Chang-rae Lee

The New York Times Magazine does an in-depth profile of author Chang-rae Lee, which was fascinating for me on a number of levels.
Lee is able to live a very normal life in suburban New Jersey, but can create such incredible art within his mind to share with us. Working in Bergen County, NJ for 2 years (2001-3) I was really overwhelmed by the lack of culture, the chain stores, the strip malls, and the homogeneity of the landscape. One does have to admit that Princeton, though, is not typical NJ.

“…I mean, if you had said to me at home, ‘Are you a happy kid?’ I would have said yes, but going to that camp was like discovering another gear you didn’t know you had. And I think that’s also the first time where I could kind of see myself. The funny thing about growing up in a town where you’re one of a few Asian kids or minorities is you don’t really see yourself. Everyone else sees you, and you get a kind of vibe, but you never actually see yourself.

That part resonated with me, even though I grew up in NYC, surrounded by other Asians in general, but not too many other Asians specifically (i.e. within my educational experience.) I also attended, for one summer, a Japanese-American summer camp in the Catskills, Camp Furusato, something akin to what Lee was speaking about. Camp Furusato was a great experience for me, and I have foggy but fond memories of the place.
Because I never went to Saturday Japanese school in America, and because my parents are Japanese nationals, I never really understood what it meant to be “Japanese-American.” I knew what it meant to be a New Yorker, and I knew what it meant to be Japanese (when I travelled back to Japan on vacation to visit family.) But the Japenese-American experience eluded me. I had a brief taste of it one summer at that camp, but I really didn’t get it until I moved to Los Angeles in 1996, for my first job out of college. That’s when I understood what it meant to be Japanese-American.
While I can certainly be classified as Japanese-American, I feel a lot more comfortable with the classification of Japanese AND American. It seems like a small distinction, but to someone who did not grow up with any kind of Japanese-American culture, it is a crucial difference.
Deep in Suburbia [nytimes.com]

3 comments on “Chang-rae Lee
  1. Al Hoang says:

    Hmm I can relate to the sentiment of not being IN the bicultural Asian sub-societies in the U.S.
    It is a theme that keeps visiting me in my life. Most of the time I tend to just ignore it and try to get on with my life. It’s part of my fabric but I won’t let it become my fabric. Although it makes it hard for me to identify with those people that have grown up in that bicultural lifestyle and strongly identify with it.

  2. Lisa Vossbrink Barnes says:

    I just read the Chang Rae’s biography in the NY Times and a piece by him in the NYer. From what you’ve described as your American experience and his I too can relate, but of course have my own unique set of circumstances. I am of half Japanese & German/English American decent and grew up in Hawaii where my Japanese mother was a first generation American.
    I could empathize with Chang Rae when he said always felt like the observed not the observer. He became so acutely aware of this social dynamic that he became the observer/writer.
    I was back in the 60’s and 70’s as a part Asian child definitely a minority.The suburb that I grew up in was primarily Jap/Am. As a young child
    I remember trying to fit in and wishing that my mother was more rooted in her Japanese heritage.
    At such a young age my resentment was more subconscious. For example, I sort of think I wished she would have made me go to the Jap. lang. school that all my girl friends attended after regular elementary school. Yet, I don’t think I complained at the time as I think I was happier to be free to play or do what ever after school and perhaps I assumed it wasn’t meant for me as I wasn’t pure Japanese.
    I went to college in NY and lived in NYC for 12 years and that was a most enlightening experience. In relation to what your experience has been of finally experiencing an Asian American culture, mine was just the opposite.
    Just an aside to Chang Rae’s NYC experience, I think I may have lived for several years in the very building he mentions on East 23rd St. when he lived there too. I recall seeing a friendly Asian man with a roommate who might be Hansen on a regular basis in the elevator. I don’t remember hearing or seeing these notorious parties he spoke of… Anyway,
    thinking or being outside the box in some way most probably lends to acquiring an introspective dimension.

  3. Tim Yu says:

    Interesting to read your post. I actually quoted some of the same lines in a post on my own blog–though my post was more a critique of the profile than a commentary on Lee himself.