Fitting in when one's roots are elsewhere

When people ask me where I'm from, they get a complicated response," says Leslie Chang, a journalist and the author of "Beyond the Narrow Gate" (E.P. Dutton). "I can't just say I'm from China. There's a whole history encapsulated in the answer."

Leslie Chang is not from China. But her mother is.

A few years ago, Ms. Chang was a writer in search of a subject. Like many, she discovered that the best material was close to home. Chang was raised by her Chinese parents to be assimilated into American society, a society that stamped her as different. Yet the Chinese-American culture that represented her roots was itself divided into multiple communities: urban Chinatowns, West Coast gilded ghettos, and lonely islands of Chinese in small towns across America. In Chang's attempt to understand her identity and heritage, she sought out her mother's story.

That was easier said than done. Tight-lipped about the past, her mother was hardly a willing subject. "I just don't want to remember," she snapped at her daughter when probed about her life.

"My mother kept her memories locked away," says Chang, a graduate of the Columbia School of Journalism and a writer with a strong sociological bent. If Chang was once frustrated with her mother's unwillingness to revisit the past, it's clear that writing "Beyond the Narrow Gate: The Journey of Four Chinese Women from the Middle Kingdom to Middle America" has given her an appreciation for her mother's accomplishments. "She was a pioneer, opening up white upper-middle-class neighborhoods to immigrants," Chang says.

Her mother's reluctance to talk sent Chang out to track down three friends from her mother's adolescence: Margaret, a research scientist living in the gilded West Coast ghetto of Palos Verdes; Suzanne, a librarian and pillar of a conventional community in Reading, Pa., who left it behind for some rather unconventional behavior; and Dorothy, a New York commodities trader who gambled away all her money - and some of Chang's mother's. All three had been classmates with her mother at an elite girls school in Taiwan.

The complexity and variety of their experiences as well-to-do Chinese immigrants in America of the 1970s and '80s - and what they reveal about her mother's experiences - partly explain why it is difficult for Chang to say, simply, where she's from. She was raised by people who in China would have been "the cream of the crop, the future of the country," Chang says. "In the US, they were just Chinese engineers, scientists, and researchers clinging to their lives."

Her mother, in particular, was trapped in a Hartford, Conn., WASP community that "refused to take her in, but demanded that she keep knocking."

"Beyond the Narrow Gate" then is in part a story about how the past and present experiences of immigrant parents shape their children as Americans.

In the current rash of Asian-American writers, Chang is often compared to Amy Tan. It's a comparison that Chang, with her usual directness, finds inaccurate. "Tan's book ['The Joy Luck Club'] is about the Chinatown experience," she emphasizes, "about women who come from all different parts of China and knew each other in San Francisco." Her own book, she says, is really about the reverse: "women from similar backgrounds, a certain class and value system, and [yet] they ended up very different sorts of women."

Born in 1937, Chang's mother fled to Taiwan with her family in 1948 when the Red Army marched into China. Later orphaned, she ended up raising her younger siblings. She eventually won a scholarship from the Catholic Church to a college in Virginia.

The daughter growing up knew almost nothing of these experiences, and certainly not how her mother felt about them. Chinese people are traditionally reserved, Chang says. And it didn't help that her mother's leveling memory took all events, traumatic or mundane, and folded them equally into an inaccessible past.

For example, the mother mentions casually one day that she'd fled China with gold bars sewn into her belt; they were, she said, "so heavy."

"She might as well have been talking about a bag of groceries for all the emotion she displayed," Chang writes. "When she happened to mention the fact that her grandmother had been an opium addict with bound feet, I accepted the news with equal equanimity. Her delivery was so matter-of-fact I assumed everyone's grandmother had a hookah collection and wore shoes that measured a mere 3-1/2 inches."

It wasn't long before Chang realized the particularity of her situation: a Chinese-American kid from a distinguished Chinese family (on the "wrong side" in the revolution) living in an upper-middle class WASP neighborhood. And it was a realization that made her unhappy. Chinese immigrants like her parents didn't enjoy the comforts of community that traditional Chinatown ghettos provided. They were hunkered down as engineers and researchers in suburban America.

The author despised these immigrants for their timidity, but she also hated "ugly and depressing" Chinatown when she was a child. She did everything she could to reject her Chinese identity, refusing to learn Chinese or cook native dishes.

In college, under the influence of West Coast first-generation Chinese who were comfortable with their identity, she tried to embrace her own. Having come from communities where they were part of majorities, the other kids were unselfconscious. They were neither assimilationist slaves nor locked into Chinatown ghettos.

Chang says the reaction to her book depends upon the generation. "The 20-somethings say 'That's just my story,' and they're happy I told it because their parents won't talk to them." But reader-response reviews from Chinese-Americans have taken her to task for disclosing skeletons in the closet, Chang says. "There are a lot of things you're just not supposed to talk about."

"Beyond the Narrow Gate" is a coming-of-age book that wrestles with identity politics in an immigrant community and an old question: How do you reconcile assimilation with having roots elsewhere?

Chang's answer is blunt and not too fashionable. You can't, she says. Although her generation is more confident and more open than her parents', she says, "We can't choose roots and belonging. Society allows one or the other."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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