After working with immigrant teenagers in Manhattan's Chinatown for a few years, I was struck by their general disillusion with America and their sense of isolation. One time, a group of us were traveling in a very rural part of upstate New York and decided to attend church. We walked into a random church nearby; it turned out to be an all-white church. I still remember with an awful vividness the looks of suspicion and cold stares thrown our way throughout the service. Just because we looked different, just because we were Chinese. Those stares stayed with me for a long time, their coldness. That experience got me thinking: what if an immigrant teen had to live in this kind of community all alone? And what if something terribly, mysteriously awful started to happen in that community?
If you could meet any of your characters for a day, who would it be and why?
Good question! A reader knowledgeable of my novel might be surprised at my answer on this one. Although I delight in the three-dimensional complexity of Xing and have a (not-so-secret) crush on Naomi, it's actually Miss Durgenhoff I'd love to meet in real life. She has an aspect that draws me to her. There's something about the softness and sweetness of her soul that, because of the circumstances of her life, would have, for other people, turned to bitterness. Kathryn Stockett said "When a person has that much sadness and kindness wrapped up inside, sometimes it just pours out as gentleness." That's Miss Durgenhoff to a T, and I can easily see why the lonely Xing would find such warmth and comfort in her. Plus, if I did meet her, I know she'd cook me up a feast.
Have you ever had any of Xing's experiences?
To a lesser extent. At the risk of overgeneralizing, there are two kinds of Asians in America: those who are recently immigrated andthose who were born in this country. Sometimes the acronyms FOB (Fresh Off the Boat) and ABC (American Born Chinese) are used to distinguish between the two. The immigrant Asian experience can be vastly different from the Asian American experience, with significantly more obstacles to overcome. Because of language barriers and cultural misunderstandings, immigrant teens often make easy targets, especially during school years when ostracization is more overtly racist. The recent incidents at the South Philadelphia High School come to mind here. Xing comes solidly from the immigrant Asian camp, while my background is more from the Asian American camp. My challenges have been, accordingly, more diluted than those faced by Xing who, by token of his isolated setting, faced very concentrated forms of these same challenges. But I think even second-generation Asian Americans can identify with many of the struggles Xing goes through. The words of Professor Frank Wu apply, though in differing degrees, to both the first- and second-generation Asian in America: "I alternate between being conspicuous and vanishing, being stared at or looked through. Although the conditions may seem contradictory, they have in common the loss of control. I am who others perceive me to be rather than how I perceive myself to be."
Is there a specific message you hope readers of Crossing take away with them?
I hope not! I've found that novels with a "message" are often preachy and didactic, and I tend to avoid them like the plague. So one of the last things I wanted to do in a novel with such strong racial overtones was to come across as preachy. What I do hope readers take away from Crossing is a sense that they've crossed over and stood in someone else's shoes and lived inside his skin for a few days. To feel his fears and the fragility of his hopes, to really understand someone so different from themselves. And that's one of the reasons why this novel is a thriller - it's difficult to really get to know a character in stasis - you need to see them in conflict, in moments of uncertainty, in naked fear, dealing with irrational thoughts, before you really get a feel for them. Hopefully, Crossingsucceeds in snagging readers into its pages and into the life of a Chinese immigrant teen named Xing Xu.
Crossing is officially released today! Congrats, Andrew, and thanks for doing the interview!
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