1) I'm Asian-American. Specifically of Filipino descent.
2) Amy Tan is one of my favorite authors and biggest literary influences.
Assumptions would say the two facts are related. Perhaps they are to an extent. When you seek role models, you look to those with similar talents, interests, and backgrounds as yourself. I do relate to Tan's characters, but it took years for me to discover them and to realize I could relate to their search for an identity and personal reconciliation between two cultures.
I was first exposed to Tan's work during a vacation my and some friends' families were on, maybe around age seven. Our parents were doing their own thing in one hotel room, while we kids were hanging out in a room next door. A movie with a lot of Asians played on the TV. I glanced at it, intrigued to see a cast of people who resembled myself but too occupied with jumping between the twin beds and role-playing some game with my sister and friends. I caught scenes of this movie again at my friends' house. I found out it was The Joy Luck Club and associated it with snooty, disapproving mothers disagreeing with their ungrateful, crying daughters. "This movie's just about women who hate their moms who have depressing lives!" I thought. It didn't help that it made no sense to me why anyone would consult a matchmaker or how one man could have multiple wives -- concubines, I'd later learn. I'm pretty sure I was horrified by the scene of young An-Mei's mother cutting her arm and feeding her blood in a healing soup to her own ailing mother. So my child self's concept of China based on the movie was a mishmash of "weird" customs and marital arrangements and families that didn't get along.
Years later during one of my teenage birthdays, a couple gave me a book -- The Joy Luck Club. Oh, I didn't know the movie was a book! I read through it the next few days, and what I recalled of the movie clicked. The mothers weren't just angry old ladies with tragic back-stories. Yes, they experienced their struggles: cheating husbands, controlling in-laws, a desperate escape as Japanese soldiers invaded China. But they also searched deep within themselves for the strength to overcome their circumstances, eventually immigrating to America and starting new lives and families. The daughters didn't hate their mothers because they "just didn't understand." They actually loved them, but the daughters were embarrassed by how "Chinese" their mothers were compared to the "average" American, or they worried they could never measure up to their maternal expectations. Despite the generation and cultural gaps, the mother-daughter pairs managed to learn more about each other, came to an understanding, and discovered themselves as women with their own power.
Now, having read The Joy Luck Club, I tear up whenever I watch the movie, touched by how I can relate to each vignette. I find myself wishing I was like Waverly, a former child chess prodigy and an independent-minded sophisticate. However, I resemble Lena -- complacent, wary of consequences, a Tiger in the Chinese Zodiac, even! -- and June -- feeling directionless at times -- and like them, I'm trying to find my confidence and personal path. And I'm never dry-eyed by the end of the film when June arrives in China, meets her twin half-sisters, and reveals their mother has died.
Growing up, I took for granted the differences between the Filipino culture my parents raised my sister and me in and the American one I experienced outside of home. Realizing Americans didn't use spoons and forks to eat rice with every meal was this big epiphany for me, and the other eye openers trickled down from there. (Of course, what's considered "American" is further complicated because the United States is a mix of cultures brought over and passed down by generations of immigrant families, but that's a story of its own.) Was I supposed to try being more Filipino because of my ethnic roots? To this day, I regret as a child forgetting how to speak Tagalog while I was learning English in school. Was I more American by default because I was born and raised stateside? Or was being equal parts of both the ideal, and how would I even determine that balance? This hyphenated identity crisis isn't unique to Filipino- or Chinese-Americans, but being Asian-American I was endeared to Tan's bestseller and her other books I later read. Here was a writer -- what I wanted to be when I grew up -- telling stories about the identity confusion I experienced. I loved her for that.
I'm still disappointed I was too star-struck during the book signing to tell her how she inspired me as a writer, an Asian-American, and both at the same time. I'm also bummed I didn't find my The Joy Luck Club copy in time for the event since it was the book that introduced me to her work and showed me that other people also wrestled with their personal and cultural identities. Regardless, seeing and meeting her at the event solidified my appreciation for her novels and, whether she intends for this, what she represents for the Asian-American population.
One of my life goals is to be the Filipino-American Amy Tan. Maybe that's a zealous aspiration, but a girl can dream.