Bridging Two Worlds

A Conversation with Bette Bao Lord

NEH (National Endowment for the Humanities) Chairman Bruce Cole talked recently with author Bette Bao Lord about the role of different cultures in shaping America. Lord, who came to this country from Shanghai when she was eight, has written about that heritage in the nonfiction book Eighth Moon, in the novel Spring Moon, and in a children’s book, In the Year of the Boar and Jackie Robinson.

Bruce Cole: One of our interests at the Endowment is an initiative called We the People, which is meant to improve the teaching and understanding of American history. A major component of that history, of course, is immigration. We are all immigrants–from the people who crossed the Bering Sea to the people landing at Dulles this morning.

You wrote in Newsweek once about the barriers that members of minorities can experience in their attempts to succeed. You said some wanted to cut themselves off into an enclave and that was dangerous.

Bette Bao Lord: My feeling about immigration comes from, obviously, my own personal experience. I look back to those years of Americanization, learning English, going to P.S. # 8, as a wonderful time of my life. I was a happy immigrant. A lot of credit has to go to my parents saying, “Bette, you can go out into the new world, you can speak another language, you can become Westernized, you came come home to us and still everything is harmonized.”

Today the impulse is to choose between cultures. You have to be one or the other. You have to be this or that. I don’t agree. We are putting ourselves into little compartments. That saddens me.

Even with all our problems, all our faults, America is still a city on the hill. Though success is never guaranteed, it is still a city of second, third, fourth chances.

Cole: It’s a level playing ground.

Lord: Comparatively, it’s a level playing ground.

The magic of America is much more than the sum of its comparative advantages. It is that idea that Americans can be as different as sisters and brothers are and still be part of the same family. Today this idea is questioned. But I believe this extreme swing of the pendulum, like others have, will eventually settle in a comfort zone.

As a new immigrant, I never felt that I could not be a part of America. Perhaps it was because I was so young. Every dream seemed possible.

Another difference between then and now is that new immigrants today often get on a plane and arrive here in hours.

For me, it was a month on an old merchant marine ship. The anticipation of coming, the not knowing what I was going to see when I got here, gave the whole passage a magic. Now you turn on the television, you see America. You turn on the radio, you hear American music. You go to the movies, you think you’re in America. You arrive in hours and you may not find the America so familiar to you.

Cole: There you are.

Lord: More than ever, the attitude of the family matters. I think if parents are afraid, the children are afraid.

Cole: That’s very interesting about how everything is speeded up. That is true. They are plunged into this different world literally overnight without the much slower process that earlier immigrants had.

Lord: Yes.

Cole: It is true that American culture, especially American popular culture, is predominant. But don’t you think that, like no other place, you can come to the United States and become an American because of this long tradition of immigration and the absorption of people from all over the world? It’s part of our mental apparatus. And part of it is because we can all trace our roots back to somewhere else.

Lord: When I’m in America and I’m in a taxicab and they ask me, “Where are you from?’ I say, ‘China, originally.’ When I’m in Europe and they ask me, ‘Where are you from?’ I say, ‘America.”

Cole: That’s interesting.

Lord: While I’m in America I can say I’m from all over the world and people accept me, especially in New York. Everybody is an immigrant in New York. There is a feeling of not ‘we’ and ‘they,’ but we are in New York together. I think in other countries you don’t feel that.

Cole: Let’s take a step back. Tell me how you got here and something about your early years, which you have documented so well.

Lord: I came here with my mother and my sister in 1946, about fourteen months after the end of the Second World War. My father was here already, working for the government in buying equipment for China. He came here first and was scheduled to stay only a year or so. We came here not to be immigrants, but to learn English. My parents wanted me to be bilingual.

Cole: Did they know English?

Lord: They did know English, my mother poorly, but my father very well.

Cole: How did your parents happen to know English?

Lord: My father studied in England and in Germany. He knew German and English. He was very proud of the fact that he spoke both languages well. So he wanted us to learn English. When we came we were supposed to stay for six months to a year and then go back to China, but, of course, the political situation changed. There was a civil war, and we decided to stay.

From the very first, my job at eight years old was to learn English and learn about America. We knew that America and English would be an important part of our life, whether in China, or if we ended up staying in America.

Cole: You did both, obviously. Did you instruct your parents about America?

Lord: Instruct is too lofty a word. I came home with experiences we then lived through together. In my book, In the Year of the Boar and Jackie Robinson, a lot of the episodes actually happened to us. For example, when I was roughed up by a classmate and refused to name her. The new American part of me knew that I couldn’t snitch. The old Chinese part of me knew that not obeying my parents’ demand was unworthy. So they took me to an even higher authority–the police. But we were living in America and I kept my silence. It worked out fine. Later, the girl and I became fast friends.

Cole: How did your parents fare here? They weren’t in this eight-year-old world.

Lord: My father was thirty-five when he arrived; my mother, thirty. They had been separated when my father studied abroad. Again, during much of the war with Japan. Again, when my father left alone for America. So living together in Brooklyn was wonderful, an adventure. We were going to be together as a family.

Mother never had to cook or clean in China; servants were commonplace. In America, of course, they were not. With panache, Mother worked out a deal with our landlady to collect the rent and to make the beds for all the people that lived in the house. She also became a fabulous cook. She taught me to feel, “I can do it.” Otherwise, you could be miserable.

Cole: And completely alienated.

Lord: And alienated. “Here I am making other people’s beds.” Well, that’s the greatness of my parents and the greatness of immigrants who have knowledge of the country that they came from and what was happening there. They compared the political situation in China–the civil war there–and the opportunities we had here. They knew that if we were there we might live completely different lives.

Cole: I can understand that decision.

Lord: Whatever hardships that we had here couldn’t be compared to the hardships that we would have suffered in China. It was a mirror in which they could look back, and they did. This is where having two cultures will enrich you. You have a comparative standard to look at everything, and you can choose which one you like in the morning or which one you like in the evening–as long as you don’t feel that you are torn apart by it.

Cole: Right. And that you are also willing and eager to partake in becoming an American, in becoming part of our society.

Lord: They never said to me, “If you become an American, you’re not going to be Chinese.” They never said that. They never said that you are not going to be Chinese because you became an American. You can be both and you can decide which part of each culture that is right for you, that you want to believe in.

In that sense it was not an either/or. I think a lot of people today feel either you are this or you are that, and somehow it’s terrible if you are not either this or that.

I think the world isn’t completely this and completely that.

Cole: I quite agree.

Lord: In fact, immigrants who come to a modern state are blessed. They are the vanguards of the future in this era of globalization. They are able to draw on more than one culture, one language. I think they will be happier than those who can’t.

Cole: I think that, too. Part of the story of immigrants is that they come and they become Americans, but they continue to be enriched by their own heritage and traditions, and bring their heritage and traditions and enrich the whole country.

Lord: Yes. When I was in Beijing, some of the best Mandarin speakers were Americans who went to school in China. When my husband was the ambassador, Mr. Brown was the official interpreter. He was wonderful. He was from somewhere in the Midwest, I think, but he was a beautiful linguist. It made my heart smile every time I heard him speak because he was so wonderful.

Cole: One of the interesting characteristics about Americans–and I think this is because of their immigrant experience–is that they are very interested in the study of other parts of the world. I think we are very open to that because of the immigrant experience and the fact that the mainstream of our culture has been enriched by wave after wave of immigration, each wave bringing its own particular contribution to American life.

Lord: I think, also, it depends on your age. When you are young you are only interested in everything around you–what’s happening to you in school, what your present circumstances are. As you get older and older and the doctor tells you what’s in your genes, I think after fifty you start thinking: my destiny is not always in my hands, it’s part of where I came from, my roots. You become much more interested in the past.

Cole: Absolutely. That is generational. With young kids, their universe is themselves.

Lord: Yes, in any culture. (Laughter.)

Cole: But as you get older, you begin to think about these things: where did I come from and how has that affected me, how has it made me? In a way, we are all historians.

But other things shape us, too. As I recall, your parents did not want you to be a writer. They wanted you to be a chemist.

Lord: They wanted me to be a chemist, any kind of scientist, because most people who come from China think that is the golden ticket in America or any society: “Science, that’s wonderful.” So I was interested in science, too, before I knew what it was and realized it was so far removed from my interests. My talents, if I had any, were certainly not in that field because I like to fidget with things and science is so exacting.

My parents were open enough to know that when I cried, “I can’t do this,’ they said, ‘Okay. You can’t do this. Go ahead and do what you want.”

Cole: How did you become a writer? That’s a big jump. I read somewhere that you said that if you realized how difficult it was, you absolutely would never have done it.

Lord: Never. Never would have started. It began with my youngest sister, who was left behind in China. She was only a six-month-old baby when my mother, my other sister, and I sailed for America.

Cole: With the intention of returning?

Lord: With the intention of returning. The baby was too young to learn English and so she remained in Shanghai with my aunt. Little did we know that we would be separated for sixteen years.

Cole: This is Sansan?

Lord: Sansan. She came out of China when she was seventeen, and we saw each other for the first time.

Cole: Had your parents seen her?

Lord: No, nobody had seen her. We didn’t even know if she could get out. The idea of meeting a sister for the first time–since she was a baby–at seventeen was incredible. I will never forget it. We were in New York at the airport–it was called Idyllwild at that time–and the plane stopped and she stepped down. She had a funny coat on because it had big bulges in both pockets. You know, sisters are very funny. They will cry and they will laugh and be irreverent to each other. So she walked out and I said, “What have you got in your pockets?” because she looked so strange. She said, “Sister, I’ve got free toilet paper.” (Laughter.)

I knew that we had had two different lives. When my sister would get on a plane for the first time in her life and all she cared about was stuffing that free toilet paper into her pockets, I knew that–

Cole: There was going to be an adjustment.

Lord: –there was going to be an adjustment, there was going to be a story. Why would she do that?

Cole: You recognized her immediately. Your parents were there, too?

Lord: My mother actually went to Hong Kong to get Sansan. She waited, I’d say, a month, meeting every train, because we didn’t know if Sansan was going to come out. My sister was on the last train from China to Hong Kong. After that, they had no service because of the Cultural Revolution.

Then my mother and she flew to Idyllwild where my father and my other sister and I met her for the first time since she was a baby. I thought to myself, this is a fabulous story. What does it feel like–what does a nonpolitical person think about a revolutionary society? How do they adjust? What do they think?

When I was at school reading The Diary of Anne Frank, I was terribly moved. I felt her diary told us more about what was going on outside of that attic than you could feel in academic books. This story–my sister’s story–had to be written, and I didn’t know anybody who could write it. I didn’t know any writers, and I didn’t know anybody who could speak Chinese and who wrote. Being young is when you don’t know anything. I said, “I’ll do it.”

With America being the strange place that it is, I went to an American booksellers’ convention, ABA, because they gave away free books. I had my little shopping cart and as I was going with a friend through the line, my friend said to this elderly man–at that time I thought ancient, he was about seventy-five–told this man, a stranger to me, “Bette has a book she wants to write.” He said, “Come here, young lady.” And I went with him to the corner and he said, “I’ll give you five minutes. If you can sell me on the story, I’ll publish it.” His name was Cass Canfield, who was the legendary head of Harper and Row. Now today it would be impossible. In those days there was still a publisher who could say, “I have a feeling about this book. I’ll publish it.” That’s how I became a writer.

Cole: What was it like for your sister when she came? She was seventeen and she had lived in this society-

Lord: Totally, completely different. My father came home from work and tutored her in English for three hours every single day. My sister went to high school and graduated. She went from not a word of English to going to the same college, Tufts University, that I went to. She writes statistical explanations today that you and I couldn’t possibly do, in English. She writes the programs for other people to understand what their pensions are all about.

Cole: So she took the science and math path?

Lord: Yes. But the way she uses it is to write it in good English so other people can understand it.

Cole: I know in other places you’ve written about the Cultural Revolution not through the eyes of the major protagonists, but the more or less ordinary people who lived through it.

Lord: If you write about the leadership, they are the people who probably the average reader in other countries can’t relate to.

Cole: They are so atypical.

Lord: They are atypical. But with the commonality that happens in human lives, you can reach the reader that way.

Cole:–through your sister’s eyes and through other eyes. You were at Tiananmen Square. What was that like for nonpolitical people who were trying to mind their own business? It’s hard to conceptualize what that would be like.

Lord: It was the most hopeful period I’ve ever seen in China. The people that were in that square were believing tomorrow will be better than today and we can do something about it. They were well-behaved. It was festive. It was, in a way, akin to the Martin Luther King march in Washington. It had serious issues, but there was a sense that something is happening, something is going to change, we’re going to do something.

There were a million people in that square and you weren’t scared. There was no fear of being trampled. There was no fear of, my goodness, a whole bunch of strangers. It impressed me incredibly.

Cole: For me, the amazing thing was the statue of Lady Liberty that was erected. It must have taken enormous amounts of courage for these people to be there, considering the price that they might have paid.

Lord: Yes. They were ordinary people. For instance, the driver of the embassy car who took me around knew that I had been in the square. The drivers work for the government, and after they drive you around, they write reports about where you have been and what you have done. On my last day in China, as he left me at the airport he gave me a paper bag and he said, “This is for you, but don’t open it until you are on the plane.” I couldn’t imagine what he had given me. He knew I had been in the square, and he knew how I felt about those students there. Inside was a book on the demonstrations in 1976 when Chou En-lai died. It was the same kind of feeling that maybe change was coming. He had been there and he had saved the leaves from the trees. He pressed them in the book and he gave it to me.

If you met a Chinese like him on one of your trips to China, you probably couldn’t see past his officialdom. These people don’t reveal themselves very often, but when they do, you realize they are no different from you.

When I was working for CBS, there were twenty-five telephone banks in the hotel–and the guy who actually wiretapped these phones came to me: “That’s the one you should use. That one and no others. Don’t use the other phones. Use this phone.” And I knew that he didn’t bug that phone.

Cole: That’s an amazing story.

You spent a lot of time in China, not just the time of Tiananmen Square but also with your husband there. What was that like for you? You said at one point that you had to relearn Chinese?

Lord: I had to relearn Chinese when I was younger, when I was sixteen or seventeen.

Cole: What language did you speak at home?

Lord: I spoke English because, again, everybody in my family was diligently learning English. Then, when we realized that we were not going to be going back to China anymore, my parents started speaking to me in Chinese.

Cole: They wanted you to have the Chinese.

Lord: They wanted me to have the Chinese. As you know, any ten-year-old, eleven-year-old, twelve-year-old, they don’t want to talk the old language.

Cole: No, no, no, no. (Laughter.)

Lord: They don’t want to talk in the old language. So they would speak to me in Chinese and I would answer in English until I went to something called Junior U.N. Day. I was the delegate from my high school. I sat there next to people who came from Europe and spoke four or five different languages. I felt so ashamed that I didn’t speak Chinese. I went back home and said, from now on I’m going to get Chinese back, and that’s how I did it. Shame is a great teacher.

Cole: When did you go back to China?

Lord: I went the first time in 1972 and then 1975, 1978, every two or three years. Then I went there when my husband was appointed ambassador in 1985. It was a wonderful experience because at that moment, they were just opening up to the West and everyone was interested in America. I spoke the language, I knew the customs, I knew them, so people wanted to hear my interpretation of America.

Cole: The Chinese, right?

Lord: The Chinese. One of the things I did there was to ask Charlton Heston to come and direct The Caine Mutiny with a cast of Chinese who didn’t speak a word of English, and he not speaking a word of Chinese. I was convinced the story of the mutiny and what happens to people when they have to live under that kind of authority was universal, just as any good book or any good play is universal.

The first time that Charlton Heston came to meet with the cast, the actors were working on the part where the lawyer is on the stand and he is sitting there testifying. Charlton Heston got down on his knees to look into the eyes of the actor that was playing the guy who was a witness, and when he got on his knees, everybody gasped. Gasped. I didn’t understand why they were gasping. They gasped because they could not think of one Chinese director who would get on his knees to an actor.

Cole: What was the reaction to the play? Was it seen as subversive?

Lord: No. The Chinese navy people loved it. They came twice, three times, four times to see the show. It spoke to them. You could take it on any level: as the story of Captain Queeg, as a story of sailors or authority and craziness. They lived under Mao, who was half mad. So there were resonances throughout the whole theater. It was wonderful.

Cole: But the authorities weren’t worried about it?

Lord: You know, authorities are very funny. They thought about this Academy Award-winning guy coming over, it was a freebie for them, and the Americans were paying for everything. I am sure a lot of people understood why I wanted that play and only that play done. But there were other people who thought it was a cultural exchange.

Cole: What did the Chinese make of you?

Lord: Once we knew each other we were fine. It was just like old home week. It was like a local girl who has gone to the capital and then come back. There is a feeling of pride, racial pride, or home town pride or whatever it is.

There was that. There was also the misunderstanding that I would be able to help them whereas I couldn’t. There is nobody lower on the totem pole than the ambassador’s wife, believe me. In their bureaucracies, the ambassador’s wife would probably be able to boss a lot of people around. This American ambassador’s wife was not able to.

Also, the yin and yang of closeness. There is the American concept of privacy, which is very dear to all of us. On the Chinese side there is the concept of togetherness. These two concepts, both very worthy, come into conflict all the time. In Chinese culture and a lot of the old cultures, nepotism is part and parcel in that sense. If I ask a favor of you and you are my relative, you can’t say no.

I had to say no a lot. I said, “I cannot do this. I am not allowed to do this. I won’t be able to do this.” They didn’t believe me. They didn’t believe that I didn’t have the right to stamp visas or allow people to get scholarships or things like that.

Cole: Did some of your family get annoyed with you?

Lord: I tried to explain. I would take them to the kitchen and say, “This cook was hired by the Chinese government, not me. So I don’t even have the right to hire a cook or a laundress, so how can I do the other things?” I tried to put it in context.

Cole: You said it was like somebody going to the capital, making good and then coming back. But you were an American, right?

Lord: Sure, but they take a look at this face and they–

Cole: How did you feel about all of that?

Lord: Let me tell you the story of a wonderful plumber in Washington named John Daley. We’d take lunch together while he was trying to deal with my boiler. He was one of the people that went in on D-Day. I loved that. I just questioned him and questioned him and questioned him about that experience. One day he looked at me and he said, “Lady, I wouldn’t have missed it for the world, but I wouldn’t do it again.” That’s how I feel about being an ambassador’s wife. It’s a wonderful experience, but it is a very particular experience, especially for somebody who basically is a hermit. You know, writers are basically solitary people. It gave me wonderful insights into people, but four years was enough.

Cole: You also were a dancer?

Lord: Yes. I was.

Cole: How does that work into this greater scheme?

Lord: That’s why America is wonderful. You can have lots of different interests. You can try things out. If you like them, you can stay with them. If you don’t like them, you try something else. I’m not talking, obviously, about people without some education and some resources.

I loved being a dancer because it’s an art. It’s like writing. It has a form. It has a structure. It has a feeling. It’s immediate. Writers have to wait years and years and years to have that sense of satisfaction. What I loved about dance was that if you did a good arabesque, you got it and you felt it and it was immediate satisfaction.

Cole: Immediate gratification.

Lord: Immediate gratification. There is no immediate gratification being a writer.

Cole: What is next? Are you working on another book?

Lord: I am waiting. I have not been back to China since Tiananmen. I want to go back again when I can feel that it’s another hopeful period. That’s the China I love. It’s a personal thing. I want to write about America. The people I have been reading lately that have affected me are bicultural writers like Rohinton Mistry, who lives now in Canada.

Or Salman Rushdie or Chang-Rae Lee, who is a Korean writer. He has written this wonderful novel called Aloft, about Long Island. These authors are wonderful. They are describing life familiar to all of us, but they do it differently, from a dual perspective. Like the Japanese writer who wrote The Remains of the Day, Kazuo Ishiguro.

I would like to write a book about America as an aging adult, but I can’t articulate it yet. I don’t want to write about China anymore. I would like to write something about America.

Cole: It sounds as if you’re still thinking over the direction you will take.

Lord: That’s very true.

Cole: Do you have a character for this American novel? Spring Moon is such a compelling figure.

Lord: It’s very, very foggy. Writing is something, when you finally get down to it, it’s somebody grabbing at your throat, making you do it. The hand is not at my throat yet.

Looking back, I think the most proud thing I’ve done in my entire life encapsulizes what I think I would like to write about, eventually, on America. My mother was dying of cancer. She was terribly sick and skin and bones. The doctor said that I had to feed her and I had to burp her. But when I put my arms around her, it would hurt her, so I couldn’t do it. I thought and I thought and I thought, how can I do this, how can I do this so I won’t hurt her? I sat at the end of the bed and I rocked. Rocked gently and then a little more. The bed would rock and she would burp.

My mother thought it was hilarious, and she’d laugh and she’d laugh and I thought, there is nothing in the whole world as precious to me as to hear your mother’s laugh at the end of life. When you are young you don’t think about things like this. But now I’m thinking about it. I lost both my parents in the last seven years. It has changed me and changed a lot of the ways I think about the endings that you have in life.

I don’t want it to be morose or morbid, but I’d like to write a book about endings in a country where beginnings are all that matter because it’s so youth-oriented here. Endings are very important.

Cole: Do you convey that to your own children?

Lord: I have an American relationship with my children. I had a Chinese relationship with my parents. Now I think I would like to write about the good parts of having a Chinese relationship with your parents as opposed to an American relationship, where it’s child-centered as opposed to parent-centered.

It’s not just because I’m older that I’m looking at this. It always has struck me that in America you’ve peaked at twenty. It’s sad. It’s sad that we live in a society where everybody wants to look like a twenty-year-old, and you get sad because you are going to get older and older and older and older. I’d like to write something about that. I don’t know what kind of novel it will be, but it’s the kind of feelings that I’ve been having, endings, not beginnings.

Cole: Well, I wish you well. Thank you for taking the time for a visit.

Lord: My pleasure.

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