Crossing Inter-Asian Cultural Divides

Suvendrini Kakuchi interviews Karen Ma

Karen Ma and I have been friends for many years in Japan. We met during the early eighties, and hit it off immediately, drawn to each other by our similar adventures as fellow Asians, working hard to weave our way into and survive in the Japanese social fabric. Looking back now, I would say that the life we embarked upon as two young women writers in Tokyo represents a remarkable journey of unforgettable experiences. This is what Karen courageously drew from to develop the rich context of her book Excess Baggage. I fully agree with Karen that the “Asian” story in Japan has not been explored enough. This prompted me to interview her for Kyoto Journal.
Karen Ma Excess Baggage Portrait

Suvendrini Kakuchi: In your book, you tackle a fascinating theme, people’s alienation and displacement in a rapidly globalizing world. How do you do this?

One of the key differences between Excess Baggage and a lot of books published about the Asian immigrant experience is that the main characters in my book do not move to the West. They move to another Asian country, albeit a very modern and Westernized one. Excess Baggage is my attempt to tell a different narrative about the Chinese diaspora. I feel that most Chinese immigrant stories written in English have focused on moving to the West — Amy Tan’s books featuring Chinese living in the United States being a prominent example. Not that such narratives aren’t important, but the truth is the Chinese diaspora living in Asia is so much larger — about 70 percent of the overseas Chinese live in Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines and other parts of Asia — yet very little has been written about their experience. With Excess Baggage, I wanted to highlight the Asian diaspora and look at the Chinese immigrant story in a less stereotypical way.

So how is the Asian experience for an Asian immigrant different to moving to the West?

The stories of Asian immigrants moving into Japan are about settling down in a country steeped in a philosophy that could be described as “the nail that sticks out gets hammered down.” Perhaps reflecting this, Asian immigrants, especially East Asians, tend to try harder not to emphasize their differences but to blend into their host society. They do this well, at least physically, because they look like the Japanese. Some, like the Chinese immigrants in Yokohama have avoided celebrating Chinese New Year for a long time partly because they want to avoid drawing attention to themselves. Another factor influencing Asian immigrants is Japan’s historical aggressive expansion in the region and the continuing influence of its powerful right-wing community. This difficult past certainly makes it harder for many Asians to showcase their differences since that might directly or indirectly result in racial slurs.

In the Western culture, however, difference is viewed as a plus so you learn to celebrate your differences from the start. I’m not saying there isn’t prejudice in the West, but there’s a more conscious effort to recognize racial equality irrespective of background. This is perhaps partially due to the Christian idea that “all men are equal in the eyes of God.” But in Asia there is an acceptance of the different treatments extended to immigrants according to status/backgrounds. This could be because of the Confucian influence in Asia, with its strong emphasis on rank and status.
[pullquote]I felt strongly that English readers needed to hear this story to have a deeper understanding of the inter-Asian cultural conflicts related to the struggles of Asian immigrants in non-Western settings.[/pullquote]

Your book also examines the difficult process of laying down roots in a new country…

My take on laying down roots in a new country is that the younger the immigrant arrives to his/her newly adopted country, the easier it is for him or her to make a successful transition. In Excess Baggage, Pei, the older sister, makes her journey to the new country at 38, which is very late. Not surprisingly she stumbles as she tries to adjust to the new rules in an unfamiliar society. It is more difficult because she is from a socialist system, where the concept of “time is money” is uncommon, compared to Japan where people are extremely time-conscious, Pei’s effort to adapt becomes all the more challenging.

But the point of the book is not really about which family members are more adept at adjusting to the new country. Rather, it’s about expectation gaps and culture clashes within the family. Many people from poorer countries, whether Chinese or not, who are left behind in the old country, tend to have unrealistic expectations of their family members who left and ostensibly made it in the new world.

In my story, Pei, the sister left behind in China, holds on to this unrealistic image that all overseas Chinese including her family must be rich and wealthy. That’s why, when she finally meets up with them in Japan, she faces a huge disappointment. Her hopes for decades that they would shower her with their riches do not come true.

She is completely thrown off-balance when she finds out that her family is dysfunctional, that her breadwinner father has run off with another woman and that her mother now works at menial jobs to make ends meet. These destroyed expectations fuel the tension and unhappiness between her and her younger sister. On the other hand, Vivian, her sister, cannot understand why Pei had given up a good job in China and abandoned her husband and children and migrated to Japan to become a second-class citizen. So the crux of the story is the interplay of tension and expectation between the two sisters and their mother when they meet again in Tokyo. Indeed, I wanted to debunk the myth in China about “successful” immigrants. Many immigrants are not successful in their adopted country but those stories are not told. My book looks at the struggles of a divided immigrant family when things don’t live up to their expectations after being reunited.

Your portrayal of the Chinese generations against the different stages of their history is interesting. The way you developed your main character, Pei, is brutally honest. Is this the true Chinese immigrant?

I believe writing a novel that represents the real world and can help readers make sense of what’s happening around them is hugely important. My portrayal of the three main women characters in Excess Baggage — the mother and her two daughters — is what it means to be Chinese in changing times.

In the novel I have taken pains to describe the character of Pei, the older sister left behind in China. She comes across as desperate and almost mercenary to the rest of the family.

Still I hope I have managed to demonstrate how the materialistic Chinese, in many ways, are the result of what they have been through since the 1950s and 60s, when they went through many failed political campaigns and famines including the catastrophic Cultural Revolution.

Another point is the gap between Pei and her Westernized family. They misunderstand the Chinese daughter they left behind and this is related to the world`s lack of understanding of the changes in China. The tension between the sisters and between mother and daughter is because her Westernized younger sister, Vivian, and their mother do not understand the ongoing discourse in the Chinese society. Pei, in the story, wants the best of everything because she, like the other 1 billion Chinese, has been deprived of an affluent life for so long. You can see why Vivian misses the mark when she tries to offer her older sister used clothes as a gesture of help expecting a big “thank you” in return. Vivian sees her China-raised sister as someone who is poor and culturally backward, who can be easily appeased with some scraps. But this, as we see in the story, couldn’t be further from the truth.

A big part of the novel is to demonstrate that we cannot hold on to a stereotypical image about a nation or a people. This is particularly true with the fast-changing Chinese society that continues to reinvent itself. I cannot stress enough here that China’s economic rise happened in the span of just 30 years — about 10 years shorter than the time Japan took to achieve its economic miracle — and China’s population is at least eight times bigger than Japan’s. It’s an incredible feat. But the downside is that over 1 billion Chinese people have been through so much in such a short time that many have yet to find their feet in this fast-changing world.

Can you talk about being accepted as a Chinese in Japan? How close are your characters to your own experience in Japan and to your observations as a journalist?

Just because my Chinese characters live in Japan, an Asian country, it doesn’t mean that they are more readily accepted, or that their experience of displacement is any less. In fact, their sense of alienation may be more acute given the traditional Japanese social norms that are rooted on being either an “insider” or an “outsider” in terms of personal relationships. I’ve based a lot of the writing on my 15-plus years of living in Japan and my personal observations as a journalist in Tokyo.

As for myself, I walked a fine line between emphasizing my Asian identity and my American identity as a US passport holder. During my years in Japan, I found there was a pecking order among different nationalities, and being an Asian can mean you’re lower on the totem pole. Unless you’re applying for a job using your Asian language skills, being an Asian usually means you’re less welcome. (Japanese arguably still have a complex, and continue to look up to the West over Asia, a trend that is perhaps linked to the Meiji Restoration that pushed Japan to the West.)

I recall as a college student, I applied for a job as a part-time sales girl at a small department store selling Japanese food and the shop owner, a lady in her sixties, asked if I was Korean. When I said I was from Hong Kong, she lit up and told me that if I were Korean she would have said no right away because she thought Koreans were dishonest. She added that the Chinese were okay, because “we borrowed quite a few cultural things from China in the past.” But she let me go after a couple of days although she never explained why. Again, this kind of treatment is not typical, and things are seldom that blatant, but you can pick up on little hints here and there that being an Asian in Japan can be a disadvantage. Later, I learned to emphasize my English ability and my US passport, and the door seemed to open a bit wider for me, at least in terms of job applications.

There are many Asian immigrants living in Japan and their experience has not been easy. With Excess Baggage, I hope to help open up the dialogue.

Also we can talk about what it is like for the diaspora to return home to China —

Going home for any overseas Chinese can be a huge challenge because till a decade ago the economic gap between China and the first world was vast. Thus the expectation in the ancestral homeland was that the rich relatives coming from the West would shower the extended family members with gifts, wealth and money — a sign of their successful life overseas. This success was of course often more myth than reality.

In the novel, Vivian returns to her ancestral home in Dalian after a gap of 30 years to great disappointment. She begins the trip with high hopes because she falsely assumes that by “going home,” she will finally be “free” from all her years of feeling like a second-class citizen in Japan. She believes that since she has been uprooted from home, her extended family in Dalian will accept her as one of them and she will never have to apologize for who she is again.

What she doesn’t expect is how different she is from the rest of her extended family. For example, she cannot agree with their values and their lifestyles like when her cousin repeatedly pushes her to donate large sums of money to his fledgling business. She wonders if her relatives now only see her as a walking dollar sign. She returns to Japan feeling even more alienated and rejected. It dawns on her that she can call neither Dalian nor Japan her home. What I’m illustrating here is the immigrant’s feeling of being caught in the middle — not belonging to your adopted land or your birth country.

Vivian’s experience is similar to that of my return to China. The most obvious remark from the Chinese when they want to show their rejection is to comment on your Chinese accent. This is more obvious in Beijing or the north. I found people from the south tended to be more accepting of me and my less-than-perfect Chinese accent.

Still, it’s not that I don’t feel welcome there. Rather, I feel I don’t fit in because people’s values are different from mine. The focal point in their lives is to make money to the exclusion of most everything else and this is not something I can relate to.

It took you ten years to write this book. It seems to be a lot of hard work or is that the way you write?

Yes, a decade is a long time, but I needed every bit of that time. First of all, my novel is semi-autobiographical, based on my family’s experience, and when you write about family it’s always going to be difficult. There are a lot of emotions involved, and a lot of decisions to be made about how much you want to reveal to the world.

Then I was also faced with the challenge of trying to write about the subtleties of two Asian cultures for a Western audience. Writing about an Asian culture for a Western audience in English poses inherent challenges. Unlike between two Western cultures where there is a sharing of history, tradition and religion, the East-West divide tends to be vast. I was a bit naïve in the beginning trying to write about the subtle clashes of two Asian cultures, assuming that everyone knew what I was talking about. I forgot that people in the West with limited experiences in the Far East tend to put Asians in one little basket called “Orientals.”

I didn’t fully appreciate how challenging a task I was attempting until I sent my third draft to a couple of trusted writer friends. One friend came back and told me to forget about it because I was too ambitious in trying to write in English about not one but two exotic foreign cultures. In other words, he thought it was impossible for me to write about Chinese and Japanese cultures without losing readers — the foreign elements in the book would prove too overwhelming. Like the inter-Asian cultural divide I was trying to convey in English would require the Western reader to be an Asia expert to understand what I was talking about. He suggested that I should translate my manuscript into Chinese or Japanese and target one or both of those markets.

But I was determined to make the story work because I felt strongly that English readers needed to hear this story to have a deeper understanding of the inter-Asian cultural conflicts related to the struggles of Asian immigrants in non-Western settings. Besides, I think the world has evolved for many English readers to understand and appreciate the tale in my book. So, I decided to add in a lot more history and background. That meant rewriting my manuscript again and again, and sending it out to more readers for feedback. This took a lot of time.

Tell us a bit about getting a publisher and about the publisher itself?

It took me three years to find a publisher, and I consider myself very lucky to gain the confidence of China Books. The book publishing industry has shrunk so much in recent years that unknown authors are finding it increasingly more difficult to have their fiction published. I worked with an agent at one point, and we were close to sealing a deal with a couple of mid-size U.S. publishers, but in the end, it didn’t happen.

After that I decided to focus my search more on independent, smaller book publishers, and San Francisco-based China Books was one of them. China Books specializes in China and Asia-related books, and last spring, when I approached them, I got a positive response almost immediately. We negotiated terms and within three months reached a book deal. I think boutique publishers are increasingly the way to go for new authors, especially when it comes to fiction, which is harder to sell than non-fiction. Some friends have gone into self-publishing their fictional works, which is something I am not sure is for me. Having to do everything by yourself and be your own PR agent is a bit overwhelming. I guess the editorial and PR advice is something I still look for in a publisher, which was generously provided to me by China Books — something I’m very grateful for.


Suvendrini Kakuchi interviewed Sri Lankan independent movie director Asoka Handagama in KJ 77.

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Suvendrini Kakuchi

Author's Bio


Photo by Daniel Berehulak