The official site of author Ed Lin.

Let’s Give ‘White’ People Some Credit

Posted by on Nov 22, 2009 in Asian American, Ed, Writing | 4 comments

How come Asians never sit in the front row?

At the Page Turner festival a few weeks ago, I read a short piece in which I channeled my mother — accent, broken English and all.

During the Q&A, this Asian woman asked me if I would read the same piece to a “white” audience, because in front of an “Asian” audience, “we’re all in on the joke” with the accent.

I don’t remember exactly what I said, but I was annoyed and sort of mean (when the event is posted to YouTube, I wonder if they’ll include that part).  I said something along the lines that I was trying to authentically portray my mother and that I read for myself without trying to tailor my work for any particular audience to seek approval.

But the question still annoys me.

For one thing, it assumes that all “white” people are ignorant jerks ready for a laugh drawn on stereotypical lines.

For another thing, my mother accent isn’t “the joke.”  What kind of jackass would I be for counting on a Chinese accent for laughs?

Essentially, my short piece is saying, “This is my mother.  She’s quite a character.  If you ask her to tell you a ghost story, this is what you’ll get.”

Let’s give “white” people some credit.  They are not all ignorant jerks out to screw over people of color.  Certainly not the “white” people who show up for book readings.  Larry the Cable Guy is not going to come to a Snakes Can’t Run reading.

And speaking of people of color, I put “white” in quotations because Asians come in all colors.  That “white” guy sitting next to you could have a gay Korean dad.

Believe it or not, the Asian-woman questioner later came up to my wife to compliment her on her performance in “Children of Invention,” in which her character speaks with a Cantonese accent!

4 Comments

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  1. mooks

    i love ‘white’ people because they always buy my books.

  2. Chez

    I wonder how many people that attended Page Turner would have attended a non-Asian lit event and sit in the front row?

  3. Kristan

    I’m half Asian, and I always try to sit in the front two rows. 🙂

    Great post. I’m here via editorial assistant “Moonrat”‘s blog, and she posted on this same event/topic. This is what I commented to her:

    ***

    When I was at the Kenyon Review workshop last June, I wrote a piece (oh, this one, in fact! Postcard Stories #2) from the perspective of an immigrant Chinese woman. When I read it aloud (with the accent) in workshop, everyone loved it, and no one questioned my “right” to write it because I’m half-Chinese.

    (Also note that the piece isn’t ABOUT her being an immigrant with an accent. That’s just part of her character.)

    Then came time to pick a piece to read aloud to the entire Kenyon Review group (we were just 1 workshop of about 6). In discussing which of my pieces to read, the TA brought up that he thought it would be uncomfortable/exploitative if I read it with the accent. But we all agreed it didn’t work right/as well without the accent. Meanwhile, I was torn by his initial comments — was I exploiting my heritage?

    Is Amy Tan exploitative? Maxine Hong Kingston (to bring it back to your blog)? Jhumpa Lahiri? Sherman Alexie?

    The more I think about it, the more I’m sure I’m not exploiting my heritage. I’m simply “writing what I know.” (Although that’s a whole other debate, lol.)

    But does that mean non-Asians CAN’T write about Asian heritage? What about the Memoirs of a Geisha dude? Or Lisa See, who is 1/8 Chinese but looks as white as white can be? (I’ve talked with her about this, actually.)

    Like you, I don’t think it’s better to hide from the stories that make us uncomfortable or raise these questions. And I certainly don’t think it’s better to judge those who write them. Maybe it’s not a clear black and white, right or wrong. But maybe it’s thinking about and living within the shades of gray that will make us grow as people.

  4. Chang

    Well, see, she complimented your wife because she’s a lesbian, right? Hello? Hello?

    But seriously, if an Asian author cannot do an Asian accent to portray his or her character then who the hell can? I see Kristan wrote more at length and better about this than I did.

    Speaking as a Caucasoid, I think when people talk like this it often comes from a place of insecurity about a person’s background. It reminds me of the uproar that happened with The Sopranpos or The Godfather movies and how the Italian-American community gets upset about portrayals there (my wife is Italian but sadly I am only 1/64 Italian).

    Funny but my Jewish students (I teach yoga) don’t get upset when I use yiddish in class nor when I use it with an accent and I’m a poster-child for the patriarch if ever there was one.

    But if an Asian can’t do an accent in a story to portray an Asian character then who the hell can? (Ed I thought when you did the voices in your reading here in Maine you did it thoughtfully and in the tone of the book).

    In closing I would just say don’t trust Whitey.

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