Leslie Chang
Leslie Chang
Beyond the Narrow Gate: The Journey of Four Chinese Women From the Middle Kingdom to Middle America
ISBN: 0525942572
Beyond the Narrow Gate
An epic of four Chinese women and their journey from East to West. When the Communists took over mainland China, among the many that were forced to flee their homeland were four remarkable women. Arriving in Taiwan in 1948, Dolores, Suzanne, Margaret, and Mary met at the elite First Girls School, the "narrow gate" where a lucky few could become eligible for U.S. visas. In this refuge, their characters were built, their friendships were formed, and their eyes were focused on the future—a life in America, where their paths would diverge dramatically. But this group portrait does not end once the women reach America. Beyond the Narrow Gate chronicles the struggles and hardships the women faced in their new country and breaks new ground by taking readers outside of Chinatown into diverse communities and families, effectively re-drawing the map of Asian America. The daughter of one of her subjects, journalist Leslie Chang weaves her own personal story as a second-generation Chinese American into her narrative, illuminating generational differences and conflicts. She unflinchingly examines the experience of feeling like a stranger in both the white and Chinese communities, the constraints of parental expectations, and the complexity of interracial relationships. Impeccably researched, beautifully written, Beyond the Narrow Gate is an unforgettable epic of American immigration, a true story as riveting as any novel.
—from the publisher's website
TRANSCRIPT
Beyond the Narrow Gate
Program Air Date: September 5, 1999

BRIAN LAMB, HOST:You know, the first thing I ought to do before I even say your name is ask the right way to pronounce it because in your book you say, like, Leslie--is it Chang (pronounced Chong)?
Ms. LESLIE CHANG (Author, "Beyond the Narrow Gate"): It's actually--we pronounce it Chang (pronounced Chang), but in China it would be pronounced Chang (pronounced Chong).
LAMB: Chang (pronounced Chong).
Ms. CHANG: Mm-hmm. But I never--our family never did that.
LAMB: "Beyond the Narrow Gate" is the title of your book.
Ms. CHANG: Mm-hmm.
LAMB: What's it about?
Ms. CHANG: The book or the title?
LAMB: Both.
Ms. CHANG: Well, the title refers to the school where my mother and these women went --the women in the book who she meets. And it's--it was the system in Taiwan that was in place that allowed them to go on to America, which is what everyone wanted back then. And the book itself is about that experience of leaving China as refugees, settling in Taiwan for their adolescence and then going on to America and making lives for themselves there.
LAMB: This photo we're looking at, are they the women?
Ms. CHANG: No, they aren't. And, in fact, I laugh at that. It's a stock photo from World War II, and that would be their mothers' generation. So I say they're my grandmothers, but no relation actually.
LAMB: Where do you live now?
Ms. CHANG: I live in New York City.
LAMB: Where did you live when you wrote the book?
Ms. CHANG: In New York.
LAMB: When did you start it?
Ms. CHANG: I started it about four years ago actually in--I was in journalism school at the time and I was taking a book-writing class. And it began as a proposal from that class and I took it out when I graduated and sent it around and it became a book. And that was in the spring of '95.
LAMB: How'd you go about doing this?
Ms. CHANG: Getting it published, or doing the...
LAMB: Just the whole business.
Ms. CHANG: Well, the business of doing the book was actually--I started wanting to do it because I wanted to learn more about my mother and she was so reluctant to talk about her past. And I think that that's a very cultural thing. And I--you know, I'd ask her stories and--when we were growing up she never told us any stories. And the one thing that connected her to her past, visibly to me, was her relationship with these various women, not necessarily the women in the book, but all sorts of women that she had gone to school with in Taiwan. And they'd have reunions, and I remember growing up and having to go to the reunions. And I just knew that she was really close to them. And so I thought, `Oh, this would be a way.'

I was just interested in that relationship, why when they were in America after so many years--we lived in--you know, most of them lived in different cities, why would they be so close still? And that's what drove me, in the beginning, to do the book. And I realized it was a way of understanding my mother better and their experiences.
LAMB: Where were you born?
Ms. CHANG: In Hartford, Connecticut.
LAMB: How did you get there?
Ms. CHANG: My mother came to the States in 1955 to go to college at Marymount in Virginia. And when she got out she became a medical technician and was training at Hartford, no, St. Francis Hospital in Hartford, I believe, was the hospital. And she met my father there on a blind date. They were probably the only two Chinese people in Hartford, or the only two single Chinese people the right age in Hartford. And they got married and started raising their family there.
LAMB: How did your mother end up at Marymount College, right here in Washington?
Ms. CHANG: She was the--at that time, in the late '50s, the Catholic Church was very--they had an archbishop who later became a cardinal. His name was Yu Pin. And he was very active in bringing Chinese students over to the US, which was encouraged at the time because China was a Communist country and the US wanted to support the other side, which was this nationalist side that Yu Pin also was part of. And he also was doing this because he had been sort of political back in China before the takeover of the Communists. And the Catholic Church was very worried when he fled and settled in the States and in Taiwan that he would continue to be political and that would hurt the Catholics in China who remained in the mainland.

So he--instead of focusing his energy on criticizing the Communist government, he focused energy on trying to bring students in Taiwan, or Hong Kong, or other places, over to the US. And that was--that became his new project, sort of. And she was part of that.
LAMB: How long had your mom lived in Taiwan?
Ms. CHANG: She lived there for about six years, from the age of, I would say, 12 until 18.
LAMB: How did she get to Taiwan?
Ms. CHANG: On a little boat. She fled to Taiwan from mainland China in 1947. And it was right before the final takeover, maybe eight months before Mao stood at the Gate of Heavenly Peace and proclaimed the People's Republic. And she just--she and her family fled in a little boat to Taiwan with, I think, maybe four other families.
LAMB: Is it the--the Battle of Siping (pronounced Sai-ping)?
Ms. CHANG: Siping (pronounced Si-ping).
LAMB: Siping (pronounced Si-ping)?
Ms. CHANG: Siping (pronounced Si-ping).
LAMB: Siping (pronounced Si-ping)? S-I-P-I-N-G?
Ms. CHANG: Mm-hmm.
LAMB: When was it?
Ms. CHANG: It was in '47. I'm sorry it was in--now I'm losing my dates. She fled in '48; the Battle of Siping was in May of '47.
LAMB: What was it?
Ms. CHANG: It was sort of the turning point in the civil war. Up to that point the nationalists were holding ground, pretty much--in the cities at least, if not in the countryside--and Siping was the first, sort of, breakdown in Manchuria of, like, their communications and their rail supply and all of that because the Communists won that battle. And after that everything just started falling like dominos and they'd go farther and farther south, you know, the nationalists sort of battling their way being defeated on their way farther and farther south and the Communists just taking all the land that they left behind.
LAMB: Who was on what side at that time? I mean, what was the battle? Who was trying to defeat whom in China then?
Ms. CHANG: OK. It was the nationalist government vs. the Communists. And the nationalists were led by Chiang Kai-shek, and the Communists were led by Mao Tse-tung. And the nationalists were heavily supported by the US during World War II, and so afterwards they were looked at by the rest of the world as the natural government. But the Communists actually had most of the people's support because the nationalists had not done a very good job governing the country during the war and had focused a lot of their energy, actually, on trying to fight the Communists and not trying to fight the Japanese.

And so internationally, Chiang and the nationalists were considered the leaders of China, but I think, you know, for the most part that the people in China preferred the Communists. And so a civil war--after--I mean, the Americans were trying to prop up the government and then after a while they just washed their hands of the whole thing and left. And at that point the nationalists were really just left to--hung out to dry.
LAMB: Now how many people were there in China at that time, in about 1947?
Ms. CHANG: There were about--I believe it was 500 million to 700 million?
LAMB: And now there's 1.2 billion or 1.3 billion?
Ms. CHANG: Something like that, yeah.
LAMB: How many people fled to Taiwan?
Ms. CHANG: About two--well, about 2 million left. Some went to--the vast majority went to Taiwan, and some ended up in Hong Kong or in Europe or in America. But I would say of that, the bulk went to Taiwan.
LAMB: Who are your main characters in this book?
Ms. CHANG: There's my mother, who is the most important character and who the book is really about, I think, and then there is a woman named--I mean, these are all fake names that I gave them to protect their privacy--but there's a woman named Suzanne, who lives now in Northern California but spent most of her l--adult life in America in--in Pennsylvania. And there's a woman named Margaret, who lives in the LA suburbs, and a woman named Dolores, who lives in a borough of New York, in Queens.
LAMB: So all of those names aren't their real names?
Ms. CHANG: No, except for my mother's.
LAMB: What's your mother like?
Ms. CHANG: Oh, she's a mystery, that's why I wrote the book. She's a very strong woman. I mean, she had a horrible childhood, really traumatic. Her father died when she was very young and her mother died when she was 13. And she had to flee her country and settle in Taiwan. And she grew up an orphan. She was the oldest in her family. And so I think the only way you live through something like that is just become really strong. And she's just a very, very strong woman. But at the same time, she has a lot of issues she's dealing with because of her past. And so growing up with her was not an easy thing, but she also set such an example for--just being able to survive and adapt to any situation. So I really admire her, but at the same time she drives me crazy. But I guess that's the way it is with most mothers.
LAMB: About what age is she today?
Ms. CHANG: She's now, let's see, 60--I'm so very bad at math--she was born in '36, which would make her 63?
LAMB: I'll work on that. I'm not--what does she do now?
Ms. CHANG: Almost 63. She sold real estate for a long time and then my parents moved to New York and she sort of just did various little projects. And now my father's retired and they're sort of enjoying themselves out in California.
LAMB: There is, on occasion in here, a reference to their marriage being difficult. Are they still together?
Ms. CHANG: They are still together, and that's a very Chinese thing too, I think, because divorce is considered really, in their generation, very taboo. And my father--I mean, even when we were growing up he would say things like, `Oh, well, Chinese people don't do that. We never divorce.' So I don't know if they would have been happier had they divorced, but I don't think it was ever a question that it was even a chance to do so.
LAMB: How many other kids were there in your family?
Ms. CHANG: There were three others, and I'm the youngest. I have a sister and two brothers.
LAMB: And their names, and where are they, and what are they like?
Ms. CHANG: My sister, Christine, lives in London and she's an architect. And she is the oldest child and she a very typical oldest child. She's always worrying about everyone else and taking care of other people. And my brother Tim lives in Hong Kong right now and he's very--he's a lot like my mom actually, you know, when he wants something he just goes after it. And he's very stubborn and also, you know, very--loves to sort of take on new challenges. And my brother Derek lives in Denver and he is--he's always been the family, sort of, clown and peacemaker and always able to jolly anyone into a good mood, that kind of thing.
LAMB: What do they think of you writing the family history here?
Ms. CHANG: Well, my sister loved it. But one of my brothers--my brother Tim said he was too busy to read it but he thought the first 20 pages were great. And my other brother--I don't know. I haven't talked to him about it. But the reaction seems to have been fairly positive.
LAMB: What's your mom or father think of kind of airing the family linen here?
Ms. CHANG: Well, my mom hasn't read the book, which is very Chinese, I think. She hasn't read the book, but she's bought 100 copies. So she--I think she may be a little bit apprehensive about doing so, and I don't blame her. I mean, I think that for her, coming from the culture that she came from, it's not something that someone would do. But at the same time she supports me, and she has always done so. So I think this is her way of dealing with the fact that her daughter's done something that maybe she wouldn't really approve of, but, you know, of course she loves me and she wants me to do well. And so she just decided she won't read the book, that'll just make things easier.

And my father has read the book, and I think that it was hard for him because there are some things that he, I'm sure, would rather not have had told. But at the same time, my parents have always let me just go my own way, which I think is unusual for Chinese parents and for Asian parents in general. And so, you know, I wanted to write a book and he said, `Fine,' you know. And now I think that he's read it and it's come out, he maybe wishes it didn't, but at the same time, he would never not have let me do it or has even said, `Oh, I don't think you should do it.'
LAMB: Was there a moment where you're at your--and what'd you write it on?
Ms. CHANG: A computer.
LAMB: ...sitting at your computer when you said, `Nah, I can't go that far'?
Ms. CHANG: Actually I didn't go as far as I did initially. I took a lot of stuff out. So I guess there was. Obviously there was. But what I left in--I thought everything I left in was relevant to the story I was trying to tell. And I didn't--I tried not to put in unnecessary details that we just purely revealing about people's personal lives without speaking to a larger issue.
LAMB: You're engaged in this book to a white man.
Ms. CHANG: Yes.
LAMB: And you've now married him. The only reason I know that is that you came with him here today.
Ms. CHANG: Yes.
LAMB: And I bring that up because the word 'white people'--or this phrase `white people' is mentioned a lot of times in here. What is the relationship between you and the white person? Why did you bring it up so often?
Ms. CHANG: The general white person or this particular white person?
LAMB: Oh, no, no, no. In general. Just white people in general. I mean, there's a reference to all that..
Ms. CHANG: Right.
LAMB: ...you know, the wedding scene with Wei and all that.
Ms. CHANG: Right.
LAMB: And she was worried about: `It's all going to be white people.'
Ms. CHANG: Well, I always had a conflicted relationship with white people, I think, because I grew up in Hartford, Connecticut, in the '70s, which at the time was not--I mean, there were minorities, but there were very few Asians and very few Chinese in particular. And we, especially, grew up in a sort of mainstream environment. I think my parents--my mother, just because she had had to adapt to so many different situations, always tried to throw herself into whatever milieu she found herself in at the time. And my father came to America quite early--he was actually about 12 or 13--so he went to high school in Great Neck and went to Oberlin for college. And so he was a little--he was a lot more Americanized actually than our other Chinese friends and neighbors.

So they already were--we were already more mainstream. And so in that sense I think it was hard for me because I felt that I ought to be white when I was growing up. And it wasn't until I got to college that I realized, well, no, you know, I should be proud of who I am. And it was an interesting time actually because before that it was always bad to be different and then after it became sort of a good thing to be different. And then I realized, well, I can't really be different because I am actually American. You know, I look Chinese, but I am American. And so I'm not either, Chinese or white.
LAMB: What does it mean--and you referred to it a couple times when we started this conversation--that's Chinese? That's Chinese. What does it mean to be Chinese?
Ms. CHANG: I suppose it means different things to different people. For me it means parents who--I mean, in that particular context, talking about my parents and them being so Chinese--it means just that, you know, they love me so much and they're so protective and so supportive, but at the same time the way they show their love is by sort of being aloof--not aloof, that's not the right word--but being sort of--not trying to show it. They do it in little ways. I mean, my mother--I don't--I mean, she'll say, `I love you.' But my sister says that, you know, when we were growing up she never used to hug us, she never used to sort of play with us. But at the same time you knew that she would just do anything for you. And I think that's a very different way of raising your children than white people do.
LAMB: Well, I may come back to that, but I want you to tell us about Margaret. Who is Margaret?
Ms. CHANG: Margaret. Margaret is the mother of a good friend of mine, who went to school with my mother, Margaret did, and she lives a very different life in a way--than--I mean, different from the experience that we had in Hartford because she settled in Palos Verdes, which is now very, very heavily Asian and very heavily Chinese.
LAMB: Near LA?
Ms. CHANG: Yes. On the peninsula. And she lives this life that is so foreign to me because everything they do is about--I mean, they can shop in Chinese shops, they can--all their friends are Chinese. They can go to Chinese doctors. They can go to Chinese dentists, Chinese lawyers, everything, and yet they're living in LA. And so it's this sort of--I call it a gilded ghetto, which when I was out in Palos Verdes I got a lot of flak for because I guess they didn't appreciate the term. But these are people with a lot of money who have no need to socialize with the mainstream. And in Hartford, if you wanted to be anything in society, or whatever you want to call it, you really had to--you had to adapt to the place you found yourself in. And they don't have to adapt at all, which I think is simultaneously great and liberating, but also a little limiting, I guess. I mean, liberating and limiting at the same time, which I'm not sure that I would want to have to deal with.
LAMB: Did you go visit Margaret?
Ms. CHANG: Yeah, many times.
LAMB: Did you know her when you were growing up?
Ms. CHANG: No, I didn't. She is someone that my mother actually became better friends with during a later period in her life. They met again at a reunion I think in the '80s. And then when her daughter Wei came to New York--this is also very Chinese, which you may want me to explain again--but they all look out for each other, everyone looks out for each other's kids. So when Wei came to New York, Margaret called my mother and said, `Well, my daughter's moving to New York,' and my mother went out--you know, did everything she could to sort of help Wei feel at home. And if I had moved to LA, Margaret would have done the same thing for me.

And so Wei and I became friends, and then when I went to write the book I thought, `Oh, this is such an interesting and completely different experience than the one I had. I mean, just talking to Wei and hearing that her high school was 30 percent Asian, you know, it was just a shock. So I wanted to see what their lives had been like growing up 'cause I sort of see her as a mirror image of myself and we deal with a lot of the same things. But at the same time it's also warped. It's just--it's sort of slightly tweaked in this way to make it completely different.
LAMB: Dolores.
Ms. CHANG: Dolores, I put in--or I included because I felt that she in some ways was such an example of what you want to be when you--or what you think will happen when you come to America. She had all these big dreams and she always thought that she could go farther. And she's a wonderful person. She's very warm and open. And it didn't work out for her. You know, she was--she's bright, and she's hardworking, and she's really great. But life just did not pan out the way that she wanted it to, and I thought that it was sort of a cautionary tale. I mean, not a cautionary tale: America's a horrible place to come to, but a cautionary tale: You know things don't always work out here. And this is a different experience. The other women are, you know, if not completely happy in their personal lives, you know, at least financially comfortable or secure in some way. And Dolores isn't. She doesn't have anything at the moment. And I thought that was an interesting thing. She had come with so much.
LAMB: Where'd you find her?
Ms. CHANG: She's a friend of my mom's.
LAMB: Did you go to her home?
Ms. CHANG: Yep. Many times.
LAMB: Where's she live now?
Ms. CHANG: She lives in Queens.
LAMB: What kind of a home?
Ms. CHANG: It's--well, actually she's moved since then. I haven't been to her new home. But I think that it's probably about the same. It's a small home. I mean, it's actually a very nice home and it would be a perfect home for a young couple starting out, but she's 63. And she, you know, has a PhD and she was a professor at a university and all of these things. And so for her, where her peers are at the moment is a very different place. So, no, she's, you know, not out on the street starving, but she's not living at all in the same way that most of her classmates are.
LAMB: You painted a picture of her, though, living in kind of a dark room with a computer and playing with stocks all day or commodities.
Ms. CHANG: Yes. Well, she stopped doing it actually, which I think I might have--I'm not sure that happened before or after I finished. I think I mentioned that. But she stopped playing stocks now. And at the time that I knew her that was what she was--that was the way she was trying to sort of realize her dream, was just gambling these amounts of money on speculation, especially the commodities market, I should say, because she scolded me for calling it the stock market.
LAMB: What? Your mom was playing the stocks?
Ms. CHANG: Yes, she was. She was. I mean, that also is something that I think--well, Dolores and my mother were doing it for slightly different reasons. But my mother's reason, which is the reason why many of these women do that kind of thing, is that--I think that she didn't know what to do with her life. You know, she was a little bit bored but very smart, and she had no other outlet. And so stocks were an interesting thing. And she has a lot of friends who do play stocks and read all about the different companies that are on the exchange. And I think that that's a way of channeling their energy into something that they feel is productive because they never had the chance to do that.
LAMB: So we've got Margaret in Palos Verdes, near Los Angeles; Dolores in Queens; your mother now in Hong Kong, but formerly...
Ms. CHANG: My mother's moved from Hong Kong actually.
LAMB: Where?
Ms. CHANG: She's now in California, too...
LAMB: California.
Ms. CHANG: ...in Northern California.
LAMB: But you have then Suzanne.
Ms. CHANG: Mm-hmm.
LAMB: Where is Suzanne?
Ms. CHANG: Suzanne's also in northern California, but she started out on the East Coast. And she spent most of her adult life in Pennsylvania, in a--in sort of a small city.
LAMB: Reading.
Ms. CHANG: In Reading, right. And that was an experience like ours in a way but also even more isolating I think because Reading's a smaller city than Hartford, and it's maybe not enough that many people would call her cosmopolitan maybe, but maybe a little bit less sophisticated than Hartford. And the Chinese community there is even more insular and even more sort of tight-knit and timid, I guess is the word I would use. And she was trying to break out of that a little bit, but was constrained by it I think.
LAMB: She married who?
Ms. CHANG: In Reading, she was married to a professor who later became--later went into computers. They got divorced and she married her high-school sweetheart, who is a doctor and lives in California.
LAMB: But you took us all through her marriage though.
Ms. CHANG: Yeah.
LAMB: And her family and all that. How did you find all that information out?
Ms. CHANG: Through talking to her and talking to the other people involved, and just going through old papers and things that she had and talking to friends of theirs. I suppose it's standard journalistic practice I guess.
LAMB: Well, I want to go back to Suzanne's. But one of the things you mentioned in there--I want to know why you brought in Wallace Stevens, the poet.
Ms. CHANG: I brought in Wallace Stevens because I thought he provided this bridge between these two experiences. And also he's such an American poet, you know. I really think that he's probably one of--he is one of the greatest poets America has ever produced. And it seemed so interesting to me that he had been shaped by these two places, Reading and Hartford, that had also shaped my mother and Suzanne. And when I was reading his work, I realized that there was a lot in there that spoke to that--I mean, he was not an immigrant obviously, and his family had lived in Reading for generations. But maybe as an artist or something he felt always a little bit distanced from the rest of humanity. And I thought that was an experience that was very similar.
LAMB: What is Suzanne doing in California now?
Ms. CHANG: She's helping out at her husband's office, and playing tennis, and gardening, and living just a very happy life, I hope.
LAMB: What's she like?
Ms. CHANG: She's also--I mean, all these women are wonderful in their own ways. It's interesting because she's--in some ways her life is the most American because she dared to divorce her husband and sort of create this new identity for herself. But in some ways she's very, very traditional. And she was raised in a really proper family and so there's always a slight bit of reserve to her. But underneath is someone who will really just go out of her way to help you and make sure that you have the things that you want and that you're looked after.
LAMB: Let's go back to the beginning. You were at Columbia, in grad school or undergrad school?
Ms. CHANG: I actually was at Columbia for both undergrad and grad school.
LAMB: What did you study in undergrad?
Ms. CHANG: English.
LAMB: And then you were getting your journalism degree?
Ms. CHANG: Mm-hmm.
LAMB: Why journalism?
Ms. CHANG: I had worked in book publishing right after college and I realized then that I liked the other side, I wanted to write. And I felt that at the age that I was, which was 24 when I went to journalism school, I had really not a lot to write about. I think that's the problem with sort of prematurely trying to do a large work. And so I thought journalism school rather than MFA because there I would learn what stories were, and how to get stories, and how to get other people's stories instead of looking inside myself, which maybe it was the easy way out, I don't know. But I thought it was a really valuable experience.
LAMB: Where did you work in publishing?
Ms. CHANG: I worked at Villard, which is an imprint of Random House.
LAMB: What'd you do there?
Ms. CHANG: I was an editorial assistant and a peon.
LAMB: For how long?
Ms. CHANG: For two years.
LAMB: So how did you get Dutton to publish this book?
Ms. CHANG: Luck. I don't know.
LAMB: Go back to the beginning. What was the first step?
Ms. CHANG: The first step was getting into this great book class, which enabled me to write a proposal with, you know, a wonderful teacher who sort of showed me the ropes, and a wonderful set of classmates who would critique my work, and just an environment where you were thinking about, `Well, what would make a good book, and how would I do that, and how would I...'
LAMB: Who was your teacher?
Ms. CHANG: His name is Sam Freedman, fairly well-known author, and I'm sure you've heard of him. But he was great and very encouraging and very much--I think that when you're young it's hard to think, `Oh, I can do this, I can write a book. Sure I can write a book.' And he was the person who said, `Yes, you can write a book.' And so when I got out of that class I had a proposal and I got an agent, and the agent--wonderful agent--got me a wonderful editor.
LAMB: How'd you get an agent?
Ms. CHANG: Since I had worked in--it was actually easier for me than it is for most people I think because I had worked in publishing before, so I knew some agents that I had dealt with. And I sent the proposal to one of them and she said, `Sure.' So...
LAMB: And how long did the whole process take?
Ms. CHANG: Getting an agent and editor, and...
LAMB: Yeah. From the time--you said four years altogether--but from the time that you started out to the time that they--you had your book contract.
Ms. CHANG: I started writing the proposal in April of '95 and I got the contract in October of '95, so six months or so. And the book actually didn't take four years, it took about three years. I sort of--it's been a year since I sort of finished any real work on it.
LAMB: When did it come out originally?
Ms. CHANG: In May.
LAMB: And you've been on the book tour?
Ms. CHANG: Yes.
LAMB: Where'd you go?
Ms. CHANG: I went to California, which is where my market is, they tell me. And I was in the Bay area and in LA.
LAMB: You mentioned Palos Verdes, and they didn't like it when you called them...
Ms. CHANG: Yes.
LAMB: ...a gilded community.
Ms. CHANG: Yes. I think that that was more a reaction to what they thought it was a sort of jab at their materialism, which it--it wasn't, really. It was just a way to explain that this was a ghetto unlike your stereotypical idea of a ghetto, because they are very well-off. But I wasn't trying to highlight--I mean, I do talk about the materialism, but in that term, I wasn't trying to highlight the materialism. But that was what they objected to.
LAMB: What would you say your style of writing is? How did you approach this?
Ms. CHANG: I don't know what my style of writing is. I like to think--a lot of people have told me that it reads like a novel does, and that was what I was trying to do. I'm not an academic; I'm not a scholar. And if you're writing non-fiction and you're not those things, I think that it's necessary to write a book that people will be drawn into for other reasons than the facts that they're going to learn or the, you know, brilliant theories that you'll expound, because that's not what I do. So I tried to write it like a story.
LAMB: Is it hard or easy to write for you?
Ms. CHANG: Sometimes it's hard and sometimes it's easy. I love the writing, but you know, there--of course there are moments where I would just sit in front of my computer and say, `Oh, I'm not going to do this today,' and then turn it off, and those were horrible moments, and I want to beat myself up. But you know, then there are moments that it just--it came and came and came.
LAMB: How many different places did you physically go to in order to be able to write this?
Ms. CHANG: Let's see. I went to all the women's homes, and I went to China and Taiwan and Hong Kong. And I went to--came to DC to sort of investigate my mother's early years, and also Suzanne had spent some time in this area, too. And I'd--also went to a lot of different places to talk to different classmates, because I just wanted to know what--the book is about four women, but you know, it's really--there are all these other women and all their experiences, and I wanted to know what those had been, too. And so I talked to dozens of women, I think, all over the country.
LAMB: Now as you've gone around on your book tour, is it mostly the Asian-American community that you go to?
Ms. CHANG: It's been mixed, but I get the strongest reaction from the Asian-American community. I don't--I mean, I guess it's obvious. I don't think that should necessarily be the case, 'cause I think it's a universal theme. There are many universal themes I deal with, but obviously, people identify--Asian-Americans identify with my own story. So...
LAMB: Is there anything in there they don't like?
Ms. CHANG: The younger generation is extremely enthusiastic, and they seem to like it a lot. My parents' generation--I mean, my mother has gotten some--well, it's interesting, because no one would say to me--or none of her friends or people she might know would say to me, `Oh, I didn't like it for these reasons,' but they'll tell my mother. And I think there was a feeling that I told too much or I shouldn't have told the truth in some ways. I mean, for me--and I actually was a little naive about this, because I didn't realize there was still such a--it's sort of silly, because I was writing about the gap, our culture gap, our generation gap, but I didn't realize there was still so much of one. And where they come from, no one would ever write this book.

And someone--Margaret actually was telling me--well, Wei was telling me that--Margaret's daughter was telling me that her grandfather had wanted to write a--actually, I think it was Margaret; I'm sorry. Margaret was telling me that her grandfather--her father had wanted to write a memoir of his experiences, and he wrote it up to a certain point and then stopped. And she said, `Well, what about all these years that you didn't touch?' And he's like, `Oh, well, those people are still alive. I can't write that book now.' So that, I think, was the kind of feeling they had was, `Well, I mean, this stuff may be true, but you shouldn't have told everyone.'
LAMB: How do you and your mother--is there a difference in the way you think about this country?
Ms. CHANG: For my mother?
LAMB: Between you and your mother. I mean, you ever sit down and say, `What do you think of the United States?'
Ms. CHANG: Right.
LAMB: And what's the difference?
Ms. CHANG: We've never had that discussion. But I would say that my mother doesn't think about places in the same way. For me, my identity is really bound up in where was I born, who are my parents, where did they come from, where do I come from, because that's what I dealt with all my life, and that was sort of--I think everyone, when they're little, feels like they're different for some reason, and I was different because I was Chinese. So being an American is all about identity and my race and my background.

And for my mother, it's a place where she could finally be secure. And it's not about, `Oh, am I Chinese? Am I American?' so much. The little--the things that might seem to be about race--you know, if she experienced racism or if she, you know, didn't get this or that or couldn't rent an apartment, it's never really, `Oh, well, this is America'; it's more, `Well, these are things I have to deal with, and I have to, you know, surmount them in some way.' And that might be also a function of our personalities, because I'm more introspective than she is, and she's never really wanted to delve into issues that are painful because she's had such a painful life. So I can't tell if it's because she's an older generation or because she's Chinese or because of her own particular experiences, but I would say that, for her, the American identity is not so fraught with just all the tension that I feel.
LAMB: What tension do you feel?
Ms. CHANG: Just this feeling that I won't really ever belong here, but I won't really ever belong wherever else it was that I was supposed to be, China or Taiwan or, you know, a good Chinese-American daughter who speaks fluent Chinese, which I don't. All of those things, I'm just me, and it doesn't seem like there are other me's out there, or at least when I was growing up, it didn't seem like there were other me's out there. And so it's that, I think.
LAMB: Why don't you think you'll ever belong here? What is it that bothers you in this society?
Ms. CHANG: It doesn't bother me. I think it's just this is the way it is when you're in a minority. I mean, even--I've never really--I've experienced very slight kinds of racisms. It's not anything that anyone would have cause to really complain about, but there's always that feeling, `OK, well, I am different,' and that's what I'm talking about, I think--is just you'll never feel exactly the same.
LAMB: You say that back in 1965 everything changed--the Immigration Act. There were one million Asians in this country then, and now there are seven million.
Ms. CHANG: Which it's actually probably even more by now because that part was written a few years ago.
LAMB: And it became a less Eurocentric country.
Ms. CHANG: True.
LAMB: Do you feel the difference?
Ms. CHANG: I do. Well, I live in--well, see, I lived in Hartford, now I live in New York, so, of course, that is a big part of it. But I do feel it. I mean, I just came back from a month of traveling around the US just for fun. I just wanted to see what it was like in the rest of the country. And there are differences. I mean, in places like Montana or, you know, Missouri, I felt more comfortable now than I did when I was growing up in Connecticut at times. And in New York, I mean, it's just--I feel like the kids I see on the subway or on the street, today they're just who they are. They all hang out with each other, and there's no sort of--obviously I don't know them, so I can't speak to what they're really thinking inside, but there's just sort of an easiness that I'd never felt.
LAMB: There's a scene in the book where you talk about a photo--or photos of Chiang Kai-shek, and there's one with Eva's father and with your mother's uncle and your grandfather. Who are all those people? Where did you see those photos, and what relevance do they have?
Ms. CHANG: Well, those people were all soldiers in the Nationalist Army and--well, they were all generals actually in the Nationalist Army. And I saw my--I've grown up with the one of my grandfather, and the other two I saw in Taiwan when I was visiting. And I included that because it was such a--that particular part is about sort of the difficulties of that particular family's relationships and my mother's experiences growing up. And that was a sort of bond that they had, and it reminded me that they had all come from war, from this horrible experience.

And I wanted to say that, once I realized that, I could sort of understand better what had happened to my mother when she was a child and what these women had done to each other or what they had done in order to survive the times.
LAMB: What was the school in Taiwan they all went to?
Ms. CHANG: Its official name is the Taipei First Girls School, but it's known by them as Beiyinyu, which is sort of just a contraction of that. And 'bei''s a contraction of Taipei and 'yi' is just first and `yu' is female. So--and it was--it still is actually the best girls school in Taiwan, and at the time it was really the only one that you could go to--and hope and know that, you know, you could either get into university or get to go to America. So it was really important for all the girls to get into that school.
LAMB: Now when you went over to Hong Kong and Taiwan and China, you say, among other things, when you got to China, you had culture shock.
Ms. CHANG: Absolutely.
LAMB: What year did you go?
Ms. CHANG: '96--fall of '96.
LAMB: What kind of culture shock?
Ms. CHANG: I don't know what I was expecting, but I think I had some sort of romantic notion in my head that it would feel like home or it would feel--I would have some spiritual connection. And I really just didn't at first. It was--I mean, this'll probably make me look really intolerant, but, I mean, it was a--it was a hard place to travel. It was--people weren't friendly. It was dirty. It was--you know, people were always, if they knew we were American, trying to raise the prices, that sort of thing. And so I felt really alien there, like I knew that they saw me as an American.

And the culture shock came from just how different the lives there were. And I guess, for me, it was particularly resonant because had my mother stayed, I mean, obviously, I probably never would have been born, but I could have been born there and then I would have been a totally different person.
LAMB: What did you see in Taiwan?
Ms. CHANG: We went back to her school--my mother's school and talked to some of the girls there, which was an interesting experience actually because they're--they are so different, too, now. I mean, Taiwan has changed in its own way. I think what's interesting is--for my mother and her generation, the people who left, they left this one world and it's changed--China has changed. Taiwan has changed. And so they can't go back to those places. So Taiwan now is really--I mean, it's changed a little bit, again, because of the Asian crisis, but at the time it was very prosperous.

And all the girls had gone to Europe, and they had gone to America, and they were going to study in America, but they were going to come back to Taiwan, which was unheard of in my mother's day. I mean, you were lucky if you could go to America and stay in America. And, you know, you wanted to get a job there and not have to go back to Taiwan. And so it was interesting. I mean, they were a lot more like me than they were like my mom, I think.
LAMB: What did you see in Hong Kong?
Ms. CHANG: Hong Kong was also another culture shock. It's a little bit--a little bit like New York, but everything that's extreme about New York is even more extreme about Hong Kong: the money, the display of wealth, the sort of aggressiveness in your career and in doing business. And I feel like, at the time, it was this island of people who are just all trying to get as much as they could and--and--and sort of, I don't know, live life, work really hard and play really hard and--and all these things. But it's an island, and so there's not a lot else there. I mean, people say when you go to Hong Kong, there's shopping and there's eating and there's working, and that's really sort of what life is like there. And it's great shopping and great eating. I don't know what the working is like, but it's sort of an empty place, I think.
LAMB: And then you say you became friends for the first time with your mother at the Mandarin Oriental afternoon tea.
Ms. CHANG: Yes.
LAMB: How did that happen?
Ms. CHANG: Well, she had been so reluctant, as I said earlier, to talk about herself, and I kind of started chipping away at that armor doing the book, and that was at the end--tail end of my research. And at that point--maybe it was going back to China. We hadn't yet gone to Taiwan, but maybe it was going back to China or just the fact that she had moved to Hong Kong and so hadn't seen me for a few months and was feeling sort of alone.

But something opened up inside of her, and she just, for the first time, was able to say things that she hadn't been able to say before: you know, explain why she had done things when she was raising us; explain, you know, how she felt about her childhood; explain all sorts of things. And so I kind of finally felt like that barrier between mother and daughter, where you either hide things from your daughter or you--because you want to protect her or you don't want to think about them yourself, that had sort of--that barrier had come down somehow.
LAMB: What are you most worried about that your mother will read in this book?
Ms. CHANG: I don't know actually. I think probably the way I describe her raising us, I think, is what I think will hurt her the most because I actually think she did a wonderful job raising us, but there are things in that book that make it seem as though life was a--she was a little bit harsh as a mother, which is kind of true, but I don't know that that's a bad thing. But I think that would hurt her.
LAMB: What do you think of the experience of all this so far? This is your first book. You worked in publishing. You knew kind of what it was about. So has it worked out the way you wanted it to?
Ms. CHANG: It's been great. It's been a lot of fun. I think that it's hard with the first book always to get it off the ground and get the ball rolling, but the response from people I meet when I'm doing readings or, you know, just talking about the book or people, like, come up to me and say they've read the book or just friends have read the book ha--has been great, and that's really what I wanted to accomplish. And everything else is just gravy, I guess.
LAMB: Do you see Mary and Margaret and Delores and Suzanne in a movie?
Ms. CHANG: Sure.
LAMB: I mean, is this movie material, this story?
Ms. CHANG: I think it is, yeah.
LAMB: Any luck selling it?
Ms. CHANG: No. There's been a little interest, but nothing has come to pass yet.
LAMB: There's some things I want to read back to you and get your reaction to. The door they closed shut out bigots who would not sell them houses, children who mimicked their accents, indignant adults who told them to go back to where they came from and, less obviously, glass ceilings, old-boy networks and both the praise and the censure that came with being identified only as the model minority.' What was that in reference to? Tell us some more about this.
Ms. CHANG: I think that the--the door is a community they built for themselves among themselves, even if it wasn't a physical community, because a lot of them lived in different cities. It was just a place--when they were with each other, they could feel like themselves and not like what the rest of their community identified them as. I mean, I think that when you stick out, you're labeled, and that was how we lived our outside lives. Well, me not so much, I guess, but my mother and her generation. They lived their outside lives as someone else's label of what's a Chinese person or what's a Chinese woman or an immigrant. And when they were finally with their friends, they could just be who they were--who they had been as girls in Taiwan.
LAMB: And how often did they see bigotry in the American society, and where do you see it? How does it pop up?
Ms. CHANG: Well, it's a very different experience on the one, I think that these were women who had very good educations and who entered the professional class and the middle class, and so it's a different experience than the one that laborers might feel. But it exists. It's just more subtle. So my mother, for instance, when she was a real estate agent wouldn't--very rarely get listings for prime houses, even though she was a great real estate agent and won all sorts of awards. It was always sort of, `Well, the prime real estate goes to our friend, so and so, who has been friends with us for ages,' which is valid, too. But there was sort of this feeling that, `Well, Mary is good for selling those houses no one can get rid of or selling two-family houses in, you know, the poorer neighborhoods.' Or--so it was sort of, you know, `She can do that stuff, but the good stuff we should give to someone else.'

And for the other women, I think it's the same thing. But, also, it's not always so hostile either. I mean, Suzanne, when she was working as a librarian in Reading, someone came up to her and said, `Oh, well, how do you make fortune cookies?' And fortune cookies aren't Chinese, but that's the kind of thing that people would...
LAMB: What are they?
Ms. CHANG: They're American. They were invented here and given out at Chinese restaurants. Actually, the same thing happened to me in journalism school. One of the professors was giving a lecture, and he said something about, `Oh, well, bringing bagels to New York'--can't even remember what it was exactly. I'll just say it was, `Bringing bagels to New York is just like, you know, bringing fortune cookies to China.' And I just sort of sat there like, `Well, actually, there are no fortune cookies in China.' It's a completely different thing.
LAMB: Then there's this passage. It's a little bit longer. `What I saw reflected in the mirror was one of those overblown Asian-American women'--where are we, by the way? Do you remember this passage?
Ms. CHANG: Yes. That's right when my mother was about to move to Hong Kong, and I'm going through her old things.
LAMB: `What I saw reflected in the mirror was one of those overblown Asian-American women who made me shudder whenever I encountered them in classes, at parties, on the street. They were the kind who wore large, silver earrings and denim shorts which hugged their chunky thighs. They giggled too loudly and tossed their permed hair to attract attention. They slung dainty pocketbooks diagonally across too-ample chests. In the summer they wore Huarache sandals. In the winter, they clomped about in black, leather ankle boots with elastic along the sides. In college, they hung large collages on the wall that consisted of photos of them and all their friends from high school. Their friends were always white. Person in the mirror would have done the same, except she had so few friends in high school that a collage would have been embarrassing.'

What is this all about?
Ms. CHANG: I think this is about my, I guess, antagonism towards a certain kind of person that I think--I wasn't quite, but I might have been had such circumstances been different, but it's the kind of person who can't come to grips with her own identity. The person I'm describing is the sort of Asian-American who wants to be white. And I had--I remember talking to someone who is Korean-American actually and her saying, `You know, I wish I hadn't been born Korean.' And that thought had never quite crossed my mind, but there was a seed of that in me, this sort of self-loathing. And I think it's a reference to that; this wanting to mimic the white man's dream and to become part of it to such an extent that you deny who you are.
LAMB: And where'd you meet your own husband?
Ms. CHANG: In college.
LAMB: He's white.
Ms. CHANG: He is, yes.
LAMB: Is that a problem?
Ms. CHANG: No, hasn't been so far.
LAMB: Did you wrestle with that?
Ms. CHANG: I didn't actually, although I do have friends who do wrestle with that issue.
LAMB: With you?
Ms. CHANG: No, no, no, with--for themselves, Chinese or other Asian-American friends who find it difficult to deal with the fact that they are either with white boyfriends or want to have white boyfriends; feel like they ought to have Asian boyfriends. It wasn't hard for me, in part because my parents never said anything about who we ought to date or who we ought to marry. It was always an individual thing. So that--and then I think just growing up in Hartford--I don't know, I just--that was--I always associated with white people, where I really didn't have a choice, and so it wasn't something that crossed my mind.
LAMB: What do your parents think of Ben?
Ms. CHANG: Oh, they like him a lot.
LAMB: And the white thing isn't a problem with them either?
Ms. CHANG: No, but it is a problem with some people definitely. I mean, some of their friends, definitely it is a problem. So I think they're just unusual in that, and, again, I think it's because my mother is so flexible because of her particular past and my father came here so early that they're unusual.
LAMB: On a very different subject, Confucius comes up in the very first part of your book. How much does that play in the life of Chinese? Who was Confucius?
Ms. CHANG: Well, Confucius was a philosopher who sort of set the foundations for Chinese society, and there's been a lot about how important Confucius is to, actually not even just China, but--a lot of Asia and the way in which they deal with life. And his philosophy was really very much honor your father, honor your mother, everything has a place and you need to respect that. And it was not about free will and things like that. And so I don't think that it's an active part in the sense that people--or at least for my parents and their friends that they sit around thinking, `Oh, what would Confucius do?'

But I think that he--that philosophy is ingrained in Chinese society, and they are a product of that. I mean, they were all born in China, and they grew up there. In Taiwan, it's even more Confucian now than mainland obviously. So it's the kind of thing that you don't even realize that you're doing, but certainly they have a very different mentality. I mean, a woman was telling me at one of my readings that her daughter said, you know, `Mom, when you want something, you just have to ask for it. You can't expect me to know what you want.' And she said, `But when I was your age, I would have known what my parents wanted.' And it's that kind of--so it is. It's very--it's sort of subtle, but it's there.
LAMB: Did you study Confucius?
Ms. CHANG: A little bit, but not very much. I mean, I took some introductory courses, too, in Eastern philosophies.
LAMB: Now there's, I'm sure, not a blanket statement, but is there any way to describe how Chinese-Americans think--what they think about politics, are they on a side in all this? Are they Republicans or Democrats, liberals or conservatives?
Ms. CHANG: Well, in my personal experience, and I can't speak for all of them, but I think that they get a lot of flack and justifiably so for being sort of apolitical and in other parts of the world, too. I mean, in places like Indonesia, for instance, the idea or the theory is that the Chinese come in and they just want to make money, and they don't give back to the community and they don't take an active role in governing or in politics. I think that's changing a little bit now, and certainly with my generation it's changing even more. But my parents' generation, yes, I mean, they lived through war, and they just wanted to come to America and have a safe, comfortable life. So, yeah, there's a part of it--there is a part of them that is maybe a little politically apathetic, but I don't blame them in some ways.
LAMB: Again, though, would they be more often Republican or Democrats?
Ms. CHANG: Oh. Well, I think it's across the board. They could either. I would say maybe most--at least for this group, maybe mostly Republican, but I don't even actually know that I can say that.
LAMB: What has it been like watching all this debate over the money--the Johnny Chungs and the money--you know, all the names and the Asian-Americans involved in the Democratic Party in the last couple years?
Ms. CHANG: Well, all of those things and every time something happens in Asian-American, the media--for instance, the spying, as well--I always sort of have the reaction that, you know, these people are not being treated as individuals but as entire groups of people. It's not just, `Oh, this particular group decided to do this,' or, `This particular person decided to sell secrets to China.' It's, `Oh, this is the way Asian-Americans are. This is the way Chinese-Americans are.' I think that's sort of unfair. But at the same time, there is maybe a little bit of--in China, connections are really important, and the idea of using your influence is not the same as it is here in America. And so I think that maybe things that might be considered taboo here are not there, and perhaps they were working from that cultural framework.
LAMB: What's next for you?
Ms. CHANG: Well, I think another book hopefully. I'm sort of puzzling out in my head exactly what I want to do, but something along the lines of identity issues or social history, the things that I talk about that--I mean, those are the subjects that interest me, societies in transition.
LAMB: What's your overall goal? And what's Ben do, by the way?
Ms. CHANG: He works in finance. My overall goal in writing or in my life?
LAMB: Yeah, just kind of where are you? You're in New York City. What part of the city do you live in?
Ms. CHANG: I live in the East Village.
LAMB: You've got a book under your belt, and you're probably under 30.
Ms. CHANG: Barely, yes. I just want to keep doing what I like doing, which is writing, and hopefully well and have a happy life to boot, if I can.
LAMB: Books or magazine articles, or do you...
Ms. CHANG: Oh, I'd love to do all that. I mean, I like writing books because I like to immerse myself and have these projects that can go on for a few years without having to always wonder and worry of, `Where am I going to get my next assignment or how?' So, in that sense, in a way, I'm more into books at the moment, but at the same time it's such a long process that I'd like to take a little time off and say, `OK, well, now I'm just going to write an article that I can write in a month,' and have it out and have it published in the same year. That would be exciting. So both, I think.
LAMB: Who's your own favorite writer?
Ms. CHANG: I have many favorite writers. I would say that--I--oh, I hate this question. Jane Austen maybe.
LAMB: I won't push you. We'll just show the book, the cover. Leslie Chang has been our guest, and this is her book, "Beyond The Narrow Gate," about her mother and her friends. Thank you very much.
Ms. CHANG: Thank you.


Copyright National Cable Satellite Corporation 1999. Personal, noncommercial use of this transcript is permitted. No commercial, political or other use may be made of this transcript without the express permission of National Cable Satellite Corporation.