Amy Tan shares tale of two identities

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 21 March, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 21 March, 2007, 12:00am

'I was supposed to be American but had weird Chinese parents'

Author Amy Tan yesterday described how she struggled with her Chinese-American identity while growing up and yearned to be 'completely American'.

'I thought it was an accident that I'd been born into a Chinese family,' she said, speaking to 1,000 children who travelled from as far away as Beijing to hear her talk at Lingnan University.

'I thought there was a God up there and he had said: 'You go down this chute, and you go down this slide' and that you ended up in a certain family - and that I must have tripped.

'I was supposed to be with an American family and I ended up with these weird Chinese parents.

'It's a ridiculous notion, but that's how strong my desire was to be American. Part of that was because I was around other kids and I wanted to be just like them.'

Tan - who caught publishers' attention with her 1989 novel The Joy Luck Club - about four mothers and their first-generation Chinese-American daughters - said that as a child she had been ashamed by her mother's 'broken English'.

'I believed that her English reflected the quality of what she had to say, that because she expressed them imperfectly, her thoughts were imperfect.'

She told the students, many from international schools, that they may find it difficult not being able to identify with any one culture.

'Many of you were born here,' she said. 'You are around classmates who come from different countries or were born in a different country, or your parents are from a different place, and oftentimes students in international schools end up feeling they don't belong to any culture.

'That's an identity in itself. There are a number of children who feel that way and it is, in my opinion, its own special identity - a very individual one.'

Tan had come to understand her mother by exploring their relationship in her fiction. And she had come to realise the question of identity was not a static one.

'Identity changes and it can change from day to day,' she said. 'Identity not only has to do with ethnicity, it has to do with who I am as a woman, or who I am in terms of my age, or who I am as a private person versus being an author.'

English teacher Daniel Stamp said Tan's themes resonated with the students he had brought from Harrow School in Beijing to hear her speak.

'The question of identity is relevant to a lot of our children who are meeting in a place that is not their birthplace,' he said. 'To international school students ... the question of identity is an important one.'

Trina Jo Mah, 13, a student at the Beijing school, said Tan was not what she expected. 'The Joy Luck Club feels very Chinese but she seems very American in the way she talks,' she said. 'But what she talks about is very Chinese.'