With four books that have all been on the New York Times Bestseller list, the author of “Joy Luck Club,” Amy Tan, is now sharing her personal journey in life with readers. In her first nonfiction book titled, “The Opposite of Fate: A Book of Musings,” Tan contemplates how things happen — in her own life and beyond — always returning to the question of fate and its opposites: the choices, charms, influences, attitudes, and lucky accidents that shape us all. She discusses the book on “Today.” Read an excerpt below.
FATE AND FAITH My mother believed in God’s will for many years. It was as if she had turned on a celestial faucet and goodness kept pouring out. She said it was faith that kept all these good things coming our way, only I thought she said “fate,” because she couldn’t pronounce that “th” sound in “faith.”
And later, I discovered that maybe it was fate all along, that faith was just an illusion that somehow you’re in control. I found out the most I could have was hope, and with that I was not denying any possibility, good or bad. I was just saying, If there is a choice, dear God or whatever you are, here’s where the odds should be placed.
“The Joy Luck Club”
The Cliffsnotes version of my life
Soon after my first book was published, I found myself often confronted with the subject of my mortality. I remember being asked by a young woman what I did for a living. “I’m an author,” I said with proud new authority.
“A contemporary author?” she wanted to know.
And being newly published at the time, I had to think for a moment before I realized that if I were not contemporary I would be the alternative, which is, of course, dead.
Since then I have preferred to call myself a writer. A writer writes — she writes in the present progressive tense. Whereas an author, unless she is clearly said to be “contemporary,” is in the past tense, someone who once wrote, someone who no longer has to sharpen her pencil, so to speak. To me, the word author is as chilling as rigor mortis, and I shudder when I hear myself introduced as such when I lecture at universities. This is probably due to the fact that when I was an English major at a university, all the authors I read were, sad to say, not contemporary.
What compels ardent readers of my work to ask me questions concerning my time-limited authorhood? In lecture halls and on live radio shows, I have been stunned by questions as deadly as these: “What would you like written on your tombstone?” “Which book would you like people to remember you by?” “Does it make you feel honored that your books probably will be in circulation at the library long after you’re gone?”
I don’t find those questions nearly as appalling as this one: “Are you loaded?” which is what a nine-year-old girl in Nashville once asked me at a book signing. I wondered whether the child might have just come from a school program on crime prevention or substance abuse and was now worried that all adults carried loaded weapons or were loaded on drugs. I said to her gently, “What kind of loaded are you worried about?”
“You know,” the girl snapped, “loaded like filthy rich.” I glanced over to her mother, expecting that she would reprimand her daughter. And the mother looked right at me and said, “Well, are you?”
I’ve grown accustomed to public scrutiny. Yet nothing prepared me for what I consider the ultimate reminder of an author’s mortality. It happened when I was at yet another bookstore, about to give yet another reading. I was waiting in the wings, as the store manager delivered a long introduction on my credentials as an author. Glancing to my side, I saw a wire book rack crammed with cheap and familiar booklets. They were CliffsNotes, self-proclaimed as “your key to the classics.”
As we all know, CliffsNotes have served as the midnight salvation of many a literature student, and if the sad truth be known, this former honors English major used them to write incisive papers on — dare I say it? — Ulysses, Lord Jim, and Hamlet.
Imagine: There I was, in a bookstore, recalling these past sins, about to read from my own published work. I gave a silent apology to my fellow authors Jim Joyce, Joe Conrad, and Bill Shakespeare, may they rest in peace. And then my eyes landed on another familiar title: “The Joy Luck Club.” I stared at those CliffsNotes, thinking to myself, But I’m not dead yet.
I flipped through the pages and found an obituary-like biography of the author, me, Amy Tan. I was shocked to learn that I once had carried on “a relationship with an older German man, who had close contacts with drug dealers and organized crime.”
Could this possibly be describing my Franz? True, he was older than I was, twenty-two years to my sixteen when we met. And yes, he was friends with a couple of Canadian hippies who sold hashish, but I don’t remember them being that organized about it. Whatever the case, does my personal history of having once dated a loser constitute the sort of information needed by “serious students,” as Cliff refers to them? Will this make them “secure in the knowledge that they have a basic understanding of the work”?
In page after chilling page, I saw that my book had been hacked apart, autopsied, and permanently embalmed into chapter-by-chapter blow-by-blows: plot summaries, genealogy charts, and-ai-ya!-even Chinese horoscopes. Further in, I was impressed to learn of all the clever nuances I’d apparently embedded into the phrase “invisible strength,” which is what a mother in the book taught her chess-playing daughter, Waverly. According to Cliff, I meant for “invisible strength” to refer to the “human will,” as well as to represent “female power” and “the power of foreigners.” It was amazing what I had accomplished.
The truth is, I borrowed that phrase from my mother, who used to say something like it to me whenever I was whining out loud. She’d say, “Fang pi bu-cho, cho pi bu-fang,” which is commonly uttered by Chinese parents, and which translates approximately to: “There’s more power in silence.”
What my mother intended that I understand, however, was precisely this: “No one wants to hear you make a big stink over nothing, so shut up.” The strict linguist might want to note that the literal translation of that Chinese phrase runs along these noble lines: “Loud farts don’t smell, the really smelly ones are deadly silent.”
Anyway, that’s the sort of literary symbolism I use with phrases like “invisible strength” — not the sort of analysis you find in CliffsNotes, I might add.
At the end of the booklet was a list of questions. I read one: “Which daughter in the book is most like Amy Tan? Why?” What luck. This very question was often asked of me in interviews, and I had never known what to say. Here in my quaking hands, just one page turn away, was the definitive answer. But one page later, I discovered these were just discussion questions, no answers were given, and thus I was left to ponder my existential angst in the usual fashion.
In spite of my initial shock, I admit that I am perversely honored to be in CliffsNotes. Look at me: I’m sitting in the $4.95 bookstore bleachers along with Shakespeare, Conrad, and Joyce. Now, I’m not saying that I’ve reached their same literary status. I acknowledge there is a fundamental difference that separates us. I am a contemporary author and they are not. And since I’m not dead yet, I can talk back.
One of the problems of being a contemporary author is that you are confronted with frequent opportunities to see what people have written about you in the way of reviews, profiles, or student theses. It’s all rather appalling. Good, bad, or ugly, there before your very eyes is an analysis of you, your intentions, and the deeper, more subterranean meanings of your books-say, the dichotomy between two cultures and two generations, or the sociopolitical concerns of immigration and assimilation-the subject matter that makes you sound high-minded when, really, your reasons for writing were more haphazard and personal.
The truth is, when I write, I begin with a simple question: How do things happen? Early in life, what I thought about that affected what I should hope. And in my family, there were two pillars of beliefs: Christian faith on my father’s side, Chinese fate on my mother’s. Picture these two ideologies as you might the goalposts of a soccer field, faith at one end, fate at the other, and me running between them trying to duck whatever dangerous missile had been launched in the air.
My father’s faith had been nurtured by his family. He was born in 1913, the oldest of twelve children, to a mother who was a Chinese traditional healer and a father who was a Presbyterian minister. My grandfather Hugh Tan had been converted by missionaries in Canton and educated in their English-speaking schools. His education was so thoroughly Western that he could read and write English before he could his native tongue of Cantonese. He wrote me a letter once, shortly before he died of a stroke in Shanghai. His English was impeccable, and he prefaced his remarks with Christian feeling: “We thank the good Lord we are still in good health.”
The Christian influence ran so deep and strong in the Tan family that all twelve children became evangelists of one sort or another. My father was a latecomer to the ministry, but at the age of thirty-four, he suffered a crisis of morals. A few years earlier, he had fallen in love with a beautiful woman who was unhappily married and had three young children. They started an affair, which led to the woman’s being thrown in jail for adultery. Shortly afterward, my father left China for the United States, where he had been offered a scholarship to study at MIT.
Upon arriving in San Francisco, he lived at a YMCA and joined the First Chinese Baptist Church on Waverly Street. At night, he wrote in a black leather diary, and sometimes he pondered his sins and weaknesses. He and the woman had committed adultery. Now the woman was being punished in jail, while he was in San Francisco taking square-dancing lessons. Oh, the terrible inequity of it all. He berated himself until God answered with an epiphany that he should devote himself to saving others. He gave up his scholarship to MIT, and joined the ministry by enrolling in the Berkeley Baptist Divinity School.
For the rest of his life, my father would place his faith in God to provide the right answers. His faith was absolute. Among most people I know, a bit of wiggle room is expected in how your prayers might be answered. You might pray, for instance, for the love of your life, and God will land you a volunteer position at the local animal shelter, where saving animals becomes the love of your life. God, like your parents, Santa Claus, and perhaps your psychiatrist or editor, knows best how to funnel your desires into more likely and beneficial outcomes.
But my father’s faith, as I said, was absolute. Through God’s prayer he could be granted exactly what he wanted. He prayed that his sweetheart be freed, and sure enough, she was released from prison. Then she cabled my father and asked whether he wanted her to come to America. Shanghai would soon be taken over by the Communists, and his answer had to be now or never.
According to family lore, he immediately cabled her back, saying, “Yes, come!” Yet I imagine he must have taken a few minutes or even hours to weigh his obligation to her and his future obligations to the ministry. Could he marry the woman with whom he had committed adultery? Could he, a moral example to his flock, bear to be reminded of their sin for the rest of his life? And what would his parishioners think if his wife was a divorced woman? And how could she, his pampered beloved, who was accustomed to servants, to a sable coat, to smoking cigarettes, take on the austere existence of a poor minister’s wife? I imagine him praying for God to “shine Your answer upon my face.”
He may have turned to God also for guidance on how to break the news of his impending marriage to the young women friends he escorted to church picnics and on private outings. Lucky for me, he documented those friendships well. He was an amateur photographer who prized his Rollei and spent hours in the darkroom. He liked to pose his subjects, telling them to lean against a wall and tilt their head up toward the sunlight, to drape an arm over a wooden rail and cross their ankles and point their toes-the same directions he would give me when I was a child. The photos were meticulously pasted into an album, which I would later peruse. Some of the pages, however, had no photos inserted in the black corner tabs. The photos had been removed and discreetly placed in a shoe box, which I also found — such as the close-up of a young woman lying in the grass, another one artfully running her fingers along her feet, encased in small embroidered shoes. There was nothing lewd about these poses, nothing to suggest that this outing was more than a simple photography shoot. Yet the expression in their eyes is pure adoration. I sense them holding their breath in anticipation as my father looks at them through the viewfinder.
What do they see? He is handsome, a snazzy dresser. He knows exactly what words to say to put them at ease. He is more than your basic nice guy. Despite the fact that he is a an impoverished student at the divinity school, he is a good catch: a superb dancer, a witty conversationalist, a man given to romantic gestures and eternal pledges, plus he is about to become a minister, a man who will be certifiably of the highest morals, greatly respected, a leader. In the summer of 1949, when the minister of his church announced to the congregation that John Tan’s bride-to-be was coming from China, several young women gasped and fled the church hall in tears.
From time to time, I have wondered how I might have turned out had my father married one of these other women. They were single, had unencumbered pasts — no sociopathic husbands or wailing abandoned daughters in the background. They were also college-educated and spoke English as well as any other American. I must have met them among the various aunties who attended the same church for more than fifty years: accomplished, kind, levelheaded women now in their seventies and eighties.
My father sent the cable saying, “Yes, come!” to the woman who would be my mother, the Shanghai divorcée who had just been released from prison. And that was how my mother came to the United States and married my father. It was God’s will and some other woman’s bad luck.
According to my mother, though, God had less to do with it than fate. Consider how she and my father met, she would remind me. It was around 1941, during the war. She was on a boat, making her way to the city where her husband, a Kuomintang army pilot, was based. My father and his brother were on that same boat. She and my father chatted in a friendly way. They were attracted to each other, although they did not acknowledge this. The boat docked a few days later, and they went their separate ways.
That right there could have been the end of the egg and the sperm that would have made me. Instead four years passed. The war ended. My mother by then had tried numerous times to leave her abusive husband. “That bad man” was how she always referred to him. That bad man once put a gun to her head to force her to sign fake divorce papers. She gladly did this, no gun to her head was necessary, but immediately after she signed, he raped her.
Meanwhile, my father was gadding about in some other part of China, happily single. Many a pushy Chinese mother tried to engage his interest in her daughter. One mother had three daughters, all of them beautiful, talented, and photogenic. I saw the pictures. Because of his excellent language skills in English, Cantonese, and Mandarin, my father was able to work for the U.S. Information Service. He wore a U.S. Army uniform and visited local newspaper stalls and bookshops, gathering any magazines or reports that made mention of the United States, good or bad. One of my uncles told me that my father was recruited by the United States to be a spy. He also said my father used to smoke and drink and was quite the playboy in China. My mother laughed off those assertions. (To this day I wonder who was right. What about the visa to the United States that I found among my father’s belongings? It said he was already married. Did he have another wife? Will I one day receive a letter announcing: “Surprise! I am your long-lost sister. Your other seven sisters and I arrive tomorrow and will stay at your house for a month or two, unless you would like us to visit longer....”)
But let us go back to 1945 and assume my mother’s version of the story is true. My father, now in his early thirties, is still single. He is working in Tientsin, in the north, thousands of miles from the southwestern river where he and my mother first met. My mother happens to be in Tientsin visiting her brother and sister-in-law, who are working underground for the Communists. She is going up the street the very moment my father is coming in the opposite direction. They bump into each other. They confess it was instant love when they met four years before, because that love has only grown stronger all this time they have been missing each other.
This was not chance that they met twice, my mother would tell me whenever she recounted this story. It was fate. Love proved that it was. So that is how I was born to a mother with a convoluted secret past. I became the daughter of a woman who believed I was part of her fate.
Thanks to my mother, I was raised to have a morbid imagination. When I was a child, she often talked about death as warning, as an unavoidable matter of fact. Little Debbie’s mom down the block might say, “Honey, look both ways before crossing the street.” My mother’s version: “You don’t look, you get smash flat like sand dab.” (Sand dabs were the cheap fish we bought live in the market, distinguished in my mind by their two eyes affixed on one side of their woebegone cartoon faces.)
The warnings grew worse, depending on the danger at hand. Sex education, for example, consisted of the following advice: “Don’t ever let boy kiss you. You do, you can’t stop. Then you have baby. You put baby in garbage can. Police find you, put you in jail, then you life over, better just kill youself.”
The consequences of not heeding my mother’s advice were grave. When I was six years old, she took me to the funeral of my playmate Rachel from down the street. As I stared at Rachel’s sunken eyes, her bloodless hands crossed over a Bible, my mother whispered to me: “This what happen you don’t listen to mother.” My mother went on to say that Rachel died because she had not washed her fruit-a health precaution I ignored too often. (Years later, when pesticides on fruit were proven to cause cancer, I learned that my mother’s warning had not been off base after all.)
I remember a day not too long after Rachel died, when I was sitting on the piano bench, sulking. My mother was scolding me for not practicing enough, for being lazy. She went on and on about how much the lessons with Miss Towler cost, how Daddy had to work overtime. And for what-so she could listen to me make the same mistakes? She then posed an important question: “What you rather do: play piano and become famous, or play outside and become nobody?” Guess what I said.
She was quiet for a moment and then said, “Okay, go play.” As I happily slid off the bench, I heard her mutter that from now on I could do whatever I wanted. She would no longer tell me what to do. If I didn’t want to play the piano, fine. “Forever no more obey,” she said. “Don’t matter. Soon, maybe tomorrow, next day, I dead anyway.”
By then, I knew what dead meant, or at least what it looked like. But I didn’t yet know that my mother’s mother had killed herself in 1925. I didn’t know that my mother had seen this happen, when she was nine years old, that thereafter she would see suicide as the answer to any kind of unhappiness, that she would routinely threaten to die, sometimes weekly, sometimes daily, whenever she was displeased with me or my father or my brothers, whenever she felt slighted by her friends, whenever the milk spilled or the rice burned. I didn’t know that later her emotional terrorism would alternate between threats to kill herself or return to China and that this would lead me to think that China, like death, was an unpleasant place to go. On that day at the piano, when I was six and she first mentioned she was going to die soon, all I knew was fear.
Because of my mother’s moods, I lived in a state of high suspense. I often thought about death, about Rachel being lifeless, about my mother’s promise that soon she would be too. I also pictured in my mind the rat my father had recently shown us wide-eyed kids in the middle of the night: the rodent’s bloody body smashed in the trap, black eyes bulging. “See,” my mother had soothed, “now you no longer be scared what will eat you.” Until then, we had imagined the rat in our house resembled a cheery creature like Mickey Mouse.
Since death was on my mind a lot as a child, I naturally wondered about ghosts as well. In our house, we had two kinds. First, there was the one we could talk about in front of others; that would be the Holy Ghost. My father, after all, was an ordained Baptist minister. True, by the mid-1950s he had returned to electrical engineering so he could make a living wage, but his avocation was still the ministry, and he encouraged daily devotion in the family. We children were taught to believe the Holy Ghost sat at our dinner table and ate Chinese food. We laid out chopsticks and a bowl for our unseen guest at every meal.
The second kind of ghost belonged to my mother. These ghosts were Chinese. We were not supposed to talk about them, because they were bad, of a different religion, and were specifically banned by the laws of the Holy Ghost. Yet they were there. I could sense them. My mother told me I could. One time when I was about four, I remember, she ordered me to go to the bathroom to brush my teeth and wash my face. Guests had arrived and I didn’t want to go to bed, so I said, “I can’t go in there.”
Why, my mother demanded to know.
“I’m scared,” I lied.
“There’s a ghost in there.”
Like most mothers might do, she grabbed my hand firmly and guided me to the bathroom. Most mothers would have flipped on the light switch and said, “See, there are no ghosts here-now brush your teeth.” My mother stood at the doorway and said in a voice tinged with hope and excitement: “Where are they? Show me.”
Much to my distress, for the rest of her life she continued to believe I had a talent for seeing ghosts. When I was older, she recalled this same bathroom incident: “I never teach you this word ‘ghost.’ So must be true. You see ghost!” It didn’t matter that I insisted I could not see or hear or feel anything. She thought it admirable that I was lying to protect my invisible friends.
She had other proof that the ghosts came to me: the fact that I knew things I wasn’t supposed to know. I don’t remember what I said or did to her to make her think this. Perhaps it was the way I said a certain name. Or maybe it was my likes and dislikes of a certain dish she cooked. My mannerisms, my preferences, my tone of voice were exactly that of someone else-that person being dead, and having died in mysterious circumstances. My mother believed in reincarnation and she believed I was someone from her past, a woman she had obviously wronged. Why else had I come back as her daughter to torment her so?
I did not want to think of myself as a dead person. But I was also afraid to contradict my mother, for that would send her tumbling into one of her pitch-black moods, those times when she threatened to kill herself. I had already seen her try-as when she opened the car door while we were zooming down the freeway and my father had to yank her back. I was afraid that if my mother died, I would then see a real ghost.
These were matters I could not talk about with my father. I adored him, and he adored me, but he also both adored and feared my mother. He was much more easygoing than she, and not easily riled. He told multilingual jokes and roused friends into singing after dinner. He read bedtime stories to me and my brothers with great expression. He did the Reader’s Digest “Word Power” quiz with me, making it seem the most fun a body could have. He read his sermons to me so I could serve as his best critic. He showed me his engineering homework when he was studying for his master’s, as though I could instantly absorb the intricacies of symbols and formulas. He was hardworking and loved his work, which went on seven days a week. He was an engineer, a volunteer minister, a graduate student, and the entrepreneur of an electronics business he conducted in our family room, winding electromagnetic transformers the size of LifeSavers. Only twice that I recall did he take time off, and then for only a few days, to go with us to Disneyland and Knott’s Berry Farm, and he still managed to perform a wedding along the way and visit an electronics firm that might be interested in buying the transformers he built in his “spare” time.
As smart and strong as he was, he always gave in to my mother’s demands. That meant that every six to twelve months we had to move to another house. Whenever my mother became unhappy, she wanted to move. And once she locked on to an idea, she could not let it go, until her unhappiness permeated the entire house and she made us ill with her nonstop complaints.
By the time I graduated from high school, I had attended eleven schools. I had learned to lose friends, to remain the loner until I finally found new ones. Each time I started at a school, I had to sit back quietly for the first month or so and observe who was popular, who was not, who was smart, who was the smartass. I had to show my new teachers that I was a good student, that I knew how to draw realistically. But I also knew not to do anything to stand out in any other way, lest I join the ranks of the pariahs. I understood that I had to be a chameleon to survive, that I should fit in quietly, and watch.
In hindsight, I see that this was excellent training for a budding writer. It sharpened my skills of observation. It deepened my sense of alienation, which, while not a prerequisite for a writer, is certainly useful as an impetus for writing. Many of the great novels of our time are based on alienated narrators. And yet I hated those feelings of loneliness. I cried every time my father announced that we were moving. He may have prayed to God for general direction in his life, but he received the specifics from my mother to move to Oakland, Hayward, Santa Rosa, Palo Alto, Santa Clara, Sunnyvale.
Throughout my father’s life, he remained devoted to his beliefs in God the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. He practiced what he preached. He tithed ten percent. He didn’t smoke or drink or say “gee,” “gosh,” or “golly.” He prayed when he became impatient or lost his temper. He practiced charity to others. He made me feel good for giving away my best dolls to my poor cousins in Taiwan, the same cousins who today are millionaires. My father put his life in God’s hands, and he encouraged us, his children, to believe that if we had absolute faith, God would take care of the rest. Miracles would happen.
About ten years ago, I found some of my father’s diaries. In one of his last entries, written at the end of May 1967, he stated that he still firmly believed that God would grant him a miracle and save his sixteen-year-old son from dying of a brain tumor. He had absolute faith. By my father’s own handwritten definition: “Faith is the confident assurance that something we want is going to happen. It is the certainty that what we hope for is waiting for us even though we still cannot see it ahead of us.”
He wrote this less than two months before my brother Peter died, and shortly after, he stopped writing. But this was due to loss of ability rather than loss of faith. By then, my father couldn’t hold a pen well enough to comment on the strange coincidence that he too, the father of the son who had become a ghost, had been stricken with a brain tumor.
From “The Opposite of Fate: A Book of Musings” by Amy Tan, copyright © 2003 Amy Tan, published by G. P. Putnam’s Sons, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., all rights reserved, reprinted with permission from the publisher.