Academic journal article Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts

Dragons I Have Known and Loved

Academic journal article Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts

Dragons I Have Known and Loved

Article excerpt

I FIRST HEARD ABOUT DRAGONS AND OTHER MAGICAL CREATURES FROM MY maternal grandmother. From her, I learned that Chinese dragons were benevolent creatures who brought the rains and helped make crops grow. I grew up in an African American neighborhood of San Francisco, and she lived with us there for several years. Even when she moved to Chinatown, I saw her at least once a week when my mother and I helped her with her shopping. I actually visited her more often because I went to Chinatown every day to attend a Catholic school. As part of its curriculum, the school also offered an hour of instruction in Chinese. Even though we spoke no Chinese at home, my parents felt I could learn it there.

As a child who lived in two different ghettos, I could never get into the popular children's literature of the day. Books like Homer Price seemed unrealistic to me because every child had a bicycle. They even seemed foolish because the children left their front door open. No one I knew in my two different ghettos had a bicycle and everyone had at least three locks on their door, so the so-called realistic books seemed like fantasy to me. This was in the fifties when the few books about Asian American children were written by white authors and were no more credible than Homer Price.

Instead, it was science fiction and fantasy that spoke directly to my experience because in those novels, children from an everyday world are taken to a faraway one where they have to learn strange new cultures and languages. Above all, the books talked about how to adapt, and that's something I had to do every time I got on and off the bus.

So sf and fantasy were closer to the reality of a boy who moved back and forth between two ghettos. In those days, any sf or fantasy book had a little blue rocket on the spine, and after I had exhausted the children's selections, I began to read the adult books. I won't say I understood much of them at the time, but that was how I found the two writers who influenced me the most. From Robert Heinlein, I learned how to write first-person narratives. In the space of a few paragraphs, he could create a character with whom you were willing to travel across a galaxy. And from Andre Norton, I learned how to create worlds--especially ones on the brink of change.

In the course of my reading, though, I came across a great puzzle to me. When a fantasy book had dragons, they were evil creatures destroying villages and kidnapping maidens. They were the opposite of the dragons that my grandmother had told me about. Though I couldn't have put it into words back then, dragons made me aware that my Chinese culture might not be in sync with my American culture--that instead, they might clash.

For other Chinese Americans, it might be something else that becomes a snag tearing at the smooth mesh of what they thought was their social reality, but for me it was dragons. Like other Chinese Americans, I came to learn, among other things, America emphasizes independence, individualism, and innovation while Chinese culture values dependence, cooperation, and tradition. The two cultures meet in the soul like two continental plates grinding against one another and creating daily stresses that vary in size from tremors to shocking earthquakes.

Even so, I never intended to write at all. I intended to become a chemist, but in my senior year, I had an English teacher, Father Becker. He took some of us aside and said if we wanted to get an "A" in his course, we would have to get something accepted by a national magazine. Well, you don't win an argument with a Jesuit, so all of us wound up sending out stories and getting rejection letters. Eventually, he withdrew the threat as long as we could show him the letters and proved that we had tried.

But I got bitten by the bug. I learned that a rejection letter might leave me depressed for a couple of weeks, but it didn't kill me. I kept on writing stories and sending them out. …

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