May-lee Chai

Stella Dong

Writers from China's diaspora

When she was studying writing at the University of Colorado, May-lee Chai remembers taking a course in which the professor 'told us that publishing is in a dismal state, that no one reads books any more, and more or less asked us, 'Why would anyone bother wanting to be a writer?''

Chai proved her erstwhile teacher wrong on all counts by going on to write. Her works include her first novel, My Lucky Face, a family memoir, The Girl from Purple Mountain, and a short story and essay collection, Glamorous Asians. Chai, 38, now teaches writing and gives her students the opposite advice to that she received.

'I tell them, 'I'm going to assume that every one of you has the potential to be a published author and that's where we work from',' she says.

The half-Chinese, half-Caucasian writer says she's stubborn, opinionated and a bit bossy. 'But then I've learnt that I have to be stubborn because from the ages of 12 to 18, people were telling me I had no right to be alive, that I should be dead,' Chai says.

'My family moved from New Jersey to a rural town in the bible belt when my father became the vice-president of academic affairs at the University of South Dakota.


'He was Chinese, but my mother was a blonde Caucasian. That really rankled people and we were harassed in the most vicious ways. We'd find dead snakes in our mailbox, our dogs would be shot by people driving by our house and when we'd call the sheriff nothing would be done.

'It was daily non-stop harassment, and there was nothing I could do to protect myself or my siblings from that kind of racism. I had to be stubborn just to survive.'

Until her early 20s, Chai planned to become an art historian specialising in Chinese art. After obtaining a master's in East Asian Studies at Yale, she was about to accept a scholarship to begin a PhD in Chinese art history and architecture at the University of Pennsylvania when she was diagnosed with a tumour. 'The tumour turned out to be benign, but when I was suddenly confronted with death I realised my dream was to become a writer, but because it was such a precarious way to make a living I'd never had the guts to pursue it,' says Chai.

She turned down the scholarship and enrolled in a creative writing programme.


My Lucky Face was written while she was caring for her mother, who had developed a tumour and died a year before the book was published in 1997. The novel, which concerns a Chinese woman's experiences as China reopened to the west, was Chai's way of 'showing my mother what I saw in China - a way of allowing her to be a tourist in a country she'd never seen'.

Chai, who first saw China as a teenager in 1985 and has returned many times since, says she feels much more connected to the Chinese than Caucasian side of her ancestry.


'I don't look 'white' to most people,' she says. 'I've never been treated as a white person but always as an Asian and, therefore, that's how I've come to see myself.'

A second reason is that she didn't get to know her maternal grandparents when she was growing up, whereas her paternal grandparents, who had brought their family to the US, were never far away.

'I loved my grandparents. But I didn't know much about their history, especially my grandmother's. That's why I went to China. I spent 10 years researching her history.'


The result of Chai's efforts to comprehend her grandparents was The Girl from Purple Mountain, her second book, written in collaboration with her father, Winberg Chai.

'The book was nothing my father ever wanted to write,' Chai says. 'I was the mean one. I pushed him into it. There were some traumatic moments involving our visits to Nanjing and Chungking to revisit places he'd been during the war. But he eventually became enthusiastic.'

Chai, who has taught English in Nanjing and lived in Hong Kong and Taiwan, says she fell in love with China on her first visit. 'I was coming from a very conservative, racist environment in America. In China, not only did I feel part of a Chinese majority, but I felt the people were far more progressive than in the US. I do feel a strong connection and that I'm part of the diaspora.


'Of course, I know I'm not Chinese from China. I didn't experience the kind of suffering or upheaval that they did. Yet I feel there's a tremendous bond, culturally speaking.'