Dear Non-Asian Writer

February 11, 2016

Dear Non-Asian Writer of Asian American Characters,

I am delighted that you are including an Asian American character in your book, without hyphens and everything, too. You have my word that I will delve into your book, confident that you've done your best to be respectful, thoughtful, and diligent about your portrayal of Asian Americans and our varied experiences.

For example, in crafting your characters, I know you have kept in mind the factors that have ravaged the Asian American psyche, little things, like the discriminatory laws that prohibited the immigration of Chinese laborers to the US as recently as the sixties, while not limiting the immigration of other races. Or the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II. More than a hundred thousand Japanese, most of those American citizens, were forced to give up their homes/lives and imprisoned in ‘relocation centers’ surrounded by barbed wire.

If you wonder whether the ghosts of legalized racial discrimination still linger, I direct your attention to our current presidential candidates, some of whom are still ridiculing and badmouthing us.

But back to you and your Asian characters. Please remember the microaggressions we battle on a daily basis, like being asked where we are from, really from, as if having an Asian face means we must be foreign. Microaggressions provoke feelings of shame and inferiority. One high school friend came to dread school photo day because the photographer would inevitably tell her to open her eyes. Despite assuring them that her eyes were indeed, open, they would make her stretch her eyelids as wide as they could go. Inevitably her photos would return with her looking as if she’d just sat on a pizza. To this day, she refuses to be in pictures.

Of course, you know all of this, because you’ve slipped on your most comfortable pair of socks for some serious walking in other people’s shoes, or at least have listened to others with your listening ears. You've also not relied on Wiki to give you the answers to questions that one billion people might be able to answer for you if you just asked them, because, many of us speak English. That you’ve gone to the library at a bare minimum to do meaningful research, and even better, spent quality time with a particular subject chatting up witnesses and shaking down experts. Even I, who have lived 40+ years in my Asian American body, still trip up sometimes writing within my own culture, so I can only imagine how hard it must be for you.

I know you’d like some tips on writing about Asian Americans, but yikes. I’m uncomfortable with speaking on behalf of more than a billion people. However, I can share a few things that push my buttons.

Things That Push Stacey’s Buttons

  1. Asian American women who are: submissive, weak, overly aggressive, exotic, have magic vaginas, are overly sexualized, quiet, tigers, dragon ladies, prostitutes, fixated on our looks, submissive, dolls, bad drivers, gold diggers, concubines, fixated on shoes (okay that one's okay), backstabbing, geishas, nerds, or tragic heroines who might kill themselves when their lovers don't return to them.
  2. Asian American men who are: nerds, gangsters, cruel, effeminate, video gamers, geeks, shy, introverted, mute, asexual, wimps, kung-fu mastah!, sinister, ineffectual, women abusers, not well-endowed, kung-fu mastah!, math-y, victims of white man stealing their woman, cheap, dirty, and kung-fu mastah!
  3. Focusing on the Asian American experience as one of defeat and humiliation. We're not all burning with wrath and indignation, and those who are can still lead very happy lives. In fact, not all Asian Americans know about their racial history, and some know, but could care less about it. Shocking as it is, some would rather be eating snickerdoodles than reading this article.
  4. Asian American overachievers. Sure, it's great when Asian Americans characters are smart and talented, but most of us are just people who worry about our expanding waistlines and struggle to make the grade like everyone else. Southeast Asians have the highest dropout rates in the country. This ‘overachieving’ trope holds Asian Americans to higher standards than everyone else, and falling short of the mark can have both grave physical consequences (e.g., poverty, homelessness) and psychological impacts (e.g., depression). Remember, but we have our share of ignoramuses, too!
  5. Chinese restaurants. Books are littered with them. Unless you have a compelling reason to keep them, consider deleting. An easy way to remember this is: take out the takeout. Not only is it an overused trope, it calls to mind an era when the only jobs Chinese people could find were as cooks/launderers, and reinforces a hurtful stereotype that Asians are servants and belong in the kitchen. Also, we don’t all eat rice. At the risk of blowing your mind, when my sisters and I were young, we shunned rice. I would hide it in my pockets so I wouldn’t have to eat it, which not only runs counter to the stereotype of Asian frugality, but also leads to pockets that are stuck together.

Things That Push Other Asian American Authors’ Buttons

“That Asian women are submissive. We're bossy as hell. Not to stereotype or anything.” —Maureen Goo, author of Since You Asked, and Fever Dreams

“That we are reserved. Stoic.” —Renée Ahdieh, author of The Wrath and the Dawn, and The Rose and the Dagger

“That all Asian parents are oppressive.” —Tara Sim, author of Timekeeper

“That we’re homogenous, robotic, diligent, obedient math nerds programmed to become doctors.” —Fonda Lee, author of Zeroboxer

“That Asian women are, or should ideally be, delicate, docile creatures.” —Charlotte Huang, author of For the Record and Going Geek

“Growing up, that Hmong people ate dogs. Also, that we all received free houses and cars from the government.” —Lori M. Lee, author of Gates of Thread and Stone, and The Infinite

“We all look alike.”—I.W. Gregorio, author of None of the Above

“That we won't push back or that we don't even understand their English.” —Karen Bao, author of Dove Rising

“That every Asian is Chinese.” —Erin Entrada Kelly, author of Blackbird Fly

“That Asians are bad drivers. I'm an excellent driver, and I even taught my fiancé how to drive stick, thank you very much.” —Sarah Jae Jones, author of Wintersong

“That Asian men are weak and sexless.” —Rahul Kanakia, author of Enter Title Here

As we close, gentle reader, let me assure you that I will assume you took writing an Asian American character seriously, since you know how much we as readers will measure their value by what they find (or don't find) in your book. That it hurts to be invisible but misrepresentation hurts just as much. That non-Asians will internalize the things they find in your book about Asian Americans. Much obliged for fighting the good fight with us, and happy writing!

Contributor: 

Stacey Lee

Stacey Lee is a fourth generation Chinese-American whose people came to California during the heydays of the cowboys. She believes she still has a bit of cowboy dust in her soul. A native of southern California, she graduated from UCLA then got her law degree at UC Davis King Hall. After practicing law in the Silicon Valley for several years, she finally took up the pen because she wanted the perks of being able to nap during the day, and it was easier than moving to Spain. She plays classical piano, raises children, and writes YA fiction.

Comments

Comments

I know a lot of this was tongue-in-cheek, but thank you for writing it. The hero in my current book is second-generation Japanese American (I didn't know about the hyphen before reading this) and silly as it may sound, it's reassuring to see that I *didn't* hit any of your pet peeves. Which isn't to say I wrote him perfectly, or even in a way that would cause a consensus among Asian American readers of M/M romance, but I did put a lot of extra time into trying to educate myself before blindly assuming everyone has the same experience I do. We've still got a long way to go before "we need diverse books!" is more than a futile complaint, but authors like you who take the time to share their own views make the journey easier for everyone.
This was excellent. Thank you. 
Someone wants to know what your racial heritage is and doesn't know quite how to phrase the question, so you take that as a 'microaggression'? Maybe you could try to see the question for what it is and meet us half way.
You may want to edit this article: you repeatedly refer to an Asian American population numbering approximately 1 billion... Which is a rather strange figure considering that the total American population is currently estimated to be approximately 320 million.   The, uh, point being that it would be quite strange for Asian Americans to comprise more than 300% of the whole population.   That aside: it was a good, entertaining article.
Fantastic article! Powerful. 
Dear Stacey, I don't know if you are planning on delving into YA fiction, but I highly recommend The Wig in the Window by Kristen Kittscher. She is a former middle school English teacher (and former colleague) and published her first novel about 3 years ago. Her sequel just came out, entitled The Tiara on the Terrace. The books are about 2 best friends, one of whom is Chinese American. I'd be interested to know your take on this character. Melinda Chen
I can't tell you how my trepidation I approached this story with. I am relieved my Korean assassin is neither repressed, a bad driver, a simpering, fashion-loving fool who studies a lot, nor is she infuriated by the ghosts of oppression or her tiger parents. I do have one question. She does speak in a shorthand way because she spoke only Korean until she arrived in Australia at age 10. Is this considered racist? For example: "This getting boring now." I wish no offense to my Korean or other Asian readers. I based her speech patterns on a Korean friend from school.
Thank you very much for this. So, full disclosure, I'm a white guy.  Didn't have much choice in that.  Just how the dice fell in my favor.  Thing is I want to write more diverse stories.  I want black characters that aren't just stereotypes.  I want asian characters that are interesting and engaging.  I want to write strong female protagonists.  Problem is that I'm not black, asian, or a woman!  In fact, of the three, I only know two or three women who I can talk to about my female characters. I realize the literary world is white dominant and men have had the privilaged voice for... mmm... ever?  I just want to know how to write non-white, non-male characters well.  Thank you for a few of these guide lines.  I wish there was a whole book from asian, black, hispanic, women, lgbtq, native american perspectives for people like me who live in this vast bubble of whiteness.  It'd make me a better writer and a better person.
Oh...all of my son's school pictures look like he's purposely making a funny, surprised face. I thought he was just being silly until he told me recently that the photographer told him to "open your eyes as big as you can." In California. In the 2010's. I'm working on a book about Asian and Asian American characters, and I am haunted by worries about stereotyping. I'm trying to write what I know to be true, and what my Asian friends resonate with, but I worry that folks will think that because I wrote these characters, and because some of them do fit some of the stereotypes, they accurately represent all other Asians/Asian Americans. When, in fact, they are exactly who they are and nothing more. Thank you for this, Stacey.
Thanks for sharing this, Stacey! It's good information to keep in mind for anyone who is writing outside of their own culture!
I hope to god i never see any asian write a white character. 
Here's what troubles me about your essay. There are 4 billion Asians, living in 48 different countries. Why limit your comments to non-Asian writers? What in the universe gives an Chinese American writer whose family is Han and came from, say, Guangdong province, any special insight to write about a Japanese, Filipino, Bangladeshi, or Bhutanese character or story?
Dear Ms Lee Thank you for this article. Even when I proceed with the best intentions, allo-identification is always partial at best. I try, whenever possible, to speak directly to someone for insight before I write a character outside of my own cultural experience. Your article is an excellent resource. Thanks again. Michael Phillips Mann
What is the matter with being introverted? The American culture values extroversion much more but there is absolutely nothing wrong with introversion. There is a "quiet revolution" happening amongst people who are introverted, reclaiming the value of being introverted. For more information read Susan Cain's excellent book "Quiet: the Power of Introverts in a World that Can't Stop Talking" or watch Cain's TED talk.
This uses snarkiness to make a good point--you feel the author's frustration and anger--but ouch too, if you are white trying to write an Asian character. The message seems to be don't screw it up or else. Some might interpret that as don't even try. But then again, if you can't be serious and dedicated about this endeavor of representing someone different than yourself (and handle scrutiny), maybe you shouldn't be writing.
Interesting article, Stacey. Thanks for sharing. Yes, I have written Asian (Japanese) and Pacific (Chamorro) characters in my book NO SURRENDER SOLDIER (Merit Press, 2014). I lived in Pacific-Asia for nearly a decade, including Japan and Guam, or else I never would have attempted writing such a book. I wanted to make a comment about the Chinese restaurants that you mention. It's possible writers are imitating what they see on tv. (I haven't noticed Chinese restaurant in most books I read, but now you will me paying attention.) I once heard a director say they use Chinese take-out cartons on tv because the visual is better than a scene with empty wrappers such as from a hamburger joint.  Advice to non-Asians in the U.S., it is much more polite to ask someone, "Where did your grandparents come from?" and only ask if they have an obvious accent. For me the question is a conversation starter since I've been to many of the countries and enjoy hearing about their countries and histories. Inside my (adult) children and myself is a part of the Asian culture, a piece big enough to be filled iwth longing and missing a home we will never  return to.             
its a sad thing to have to try and teach people about how to be human. Isn't it ?