I often witnessed a phenomenon among travelers who would visit the city in China where I lived for fifteen years. Encounters which would inevitably result in some wide eyed visitor complaining to me about how they had not expected China to have Wal Marts or Starbucks, and then asking me where they could go to see the “real China.”
For those of us who lived in China, the idea that the China we called home might somehow be less authentic than say, a village in a mist shrouded mountain, was somewhat laughable. If that was the real China, then was the China where I made my home somehow a “fake” China?
Of course what these travelers meant was that they expected China to meet their own expectations, often steeped in Orientalism, for a more “exotic” China. They wanted a China that was decidedly “East” to their “West,” something different and other. While they could accept that Chinese people wore jeans and t-shirts rather than qipao and high collared shirts, the fact that there was a Wal-Mart smack dab in the middle of the city was a bridge too far. China, they would proclaim, was being ruined by the West.
While I could appreciate concerns over cultural imperialism, the travelers rarely were concerned about that. Afterall, the same people who decried Wal-Mart in the city center would raise holy hell if their hotel had a squat toilet. The concessions that China was allowed to make to Western culture were the ones that made their lives more convenient. Above all, China itself should not interfere with the foreign traveler’s idealized version of China. China was to exist perpetually as it existed in the travelers minds – the exotic fantasy of mist covered mountains, kung-fu masters, ancient temples, peaked roofs – regardless of what the Chinese themselves wanted. The Chinese actually find Wal-Mart convenient and want to shop there? They enjoy their lattes? Too bad. China exists for the foreign travelers consumption, not as a place in and of itself.
This is the problem with the idea of authenticity. Recently in the book community we’ve seen reviews which criticize books written by non-white authors for not being instructive enough. What these reviews say, in essence, is that the culture and people depicted in the book do not get to exist as they are, but instead exist for the edification of the white reader. If a Chinese-American book does not depict a generational struggle, or describe Chinese food in loving detail, it is not “Chinese” enough, even though Chinese-Americans have varied experiences and are not a monolith. Just as China itself has no obligation to exist to serve the orientalist expectations of the foreign traveler, the Chinese-American (or Indian-American, Arab-American) writer has no obligation to exoticize their own culture for the entertainment of white readers.
I grew up reading Amy Tan’s novels, and of course the influence she has had on American literature, and the doors she opened for Asian-American writers are undeniable. However, as I grew older, and especially after I lived in China, I started to become a bit uncomfortable with the way white Americans would discuss her books. Amy Tan writes, for the most part, about the China of old. Her stories are evocative of those mist covered mountains, and call forth a sense of the “mystical orient.” Critical analysis of Tan’s work has accused her of self-Orientalism, and while it is a heavy criticism, I think it is hard to deny that Tan’s work is certainly, on some level, influenced by the way China is viewed though the the Western gaze. Still, she was a trailblazer for Asian-American literature, and writing at a time when the West barely viewed China at all, and when it died, it was undeniably through our own orientalist gaze.
Nowadays, however, Chinese-American writers are much more widely published, from YA romcoms like Loveboat Taipei, to literary fiction such as The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane, to fantasy such as The Poppy War. Chinese-American literature does not have a mold that it must fit, any more than China itself has a mold it must fit. Readers who would criticize a book for not being “cultural” enough are missing the point. Chinese culture in 2020 is Starbucks and Burger King just as much as it is Didi and WeChat, just as much as it is also, still, mist shrouded mountains and 5000 years of history. And non-white literature too, can be everything that white literature is, as well as many things that it is not. If you find yourself questioning the “authenticity” of a book you are reading, remember, there is no such thing as authentic culture. The idea of “authentic” culture is based upon expectations heaped upon that culture by outsiders. Culture simply is, and it cares nothing for your expectations.