This, I think, is an incredibly helpful prompt to give to a roomful of aspiring fiction writers. What better microcosm than a school cafeteria to draw out so many long-forgotten memories, deeply rooted cultural traditions, raw insecurities and honest emotions? It gave me the opening to my debut novel, THE PARTNER TRACK, the story of a second-generation Chinese American woman about to become the first minority female partner at a prestigious white-shoe law firm, and how family and cultural context and “outsider” status affect her journey up the corporate ladder.
At the start of the novel, Ingrid Yung, my protagonist, has perfected the art of “passing” – that is, downplaying attributes of having been raised by first-generation Chinese immigrants – in order to seamlessly blend into the fabric of her white-shoe law firm. Secretly, though, like many other men and women with any sort of “outsider” status, Ingrid sometimes feels she must be a less “authentic” self in the workplace in order to be successful.
Although she is now a polished, seasoned M&A lawyer on the cusp of partnership at a top global law firm, Ingrid sits in the corporate cafeteria and reflects on being a shy kid awkwardly unwrapping the shrimp toast and scallion pancakes her Chinese-American mother would pack in her lunchbox, and how the other girls at the table would wrinkle up their noses and ask, “What’s that?” – their own tidy baloney-and-cheese sandwiches raised halfway to their mouths.
A lot of people have asked me how much of my novel is autobiographical. Well, like Ingrid, I’m the child of first-generation Chinese immigrants, my grandparents fled China during the Communist Revolution and found refuge in Taiwan, my parents later immigrated to the United States, where I was born and raised, and my first job after graduating law school was in fact at a large corporate law firm.
When I began work on this book over a decade ago, I was dead set against writing a particular kind of so-called “ethnic novel” (a phrase that I find of questionable utility anyway. What were John Updike and John Cheever doing if not writing at least partly about their “ethnicity”?). It seemed to me there were a fair number of “immigrant stories” being published about Asian Americans, but they always seemed to follow an increasingly familiar formula: a flock of old-world relatives, a wedding banquet with large and detailed descriptions of the food, a soul-searching trip back to some “ancestral village” in Asia, at least one arranged marriage. By the way, note that I am not denigrating novels that include any of these elements; I myself enjoy many of them; I am simply saying that my goal was to write something that felt altogether different. I wanted to explore the question: What happens to these children of immigrants once they’ve actually arrived at the top (or at least have gotten very, very close)? What happens to these hyphenated Americans, these Minority Darlings, when they are finally within striking distance of The American Dream, the one their immigrant parents have been hoping to see them achieve all their lives?
It is this aspect of the immigrant experience that I am most interested in: the cultural weight that any second generation carries around with them. When you’re the child of Chinese immigrants, especially ones who abandoned everything that was comfortable and familiar and had to start over from scratch twice (once to flee China, and once to immigrate from Taiwan to the States), when that is part of your family’s origin story, if you will, I think it really influences the personal choices that you make in life. And that is at the heart of THE PARTNER TRACK.
Ingrid constantly has to ask herself the question, how important is it to achieve something, just because she is one of the very few who can? Because she can, does it follow that she must?
By the way, a number of friends who happen to be as white and male as they come, have told me they were surprised how well they could relate to Ingrid, and that this means that it doesn’t take immigrant or outsider status at all to appreciate the themes of this book – that is, the pressure we all sometimes feel to conform because we want so desperately to fit in. Again, I’m drawn back to the setting of the school cafeteria. To me, those childhood memories of the desire and necessity to fit in are so powerful, so ingrained, and so informative of later adult lives and choices, that they are incredibly useful to writers of fiction.