In my senior year at Peddie School, a college preparatory school in New Jersey, I studied Graham Greene’s “The Quiet American.” Set during the French war in Vietnam, this novel centers around the relationships between the narrator Fowler, a British reporter; his Vietnamese mistress, Phuong; and an American, Pyle, who has fallen in love with Phuong. The novel, a scathing attack on what Fowler refers to as “American innocence,” reveals Fowler and Pyle’s perspectives— both Western perspectives— on the war in Vietnam. Yet we see Phuong only as a simple character, characterized solely by her beauty, her desire to marry for financial security and words like “wonderfully ignorant” and “child-like.” While reading the novel, I constantly thought to myself, “Where is Phuong’s perspective?” Although Fowler and Pyle perceived Phuong as lacking human depth and complexity, I wanted to believe that she was more than how they perceived her.
When I was younger, I did not notice that the characters I read were mostly white. I did not notice that the new worlds I had fallen in love with didn’t include people that looked like me. These worlds were as white as the world I lived in, as white as the culture I immersed myself in, the TV shows and movies I consumed, the music I listened to. Asian characters were often either left out of narratives entirely or portrayed as tropes, such as prostitutes or geeks. Reading Greene’s “The Quiet American” was the first time I began to recognize my own deep need to see myself reflected in the books I read. I yearned for someone who looked like me to be represented authentically and fully. I was tired of reading yet another depiction of an Asian character as one-dimensional.
While “The Quiet American” is a historical novel, Fowler and Pyle’s perceptions of Phuong reflect a society that still to this day silences and dehumanizes Asians. Growing up in a small, predominantly white town in New Jersey, I encountered people whose false assumptions about Asians mirrored the assumptions that book characters had. Some people had difficulty viewing me as an American and could not see me as anything other than a perpetual foreigner. It hurt when I saw others as complex human beings and unique individuals, only to realize that they either did not see me at all or viewed me as indistinguishable from all the other billions of Asians in the world. Perhaps I so desperately wanted to believe that Greene’s character Phuong’s had hidden depth and hear her side of the story because I saw in her both myself and others in society who have been perceived as one-dimensional and whose stories are unheard and underrepresented.
Diverse perspectives in fiction matter because reading books helps us understand ourselves and others. The lack of representation and misrepresentation of Asian characters in books prevents people of all races from seeing Asians beyond racial stereotypes and sends an implicit message to Asians that they do not matter enough to be represented. When all you read are one-dimensional versions of yourself, it can be difficult to imagine future possibilities for yourself and to believe that you are just as important and interesting as your white peers. By seeking Phuong’s perspective and imagining her as a more developed character, I was empowering myself, even though I did not know it at the time.
At Wellesley, the day after the dreary storm in March I began reading stories written by writer, poet and essayist Jenny Zhang. Zhang’s body of work focuses on Chinese American immigrant identity and experience in the United States. I began reading at noon. Hours later, the sun was beginning to set, turning the sky dusky blue and purple, and I was still reading Zhang’s stories. I hadn’t realized how desperately I craved reading about characters who looked like me. Finally, with Zhang’s stories, I read about Asian-American characters that were compelling, uncontrived and most of all, beautifully complex. Zhang’s characters were not uninspiring racial archetypes; they were not “wonderfully ignorant.” They were individuals who lived and experienced life in rich, saturated colors. Until that evening, I had not realized how desperately I craved reading stories like these and how good it felt to be seen.