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January 27, 2009

Bleeding on the Page

Posted by carol
In today's guest blog post, Jamie Ford talks about race and identity, and how he drew on his own experiences and those of his family for his debut novel, Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet. Alternating between the 1940s and the 1980s, it's a poignant story about Japanese interment in Seattle during World War II --- seen through the eyes of a 12-year-old Chinese boy, Henry Lee, who is searching for his first love forty years after they met during that tumultuous time.

Click here to watch an interview with Jamie discussing Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet. And click here for a video of the author narrating a tour of the Seattle neighborhood where Japanese lives were disrupted at the start of World War II.

When the census takers knock on my door every ten years and ask the race question, I always draw a blank. It's not like the male or female query, which is an either/or proposition --- even if you had to guess you'd get it right half the time.

Race, on the other hand, just confounds me. It's because I'm half...something. I'm half Chinese and I'm half Caucasian. (My mom was German/English --- which I lovingly regard as "Betty Crocker White.") Put the two halves together and I'm not really a whole anything. At least not on the census forms, which want a clear definition: White or Black or Asian or Hispanic or Martian, etc. Being a little of both, I suppose half of the time I've marked white, and half the time I've marked Asian. Like Barack Obama going by "Barry," for some of us it isn't so easy to sort out who we really are. If they had a box that said "mutt," I'd be all over it. Until then, I'm sure some census computer is arcing hot sparks and grinding its gears trying to figure out when and where I was able to undergo a race change.

Having one foot firmly planted on either side of a cultural divide is a peculiar thing. As a child, when it came to race, the person I related to most was Mr. Spock (the pointy-eared alien from Star Trek, not Benjamin Spock, who wrote that famous book on parenting). Spock was a half-breed, as Dr. McCoy was so fond of pointing out --- yet he wanted to be more. I didn't have green blood running through my veins, but I knew what that longing felt like.

Growing up among my Chinese relatives, I was a bit of an oddball. I didn't speak Cantonese like everyone else. I hadn't attended Chinese school. And when I tried to fit in I got it wrong, half the time.

Around my white relatives, I was equally regarded as different. My dad ran a Chinese restaurant and taught martial arts. I went to Chinatown and ate chicken feet and snacked on dried cuttle-fish. I knew how to serve tea, and chopsticks were more necessity than novelty.

In both settings, I found myself longing for acceptance.

Upon reflection, that emotional conflict is probably where my character Henry Lee comes from: a child immersed in a culture he can't always connect to. From his Chinese parents that desperately want him to be more "American" to his all-white school that sees him, at best, as a Chinese outsider. Or at worst, think he's Japanese --- a precarious distinction in the weeks after the bombings of Pearl Harbor.

With fictional characters, writers tend to prick their fingers and bleed on the page. If that's so, then the character of Henry is more of a heart transplant. When writing Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, I wove in my own life experiences and re-imagined my father's. And his father's as well. It helped me realize that half isn't always half-bad.

And as fate would have it, we're approaching another census year. When that earnest young pollster knocks on my door, I'll still be looking for that 50/50 box to check. But I won't be quite so disappointed if I don't find it. I know who I am.

If you'd like me to call in to your book club to discuss Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, the census, the color of Vulcan blood or just about anything else --- I'd love to hear from you.

--- Jamie Ford