Your sense of self is an evolving identity, rooted neither in the country you were born in nor the one you live in, says author Amy Tan talking of her latest book.
The author Amy Tan was flipping through a journal when she saw a picture of ten Chinese women. What caught her eye was the clothes they were wearing. She had a picture of her grandmother on her table which she was very fond of and was her source of inspiration. She found the clothes and the ornamentation in both pictures were identical. “Five of the women were wearing clothes identical to what my grandmother was wearing in my picture.” It should not have aroused so much interest if the picture she had seen in the magazine had not been of courtesans of yesteryear of Shanghai. Was her grandmother a courtesan too, or was she wearing what was the fashion of the day?
“My grandmother was revered for being a very old fashioned woman who was a very quiet victim of society and seeing this I was shuffling through my mind about all the possibilities.” With this question, Tan explored the history of costumes to find these clothes were specific to courtesans. Along with the description of the costume, Tan also says, “The most telling feature was that it was taken in a western studio alongside a pot of flowers which was a symbol of the profession.” Thus began the work on her latest book titled, “The Valley of Amazement”.
The book is set in the early 20th century when there was explosive burst of foreign trade and so there were many foreigners in China. There was, at that time, a scramble for making the right connections and meeting the right people. In this milieu, Tan sets up a courtesan house whose manager is an American woman. There is also a young girl who is half American and at the beginning of the story claims she knows who she is. The rest of the book lies in her trying to understand who she is…in this way Tan comes back to her pet focus…the ambiguity of identity of Asians who are Americans. Or is it the other way round?
“I am American and I am also Chinese. I became western by upbringing, but not by race. When I was growing up there was self-hatred because I did not belong to a certain race,” says Tan recollecting that it was easy to be the only Chinese girl in an all-white neighbourhood. “I had epithets thrown in at me but certainly by the time I came to college I became an activist…another phase that one goes through after the self-hatred phase. Now people ask me how much American and how Chinese I am and I tell them it is not by percentage but it is an evolving identity depending on the context…it is never static.”
Tan says that when she is addressing an audience and finds them predominantly white, she is conscious of being different…but the difference stops there. “There is not any difference in thinking,” says Tan.
That is how Tan veers the conversation to show that even though her story of the courtesan’s life is set in Shanghai, women are exploited all over the world. The story talks of how women were and continue to be sold in China. “It goes on throughout the world…I was amazed to find how many kidnappings in the U.S. happen to take girls into the flesh trade. It is a huge problem throughout the world and certainly in China,” says Tan. “It is all business…where you have to get the best price. Some of these girls come from families where the brother or father sold them off…many of them are children of prostitutes…they knew the life they were born into….and they did everything to attract clients, and the best way to do that is to shock...one common method was to wear western clothes…and that is what I saw in my grandmother’s picture too…”
As serendipity led Tan from one surroundings to another with a story that was full of steam, Tan’s charming refrain remains identity…not to let condescension, prejudice or praise affect your sense of self... the border between the country you are born into and the country you grow up in is always nebulous…physically and mentally.