“Have you read anything by Amy Tan?”
“No, I’m reading ‘The Joy Luck Club’ senior year.”
Before this year, I’d fielded this question countless times, each interrogation reeking of racial undertones. For some reason, however, this didn’t leave me with the same uncomfortable taste as “Where are you from?” I knew that my experience in Asian American literature was far more limited than it should be, and it was only natural for any teen to seek some form of self-identification in art.
When the time came for me to delve into the novel I had so long set aside, I was absolutely entranced. Amy Tan had put words to the very sentiments that I had so long struggled to fully recognize, let alone voice. She wrote about the importance of beauty, sacrifice and respect in Asian cultures. She wrote about the struggle to balance East and West in an immigrant family. She wrote about me.
I had long complained of Mulan’s loneliness on the pedestal of representation as one of the sole Asian heroines in pop culture, but little did I know of how rich and bountiful one novel’s character landscape could be. Amy Tan’s novel was packed to the brim with so many ladies I could identify with. Why hadn’t I read this earlier?
The answer: fear. I was afraid, as if appreciating and loving Asian artists would somehow make me the stereotype I had long attempted to avoid. However, as I wrote analyses for homework, I realized that this backwards hypocrisy had not helped me in any way.
When the school year rolled around, I overheard many of my classmates detailing the oddities in the novel–or rather, what they considered oddities.
“I don’t get why she carved her arm.”
“Yeah, that was pretty graphic. Wait, which one was that one again?”
“I don’t know. They all sound the same.”
I remembered sitting in the classroom and wondering how everyone could so easily tell “Bill” from “bob” but struggle with “An-Mei” and “June.” I knew that unfamiliarity was the crux of this problem and that exposure was the solution.
Whether through Sparknotes, Shmoop or the words of Amy Tan herself, I knew that learning about my culture was as vital to my own identity as it was to creating a culturally literate citizenry. The more deeply they could experience the trials and triumphs of others, the more complexly could see their peers and themselves.