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Why write from other cultural perspectives?

his article was published on September 14, 2017, on Kids' Book Buzz. To see original, click here

Confession: I am not a Chinese boy living in 1870s Connecticut. I was not alive in the 1870s. I have never lived in Connecticut. I am not a boy. And I am not Chinese. Whew! Got that off my chest.

We writers of historical fiction are called to help readers imagine life in a different era than our own. To face this challenge, we do all the research we can—reading books written about the era and examining letters and books written at the time. We take note of the kind of clothing people wore, their food and drink, the style and decor of their homes, and even their modes of transport. We ask the questions: what were the big events of the time? What were common attitudes among different classes of people?

Emily Dori in Chinese outfits lo resThen, we let our imaginations take over. What might it have felt like to live at that time? How might such a person have responded to common—or uncommon—events? Fiction gives us license to use our imaginations in ways that non-fiction writers don’t have.

The toughest question, though, comes when a writer chooses to recreate the experience and feelings of someone of a different race or culture. What right does a Caucasian American woman like me have to pen a novel from the perspective of a young Chinese boy? Born in Ohio, how could I dare to write a book about how it feels to be a foreigner in America? Shouldn’t I stick to writing solely from the viewpoint of a person just like me?

I get it. White authors have been writing about people of other ethnicities in America for hundreds of years, often misrepresenting them. The subservient characters of Mammy and Uncle Tom. The tragic Asian heroine who conveniently dies at the end, as in Madame Butterfly and Shogun. The tale of self-sacrificing Pocahontas. Even though we are sensitive of stereotypes to avoid, white authors run a risk of misrepresenting viewpoints each time we write about someone of a different background.

Yet, I continue writing novels in which the main character is Chinese. My newest book, The Forbidden Temptation of Baseball, is about two Chinese brothers who were sent to Connecticut by the Chinese Emperor in 1875. It’s the fourth book I’ve written from a Chinese point of view.

Why do I keep on? Because these perspectives are part of the patchwork of the American experience. If American kids read stories from many different cultural backgrounds, they will have a better understanding of the diversity of experience and lives in our country and around the world. Reading novels about children from other cultures will help our children be more open and accepting of people who come from backgrounds different from their own.

I learned this first hand. While studying Mandarin in Singapore, I felt the frustration of living as a minority in a foreign land and struggling to express my thoughts in the language of those around me. Later, I lived and worked in Hong Kong, traveling widely throughout China, befriending many Chinese people from different backgrounds, hearing many incredible stories that ached to be told. On a personal note, my husband is Chinese, and we have raised our daughter immersed in Chinese culture, here in the United States. Listening to my daughter’s response to growing up Asian in America and meeting her friends of many different races and backgrounds, I widened my own understanding.

For me, writing from the perspective of Asian characters is an act of conscience. I want to do what I can to counter stereotypical points of view. For instance, many of the earliest Chinese immigrants to America came to do hard labor in the gold mines, railroads, and factories on the West Coast. That’s true. But that led to a backlash of anti-Chinese sentiment among Americans and a long-held assumption that all Chinese immigrants were low-wage “coolies.”  When I found out that more than a hundred Chinese boys came to the United States to study in that same era, their story offered a different narrative. Many of these students got into excellent colleges. Their experience, an under-told story, more closely fits that of many recent Chinese immigrants.

I believe very strongly that in this day and age especially, it’s important for Americans to try to understand the mindset of how it feels to be a foreigner in our society. Especially kids. In American schools, kids are very likely to be studying with classmates born in a different country. Unfortunately, some react by bullying and teasing. How much better to read a book and try to understand how alienated the classmates might feel, surrounded by unfamiliar words, values, and assumptions! Books I recommend include Thanhha Lai’s Inside Out and Back Again, Cynthia Kadohata’s Kira-Kira, and Bette Bao Lord’s In the Year of the Boar and Jackie Robinson.

I think it’s healthy for American children to connect with the perspective of people from other countries, cultures, and races. If they learn empathy as children, perhaps they will grow up to be more sensitive and understanding to the plight of others. The more diverse books American children read, the more hope there is that America, in the future, will be a strong neighbor and a more welcoming country.

I agree that there is a need for authors of all ethnic and racial backgrounds to come forward and share their stories.  I fervently hope the children’s book publishing industry will proactively seek out writers from diverse backgrounds. In the meantime, writers like me have the unique opportunity to help immerse readers in culture, ways of living and thinking, and experiences that are new or foreign to them.

If I could learn empathy and understanding from my experiences, I hope my writing can have that effect on my readers.

Book launch celebrations - Happy moments in Redmond, Kirkland, and Mercer Island

A1 Island Books 1A2 Island Books 2A3 Dori speaking to kidsA4 Tina Kathleen and kidsA5 Dan Ullom introA6 BM crowdA8 Island Books 6A7 signing wallA9 Book TreeA10 Book Tree

Publication Day! - accolades

The Forbidden Temptation is now available in bookstores, libraries, and online!  Check your local bookstore for availability. Pub Day Dori PSE

On publication day, August 15, I went to Brick & Mortar Books. It's great to see my book on sale. 

Buzzfeed listed The Forbidden Temptation of Baseball as #1 on its list of "5 Books to Gift Your Child's Teacher This New School Year. 

And Culturalist also chose it for its list of Reads to Beat the Back-to-School Blues.  It reaches 500-600,000 readers a month.

Amazon awarded it a #1 New Release banner for "Children's Asian and Asian American Books" and "Children's Baseball Books." 

Lots of excitement - and more in the works. 

Why China Craves Advanced Technology

Some Historical Perspective              by Dori Jones Yang

How much does it matter whether you live in a high-tech nation? We Americans don’t often think about this question. After all, we do live in such a nation. We can take photos from our phones, drive cars that don’t need gas, access cutting-edge medical treatment, and wear computers on our wrists. So can people from other countries, if they can afford it.

But people in China see the importance of technology with different eyes. In the 19th century, China viewed itself as the most advanced country in the world, with a long history of literature, art, and strong central governance. But when European warships arrived, it was unprepared. China lost war after war, and European nations forced it to give up rights to its own territory—and to legalize imports of highly addictive opium. Humiliated, China’s leaders realized there was a lot more to superiority than refined culture.

Steam locomotiveSeveral centuries ago, China was more powerful than Europe. It invented paper, block printing, the mariner’s compass, and gunpowder, which helped Europeans advance into the Renaissance and the Age of Exploration. But the game changed with the Industrial Revolution, which began in Britain around 1800 and quickly spread to the United States. The use of coal for steam power and the invention of machine tools led to modern manufacturing, railroads, rifles, and engine-powered naval ships.

After Britain and France routed China in the Second Opium war in 1860, China’s rulers realized they needed to catch up.  Until then, China had been an inward-looking nation with a large population, confident that the rest of the world had nothing that China wanted or needed. After two humiliating military defeats, some in Beijing realized that modern technology was essential to defend their country.

Ironically, at the same time, young workers from the southern China began to arrive in California to seek jobs, and a group of them built the western portion of the first Continental Railroad, laying track across the treacherous Sierra Nevada Mountains. At the time, this 2,000-mile railroad was a wonder of the modern world, yet China itself did not have a single mile of railroad track.

Yung-Wing from CHSA bold young man named Yung Wing, the first Chinese to graduate from Yale University, convinced China’s rulers that they should organize a large-scale mission to learn technology from the West. He proposed the Chinese government should select a large group of boys and send them to the United States to study for fifteen years and return home to teach. Although many at the emperor’s court resisted the idea, a visionary statesman named Zeng Guofan gained official approval in 1871.

In 1872, the Chinese Educational Mission to the United States began sending students to the United States. Over four years, China sent 120 boys, most age 11 to 16, after training them in English in Shanghai. Yung Wing located American families who welcomed the boys to live in their homes in their pre-college years, teaching them English to prepare them for high school and college. The host families all lived in Connecticut and Massachusetts.

A5 Drawing of Centennial visit close upThe most exciting moment came in August 1876, when all the Chinese boys went together to the Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia. The world’s most advanced technology was on display there, including a huge steam engine that powered almost all the other machines in “Machinery Hall.” It produced as much power as 1,400 horses. Also on display were sewing machines, typewriters, wobbly bicycles, machine guns, a monorail, an early elevator, a mechanized icebox, and even Alexander Graham Bell’s first telephone.

Many of the boys were excellent students. As they grew up and finished high school, some were accepted at Yale, Columbia, Rensselaer, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and other universities. However, the U.S. Congress refused to allow them to attend West Point or the Naval Academy to study military technology and techniques.

In 1881, the Chinese government cut short the mission and ordered all the students to return to China. Only one had finished college. In China, they were treated badly, as if they had somehow betrayed their homeland by becoming “too American.” Still, many found ways to work in rail or naval technology. One of the returned students, Zhan Tianyou, led the team that built the first Chinese-built railroad in China. He is revered today as the “Father of China’s Railroads.”

Unlike Japan, which undertook a concerted effort to adopt modern technology starting in the late 1800s, China languished as a weak nation, beset by revolution, civil wars, invasion, and Maoist radicalism. Although the Communist government began to industrialize in the 1950s, it wasn’t until after Deng Xiaoping’s economic reforms in the 1980s that China truly embraced modern technology.

China’s leaders today believe that technology is key to defending their country and ensuring a good life for their people. Much of their economic policy is centered on acquiring advanced technology—by buying it, pirating it, or convincing foreign companies to share it. Today, more than 300,000 Chinese students are studying in the United States; while many settle in the United States, increasing numbers of them are deciding to return to their homeland.

China high speed railAfter thirty years of modernization—in a twist of irony—China now has the world’s largest high-speed rail network, while the United States has no high-speed rail at all. China also has the world’s fastest supercomputers, the world’s largest radio telescope, a space station, and a satellite that can beam quantum particles into space to transmit secure information.

China’s President Xi Jinping continues the push for technical achievement. In March 2017, he told the National People’s Congress, “We must have a greater sense of urgency to push for science and technology innovation and advancement with greater determination and efforts.”

To Americans, the 1800s seem like far-off history. To Chinese, they seem like yesterday.

First review!

Delighted to see this excellent review of The Forbidden Temptation of Baseball - in VOYA magazine, the leading journal for young adult librarians. It reaches over 7500 major library systems and school districts nationwide. The word is getting out!

4Q 4P M J

Yang, Dori Jones. The Forbidden Temptation of Baseball. SparkPress, 2017. 256p. $12.95 Trade pb. 978-1-943006-32-8.

In the 1870s, the emperor of China sent 120 boys to the U.S. in hopes of developing a cadre of future leaders who would immerse themselves in their dynamic host country and then return, bringing the energy and know-how of American industrial technology back to their highly traditional homeland. Through a pair of fictional brothers, the author provides insight into this little-known historical event. Twelve-year-old Woo Ka-Leong (his name is Americanized as Leon) and fifteen-year-old Woo Ka-Sun (Carson) are both sent to live with a middle-class, New England family. The story is told from the viewpoint of the optimistic and adaptable younger brother, Leon, who soon becomes proficient in English and comfortable with American culture and cuisine. He also becomes an enthusiastic baseball player and a fan of steam engines and railroads. Carson, however, clings single-mindedly to his mastery of classical Chinese poetry and calligraphy while scorning all things American. On his rare ventures into wider American society, notably on a group visit to the Centennial Exhibition of 1876 in Philadelphia, the older brother's erratic behavior causes widespread dismay. The two boys represent opposite poles of the range of results likely to arise from cross-cultural experiences.

This well-written historical novel is filled with intriguing details about Chinese and American customs and lifestyles of the era. Through Leon's expectations and his confrontations with alien customs, the reader learns about both pre-modern Chinese and Victorian-era American societies and technologies. The novel features several appendices, including a short bibliography, questions for discussion, and trivia for readers who will want to learn more. The boys’ experiences are both timely and timeless in Yang’s deft hands.—Walter Hogan.

 

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