Debbi Michiko Florence is the author of CHINA: A Kaleidoscope Kids Book (Williamson Books/March 2008) and JAPAN: A Kaleidoscope Kids Book (Williamson Books/2009), nonfiction activity books for kids ages 7–14. She also writes YA novels featuring Asian-American main characters. She conducts interviews of children’s authors on her website.
A third-generation Japanese-American, I was born in San Francisco and raised in Los Angeles. I attended public schools where Hirokane, Lee, and Takagi easily mingled with Jones, Schoenholz, and Macias. I never gave much thought to my ethnicity even though I missed after-school activities because I had to go to Japanese School. I was American and I felt like I fit in.
It wasn’t until I moved to the Midwest as an adult that I felt like an outsider. Comments like, “You speak English really well,” and “What are you?” frustrated me. I took offense when people spoke English to me slowly as if I might not understand. The truth was, these people probably had not had much experience with Asian-Americans. I was often the only Asian face in a given restaurant or store. I looked foreign, so people assumed I was.
Flash forward to two years ago. For 14 months, I lived in Shanghai, China. My husband, who is Caucasian, and I took Mandarin lessons. He has a gift for languages. Me? Not so much. Everywhere we went locals assumed I was Chinese and spoke Mandarin to me. I quickly learned how to say, “I am American,” and “I don’t understand.” I thought my lousy accent would give that fact away, but still, they would continue to speak to me.
No matter what my husband said in Mandarin, the waiter or salesperson or taxi driver would turn to me and answer. They could not get over a white person speaking Mandarin. They could not get over that I, who looked like them, did not understand. Once again, my Asian face created false expectations. As much as we’d like to be color-blind, the truth is, the way we look affects how people treat us, whether positively or negatively.
As an author and avid reader, I believe books have an important role to play in showing young readers that Asian-American teens and children share similar experiences with America’s youth. When I was a child, I loved books by Judy Blume. It mattered less to me what race the main characters were and it mattered most that I felt the way those characters felt. But think of how empowered I would have been if any one of those characters had been Japanese-American. Perhaps it would have helped change the false image of Asian-Americans as foreigners.
Today, in the United States, Americans are of many different ethnicities of varying generations. It’s still a challenge to find books written about Asian-American characters with stories that don’t focus on the “minority experience.” I don’t mean to discount those books. Multicultural books featuring characters who struggle with the challenges of immigration or of trying to fit into a foreign (to them) culture have an important place on the bookshelf. But that’s not the only Asian experience out there.
Growing up, I watched Happy Days, Magnum P.I., and Knight Rider. I read Romeo and Juliet and the Catcher in the Rye. I played Pacman at the arcade, shopped at the mall, and cruised with my friends. But I also used chopsticks to eat some of my meals, spoke Japanese phrases at home, and wore a kimono on Japanese holidays like Girl’s Day and Obon, a summer festival honoring ancestors.
My daughter, who is happa (bi-racial), speaks no Japanese, but still says “itadakimasu” and “gochisosama” at the beginning and end of meals. She’s constantly asked if she’s Chinese. She is proud of her Japanese heritage, but just as American as the next teen.
It’s not enough that a main character in a book is Asian-American in physical description, but he/she should also share that melding of cultures. In Lenore Look’s Ruby Lu, Brave and True, the main character is an 8-year-old Chinese-American girl. She is distinctly Chinese – she has grandparents who speak Cantonese and she attends Chinese school, but she is also distinctly American – she eats mac-and-cheese with hot dogs, loves magic, and speaks English without an accent. Her mother sews and her father plays Scrabble. American kids everywhere will relate to Ruby as she deals with a mean new girl, copes with her loveable and sometimes annoying baby brother, and even learns how to drive!
In Millicent Min, Girl Genius and Stanford Wong Flunks Out, both by Lisa Yee, the main characters are Chinese-American. Millicent’s trials and tribulations of being a genius and trying to fit in socially have little to do with her being Chinese and everything to do with her incredibly high IQ. Stanford Wong, also Chinese-American and Millicent’s nemesis, is in danger of flunking the sixth grade, but it has nothing to do with a language barrier. In both books, parts of these characters’ heritage are weaved into the story, but this enhances the believability of the characters rather than creates the storyline.
Asian-American characters and hyphenated Asians in general are finding their way into books as part of a, for now, supporting cast – Cho Chang in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, Elaine Kim in Jenny Han’s Shug, and Min Wei in Brent Hartinger’s Geography Club books. Min gets her own story in Split Screen. In The Mother-Daughter Book Club by Heather Vogel Frederick, four girls are forced by their mothers to participate in a book club. One of the characters is Chinese-American and part of a popular (and cruel) crowd.
Books like the ones I’ve mentioned here will help break down the wall of assumptions. Asian-American teens have crushes, fight with their best friends, cope with drug and alcohol abuse, break curfew, get their hearts broken, and overcome sibling rivalry. Stories like these will widen the experiences and expectations of readers to show that all ethnicities experience the same range of emotions and problems. An American teen is an American teen, no matter what color skin. I look forward to reading more books starring Asian-American characters.
Posted May 2008