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Asian-American characters and me

July 29, 2010

Note: this post was inspired by Steph Su’s “Why I Want More Asians on YA Book Covers.” Except the following isn’t about book covers.

When I was young, I didn’t notice a lack of children’s books with Asian-American characters. Maybe it was a willful ignorance, maybe I just assumed that stories were only written about white Americans, maybe I was aware of enough Asian-Americans in a variety of roles that it didn’t make a big difference to my self-worth if I read about Asian-Americans in books or not. I don’t know.

Here’s what I do know: I went to a public elementary school where nearly all of my classmates were Asian-American, Pacific Islander, or hapa. Until the fifth grade, all my teachers were Japanese-American or Chinese-American, and even my haole fifth-grade teacher was married to a Japanese-American. Most of my friends were Asian-American, and, like myself, most of them were from families that had lived in Hawaii for several generations. I watched Asian-American athletes playing for the University of Hawaii, saw Asian-American newscasters on tv, Asian-American politicians, and Asian-Americans in pretty much every occupation.

During this time, the only Asian-American character I can remember reading about is Claudia Kishi, and she wasn’t my favorite member of The Baby-Sitters Club. I came across a couple more Asian-American characters over the years, and I’d get excited every time, but by the time I was in high school, I had begun to avoid books about Asian-Americans altogether. Yeah, the books I’d read had been well-written, but they were also all about racism and prejudice or “the immigrant experience” or some other thing that just pissed me off because I couldn’t relate to it at all. For all that I grew up eating Japanese food and going to the Okinawan festival and watching some Japanese tv on NGN and being proud of my Japanese-Okinawan heritage, when it came to books, I related more to the white characters I read about than the Asian-American ones.

Of course, I didn’t relate to *all* the white characters I read about. But perhaps the difference is that 1) the reasons I didn’t relate to the Asian-American ones were often similar (racism, immigrant parents), whereas there was so much more variety in the types of white characters I read about; and 2) I *expected* books about Asian-Americans, especially Japanese-Americans, to reflect my life and I’d get upset when they didn’t, whereas it didn’t matter if white characters were nothing like me. After all, it’s not like I was white to begin with. On some level, even if I didn’t consciously recognize it and couldn’t articulate it as a kid, I knew that novels should depict more than just one reality, one type of experience. I knew that I could find these differences in books with white characters, but I couldn’t find the same in books about Asian-Americans.

When I was in library school, I took a course on Asian American Resources for Children & Youth. One of the books we read was a short story collection, American Eyes, and I. Could. Not. Stand. It. With one exception, every story in there was about an Asian-American teen who was discriminated against, ashamed of their race/ethnicity, and/or fighting with their immigrant parents who just didn’t understand what it was like to be an American teen. (Although, the book was published in the mid-’90s, and I’d like to think this wouldn’t be the case today.) Let’s just say, if I had read this when I was a teen, and I was a teen when the book came out, I might have been scarred for life and refused to read any other book about an Asian-American. (On the other hand, I adored another book we read, a picture book called Dumpling Soup by Jama Rattigan, because I had an experience just like that. Not as a kid, though. And involving andagi, not dumplings.)

All of which explains why I am so desperate for more books about Asian-Americans in which race is not a big deal. Books about Asian-American characters who are proud of their heritage, who don’t (at least over the course of the story) struggle with racism or conflicts with immigrant parents. Because the message I got from American Eyes, even reading it as an adult, was that the only Asian-American experiences worth writing and reading about were those in which race/ethnicity was a problem.

As I’ve grown up (and hopefully matured), I’ve realized the importance of books about racism and immigrant experiences. I know that my experience is just that. My experience. It may be similar to many other Asian-Americans born and raised in Hawaii, but not for Asian-Americans from other parts of the country. Yet this doesn’t make my experience less valid or worthy.

I don’t read many children’s books, but it does seem like things are changing in children’s and middle grade fiction. Please, please, let this trend age up and become more than just a trend.

We deserve a variety of books with a variety of characters about a variety of experiences—books about racism and books in which race is not an issue. And we deserve to see a variety of faces on book covers that accurately reflect the story. Because whitewashing covers negates the acknowledgment—acceptance?—that this story is worth telling and this experience is worth sharing; it implies that only one group is deserving of the attention. And that is a blatant lie.

14 Comments leave one →
  1. July 30, 2010 12:45 am

    I think this is a fantastic point, and applies to all kinds of ethnicities and backgrounds. While books about racism and immigration are important, it’s just as important for kids to read books about kids of different backgrounds who are just like them–kids who have difficulties with friends, at school, in sports, and don’t struggle against their culture/environment.

  2. July 30, 2010 1:28 am

    Variety. That’s the word. Seriously.

    I was annoyed to hear that Mitali Perkins’ latest novel Bamboo People has been relegated to the historical fiction of many large bookstores, despite it being set in modern Burma. There’s this idea that if there are people of ethnicity in a book, it must be historical, because ethnicity is somehow not germane to this day and age. I think more covers will blow that idea out of the water, and definite increase acceptance of people of color as … just normal, a part of everyone’s everyday life — as they are.

    It’s weird when publishing is the one kind of keeping this lid on some pale 50’s ideal, instead of reflecting things as they actually are…

  3. July 30, 2010 2:35 am

    Great post! Growing up as a nonwhite, I read books with mostly caucasian characters. I remember the first time I read a book set in India (I was in high school and the book was for adults). I was excited to read it even though the MC was white and the Indians in the book were either servants or evil members of royalty. Of course there are even fewer books with Sri Lankan Tamil characters in them. The Indian fiction market for adults is glutted with books similar to the ones you describe but there are books that don’t deal with race or immigration. It is just harder to find them. The titles that come to mind for teens are the same.

    I hope that it will soon not be a big deal to see YA books featuring characters of different ethnicities that are not focused on the issues of racism and cultural divide.

  4. July 30, 2010 6:20 am

    An excellent post inspired by another excellent post! Although I can’t believe Claudia Kishi wasn’t your favorite BSC member. She was clearly the most awesome.

  5. Morgan permalink
    July 30, 2010 11:26 am

    Wow! Thanks for posting. I’m glad I’m not the only Asian-American who’s frustrated by a.) whitewashing and b.) Asian protagonists all angsty about racism and such. I too am irritated by novels surrounding the immigrant experience and overcoming racism; I simply can’t connect with the characters. Though I agree that racism is definitely a topic that should be discussed, I would LOVE to read a novel like the one you describe: the main character is simply a race other than white and the plot is centered on something different, like, say, underwater basket weaving. I would totally read that.

  6. July 30, 2010 7:06 pm

    Great Post! Being Asian myself , I would love to see more such books.
    I just started my own blog. Please stop by if you can. Thank you


  7. July 31, 2010 8:22 pm

    Thanks, everyone. I think this is the most personal I’ve gotten on the blog, so I was a bit apprehensive before posting it.

    Annie – You’re right. It’s important for everyone, not just for members of a group.

    Tanita – Hmm, I think it’s more fiction about an ethnic group set in a foreign country is assumed to be historical, not contemporary. (And if it’s about an ethnic group in the US, it’s *about* ethnic/racial problems, of course.) Otherwise, I agree about the need for variety. I would love to read more contemporary YA fiction set in foreign countries, with people from that country as a protagonist. Even though I will admit that most of the adult novels I read that are set in foreign countries are mysteries…

    Christina – I hope we see them soon, too! Thanks for sharing the info on Indian books.

    Liviania – Thanks, but I think the Claudia thing may have been due to her fashion sense. *jokes*

    Morgan – Have you read She’s So Money by Cherry Cheva or My Most Excellent Year by Steve Kluger? They’re not about underwater basket weaving 😀 but they’re the kind of books I’d like to see more of.

    • Morgan permalink
      August 4, 2010 5:30 pm

      Ah, thanks for recommendations! The Cherry Cheva novel looks fantastic.

  8. August 1, 2010 10:26 am

    This line: Because the message I got from American Eyes, even reading it as an adult, was that the only Asian-American experiences worth writing and reading about were those in which race/ethnicity was a problem.

    I have been saying this same thing about GLBTQ lit for ages, and I am ashamed it never occurred to me that it would also be an issue for other groups, that it IS, actively, an issue for other groups that we’re problems in books to provide conflict — that we can rarely just be. This line drove it home for me, so thank you for writing this, and the education. ❤

    • August 2, 2010 4:34 pm

      You’re welcome.

      Yeah, I know. In most novels, conflicts are problem-related, and I can totally understand why. It’s a rare novel that can be compelling AND exuberant (*cough* My Most Excellent Year *cough*), but I would love…more variety in the types of problems that propel a novel, I guess, regardless of genre, setting, and/or protagonist. So THANK YOU, and everyone else who has commented, for reminding me that this is not just an Asian-American issue.

  9. August 17, 2010 12:29 pm

    Great post! Thank you for being so honest, those are often the best kinds of posts =D

    I’m with you all the way, I want more books where race isn’t really an issue. It doesn’t need to be ignored, but there’s no need for a big fuss about it either. And if I see one more historical fiction book about the Japanese during wWII, slavery, the Civil Rights movement, etc. I might scream.

    I loved She’s So Money and My Most Excellent Year. The ethnicity of their characters is mentioned, their culture is appreciated, but it doesn’t become a huge issue.

    I’ve faced some racism in my life, but there’s enough books out there now dealing with that topic that we could move on. More books lile Bleeding Violet, Liar, Girl Overboard, etc.

    • August 17, 2010 1:52 pm

      The ethnicity of their characters is mentioned, their culture is appreciated, but it doesn’t become a huge issue.

      Exactly! I think Justina Chen Headley did this really well in Girl Overboard, with *a lot* of Chinese-American-ness that’s essential to the story, but at the same time making the central conflicts more universal.

      After a couple weeks reflecting on this, I’d now put it this way: I do still think there is a place for books about racism or racial conflicts, just as I think there is a place for books about drugs, abuse, etc. But I want an even greater number of books published that treat race/ethnicity as an integral part of the character, and setting (depending on the story), NOT as the focus of the story nor the defining characteristic. Is this too much to ask for?


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