Essays

The Importance of Varied Asian American Narratives

Julie Leung shares her thoughts on xenophobia and the rise of groundbreaking Asian American voices

Julie Leung Essay
By Julie Leung
Apr 24 2020

Julie Leung is an Associate Director of Marketing at Random House and the author of numerous books including Paper Son: The Inspiring Story of Tyrus Wong, Immigrant and Artist.

When people learn that I spent most of my formative years in Georgia, I often hear a common response: “Oh, you don’t have an accent at all.” Perhaps they had met Georgians before who possessed that classic drawl. But more likely than not, their idea of a Southerner is shaped by what they experience in the media—an amalgam of some truth, some caricature, and a whole host of cultural cues. How else do you portray the Deep South in a movie if not with characters peppering “y’all”s and “ain’t”s into their dialogue?

I come back to this example of accents when concerns about minority stereotyping and lack of representation are dismissed as trivial. Because while I can easily hide the fact that I am from the South; I cannot do the same for the Chinese face I present to the world. If harmful and damaging assumptions are made about Chinese people, I cannot dodge their effects. 

The dangers of treating Asian Americans as a monolith are becoming more evident in this time of heightened xenophobia.

With xenophobic attacks against Asian Americans on the rise, I have become more self-conscious and wary when I go in public. I speak in upbeat tones from behind my face mask to emphasize my American-born inflections. I worry for my parents who can’t communicate in English as well and who have already experienced uncomfortable glares and remarks.

Because I am no stranger to becoming a de facto representative for one’s own race. Once in second grade, a classmate asked me if I was related to Yoko Ono and if I knew why she broke up the Beatles. 

You can’t fault a seven-year-old for a question like that. Her only experience of Asians at the time was her book about the Beatles—and me. 

But the distinct discomfort of having to answer for another person’s actions just because of my race has stayed with me. The same awkwardness reared its head in middle school whenever I was asked if Chinese people really ate dogs or in high school, whenever I was confused for another Asian student. It has fueled a lifelong passion to bring more Chinese American narratives to the forefront. 

I first learned about Tyrus Wong through his obituary in the New York Times. When he was a young boy, Tyrus and his father immigrated illegally to the United States using falsified papers to bypass the Chinese Exclusion Act. He was separated from his father and detained for weeks before they were reunited. Despite those traumatic beginnings in this country, Tyrus learned to make his own opportunities and leave a lasting legacy in American animation. 

Tyrus’ life spoke to me on many levels. I had very few picture books available to me about the accomplishments of fellow Chinese Americans—much less artists. I wrote my first picture book biography, Paper Son: The Story of Tyrus Wong, to ensure that his inspiring life story could be accessible for future generations of readers.  

The dangers of treating Asian Americans as a monolith are becoming more evident in this time of heightened xenophobia. The fewer stories there are about our experiences, the more pressure those stories face to represent the whole of us. And that is simply impossible—I have no idea what it is like to be Yoko Ono, after all.

The only solution is to nurture more stories and more perspectives into the limelight. 

Luckily, these days, one can find a burgeoning geyser of voices breaking new ground every day. I am so proud of this generation of Asian American storytellers that are challenging, reinterpreting, and deepening the composite image of our experience in this country. 

Here are some of the recommended reads that have recently blown me away: 

For Kids & Young Adults

For Adults

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Paper Son: The Inspiring Story of Tyrus Wong, Immigrant and Artist by Julie Leung
Paper Son: The Inspiring Story of Tyrus Wong, Immigrant and Artist
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Thanking the Moon: Celebrating the Mid-Autumn Moon Festival by Grace Lin
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My So-Called Bollywood Life by Nisha Sharma
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Stand Up, Yumi Chung! by Jessica Kim
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Alvin Ho: Allergic to Girls, School, and Other Scary Things by Lenore Look
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Minor Feelings by Cathy Park Hong
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Interior Chinatown by Charles Yu
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How Much of These Hills Is Gold by C Pam Zhang
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