beyond me to picture characters who looked like me or the people around me.

The only books out there that had Asian characters were books like The Joy Luck Club, but that was just as fantastical to me as white people’s lives. Who were these Chinese women who hated their culture and their parents and felt SO TORN between being Chinese and American? I couldn’t relate: I had no problems with being Chinese despite being Westernized, and while the US was tantalizing because the opportunities it offered (this was pre-Internet and pre-rise of China days), I didn’t want to be American. I butted heads with my parents but it had little to do with being Chinese; it was mostly because I bossed them around and sometimes, they plucked up the courage to resist (I am happy to report that they have since learned the error of their ways and let me have my way pretty much all the time now).

Ironically, it wasn’t until I moved to Canada that I began writing stories with Asian characters, encouraged by my (white) professors in university. But even they couldn’t protect me from the realities of the publishing world. One of my short stories caught the attention of a professor’s writer friend, who then passed it onto her editor at one of the big publishing houses. The editor arranged a meeting with me and proceeded to bluntly tell me that no one wanted to read stories with Chinese characters unless they were one of the following:

a) being oppressed by a traditional family who refuses to acknowledge her Westernness and/or accept her white boyfriend
b) being oppressed during the Cultural Revolution
c) being oppressed by a traditional culture that penalizes her for discovering her true sexuality with white men
d) being oppressed by China because of the one-child policy and censorship
e) being oppressed by being part of a immigrant family who are shameful for not speaking perfect English with American accents
f) being oppressed by a patriarchal and traditional culture that won’t let women wipe their asses without permission–and BOUND FEET, never forget the BOUND FEET
g) being oppressed by the motherland because the Westernized character JUST DOESN’T BELONG

I’m sure I don’t need to go on. My stories didn’t fit in any of these categories (and still don’t, thank God), and since this was the 90s, and I didn’t know any better, I figured I might as well just stop writing because I had no interest in writing white characters anyway.

Obviously, I eventually went back to writing on my own terms, and things have improved a tiny little bit for writers in terms of being published (as you can see from the wonderful writers we’ve featured on this site). But let’s be honest, the above categories are still the ones that many editors want to see, and the hold that whiteness has on the imagination of writers and readers everywhere still exists.

My mom encouraged me to teach writing workshops while I’m in Manila in order to get me out of the house (I wonder why), and so I’ve been teaching mostly teens for the past few weekends. These kids are very talented and creative, and they are are born and raised in Manila. They are all either Chinese or Filipino, and they all write stories with white, usually American, characters. None of them know any white people, and most of them know so little about American history that they were shocked to find out that the Americas were originally populated by indigenous people, not Europeans. They also didn’t know that the US was founded on slavery and genocide. One of the ethnic Chinese students, who is the only one who includes Asian characters, wrote about “unattractive monolid eyes” and “stereotypically Chinese features” in her stories. She didn’t mean to be offensive, but that’s how beauty standards have shaped postcolonial nations.

It’s painful for me to see this because I remember what it was like when I was younger, believing that stories about people like me had no value. I’ve assigned Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s TED talk “The Danger of  Single Story” for them to read, and I guess I don’t know if it will change anything, but I have to hope it does. If there’s anyone who could inspire these kids, it’s got to be an amazing writer like Adichie.

I write about Asian characters in Asia because there are millions of amazing stories that have yet to be told. Of course, I don’t think all Asian writers are obligated to do the same thing.

But I do wonder: if no one tells our stories, who will?

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