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Novel “Tiger Writing” by Gish Jen

Gish Jen who is an Asian-American well-known novelist wrote the non-fiction novel Tiger Writing: Art, Culture and the Interdependent self. Tiger Writing was inspired by Jen’s household background, critics of culture and meditation. This was probably due to the fact her parents migrated from China to the USA thus exposing her to both Eastern and Western cultural values, which explains the intersection of Western and Eastern principles of self-evaluation. In her novel, contradiction between western and eastern values can be seen. Western values encourage authenticity, originality and exposure of self-experience whilst eastern values advocates for morality, passing down of culture, continuity of the past and current life. Jen based her novel on three particular lectures she gave at Harvard University at 2012 on the history of American civilization. By use of personal examples, she keeps her book alive and captivate to the reader.

Gish Jen noted in her book the difference between American students and Asian students. She carried out an experiment by telling her students to keep their autobiographies for a whole week. Her observation was that American students wrote their autobiographies based on self-evaluation while Asian students wrote theirs based on interaction with other groups or persons. Another particular example she noted was her father’s story and background. She focuses more on her father’s role in society than him as an individual. Through her father, she explains her China family’s origin.

Jen explains how she struggled with her family’s expectations when she attended Harvard University; she was interested in creative writing and literature study but her family expected her to pursue something different. She found her inspiration to write from other Asian-American writers and novelists who overcame the barriers of literature for example Maxine Kingston Hong. In her novel therefore, her characters are victorious in overcoming inner struggles in a personal manner. She quoted “interdependence is often something against which independence vies” (Wong 2013). Jen looks at culture and literature from a different perspective and exposes cultural assumptions and attitudes for example she uses her life to bring forth traditional misconceptions about the Chinese. The novel answers the question of how to balance a life by maintaining social order while publicly identifying one’s character.

A research study conducted at Cornell University by Qi Wang, a lecturer on “cross-cultural cognition” on Asian students who are immigrants of USA revealed that majority of them did not disclose information of their background in Asia either due to forgetfulness or owing to the embarrassment of their past life.

Jen’s father wrote about his background when he was 85 years old. What was odd is that he emphasized on the minor details of his life instead of talking about important details for instance there was little description of Jen’s grandfather appearance, personality or tastes but details of how many doors there were in the house Jen’s father grew up in. Jen thus notes the distinct difference in writing priorities between the eastern and western cultures. Another example she used is an experiment involving old Singaporean men. They were shown images displaying a changing figure in an unchanging background. Instead of noting the changing object that changed from a bucket to a guitar to a vacuum cleaner and to a houseplant, their eyes were fixed on the background. This is a clear indication of how eastern society prioritizes on minor issues and gives less importance to issues of higher priority.

According to Jen, Chinese writing techniques involve the typical and recurrent instead of emphasizing the unique and specific aspect of drama (Yangapril 2013). She quotes various examples from the Chinese culture for example Chinese landscape painting emphasizes more on the beauty of the surrounding. Consequently, Chinese medication treatment emphasize on treating the entire body as a holistic being instead of focusing on the ailing body part. Additionally, Chinese meals offer no option to an individual because they lack variety; thus, Chinese methods are ancient, prosaic and arcane. Richard Nisbett, a psychologist at the University of Michigan quoted that westerners take full control of their own autobiographical novels but the Asians on the other hand, are foreshadowed in their own novels and movie productions.

Gish Jen demonstrated innovativeness in her novel by neutralizing the blow to Asians and the Chinese culture. Despite depicting Asians as lacking sense of individuality thus rendering them sheep-like, she brought out her Chinese father as being an innovative and unconventional scientist at his place of work. Thus, Jen was keen to record that the Asians were not completely hindered by their interdependent nature but had the capability to be aggressively enterprising, fierce and un-self-conscious. Moreover, she brings out the negative side of the western culture of individualism. According to Wong (2013), Jen says that western individualism promotes narcissism, arrogance, DE contextualization, isolation and selfishness. People of the western work hard to stick out and be unique such that they lack that sense of belonging and emotional wholeness available in the eastern values of interdependence. Therefore, western individualism, despite its glory is also ruthless and extremely intense. There is joy and fulfillment in eastern interdependence.

She acknowledges that every individual needs to be both interdependent and self-dependent. Thus, she advocated for unity of both the eastern and western extremes. Jen recalls her writing experience and the lessons she had to learn as a narrator for instance in her draft novel she depicted her main character as having shallow disembodiment of the ears and eyes but her editor prompted her to make her character as a unique being. Since then, Jen has been more aware and sensitive about her novel context than her peers. Jen exclaims at how she, a daughter of two Chinese immigrants could compose a novel based on fiction that is the center of independent self.

One certain event Jen recalls how her father punished a disobedient student by making him take out and take in the same trash repeatedly. This mindless repetition is similar to an incidence in the movie “Karate Kid” where Mr. Miyagi did something similar to his karate student. Perhaps her father was trying to instill moral values from the East in his student by giving him a chance to ask questions based on the society rather than how the punishment is beneficial to self. Thus, instead of asking questions to do with ‘me or me’, he wanted his student to include ‘we’ in his inquiries.

Gish Jen thanks globalization in her book, which offers the solution to not only uniting the eastern and western cultures but also brings together different worldwide cultures. She quotes the African, Middle Eastern, European, Latin American and American cultures all coming together through exchange and sharing of cultural values thus enabling them to tap into inter-dependent and independent selves. I like how she quotes that there is tension and struggle between one’s independent self, which finds satisfaction in self-expressionism and advocating of one’s rights; and the interdependent self that finds satisfaction in self-sacrifice, duty and affiliation.

Works Cited

Yangapril, W. “’Tiger Writing,’ by Gish Jen” The New York Times (2013)

Wong, L. “Book review: Tiger Writing: Art, Culture and the Interdependent Self

By Gish Jen” Parabola WordPress (2013)

September 11, 2021

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