My friend and author, Justina Ireland, (look her up, she’s as awesome as her Twitter handle – @tehawesomersace, requested information about microagressions against Asians from the Twittersphere. I could give you plenty from personal experience, but her search to understand this issue got me thinking elsewhere. Microaggressions are definitely a topic to talk about, and I will, someday soon. There are many other people that lay it out so much more clearly than I ever could, so I will let them.

But in reading about Justina’s quest for authentic answers, my mind goes to my craft of writing authentic characters. How do I write Asian characters, make them as real as any other character, and yet true to their heritage? I’ve seen it done badly enough times to need to lay it out for myself. If you’d like to come on this journey with me, you’re most welcome. Otherwise, thanks for dropping by.

I am biracial, and one half of that is Asian. But the term “Asian” alone means little to me. Being part Asian places my ancestry geographically somewhere in the largest continent on the planet. How does that define who I am and what values I carry with me? How does that influence my behavior, my parenting style, my worldview?

When I write an Asian character (even as a part Asian writer), do I have the right to simply imply their ‘Asian-ness’ without truly understanding that term in a much deeper way? Without understanding that character personally? Especially in the context that my characters often live away from their ancestors’ countries of origin.

I start with a few simple questions: (there’s rarely a simple answer though)

  • Where does my character live now or in the time frame of my story?
  • Which part of Asia do their ancestors come from?
  • If the character doesn’t live in the country of origin, is she two, three or just one generation away from that original culture?
  • What values from that original culture still form the foundation of her identity and belief system?

I’m half Chinese. I’ve been asked what China is like, but I’ve never been, so I couldn’t tell you. I have friends from China, friends whose grandparents are from China, and they are different from my friends from Taiwan. I have Chinese friends from Thailand, from the Phillipines, from Indonesia, and of course, from Singapore. (And not just Chinese, for these countries have descendants from the indigenous culture as well as those from everywhere else in the region).

I identify most with the culture that formed in the multicultural city of Singapore, while acknowledging the influence of China’s pre-revolution culture from my grandparents. (That’s a mouthful, and a lot of repetition of the word ‘culture’.) An entire book could be written about the infused culture that is unique to this island nation. (I’m sure it already has been.) This is where my mother was born and where I spent 25 years of my life. The “Asian” culture that I have absorbed into my system is Singaporean. Yes, there are similarities with my friends from China or Taiwan, but there are just as many differences. Don’t even get me started on the number of different languages that exist in these regions. I understand three of them, and that’s barely anything.

So, when I write a character who comes from or has roots in Asia, I need to know precisely where she hail from. I need to understand the values that her grandparents brought to her family. And learn which of those her parents chose to keep, and those that were modified.

And then there’s the character herself. What values exist in her thinking without her consciously thinking about them? What aspects of her culture has she chosen to drop or adopt, and why? This applies especially to Asians who now live in a different part of the world from their ancestors. (Which funnily, could be most of us in the US, don’t you think?)

If the character’s ancestry hails from more than one culture, that’s a whole other research journey.

My own children, now American, have to work out what values and traditions they would like to keep and which to adapt, and which to discard. That is their right. I suspect though, that the older they get, the more they may return to some of the traditions we’ve tried to pass down.

Just as these decisions exist for my real kids, they exist for the children that come from my imagination, the ones that populate the fictional worlds.

Being Asian, like being African or European, is a convenient term, but it’s really only geographical and just the start of the journey to understanding my characters. I get excited about the expedition I need to take in order to get to know my characters, to understand who they are, based on their own and their families’ journeys through time and place. I am interested to get to know real people who live these lives, to talk to them about how their ancestry has affected who they are, as they find their place to belong, here in the multicultural, mixed up world we have today.

I don’t think I get it right every time, but after this summer residency at Hamline University’s MFAC program, I will work harder to get it ‘more right’, thanks to the insights and wisdom of my classmates and my teachers. I will seek to get it right for the sake of children who may someday read my work, and see themselves reflected back in the characters.

So thank you, Justina, for making me think about this.