Culture Clash

| | 11 comments

When I got a draft version of the cover for Die On Your Feet, I naturally showed it to my husband first, my children second—and then my writing group third. One of my friends in the group, fellow Carina author (of the Kandrith novels), Nicole Luiken, immediately pointed to the clearly Caucasian features of the cover model.
That’s when it struck me: this wouldn’t be the first time people would assume my main character is Chinese.

So this is when I admit something potentially embarrassing—and maybe even controversial.

I had never considered writing a Chinese woman as my main character.

 

Partly, that’s because Lola Starke literally came to me in the middle of the night, a fully–formed character in desperate need of a world to live in. She was my vision of the femme fatale from all those gorgeous noir films I love. But I knew immediately that she needed to be more than a plot device. She needed to run the show. So I made her the private eye.

I grew up a Chinese girl in the Canadian West in the 1970s and ’80s. There were never a lot of other Asian kids when I was growing up. I was born in Hong Kong and emigrated to Vancouver when I was three. From that time until I moved to Japan for a year in the ’90s, I’d never stepped foot in Asia. Yes, we had a Chinatown and there were other Chinese families we socialized with. But honestly, I could count on one hand the number of Asian kids in my combined elementary/junior high school—and that included me and my cousin!

So here’s what I’m sayin’: I grew up looking at a lot of white people. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. It just became easier to try and fit in with them, rather than be the flag–bearer for visible minority girls. I learned to dress like them; listen to the music they listened to; eat the foods they ate. (Here’s a telling fact: after years of watching TV commercials for it, I finally had KD when I was thirteen and had sneaked over to a friend’s house for lunch on a school day. I almost burned the whole batch, not knowing enough to take it off the heat before adding that neon cheese powder!)

At the same time, I’ve never wanted to hide my cultural and ethnic heritage. Impossible, right, considering my difference is built–in genetically? Well, maybe, but it didn’t stop many other Asian–Canadian girls I’ve known to sign up for eyelid surgery and to bleach their beautiful, glossy black hair into a horrid, straw–like mess.

Nope, not for me. I’ve always tried my best to fit in both worlds. I spoke Chinese at home and got an unbroken line of gold stars on the spelling test chart at school. I played point guard and setter on school teams and did all the housework at home on weekends. I put up the Christmas tree every year and prayed with my mother on ancestor days.

And to be clear, I’m not complaining. It made for an upbringing full of unexpected blessings—it just also had its fair share of curses.

Which brings me back to Lola. Or, to be more accurate, to why I created a Chinese cultural background in the form of Crescent City. It was just too tempting to pass up: the chance to have this ongoing background tension for her. But have it as something completely natural, rather than a big plot point.

Much like my upbringing. Or my life now, as a Chinese–Canadian woman living in Western Canada. That tension doesn’t define me, any more than the colour of my skin does or how I like my rice (for the record: long–grain jasmine and NEVER EVER with soy sauce).

That tension is an indisputable part of my life. So I accept it.

Sometimes, I even celebrate it.

So, what about you? Did you have that same culture clash growing up? What was the one food you always wanted to try when you were a kid but that your mother considered absolutely off–limits?  How old were you when you finally got to eat it?

And frankly, I don’t think it matters what colour your skin is. There’s always tension when you’re growing up between what you think others want of you and what you want to try for yourself. I’ve had, and still have, plenty of friends that were raised culturally Italian, Chilean, Romanian, Ukranian, French, English—you name it. They didn’t have KD on a regular basis, either.

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One winner will be chosen randomly and notified by midnight May 29th, 2013.

Die On Your Feet is available through Carina | Amazon.ca | Barnes & Noble | Kobo | Amazon | Amazon UK

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SG Wong was born in Hong Kong and raised in Canada. She holds a B.A. (Honours) in English Literature from the University of Alberta. She lived in Japan for a year, studying the language and researching pubs. During said (intensive) research, she met a very intriguing man, with whom she now raises two exceptionally engaging children.

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11 thoughts on “Culture Clash”

  1. Julie Rowe says:

    Hi SG, your story sounds like a lot of fun!

    I grew up in western Canada too, but my experience was quite different. My family tree has too many cultural backgrounds. If someone asked me where my family came from (outside of Canada) I had to take a deep breath and give them the list. English, Scottish, Hungarian, Irish and a little I-don’t-know. My kids’ list is even longer.

    Now, I just say I’m Canadian. :-)

    Congrats on your debut!

  2. SG Wong says:

    thanks for the good vibes you’ve sent my way, Miss Julie!

    “Canadian” sounds pretty darn good to me. i’m still a hyphenate… ;)

    my kids have to throw in “American” into their mix. talk about international.

  3. StephWJ says:

    I grew up in Montreal, with a French Mom and German Dad, and went to a high school that was 75% Jewish. I can relate, although I was never perceived to be “other,” I felt that I didn’t fit into the “categories” available to me, more internally than externally. I remember thinking as a kid, that if Quebec started some kind of civil war, and I had to pick a side, I wouldn’t know which to choose. We spoke English at home, but my family heritage was French and German.
    I think everyone can relate to that feeling of “otherness” at some point in their life. Thanks for writing about it, so that we can experience it through your character’s eyes.

  4. Oh, sure, tell a story where I put my foot in my mouth! :) I think my assumption was in part because I’d heard you talk about both your setting and your decision to use a pen name prior to seeing the (gorgeous) cover.

    Happy release day!

  5. SG Wong says:

    ha ha, Nicole! no such thing as bad publicity, right..? ;) i think of it more that you spurred me write this post, so that’s a good thing! thanks for the well wishes, too.

    Steph, thanks for sharing about not knowing which side to choose in the imaginary civil war. you really nailed that sense of tension i’m talking about. and it’s poignant, really, isn’t it? we all feel torn between loyalties within our families sometimes.

  6. Aspen Gainer says:

    I think you’ve brought up an excellent subject, SG.
    On one hand, the femme fatale character in noir films is traditionally white…at least in those films produced in the US. It makes sense that you would write a noir character as you’d always seen them portrayed. These days, I can think of only one Asian actress I’ve ever seen in noir-type rolls in Hollywood films (Lucy Liu), although I think Sin City did a pretty good job of casting a number of non-Caucasian women.

    But I’d say that readers will make up pictures of the characters in their heads and look to the writer for cues only. I doubt the characters I envision while reading a book are the same as the author’s picture of them when the book was written. Obviously some characteristics are static and unchangeable, but details that don’t matter as much can be left fluid.
    I’d hazard a guess, without having read the book in question, that Lola would work just as well as a white woman as a Chinese woman; however, you could argue against that guess by saying that culture might affect behaviours and mannerisms, etc. It’s an interesting subject.

    I think it’s interesting to consider the assumptions made about these mental images and then play with them as the author. This probably gets frustrating for readers, but every now and then it could be interesting to cause that kind of intentional dysphoria.

    Another point…in my experience, cover art rarely has anything to do with actual book content anyway. I often find the characters on the cover don’t look anything like the character I envision in my head, and it never interferes with my reading enjoyment!

    Interesting discussion point, thanks for sharing!

  7. Margaret says:

    Hi, SG
    So looking forward to reading your book.

    I’m 100% English, generation upon generation. Boring, eh? To add some interest, I’ve married a second generation German-Canadian and we’ve had many a discussion about the cultural differences. On the other hand, when we travel to Asia we’re both white — and TALL ones at that. Do you know the Japanese saying: “the nail that sticks up gets hammered down”? Ouch.

    A year in Japan, in Mauritania, and in Cambodia have been our experiences as visible minorities. We were invited to Japan with the words “to anyone willing to experience the helplessness of living in a foreign culture.” Indeed, what a challenge; what a privilege.

  8. Deborah Lawson says:

    It’s a truth. You have to honour those fully–formed characters in desperate need of a world to live in, who visit you in the middle of the night. I’m glad you did this with Lola.

  9. Deborah Lawson says:

    It’s a truth. You have to honour those fully–formed characters in desperate need of a world to live in, who visit you in the middle of the night. I’m glad you did this with Lola.

    PS: I had to enter this comment twice, because I got an Error message the first time and couldn’t find my way back to the first comment, so let’s see if it will accept this one. :)

  10. SG Wong says:

    Aspen, i was criticized by a friend once that i didn’t have enough character description yet other readers didn’t have strong feelings one way or the other. i think it can be a very personal preference.

    Margaret, i lived in Japan for a year and experienced there the fun of being an invisible minority for the only time in my life. it was truly fascinating; i “passed” for Japanese all the time. let me tell you: foreigners would be well-served by being more discreet in their English-language conversations when they assume others can’t understand them..!
    and by the way, Margaret, there’s nothing boring about you, ma’am!

    Deborah, Lola has been, hands-down, the most wonderful and frustrating and intriguing and maddening middle-of-the-night visitor i’ve ever had! it’s a privilege to create for her.

  11. SG Wong says:

    all right, ladies! drum roll please…

    the winner of a free copy of Die On Your Feet is—

    Aspen Gainer, she of the beautifully meaningful name.

    Aspen, please email me at: sg(AT)sgwong.com and we’ll talk formats.

    thank you, everyone, for your comments and for reading my post. it was a lot of fun to write and i hope it spurs you to consider all the ways your reading and writing is informed by the smallest details of your past.

    take care!

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