Photo Credit: Alex Pedigo
APA had the opportunity to chat virtually with Anna Qu, the author of Made in China: A Memoir of Love and Labor, on narrative, diasporic identity, and what it means to reclaim one’s idea of success.
APA: Your story crosses national borders, from America to China and back again. Privilege, power, and place are at the core of your time in both places, but they all possess a common theme of struggling with belonging. How did those transnational perspectives influence your notion of Chinese American identity?
Thank you for this insightful question. I think it’s common for the Asian/Chinese American immigrants (and immigrants in general) to feel like they have more than one identity, existing in both cultures and yet not fully accepted in either. Depending on the day, it’s a constant negotiation and renegotiation.
It isn’t so much that I’m a different person in China or America but my experiences are dissimilar enough to recognize certain discrimination. Both countries have their own traditions, values, morals, etc. For example, in the Chinese culture, it doesn’t matter how much I value myself or how independent I am able to become, if I don’t have a father or close family, a “cao san” or mountain to lean on, then I’m inferior. It makes me vulnerable in a way beyond my control. China has evolved exponentially in the last 30 years, but it still holds onto certain core customs, ideologies, and hierarchies. For better or worse, that reality made me lean toward my American identity where my value in society can be earned a number of ways. That injustice has shaped me and influenced my Chinese American identity in ways that complicate your question for me. One thing I’ve learned about existing in both worlds is that there’s discrimination in both societies that comes down to privilege and power.
APA: Made in China contains this incredibly powerful idea about illusions versus reality, especially when it comes to finding value within labor and as a family member. What do transparency and truth mean to you now? Looking back, has your definition of success changed?
I think there’s a direct correlation between our relationship with family and our relationship with work. We’re often creating cycles wherever we go, taking both healthy and unhealthy habits with us. And if you come from a troubled home where your worth was often challenged, you’re at a disadvantage in the workplace. I’ve noticed self-worth and confidence often come into play in the workplace, especially when it comes to authority and having a relationship with supervisors. Those observations felt important to iterate in the second half of the book.
In my experience, transparency and truth do not go hand in hand. Every company I’ve ever worked for has been “transparent” and the last few startups I’ve worked for have encouraged “radical candor,” and I’m not sure if either of those buzz words has anything to do with the truth. They are more problem-solving tactics, like how S.M.A.R.T. goals have been widely disseminated to improve time management, project management, and results for the employer. Language in the workplace has always fascinated me in the way it veils; who it condemns, who it protects, and how language can often be used to placate employees. It’s seeing the system at work, and asking if it has anything to do with the truth.
One thing that’s come up for me recently, while waiting for the book to release, was my expectation for the book and what success looks like. Is publishing a book success? Is selling 10,000 copies success? Making it to a best sellers list? I think coming from families that emigrated from Asia out of necessity, out of starvation, there’s a history of magical thinking. Magical thinking tends to focus on the future and not the present. While older generations needed that narrative to survive, it’s not one we should continue to hold on to.
I’ve struggled with my definition of success as much as any writer I know, as much as any Asian American I know, perhaps more so, since I’ve decided to pursue writing as a career. The pressure of success is where most of the problem resides; the weight of our immigrant parents’ sacrifice; the specific and somewhat antiquated ways in which our immigrant family defines success; pressure to financially succeed so that you can raise your parents in old age so that they can be proud of you. I think each of us need to redefine what success looks like and not use metrics set by anyone else. Much easier said than done, I know.
APA: A young Anna finds solace in reading fiction, and yet this book reflects on the importance of telling one’s truth. In the context of this memoir, how does narrative as escapism differ from narrative as empowerment?
I like this question because it hopes to distinguish one from the other, and it’s something that needs to be dichotomized. Why can’t escapism be empowering? I imagine some of my readers will come to Made In China in hopes of a different narrative than the one they’ve lived, and in that way, it is escapism for them. Of course, I’ve thought about a younger version of myself reading this book and I think the empowering nature of it could provide solace for a child that feels powerlessness.
APA: What I love about Made in China is the way you draw from all these different sources — Chinese opera/tragedy, the brain’s scientific response to stress, the Lowell Mill Girls — and then build off of them to relate your own experiences. Were those conscious inclusions, or did they come naturally to you as you were writing?
Thank you for noting that, I’m flattered! They were conscious inclusions in the sense that they came naturally, but I teased them out further in the editorial process. So, I guess it’s a bit of both. You’re reading the final product which is well crafted.
APA: I so, so appreciate this line that comes after you discover the OCFS report: “What do those people know about abuse? … What did they know about my life?” You critically interrogate this external system while locating your anger from a more internal place. And I think it’s very self-referential that you’re asking who determines the legitimacy of your trauma while simultaneously claiming its legitimacy through your writing; it feels like a taking back of power. What was the process like reliving that emotional moment?
While I’d love to take the credit for this, my editor at Catapult had a huge influence in fleshing out the second half of the book, especially around the legitimacy of my trauma and the reconciling with the report. My initial response was to internalize the shock of the report; first with shame and then self-blame. And while I knew where I wanted to end up, I didn’t know how to get there.
I think often women have trouble accessing their anger and we often feel like we need permission. My editor gave me that permission. Talking to her helped me understand what I was trying to say. And then with her editorial eye, I moved past shame and self-blame to what laid buried underneath.
APA: In the beginning, you dedicate this book to your Nie Nie and you end with Nie Nie telling you stories. In what ways do you think storytelling connects generations?
What a generous question. Absolutely! Storytelling is our oral history, it carries with it our society, our kin, our collected memories. It teaches humanity; and can evoke comradeship; and a great sense of community. They tell us about the people that needed those stories, and how it’s evolved. A lot of history is often lost because we haven’t kept it in our storytelling. Even if we don’t necessarily believe those stories, they keep us company.
We’re living in a chaotic time, but the silver lining is that we have more marginalized voices entering (and allowed to enter) a field like publishing. We’re writers and storytellers.