One of the many questions I answer at book events is how I am able to capture the authenticity of Chinese characters and settings without having ever visited the country.
Fortunately, my entire life I’ve had close Chinese friends and business associates who shared insights into their culture, values, traditions, and viewpoints on personal, familial, and business issues. I even attended high school with the great-grand-niece of famous Chiang Kai-Shek, the inspiration for my character Kay Chiang, introduced in my debut novel Private Offerings and continuing as the main character in Rare Mettle.
For background research on Rare Mettle, I consulted with many contacts for input into critical scenes. As an example, I depict a Chinese New Year’s celebration hosted by a very high-level Communist Party official. Understandably, not many people have firsthand experience at such an event. I asked help of one of the first women executives to represent a Fortune 500 company in China for an appropriate contact. She referred me to a retired businessman who headed up the US Chamber of Commerce satellite office in Beijing for years. He described who would and wouldn’t attend; the tenor of the party’s atmosphere; and how far an antagonized subordinate might go to undermine her more powerful boss. In the process, I also discovered that many such events are televised annually as part of the Communist Party outreach to its citizens, so many of my Silicon Valley Chinese immigrants and temporary visa workers were able to fill in other tiny details of delicious food and the timing of fireworks.
For assistance with current cultural nuances, I reached out to an American English teacher who had just returned from two years in China. In addition to other details, she warned me that the older generation still does not condone touching in public, even if married. Therefore, I needed to make the initial flirtation of Kay Chiang with Wei Jintao conform to polite standards. The two of them break some rules that, from an American perspective, might seem minor, but to Chinese would certainly push the bounds of proper conduct, exactly the mood I wanted. Additionally, she gave me a wonderful book, The Corpse Walker. It describes unthinkable jobs which endure even to this day, and inspired my later scenes in the far western territory of Xinjiang province of China, bordering Tibet.
In the course of researching the business and political climate of China, and its parallels to Silicon Valley, I read a number of books, such as China Dawn, The China Threat, Out of Mao’s Shadow, Can China Lead?, and China, Inc.. A close friend suggested I read China Road as the best book written by a Westerner (Bob Gifford), which captures the spirit of China in transition. Retired Silicon Valley business executives also shared their experiences, opinions, and unpublished memoirs so I could better understand both the draw of Silicon Valley to the Chinese scientists, as well as its dangers with today’s heightened xenophobia.
Throughout my readings I ran across so many idioms and sayings that I decided to develop the favorite Chinese phrase “You can’t wrap fire with paper” into a thematic statement for the character Han Mai. It depicts both her aristocratic fervor to protect the status quo and the passions of changing China’s freedom-seeking populous.
I delved into the online transcripts of Congressional hearings testimony on lifting business restrictions on Silicon Valley technology companies pushing to do business with China; unsolved hacking incidents; slave trade trafficking; and from political refugees held prisoner for years on end.
Other friends told stories of their outrage of imprisoned family members and the government’s strict expectations of the shamed families. One friend barely escaped the massacre at Tiananmen Square, and only because her fiancée’s father worked high enough in the government to anticipate the showdown. He ordered her safely into the country the day before. Another’s mother was a doctor and herbalist, whose job included performing forced abortions on women who were pregnant with a second child, the policy up until recently when it expanded to a permitted two children.
For instructions on the language itself, I relied on a fellow writer who grew up dirt poor in Maoist China and then emigrated to California, leaving behind family and returning only for visits. She helped with the exact spelling of the simple Chinese words used in my dialog (hello, thank you, Auntie) as well as appropriate colloquialisms. For example, I originally used the word “bitch” in the dialog of one older Chinese woman describing the antics of young, flirtatious Kay. She corrected me, saying there is no such word. Instead, I needed to use “whore.” Surprised at the translation and her insistence, but wanting to strike the right tone, I complied, even though there is a definitely a difference in the English words.
And, of course, I searched YouTube videos of public places and notable destinations, shopping districts, and landmarks in Beijing. An interesting aside—while Beijing became the official spelling of the capital of China years ago, Peking University kept its old spelling, since its academic reputation under that name had already been established in the West.