In 1949, Amy Tan’s mother boarded one of the last ships heading from Shanghai to San Francisco before “China became Red China, and the bamboo curtain descended.” There, her mother reunited with her husband, and the couple relocated to Oakland, where, a couple of years later, Amy was born.
As a child, she knew little more about China than an “American pastiche of stereotypes” and that some of her family had been lucky enough to make it out, while others had not. For years she organized her thinking around those divisions until revelations about her family and the country her parents fled broke them down. Below are excerpts from correspondence with Tan, 61, whose latest novel is “The Valley of Amazement,” about how her relationship with China
Q: What were your earliest thoughts about China?
A: Growing up in the 1950s and 1960s, I thought of China as a prison that everyone wanted to escape. My parents considered themselves lucky that they were able to leave before 1949. Other family members were not quite as lucky and wound up in Formosa — that’s what we called Taiwan in those days. They sent us letters that described hard work and lack of proper food, hygiene and clothing. In their photos, they looked weathered and shiny with sweat. We received no letters from China and prayed for those silent ones whose whereabouts were unknown. If America was heaven, Formosa would be limbo, and China would be hell.
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Q: Were you ever in contact with those family members before visiting?
A: When I was 16, after my father died, my mother told me that she had been married to another man in Shanghai before she met my father. I could hardly comprehend this stunning news, when she added she also had three daughters in China. She did not explain why they were in China, whereas she was in California.
Years later she would only say that her previous husband had been a bad man. If I pressed her, she would have said that I did not understand because I was an American. That was her typical lament when I did not seem to appreciate the tragedies of her life, like the suicide of her mother, which left her alone — abandoned, really — at the age of 9. She showed me their photos. The middle daughter, Jindo, was beautiful. She resembled my mother. She also fit the stereotype of peasants I had imagined in childhood. She wore a conical hat and farmer’s clothing, and she was standing next to a rice field. That could have been my life.
Afterward, China was no longer an invisible jail. I now imagined myself living there, wearing a conical hat and writing letters late at night to my mother, in beautiful Chinese calligraphy, like that of my newfound sisters. “I dream every day you will return,” Jindo had written her. “When you do, my happiness will be restored.”
Q: Did she return?
A: Yes, in 1979, after a 30-year separation, my mother went to visit her three daughters. Jindo lived in a village of rice farmers. She had married a barefoot doctor, and they and several comrades served my mother a modest feast in a shack whose walls were lined with newspaper to keep out the cold.
Q: When was your first visit?
A: In 1987, my mother, husband and I went together. We stepped out of the plane into an airport painted toothpaste green. I had assumed I would blend in with the masses. Instead, I was surrounded by locals who gawked at me and made open comments about my outlandish, purple clothing.
These days, I go about once a year. The most gleamingly modern airports I’ve been to are in China. The coolest and most technologically challenging hotel I’ve ever stayed in is in China. The most tricked-out hair salon I’ve been to is in China. The worst pollution I’ve endured is in China. I keep going back for more of the most. Not everyone wants to escape anymore. In fact, it is more often the case that Chinese students go to the U.S. to study and return to start companies and make millions.
Q: Has your attitude on China changed?
A: I look at China, not as a land of burdens and debt, but the land of origin that gave our family its improbable history.
I once traveled with Jindo on a long ferry ride to a mansion, the one on the island near Shanghai, where my mother grew up, where Jindo also grew up. I listened to her stories about working in the rice fields, where she wore the conical hat and danced and yelled as she pulled leeches off her calves. She eventually told me what happened to her after our mother left, about the abuse she suffered at the hands of her father’s concubine.
As Jindo re-enacted the past, she flung her arms and beat her chest, and it must have appeared that we were having a violent argument. “It was not right,” she said repeatedly, and she meant what her stepmother did to her and also what her father did to our mother and what my mother did in choosing to be with a lover, rather than with her three daughters, and then in marrying that lover and having three children by him, one of them a daughter, who was sitting next to her, listening to her cry.