Monday, December 7, 2015

10 bizarre ways reading/writing while underrepresented messes with your head

A funny thing happens when you're from an underrepresented group. Several funny things, actually. Things that dig their way into your skull whether you like it or not. Of course, I can only speak for myself (as an Asian American... specifically, a Chinese American), but I have a feeling I'm not the only person who experiences these weird brain-twisty things...

10. None of your favorite characters look like you (and you don't even notice)

I love Lord of the Rings! But... But...
I've always loved reading books, watching TV, and going to the movies. I was a fan of lots of characters and actors, and for most of my life, it never even occurred to me that none of them looked like me. Because white (or straight or cis or able-bodied, etc) characters are just regular characters, right? They're blank slates for personalities. And for the longest time, all I noticed were the personalities and that was all I cared about. I didn't see color. Until I realized it was because there wasn't any.

9. Your cosplay options are extraordinarily limited (if they even exist)
Well, at least there's one...

I'm a huge Disney fan, but Mulan didn't come out until I was almost 10 years old. Which meant in my prime princess-ing years, Snow White was the closest I could come to playing dress up as a character and being just that character (instead of being Asian Cinderella or Asian Ariel. And I was still Asian Snow White, I just thought having black hair made me closer to the "real thing"). Then, when Mulan came out, I was a little like *slink*. Because while my parents are Chinese, I've always considered myself first and foremost American (especially since, whenever my parents got mad at me, they'd blame it on "you Americans". Meaning I was the Other at school for being too Chinese and the Other at home for being too American). So suddenly I was associated with a character who, don't get me wrong, is totally awesome and kickass and one of my favorite characters ever, but whose culture I wasn't part of. Also, from there on, every time we played the "which Disney princess are you" game, I was ALWAYS FREAKING MULAN. Others would get associated with princesses because of their personalities (oh, you're bookish, so you're Belle. Oh, you're dreamy, so you're Ariel. Etc). 

Okay, so Disney princesses aren't that big a deal (unless you're a sparkles-loving little girl, as I was, but let's set that aside for a moment). Look around at other fandoms... the options are super-limited too. Star Wars is probably my favorite thing in the world, but who would I dress up as? Asian Leia, maybe. I love the X-Men, but all I have as cosplay options are Jubilee (cute, but so not me), Lady Deathstrike (who gives me serious orientalism vibes), and... well, there are enough X-Men that I'm sure there are more (though let's rule out Wolverine's Japan adventures, which also give me orientalism vibes), but those are the two I can think of. And then there's Firefly, which gives me so much cognitive dissonance because I love the storytelling and the characters, but WHERE ARE THE CHINESE PEOPLE, JOSS??? You have Chinese swearing and Chinese clothes and Chinese food... but NO CHINESE PEOPLE. And no, Fan Dancer #2 doesn't count. Which means I could only ever dress up as Asian River or something. Also, this is cultural appropriation at its finest -- when you nab the decorative aspects of a culture but leave behind the people who created it. (But I still love you, Firefly! And I'd still marathon you any day!)

All this brings me to...

8. You can never tell if you're being too sensitive

9 regulars. In a world that's 50% Chinese stuff. 0 Chinese people.
It took me years to admit that Firefly's cultural appropriation bothered me. I still feel weird saying it. Because seriously, I love that show. And for a while, I wondered... Is it me? Am I just being a soft, coddled, spoiled Millennial who sees Causes everywhere?

Then there are the moments where I'm not sure if I have the right to be offended. For instance, when I first read about Cho Chang (when I was in middle school), my gut reaction was "Holy crap, that name's racist! It's basically Ching Chong!" But no one else seemed to notice, so I quickly went to *slink* "Oh, I'm just being hypersensitive. All the Harry Potter names are funky. It's fine, I guess."

Last year, I fell into the Sherlock hole (what is it about Benedict Cumberbatch!), and I loved every single moment of Ep 1. So I wanted to love every single moment of Ep 2, but kept shuddering when the super oriental Asian characters appeared. And I wondered... Is it me? I mean, Chinese gangs are a thing. Chinese pottery experts do exist. So is there actually anything wrong here, or am I just being hypersensitive again?

This year, I fell into the Lunar Chronicles hole. Love the series. Love Cinder and Scarlet as tough-girl characters, love that Cinder and Cress are techy girls, love the world-building, love the adventure, love the clever plot. But.... But... But... I very nearly didn't pick it up because I saw the words "New Beijing" in the description and immediately thought *groan* here comes another Firefly. It took me months, MONTHS, of hearing praise for the books to get over that. And the whole time I kept wondering, "Is me avoiding this another symptom of my hypersensitivity?" On the other hand, I thought, "Blah, I already suffered through the icky love-the-content-feel-weird-about-the-appropriation thing once... Can't do it again." Finally, I decided to give it a chance. Aaaaaand... Yeah. Though it does a bit better by giving Cinder an Asian love interest (oh hai Prince Kai, you're adorable) and an Asian step-family. So at least there are Asian people this time. Kudos? Cinder isn't described much in the book, and she's said to be "from Europe", so it was implied that she was white until the author came out and said that she's mixed race. Hooray? But it always bugged me how wrong the culture felt. Like... my family is Chinese. I've lived in China. And while reading Cinder, I kept thinking "this feels so Firefly... nominally Asian because of the food and language, but so, so off on the actual culture dynamics." Of course, this is a far-future fantastical world and a retelling of a fairytale, so maybe I'm just being too sensitive because hey, there are mutant wolf-people and cyborgs, so why am I bothering with all this real world worry because
It's freaky when you see both at once. *brain hurts*
clearly it's just a story, and... HERE I GO AGAIN GODDAMMIT.

And on and on and on... It's a weird spot to be in, this cognitive dissonance. Where your gut says "hey, that's kind of offensive!" but your brain says "calm down, Angry Asian Lady, you're overreacting...". You know those optical illusions that are both a rabbit and a duck or something? And you start to see both at the same time and your brain starts flipping back and forth, making you dizzy? Yeah, it's kind of like that. Except about your own opinions.

7. You feel the need to cheer for and defend characters that look like you (even if they suck)

Do I *have* to root for her?!
Cho Chang sucks. Ugh, I still feel a little guilty typing that, but hey, it's my opinion. She's a token pretty girl in two books, a weeping mess and snitching weakling in another, and a shamed mess in the rest. She. Sucks. And she's the only East Asian character of note in the entire Harry Potter series (if there's another that I'm forgetting, that means they weren't noteworthy enough for me to remember and therefore are solidly a token, not a real character). Which is why the moment the Goblet of Fire movie came out, Katie Leung fansites sprang up all up and down the Internet (never mind she was in the movie for 3 seconds and wasn't particularly good in those 3 seconds). Asians around the world were like "Hooray! Asian Harry Potter character!" Except she sucks. Yet for ages, I felt obligated to root for her because not doing so felt like being a race traitor or something. Like, hey, someone threw me a treat in the form of a character who looks like me, so who am I to be ungrateful?

Then there are the "issue" books (and TV shows and movies) that are all about your people, and you feel like you have no choice but to like them because, hey look! They're actually talking about you for once! So when, say, I picked up Amy Tan's Joy Luck Club, I thought I had no choice but to like it. It's been so long since I read that book that I don't recall my exact reaction, but I do remember it was not entirely positive. And yet I kept those thoughts to myself and said only positive things, because how could I *not* root for an Asian author who writes about Asian things? Speaking of issues...

6. You're terrified of being seen as an "issues" person (but don't really have a choice in the matter)

I feel like this at times.
I go back and forth on "outspoken" thing. Honestly, I'm not really an outspoken person, and I don't want to be. I like seeing multiple perspectives and accepting that there are no simple answers (which may be why I'm going through a lot of these brain-twisty things). It's why some of my friends have dubbed me True Neutral.

And yet, despite all the times I've bitten my tongue and contented myself with sipping tea, people remember the few times I do speak up. And suddenly I'm the Angry Asian Lady, which I never wanted to be.

So I'm speaking out more, since that mantle will be thrust on me anyway. Might as well be heard. Though it still annoys me that writing about these things (including in this blog post) will transform me into an "issues" person, which will distort the lens through which people see both me and my work.

5. You zero in on characters that look like you (even if they're on 3 pages)
Why do I remember her so clearly?!

All my focus on Cho Chang might have some Harry Potter readers scratching their heads because honestly, who cares about her? It's Harry and Ron and Hermione and Snape and Dumbledore and a dozen other characters who are actually important. Thing is, though, when you're so used to being invisible, spotting someone who looks like you in fiction makes your eyes pop. You can't not notice. Heck, I noticed every Asian fan dancer and random refugee in the background of Firefly. That Asian Jedi lady who's in Star Wars Episode II for all of 3 seconds during the final battle? I have a very clear mental image of her igniting a green lightsaber and Force-slamming an offscreen battle bot right now (while the rest of the battle that doesn't involve the heroes remains a blur). 

I don't do this on purpose. I don't scour screens searching for people who look like me. It just HAPPENS. And sometimes, I wish it'd STAHP, because it makes me realize how few of them there are, and that just annoys me. Can I go back to not seeing color? Ignorance is bliss and all...

4. You feel extra pressure to get things right

So I've talked about those who got representation wrong, despite what were probably their best intentions (I'm so sorry Joss, Marissa, Ms. Rowling, and Sherlock people! I still love your work! I really do!). Yet I'm sure there are people who, if they read this then read my work, would be like "pot calling the kettle black!" Because maybe the representation in my books is no better in some people's eyes. And because I've written all this (and spoken about things like this), I feel an extra weight in everything I do in my attempts to diversify my own work.
Is... Is this okay by my own standards?

Let's see... I have Aurelia "the Firedragon" Sun, an Asian American teen who fights monsters with double swords. Am I perpetuating orientalism in my own way by having her be another kung-fu-type girl and calling her Firedragon? (I actually got her nickname from my sister, who was the physical model I based the character on. Some of her friends called her Firedragon, and I thought it was cute and fit the character).

Then I have the Jane Colt books, in which the two leads are Eurasian, two love main interests are white, the Asian love interest gets all but written out by Book 2, the Asian mom is dead, the dad who actually has a POV chapter is white, the main villains are white... holy crap, did I whitewash my own book?! No... no... of course not... I have the black starship commander, the two Asian hackers (oh crap, is that a stereotype?!), the black interstellar intelligence agent, the black supergenius... Wait, is this all tokenism?! Also, why is everyone black or white or Asian?! Why didn't I write any characters from other backgrounds?! Sure, some of the characters aren't race-specified, but people are going to assume they're white, and that's just tokenism anyway... Also, is this futuristic society too Western? But it's derived from the world I know and I never claimed it was based on any particular culture, and I'm a born-and-bred American, so am I suddenly not allowed to write a Western-ish culture because I criticized someone else's? Am I being lazy for not try? Am I... Well, crap. I'll bet Joss Whedon doesn't go through this mess.

3. You're expected to represent tons of people (that have little to do with you)

I can't tell you how many times I've been called upon to answer questions about being Asian. These days, I don't mind talking about my Asian American experience, but there was a period of time when it made me feel uber weird because I felt like I was speaking for a ton of people I didn't know (which is also partly why I tend to heavily disclose everything with "this is just me! this is just my experience! I don't claim to speak for everyone!"). 

Now, I'm happy to speak about diversity. Eager to, in fact. But always in the context of my own views only. It's when people ask me more general questions about Asia that I start to go *slink*. I mean, I only spent a total of two years on the continent (ten years apart... one when I was 12, one when I was 22). Then again, I have had certain very Chinese experiences, and it is fun to talk about them from time to time. But each time, there's that little bit of terror that I'm going to do someone wrong by getting something wrong or by perpetuating some stereotype.

2. You can never tell if you're doing enough to advance your own cause

Nice Canva, Mary. Now, walk the walk.
I've made an effort to include diverse characters in the things I write, and yet I always wonder if it's enough. Like, Aurelia "the Firedragon" Sun is the star of her titular novellas, but in the main series those novellas lead up to, she's the secondary character (not a sidekick, but not the main character either). I glance at my character list for the Jane Colt novels and wonder if I've done enough to mix things up. Also, I notice the glaring shortage of LGBTQ+ characters (I'm sorry! I'll do better! Also, let it be known that, though it isn't really explored, Riley is gay, for those of you who were wondering!).

On the one hand, I want to be inclusive in my writing. I want to help make the book world a place where no one will have to feel invisible, like I did. On the other hand, I don't want to turn my books into "issues" books (especially since I write spec fic, and I dare to dream that in the futures/alternate worlds I write in, diversity isn't an issue). Not that there's anything wrong with "issues" books. And not that I won't write one in the future (in fact, my next project might turn into one). But when I go for subtle subversion, quietly diversifying my character casts, I wonder if I'm doing enough.

I wish I had the privilege to not care.

1. You erase yourself

Book with an MC who is half me-looking
The first time I plotted Artificial Absolutes, the first of the Jane Colt books, every major character was white. Why? Because this was what the sci-fi I was accustomed to looked like, and this was, in my head, simply normal. The default. The universal. Which is weird, because I'm Chinese American. You'd think I'd default to characters who looked like me, and that my whole initial cast would be Asian, right? 

Nope. I erased myself.

When I realized what I was doing, I immediately went about changing things. Hey, why can't the starship commander and interstellar intelligence agent be black? Why can't the galactic pop star be Asian? And then I got to the main characters... and for some reason, I was uncomfortable making Jane and her brother Asian, partly because I was new at this whole writing thing and hadn't gotten to the "give zero fucks--just write what you want" attitude yet, so I was worried no one would read a sci-fi book with an Asian lead. So I made them Eurasian (heh, compromise, right?). 

And then I very nearly gave myself a pen name. Not because I didn't like my name, but because "Mary Fan" is obviously female and pretty obviously Asian. Who's gonna read a sci-fi book by an Asian female? I was planning on going with my initials (the only reason I was going to keep my last name was because I couldn't settle on a pen name I liked), but I failed to communicate that to Red Adept. So the cover art came back with my full name printed. I could have asked them to change it, but then I realized that I'd be changing it for all the wrong reasons. There are plenty of good reasons to have a pen name, but hiding and erasing myself wasn't one of them. Maybe that was an unwise decision. Maybe my sales would be better if I were writing as Jack Kent or something. 

Or maybe this is me overthinking everything. As usual.

Like I said. Being underrepresented messes with your head. And it sucks.


  1. This was an amazing post :D thank you.

    This is my first time on your site and I'm intrigued by your books. Any one in particular you would recommend for me to start with?

    1. Thank you so much for reading! I'm glad you liked it :-D

      And thanks for checking out my books! I'd recommend starting with Artificial Absolutes :-)

  2. I guess, you're overthinking it. Yet (sorry, if it feels like, like I enjoy your suffering - I'm not) it is good kind of overthinking. It annoys you, gnaws you, but most imporantly - it makes you aware, vigilant about these topics. There is no simple answer on these question for you, because no one really have answered them yet.

    That means, asking these questions might one day prove to be meaningful. I think, fictional books is always communication to a degree. Then use it to reach readers with your own theories and doubts.

    Finally, one advice: it may be hard, but from time to time let yourself be yourself 'unconditionally' and let doubt about yourself later. It may bring you a lot of joy, whether you'll have success or failure.

    You may be seen, as 'Angry Asian Lady', but it is better to be seen, as someone you are (partially, yes, but it's you - not a label, but your passion, frustration and resolve to fix it), be accepted and understood eventually, then being labeled as someone you aren't.

    Have fun time!

    1. Thanks! I do tend to think too much... it's a bad habit of mine. But hey, better to think too much than not at all, right? ;-)

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    4. Right. =)

      Do not really expect me to answer this differently, as I think too much a lot myself.

      If this is our normal, all that is left to do is adapt, sublime and instrumentilize it.

  3. Awesome blog! I'm still at tge "colorblind" stage when it comes to my writing, lol! Though, I could substitute "Indian American" for "Chinese American" and you've expressed my thoughts about portrayals of my race and stereotypes thereof in popular media (the one I absolutely hate? Indiana Jones and the temple of doom)...

    Again, loved your blog! I'm now a fan, Mary Fan ;)

    1. Thanks for reading! And yeah, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom is SO EFFING RACIST. But I love Short Round (East Asian kid, represent!), which is why I still watch that movie hahaha

  4. Thanks for posting this. It rings so true for me, especially being another Chinese American.

  5. I love your post! I've reviewed a few of your books through Reader's Favorite (under Kayti Nika Raet) and loved them. Just bumped into this post through N.K. Jemisin and I have to say as a writer I totally understand your point of view. You want to write great personalities, not diversity tokens.
    Also this is the first time I'm learning that Cinder is part Asian at least! I imagined (hoped) she was Asian when I first read it, because I didn't want to it to fall into the usual set in Asia Without Asians Except For Bad Guys & 'Exotic' One Time Love Interest trope, but I wasn't if what I imagined was cannon or not since there wasn't much of a description for Cinder.
    Anyway, love this post!

    1. Thank you! And yes, I remember your reviews - thanks again for those :-)

      Glad you liked the post :-). You'd never know Cinder was mixed race from the context of the books themselves (since she's only described as having brown hair and brown eyes)... I only learned of it because of fan art (where people depicted her as Eurasian based on something the author said online). There's still nothing in the books themselves to indicate that she's part-Asian, which is a bit problematic for me.

    2. I agree. Especially since even when a character is explicitely described as a POC they're often defaulted as white by fans. Not doing much to describe her kind of bothered me. It also bothered me that I've read so many books set in "non-white" countries but populated with only white main characters that I actually have to hesitate and hunt for clues to confirm that the main character is a person of color. :(

    3. Yeah same :-/. "White person goes to Asian country to be enlightened by magical Asian people" is an annoyingly common trope. I'm sure it happens with other non-white countries (and communities) too.

  6. What a great post! I am not Asian American. I'm considered white by society and to be honest, when I write minorities, I go through similar anxieties. I don't want to offend anyone but I also don't want to not include them. It gets really complicated in my head. Because there are so few minorities in literature, everyone expects those minorities to be a good representation of everyone in that group. This is impossible since people are so different from each other. And it gets to be extremely intimidating when you aren't even a part of their culture.

    I think you are afraid because people expect everyone to have extreme reactions to these things. Either you are offended or you love it. But it can be in between. Like, saying,"I liked Harry Potter, but wish she had developed Cho Chang better and not given her that name." That's not offended, that's just how you would prefer things. It's also not completely accepting either.

    Also, I know I'm white but Cho Chang's name kind of offended me too when I first read it, so it's not just you. But JK Rowling gives her characters ridiculous names. I know people who can't read her books just based on the names.

    1. Thanks for reading! I understand what you mean... The lack of minorities puts extra pressure on the few that are out there. They get scrutinized a lot more, and it's not fair for anyone. Hopefully that'll change...

  7. Thank you for this, I really appreciate reading your thoughts. Cho Chang's name also bothered me.

  8. Awesome post, Mary! I've been living with 99% of this going on in my head too, though I still need to write "me" into a book. But it is going to happen. Thanks for this.

    1. Thanks for reading! It wasn't until my second series that I wrote a "me" into my books, and even then, she was a secondary character. It wasn't until Project 3 that I wrote a character who looked like me the lead...

  9. This is such a great post.
    You said so much of what I think whenever I read or watch some of my favorite stories. Particularly when you pointed out that you didn't notice color and then realized it was because there was NO color.
    The first time I ever wrote a story was when I was in middle school and I made the character named after me, her family was my family, her friends were my friends. And she was half white. Because of course no one would ever want to read about a FULL Asian-American like me. It took me a long time to realize that this was a product of the publishing/television/movie industry environment I grew up in. Thank you so much for writing this post. I think that more people should speak out about these things.
    And for me, personally, this really inspired me on a lot of levels as a fan of stories. So, thank you.

    1. Thank you for reading! I'm glad it resonated... makes me feel a little better. Like, "okay, it's not just me who's experiencing this."

  10. Dope piece girl! Loving and sharing!

  11. I, too, am an avid over-thinker. But let me point out two *unpopular* things. One: At least she HAS a culture. I am Scottish, English, Norwegian, French, and maybe even have one Cherokee ancestress. But I don't get to 'identify' with any of that. I get to be 'white'. TWO: It is highly non-PC and perhaps even illegal to be 'proud of being white'. I am not allowed to have a culture, or to celebrate the conglomerate term I have been forced to accept, along with all of its inherent baggage. If you have a culture and are allowed to identify with it, be thankful.

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  13. It's amazing that I stumbled onto this blog post just as I was doing my own personal soul searching about representation! It's personal and insightful and just what I needed! Thanks Mary Fan and now I have to go read your Firedragon novellas!