I recently reread Robert van Gulik’s The Emperor’s Pearl: A Judge Dee Mystery to see if his depictions of Chinese culture still rang true. This book is one of a series of mysteries set in 7th century China about a crime-solving magistrate.
When I first encountered these books as a teenager in St.
Louis in the ‘60s, there were few books with Chinese protagonists. There weren’t many portrayals of Chinese at all. Having left China as a little kid, I had little personal history to draw on. And so, I assembled whatever cultural jigsaw pieces I could find to help me define what being Chinese meant. Most of the pieces were by non-Chinese, like van Gulik, a Dutchman.
In mid-twentieth century America, nobody talked about China or the Chinese. China was far away and of little geopolitical or economic importance. Contact between relatives in China and America was forbidden by both governments. Starting in 1949, the Bamboo Curtain was shut tight. Not until Nixon’s 1972 China trip did communications open. Regular folks couldn’t go to China until late in the ‘70s. Thirty years may not seem a long time, but it was significant to me. I left Shanghai as a five year old in 1952. I never saw my grandmother again. She died in 1964.
Reading Judge Dee a half century later, I did find familiar aspects of Chinese culture as practiced in my family: the clothing, including men’s gowns with long, capacious sleeves that functioned as pockets; the Dragon Boat festival; the love of games and gambling; the appreciation of art and calligraphy.
My grandfather, who was born in 1890, wore tunics with the long, wide sleeves. He would pull out his fold-up fan from his sleeve, snap it open to fan himself or, when he wanted to emphasize something, point with his closed fan. Judge Dee loved to play dominoes. Everyone in our family from grandpa on down was a mahjong shark. And van Gulik really nailed the reverential regard for beautiful writing. Judge Dee had just found the body of the Amber Lady. As he searched the room, he came across an inscription on the wall. “Good calligraphy!” he muttered.
Of course, my parents kept Chinese ways at home.They spoke Chinese to each other, although soon I was answering them in English. Mom cooked Chinese food. We used chopsticks. On special occasions, Mom wore her qi pao dresses in silk or lace. Once in while, friends of my parents would give me Chinese presents, stuff too fancy for use: brocade jackets, sandalwood fans, embroidered slippers.
Knowledge about China outside of family accreted from a mishmash of images from books, TV and movies. Hop Sing, the cook in Bonanza, frightened easily and laughed at himself when the Cartwrights saved him. Suzie Wong, the Hong Kong prostitute played by Nancy Kwan, was both naive and flirty. The Chinese in the Manchurian Candidate were capable of mind-control and brain-washing. I can’t remember when I first heard the term “Dragon Lady,” but the mysterious, cunning, and sexualized Asian woman, often a brothel madame, was a frequent character.
I remember clearly a documentary movie called Who Lost China? All the grade school classes at St. Joan of Arc were marched down to the school cafeteria to watch. This movie talked about a horrible mistake on the part of some people in the US government. As a result, we “lost” China to the Communists.
It was a gut punch. You mean Mom and Dad’s arduous journey to America and our forced separation from family in China were all preventable? A part of me was inconsolable. Another part worried that my fellow students would look upon me as the enemy.
In retrospect, each image in my scrapheap of Chinese culture was filtered through white people’s eyes. How has this influenced my life? The gender stereotypes were troublesome. I took on the Dragon Lady persona (sassy and savvy) and also the submissive Butterfly role alternately. Neither worked. The blondes always beat out the brunette for the guy.
Recently, I took an online test for implicit bias against Asians. Various faces flashed quickly, and you had to choose quickly. I was chagrined to find that I have implicit bias against Asians, that I am an implicit racist.
Today, you can’t escape hearing about China: the Trade War, Chinese hackers, Crazy Rich Asians, fentanyl, billionaires, Andrew Yang and Awkwafina. Also, tens of millions of Americans, myself included, have visited China. Seeing Shanghai skyscrapers lit up like Vegas on steroids puts to bed the idea that everything Chinese is “ancient.” Young Chinese women’s idiosyncratic taste in dress convinces me that they have minds of their own. In an odd way, the fact that I, and so many Americans, can see all these facets of China and the Chinese gives me leeway to tolerate some racially stereotypical images. I can just laugh at them, like the ministers named Ping, Pang and Pong in Puccini’s Turandot.
I wonder what my grandsons, Edin (six) and Caleb (two), will make of their part-Asian identity. I want to give them the option to claim their Chinese background. They have Chinese names. They receive “red envelopes” on Chinese New Year’s. They eat tofu, seaweed and edamame. I gave Edin a toy snake and Caleb a plush rooster to remind them of the Chinese zodiac year of their birth. Maybe when they are older, they’ll read Judge Dee, although there are many other options nowadays.
As for me, I’m still a work in progress. But then, we all are. We constantly learn and reassemble our image of ourselves and of our past. I was lucky to find a loving relationship with a good man. Now, experience has taken the potency out of those Asian female stereotypes for me. On my last trip to China in 2016, the first since my parents died, I found acceptance from my cousins.
But, one’s mental image is never static. Things change. This year, when my cousin from Shanghai became the first in his family to visit St. Louis, I took him on a riverboat ride on the Mississippi. We found a phone someone had left. Feeling the weight of this country’s anti-immigrant sentiment, I gave it to my white-skinned husband to hand in. Rightly or wrongly, I feared we might be accused of stealing.
Each of us develops an ever-evolving idea of ourselves based on incoming information. I hope we each develop an image that is individualized, brilliant and free from stereotype. What a world!
Tell me one way that your view of yourself has changed over the years.