James Kuai talks to author/professor/activist William Poy Lee about how his 2007 memoir The Eighth Promise has influenced his thoughts about US, China, Tibet and more.
Date Published: 03/02/2010
William Poy Lee is an author and political activist whose 2007 book The Eighth Promise has won him critical acclaim and numerous book awards, such as the PEN Oakland/Josephine Miles Literary Award in 2007 and the Ann Arbor/Ypsilanti Reads One City One Book Selection in 2008. The Eighth Promise is a memoir about two generations of Chinese Americans and their turbulent experiences.
Before becoming a writer, William worked as as an international banking attorney and an advertising executive. After some mid-life soul searching, William left the professional world and began seeking his roots, looking for enlightenment in the land of his ancestors -- China. He has traveled, lived and taught writing in China since 2008 and is currently serving as a visiting professor at the Minzu University of China (中央民族大学) in Beijing. As a political activist, his most recent endeavor is a website about Tibet, called the Tibet China Accuracy Project.
APA's James Kuai conducted an email interview with William Poy Lee about his memoir and his experiences in China and the US.
APA: Before we talk about The Eighth Promise, what prompted you to leave law and business after so many years to become a professional writer?
William Poy Lee: The material success trajectory was a kind of a game for me. My father always felt thwarted economically, and perhaps I wanted to prove that making money wasn't that hard. At the end of the day, living in a bigger house and buying a new Mercedes or a red Lotus sports car every year or two just wasn't my idea of life.
APA: When you started writing, why did you choose the medium of a non-fiction book instead of fiction?
WPL: Real life is intrinsically more interesting, complex, and stimulating than fiction can ever be. When I thought about my life, I couldn't even believe I had lived it. But I did. And survived and thrived. Also, I felt a need to communicate something that spoke to the hopeful human experience -- what my ex-partner and mentor Alice Walker called providing cultural nutrients. Disguising it as fiction seemed to add little to the narrative, and it might have diluted any vitamins for the spirit. Finally, my life and the times were complicated, and to then add on layers to fictionalize it -- well I might have lost myself and never finished. It was just easier to write it straight up as it happened. The narrative layered itself in rewrites.
APA: Your book starts with a touching story of your visit to your ancestral village in Toisan in 2000. Now almost ten years later, you recently moved to China. Did you have any "culture shock?"
WPL: I never had an idyllic image of my mother's village life. My father left because he couldn't make a living, my mother's childhood friends were slaughtered by Japanese planes, and an uncle was forced to commit suicide by Communist officials after a nasty civil war.
I romanticized the P.R. China in 1983. I remember a very clean, quiet, and pristine countryside. The cityscapes were car-free and bicycle-friendly, bustling but pollution free. Folks were dressed in simple, drab, but clean clothes. The young, though, including my cousin Veeson, were restless for change. Later, I was afraid to return to China to see it marred by KFCs and kids attired in American drag. I obviously got over that, as I lived in Shanghai in 2008 and I'm teaching in Beijing this year. And loving it.
Lee reading poetry at Angel Island Immigration Station.
APA: Politics is a strong theme in your book. You've told me that some of your Chinese friends, even the most Western-attuned and English-speaking ones, embrace the unity-over-human-rights public policies in China. How do you feel about that?
WPL: As a political activist and an American writer, it's hard to wrap myself around this slow-to-democratize attitude, but I think we often sound as self-righteous and preachy as 18th Century Christian missionaries when we push too hard about democracy and individual freedoms.
Still, I see my students embracing more of the freedoms we think are God-given, natural, and intrinsic to individual happiness. Yet, as a whole, they're okay with it being introduced on China's terms, at a pace that works for China. By the way, the Google imbroglio didn't seem such a big deal to my students, and they're from all over China and of 56 ethnicities.
APA: As a practicing Buddhist, have you observed any religious repressions?
WPL: Well, I'm shocked that Christians and Buddhists abound. And around my college, Muslim women are prominent because of their head scarves and long dresses or pants. So religion is alive and well here in China although regulated in a way that we in America could not countenance. But despite this, I've had no trouble finding several Christmas Eve services the last two years. My Christian friends attend services on any given Sunday.
In every place I've visited in China, including Lhasa, Buddhists worship openly and in large numbers. Surprisingly, the practice of Tibetan Buddhism is widespread throughout much of China, and I've even been invited to sit before Tibetan lamas visiting Tibetan Buddhist temples in Beijing.
APA: The portraits of the Chinese people in your book, your parents and their friends, are a collection of hard-working and tenacious first-generation immigrants. Now that you have many friends in China, how would you compare your friends' generation to your parent's generation?
WPL: I don't think that the work ethic has changed because China has become more prosperous now; competition is fierce and people's behaviors reflect that. Many young workers -- recent college grads -- not only work 12 hour days, six days a week, but spend Sundays in all day courses. Many of my students take classes from 8 am to 6 pm before studying until 11 or midnight. A few double majors in English and Law even have classes on Saturdays and think nothing of it. Street vendors work their food carts, veggie stalls, and dry goods wagons 7 days a week, morning to midnight.
Seniors work in brigades on city landscaping jobs or to shovel snow. The ones I've seen all look spry and healthy and most seem happy to be doing something. I'm shocked at how fit most elders are.
APA: The Toisan (Taishan) dialect your mother spoke plays an important role in the book, representing the cultural heritage of the family clan's past. So what's your view on the role language plays in cross-cultural experience?
WPL: Your original language is intrinsically linked to who you are, and yes, you must master the lingua franca of the society you were born in. For all of China, English is a mandatory foreign language, as it's the lingua franca of globalization. It just makes sense to be bilingual (or more) and no one should have to hack off their parents' native language and root culture to become true Americans -- or Chinese or French or Mexican or whatever.
APA: One of the major themes of the book is the civil rights movement and Chinese Americans striving for equality. We know the conditions for minorities have improved significantly today. What areas do you see still have room for improvement?
WPL: History tells us that an unfriendly American stance towards China always whipsaws back onto the Chinese American community. Yet, unlike the Jewish American community, the Chinese American community lacks a B'nai B'rith style organization to defend China when it gets "China-bashed" – as opposed to fairly criticized - or when the Chinese race gets negatively broad-brushed.
Yet, given the history, we all feel that day is a coming! I recently worked on writing some bios for something called the Chinese American Heroes Project, whose mission is ostensibly to have enough patriotic Chinese American success stories on record to help deflect that inevitable day of reckoning come the clash of civilizations.
APA: Can you give us a specific example about an unfriendly stance towards China or the Chinese people in general today?
WPL: Yes. If you read a lot of the pro-independent Tibet literature, it's astounding how much generalized gratuitous racism is hurled at Chinese as a race, instead of clearly targeting the PRC's official policies around Tibet. And I can see this even as a Buddhist who has studied at the feet of the Dalai Lama. Just read the New York Times on-line for a month and imagine it saying some of that stuff about Israel or in favor of Palestinian defenders like Hamas. Or about the African American community! B'nai B'rith and Jesse Jackson would be on them. Yet, it's so done with impunity about modern China and the generalized "Chinese" race.
Chinese and China bashing now seem normal. Read the Bradt Guide to Tibet (2006) that I used for my visit to Tibet and even the Lonely Planet guide to Southeast Asia and Yunnan Province that I bought recently. Not subtle at all and they negatively stereotype "the Chinese" as a people -- not the policies of the PRC. The author for the SE Asia one even said that having visited much of China, Yunnan is the only place in China worth visiting! Even so, he advocates it should be split off from China and more properly become part of some S.E. Asian federation! If this isn't some racist fantasy, I don't know what is. Does a Lonely Planet Guide to America's Southwest propose its return to Mexico or the one on Hawai'i propose its liberation? That's how bad it's become and yet, the Chinese American community - not a peep!
Lee at his home in Berkeley
APA: What made you move to China and become a visiting professor at China's Minzu University for a year?
WPL: I mainly wanted to understand the post-cultural generation youth, those raised free of ideology and who are completely children of modernization. My students are 60% national minorities and 40% Han and they are from everywhere in China.
Mainly, I’m here because I want to understand New China on its own terms, beyond the filtered and fractured lenses of the New York Times and other American media. When I get to that clearer place, then I can objectively write about my experience. Until then, I feel OK only about writing what I experience directly with people.
APA: As a thinker and an insider of both China and America, what do you think is the biggest difference between the two countries in 2010?
WPL: Jobs – China has them. And many more Americans are coming here and those already here are sitting tight.
Here, on a very limited teacher’s stipend of around $900 month, I can eat as healthy, dress as nicely, go to as many stage shows, and dance clubs as a San Franciscan making $5,000 a month -- provided I stay within those districts that cater to folks in that income range – mostly young, Chinese office professionals. Regardless of income, folks here seem to know where to go to get good food, clothing, and housing. There’s homelessness, but it’s a rare sight, and I’ve never seen anyone malnourished or in rags.
Also, it’s generally perceived that China’s firm RMB stopped the global financial meltdown dead in its tracks. So, I think a lot of folks here are waiting and seeing whether America - and its grid-locked, decentralized, democratic model - is truly in decline or whether China - and it's morphing, centralized, one-party model - is the new model of ascendance.
Still, the two should learn from each other. If each nation can accept a see-sawing balance of parity in partnership over the Pacific Region, then the two countries can help move us into a Pacific Century of mutually advantageous stability and peace. If as an observer and writer, I can help build that bridge, that will be a good day’s work.
APA: What has most surprised you about China?
WPL: I’m surprised by how family-orientated everyone remains. There's social atomization among the younger generation in coastal cities. But all my students look forward to that 36 hour, packed, train trek home during this time - Chinese New Year – even if they're staying in the city after graduation.
Of course, there's the obvious culture shock stuff, too. People brush against you while passing as if it's nothing. There are still too many folks littering, spitting on the streets, picking their noses in public, or shouting into their cell phones.
Still, I've already noticed that people at subway stations are starting to stand aside to let passengers out. Passengers refrain from eating, drinking, and littering in the trains so that the cars are about as clean 10 minutes to closing at 11 PM as when they started running at 6 AM.
APA: Shifting back to your writing, what was your greatest challenge in the three years of writing The Eighth Promise?
WPL: Doubt. For example, one day, in the middle of the third year of working on it and probably the fifth draft (or was it seventh?), I felt insane -– driven mad by the word matrix crystallized only in my head and no one else's. I suffered my starkest attack of doubt. What if nobody ever understands this book but me? What if nobody ever reads this book because no publisher will want it? What if nobody likes it? All that time and money and energy wasted. All those years signifying nothing.
Secondarily, cash flow. I thought I'd knock it off in a year, but it took three years plus a year of rewrites after the book was sold. So, I spent all my savings plus ate up some of the equity in my home.
APA: What is your next writing project?
WPL: I have a longer-term China-based novel in mind, the reason why I'm spending indefinite time here. But that won't be written for a few years as I need to learn to read Chinese to research some original Chinese source material.
Also, on a collection of vignettes from my San Francisco childhood – a set of urban Tom Sawyer like stories entitled “Portsmouth Square Stories,” I'm working with an artist on illustrations. Mark Twain's books use to have Norman Rockwell like illustrations throughout.
APA: Any tips for others who want to write about cross-cultural themes successfully?
WPL: Don't write too early and don't rush to market. There's a ton of cross-cultural books out there and most of them can be deeper and clearer.
Take the time to let life's experiences be just that. It's too tempting to start pigeon-holing your encounters “..for my book..." Create money another way so you don't feel the pressure to write before your truths are ready. You'll know when it's the right time – its call will yank you right out of your busy life, end your current relationship, and abort your career path.
Lee in San Francisco's Chinatown
For more information, go to William Poy Lee's official website here.
His 2008 Authors@Google talk can be viewed here.
Causes William Lee Supports
Kim Baptiste's Culture Clash Hip-Hop Clubs for Youth, SF Bay Area East Bay Meditation Center, availing Buddhist wisdom to inner cities Belladonna Sanctuary...