Fifth Chinese Daughter, first published in 1945, was one of the first memoirs by a Chinese-American. Wong chose to write in third person, rather than first person, because of Chinese habit, as she explains: “The submergence of the individual is literally practiced. In written Chinese, prose or poetry, the word ‘I’ almost never appears, but is understood” (p. xiii).

The third person point of view gives the memoir a formal feel, yet Wong’s simple, direct language is very accessible. In some ways, the book reminded me of the “Little House” books by Laura Ingalls Wilder (also written in third person), partly because Wong spends a lot of time describing the food and customs she grew up around, and also because she gets to the heart of the matter in a succinct, simple, authentic way.

I thoroughly enjoyed the hours I spent reading this book. I read it slowly, savoring each anecdote of this honest and in some ways charming coming-of-age story. As a child, Wong frequently puzzled over the differences between her home life in San Francisco’s Chinatown, where her parents owned a home-based garment factory, and the wider American world. Wong tells of her realization that the very strict upbringing of her home, devoid of outward expressions of love, was not the norm in mainstream American society. When little Jade Snow got hurt at school, her teacher comforted her by holding her close and wiping away her tears: “It was a very strange feeling to be held to a grown-up foreign lady’s bosom,” Wong recalls (p. 20).

Wong was an obedient daughter: she did well in both American public school, and evening Chinese school. However, when she realized that, although her parents funded her older brother’s college education, they had no plans to pay for college for her, she began to break away from the Chinese culture she’d grown up with. As she worked her way through college, she claimed individuality and freedom for herself, daring to go out with a boyfriend without her parents’ permission.

After college, Wong decided to make a living as a potter, an unheard-of profession for a Chinese-American girl. Undaunted, she set about finding a place to rent in Chinatown. Although many in Chinatown thought she was crazy, she was pleased that her father expressed his support by giving her a small motor to run her pottery wheel.

She ended up becoming well known for her vases, bowls, and mugs. Her obituary in the San Francisco Chronicle includes a lovely photo of her working at her pottery wheel.

I was curious to read Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother because of all the media attention it has received. Chua argues that Chinese mothers (and Asian mothers in general) manage to raise successful children by being very strict and demanding. Chua would not allow her two daughters to have play dates or sleepovers, or choose their own after-school activities. She even rejected shoddy handmade birthday cards.

I wondered if I would I find Chua’s method of child-rearing as outrageous and distasteful as it seemed from the articles I’d read, or if the book would prove to be more nuanced and culturally enlightening.

Chua acknowledges that she wants the best of both worlds for her children: she wants them to be successful academically, AND to have hobbies. But her approach to hobbies was to choose her children’s musical instrument (either piano or violin) and to insist they practice for hours each day.

The book turned out to be more about Chua and her family, than about Asian parenting. Even Chua’s parents felt she was going too far at times — for example, when she insisted that her children practice their instruments for hours even when they were on vacation.

After reading the book, I seriously questioned Chua’s sanity. What sane mother would delay her child’s dinner for hours in order to make her practice music? What sane mother would yell at her child for hours when the child refused to comply?

As it turns out, Chua did back down with her second daughter and allowed her to start playing tennis (the daughter’s choice) instead of putting so many hours into music. And while writing this memoir, Chua says she had her children and husband read and comment on everything.

Her daughters have become very successful academically and musically. Still, I wondered whether the children had felt abused, or whether they thought their mother was crazy. As far as I can tell (from doing a quick web search), the daughters have a good relationship with their mother. Sophia, the older daughter (now at Harvard), has her own blog.

Chua’s book raises some interesting points about how strict a parent should be. I was raised by parents from India, and they certainly expected good grades and respect for elders. I, in turn, watch my sons’ grades carefully and honestly I am not happy with a B+.

Still, I do believe that all children come to earth with their own gifts and their own path in life, and my goal is to help my kids find their own path–not to choose something for them. By force-feeding her children her own agenda, I fear that Chua may have prevented them from finding their own true path. Yet she also has a good point that, without a strong work ethic, a child may not be able to succeed at anything, even if they do find their passion.

I was afraid Of Beetles and Angels would be really horrifying and sad, given that it is about a boy who walked out of war-torn Ethiopia at the age of 3, spent several years in a refugee camp in Sudan, and then grew up poor in Chicago.

Instead, this memoir for young adults is full of hope. It is even full of fun and laughter. Mawi doesn’t dwell on the horrors of being a refugee (perhaps because he doesn’t remember them well). Instead, he talks about the mischief he and his friends got into in the refugee camp. One time Mawi was curious about whether he really could let the air out of a tire by pressing the air nozzle with a sharp stone. He tried it on a tractor, and lo and behold, it worked! The owner of the tractor was not happy.

He was reunited with his father in the refugee camp, and eventually the whole family was helped by World Relief, a U.S. Christian organization, to leave Sudan and resettle in Chicago. The title refers to advice his father gave him when they started their new life in the U.S. His father advised the family to always treat strangers kindly, even when they looked like “beetles” (beggars or misfits), because “they could be angels, given to us by God to test the deepest sentiments in our hearts” (p. 29).

In Chicago, Mawi and his siblings had to defend themselves against taunts and beatings by some classmates. Nevertheless, they eventually made friends, and sometimes got into serious mischief with these friends, such as the time they managed to knock down and steal a parking meter. They were almost caught by police.

Despite the mischief, Mawi did very well in school, and his counselors encouraged him to apply to the best colleges in the country. He hesitated at first, because his family was so poor, but finally decided to apply to eight top schools. He received scholarship offers from several, and he chose Harvard.

The memoir essentially ends with his acceptance to Harvard, although we do learn that he graduated cum laude and delivered the commencement address (which is printed in the book).

Ironically, the two saddest events in the book happened not in Ethiopia or in Sudan, but in the U.S.: the deaths of his older brother and his father, who were both killed by drunk drivers.

The book includes photos and Ethiopian recipes. While the memoir does discuss the political situation that led to his refugee status, that information is woven into the story of a boy who wants to have fun and do well in life despite challenges.

Mawi is currently an inspirational speaker. His web site is

I laughed out loud while reading both of these books of autobiographical vignettes. Firoozeh Dumas was born in Iran and arrived in the U.S. with her family at the age of seven. She chronicles funny and sometimes poignant incidents as she and her family find their way among two cultures.

Funny in Farsi: A Memoir of Growing Up Iranian in America (first published 2003)

In these 26 short essays, Dumas regales us with tales of her family’s adventures with the English language, with well-meaning people who have no idea where Iran is or even how to pronounce it, and with their excursions to Disney Land, where the author manages to get lost.

Her trip to Paris, her wedding (to a Frenchman), and even her nose, are all rich fodder for her merriment. She even manages to inject humor into the time she and her family nearly got beaten up by anti-Shah demonstrators in Washington, DC.

One essay titled “The ‘F word'” dealt with the various mispronunciations of the author’s first name. “My name, Firoozeh, chosen by my mother, means ‘Turquoise’ in Farsi. In America, it means ‘Unpronounceable” or ‘I’m not going to talk to you Because I Cannot Possibly Learn Your Name and I Just Don’t Want to Have to Ask You Again and Again Because You’ll Think I’m Dumb or You Might Get Upset or Something” (p. 63) She has been called “ferocious” and “fritzy.” For a time she changed her name to “Julie.”

With a name like “Jyotsna” I could really relate. I’ve been called “Yotsna” and “goat’s milk” and “Jocasta.” I usually tell new acquaintances to call me “Jo.” (By the way, you can hear me pronounce my name at

Laughing Without an Accent: Adventures of a Global Citizen (first published 2008)

I think the funniest piece in this book is called “Seeing Red,” which is about a misadventure with a red quilt. Shortly after her marriage, the author’s mother gives Dumas and her husband a bright-red quilt, which Dumas and her husband pretend to love to spare her mother’s feelings. In an effort to get rid of it, Dumas washes it in hot water every week for six months, so that she can honestly tell her mother that the quilt had worn out. I won’t tell you how this ends — you’ll have to read it yourself.

Not all of the 28 vignettes in this book are funny. The last piece in the book, “444 Days,” recounts some time Dumas spent with Kathryn Koob, a survivor of the Iranian hostage crisis. Koob and Dumas exchanged books, and Dumas visited Koob in her home state of Iowa. Dumas was very moved by the fact that Koob harbored no hatred towards Iranians, despite her ordeal.

Since the publication of her first book, Dumas has accepted speaking engagements for the purpose of “reminding us that our commonalities far outweigh our differences,” according to her web site,

Both of these books would be great companion reads with the short story collection My Name is Aram by William Saroyan (which I reviewed in an earlier post). Both are about children of immigrants from the Middle East. Saroyan’s book was first published in 1940.

My new novel, And Laughter Fell from the Sky, is a love story and a story about searching for one’s path in life. It has been described as “a witty, timely exploration of the varying definitions of success, belonging, cultural identity, and the human desire to connect” (according to a review in Booklist). My intention was to write an entertaining novel with interesting characters who had things to learn, and to explore some of the issues faced by second generation Americans. Although this book is not at all autobiographical, still I am very familiar with the pressures and conflicts the characters face as a result of trying to straddle two cultures.

Here are some reviews:

Here are some Reading Group questions.

I’m interested to see how readers of immigrant and second generation literature react to this novel. Feel free to leave a comment.

I’ve been aware for years that William Saroyan was a well-known author, but I’d never read any of his work, and until I began putting this web site together I didn’t realize he was second-generation Armenian-American. He lived from 1908 to 1981, and was a prolific writer of short stories, novels, and plays. He was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1940 for his play The Time of Your Life, but he refused to accept it.

I chose to read the linked short-story collection My Name Is Aram(published 1940) because, first of all, it is considered Saroyan’s best work, and second of all, I was captivated from the first line of the first story, “The Summer of the Beautiful White Horse”: “One day back there in the good old days when I was nine and the world was full of every imaginable kind of magnificence, and life was still a delightful and mysterious dream, my cousin Mourad, who was considered crazy by everybody who knew him except me, came to my house at four in the morning and woke me up by tapping on the window of my room.”

Each story features the child Aram as narrator and protagonist. The stories are light and funny for the most part, following Aram as he helps an uncle plant pomegranate trees in the desert, and is bribed into singing in the Presbyterian church (although he is Catholic), and attempts to escape the truant officer in order to hang out at the circus.

These stories don’t dwell on the kind of cultural angst that we might expect from a second-generation writer of today. Instead, details such as the fact that Aram speaks Armenian at home, that he has dusky skin and black hair, and that he and his family are poor, are woven into the stories without a lot of fanfare.

Occasionally a story hints at the sorrows and regrets of the adult world, as in “The Poor and Burning Arab,” about a silent Arab who hangs out at Aram’s house, presumably because he misses his family back home, and Armenians are as close to Arabs as he could find.

I enjoyed every one of the 14 stories in this collection.

In her introduction to Anzia Yezierska’s novel Salome of the Tenements, Gay Wilentz describes Yezierska as the “author of semifictional autobiography and semiautobiographical fiction” (p. x).

Yezierska is best known for her novels and short stories, which draw heavily from her life. The book she termed “autobiography,” Red Ribbon on a White Horse, was in fact fictionalized.

Like Sara Smolinsky, the protagonist of her best-known novel, Bread Givers, Yezierska was a Jew from Poland. She and her siblings had to work from a young age because her father, a Hebrew scholar, believed that the women and children of the family were obliged to support him in his study.

Yezierska learned to write by attending night school as an adult, after working all day in a laundry. She then went to Columbia Teachers College. Her first story collection Hungry Hearts (1920) was made into a silent movie, as was her first novel, Salome of the Tenements.

Yezierska’s writing style is passionate and headlong. When I read her work, I feel like I am swept along in the flood of her thoughts and emotions. There is perhaps a lack of subtlety in the scene setting and characterization at times, but this is made up for by the power of her simple, strong prose and fast moving action.

Here is an example from Bread Givers: “And then it flashed to me. The story from the Sunday paper. A girl–slaving away in the shop. Her hair was already turning gray, and nothing had ever happened to her. Then suddenly she began to study in the night school, then college. And worked and studied, on and on, until she became a teacher in the schools. A school teacher–I! I saw myself sitting back like a lady at my desk, the children, their eyes on me, watching and waiting for me to call out the different ones to the board, to spell a word, or to answer me a question. It was like looking up to the top of the highest skyscraper while down in the gutter” (p. 155).

Hungry Hearts (first published 1920) — A collection of short stories about Jewish immigrants living in the Lower East Side of New York City. Whereas all of Yezierska’s novels are told in the first person, some of her short stories feature a third person narrator.

Salome of the Tenements (first published 1923) — An exuberant, funny, poignant novel that deals with class issues. A poor young woman in the Jewish ghetto of New York City falls in love with a millionaire philanthropist. Once she marries him, both of them are in for a real education.

Children of Loneliness (first published 1923) — A second collection of short stories about Jews in the Lower East Side. This collection is no longer in print, but you can find the stories in her Collected Stories, pictured above.

Bread Givers (first published 1925) — Sara Smolinsky and her three older sisters grow up working to support their father, a rabbi who studies all day. After she witnesses her three sisters trapped into loveless marriages arranged by their father, Sara manages to escape her father’s influence, and educate herself. I’ve read this book twice, and I love it.

Arrogant Beggar (first published 1927) — Adele Lindner thinks she has found heaven when she is accepted to live in the Hellman Home for Working Girls, backed by philanthropist Mrs. Hellman. However, Adele discovers the hypocrisy behind rich people with philanthropic interests.

All I Could Never Be (first published 1932) — This is similar to Salome of the Tenements in that it is about a poor ghetto young woman who is mesmerized by a wealthy philanthropist. However, whereas Salome of the Tenements has a compelling plot, this novel falls flat. I didn’t get very far into it before I decided to abandon it. This book is no longer in print.

Red Ribbon on a White Horse: My Story (first published 1950) — Although this collection of essays is billed “autobiography,” it in fact fictionalizes many incidences of Yezierska’s life. She writes about her experiences in Hollywood in the early 1920s, as well as her financial difficulties during the Great Depression. I found this collection compelling and fascinating.

The Open Cage: An Anzia Yezierska Collection — This collection of writings, published after Yezierska’s death, includes some never-before-published stories she wrote in her old age.

I first read the Asian-American classic The Woman Warrior by Maxine Hong Kingston in my early twenties. Although the subtitle of the book is “a memoir of a girlhood among ghosts,” there is quite a bit of fiction and myth included in this book.

Until a few weeks ago, I believed this was the first book by a second-generation author that I had ever read. In my years of high school and college in the late 1970s and 1980s, my reading consisted largely of white American and European authors, with an African-American author thrown in once in a while.

On the surface, Kingston’s life is very different from my own: her parents are from China, mine are from India; she spoke Chinese at home while we spoke mostly English at home; her parents ran a laundry and struggled financially; my father was a doctor and we were well off. Still, I empathized strongly with Kingston’s experiences growing up with immigrant parents from Asia.

I related to Kingston’s question in the first section of the book: “Chinese-Americans, when you try to understand what things in you are Chinese, how do you separate what is peculiar to childhood, to poverty, insanities, one family, your mother who marked your growing with stories, from what is Chinese? What is Chinese tradition and what is the movies?” (pp. 5-6). If I replaced the words “Chinese Americans” with “Indian Americans,” I had those same questions.

I especially related to the section “At the Western Palace,” in which the aunt and mother from China have such different impressions of America and American behavior than do the American-born children. When the aunt gives gifts which the children accept and enjoy, the mother thinks, “How greedy to play with presents in front of the giver. How impolite (‘untraditional’) in Chinese) her children were” (p. 121). I also liked the inclusion of the Fa Mu Lan myth, because my childhood was full of Hindu myths and religious stories.

As I mentioned above, until recently, I was under the impression that The Woman Warrior was the first book I’d read by a second-generation American. However, a few weeks ago I re-read Farewell to Manzanar by Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston, and realized that not only is Houston a second-generation American (on her father’s side), but also that the book contains many cultural similarities to my own life. For example, Houston explains that when she went back to public school after her release from the internment camp, her classmates were amazed that she could speak English. “From that day on, part of me yearned to be invisible. In a way, nothing would have been nicer than for no one to see me. Although I couldn’t have defined it at the time, I felt that if attention were drawn to me, people . . . wouldn’t see me, they would see the slant-eyed, the Asian” (p. 142). As a child, I also longed for people to see the real “me” and not my brown skin and black hair that made me so different and “foreign” looking. I too longed to be invisible in a way.

However, when I read Farewell to Manzanar for the first time as a child, I didn’t pick up on any of this. My life at that time seemed very different from Houston’s life as a Japanese-American forced to live in a relocation camp. As a child, I saw myself as an awkward Indian girl — and not as an Indian-American. I thought my difficulty fitting in to my family and to mainstream American culture was my own personal problem. I didn’t see it as something shared by many others of the second generation. Of course at that time I wasn’t even conscious of a category such as “second generation.”

This makes me realize that children and teens may not make the cultural connections that to adults might seem obvious. Would I have noticed this if an adult had pointed it out to me? Yet at that time I told no one about my wish to be “normal,” my wish for my ethnicity to be invisible. Is it important for adults to help kids make these kinds of connections, or is it just futile? Maybe if the child is not ready to see the connection, it won’t stick. I don’t know. In any case, I finally did make the connection to other second-generation Americans when I read The Woman Warrior.

Esmeralda Santiago, author of novels and memoirs, arrived in the U.S. from Puerto Rico at the age of 13.

“Migration is a fundamental human activity,” begins Roger Daniels in his book, Coming to America: A History of Immigration and Ethnicity in American Life. Although common, migration and immigration can be difficult. The “second generation” — those who immigrated as children or who were born in the U.S. to immigrant parents — often face unique challenges which cut across cultures. First-generation immigrant Americans tend to have strong ties to the country they came from, yet consciously chose to come to the United States. Their children, on the other hand, often have weak ties to the ancestral country and had no choice about being raised in the United States.

William Saroyan, a playwright, short story writer, and novelist, was born and raised in California. His parents were immigrants from Armenia.

The study of immigrant literature often throws first-generation immigrant writers into the same category as their children. In fact, the children of immigrants, second-generation Americans, may have very different perspectives from their parents.

According to the 2010 Current Population Survey, about 34 million Americans are second-generation (about 11% of the total U.S. population). Studying literature by second-generation Americans can highlight the transition from immigrant to American.  As Marina Budhos notes in her book Remix: Conversations with Immigrant Teenagers: “Immigrant teenagers often don’t have any in-between space where they can work out the pressures of their in-between lives” (p. 10). For the second generation, their lives seem in-between –- they don’t identify completely with the home culture or with American culture.

Julia Alvarez, who immigrated from the Dominican Republic as a child, titled her first book How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents. The second generation typically loses their “foreign” accent and begins to speak like the Americans around them, but the first generation, those who came here as adults, typically don’t lose their accent. They retain their identification with the ancestral culture even in the way they speak.

This web site explores fiction and memoir written by second-generation authors in the United States. If you would like to suggest additional authors or titles for this web site, please contact me at: jyotsna1sree [at] gmail [dot] com

The following reference books were very helpful in putting together this web site:

About Jyotsna Sreenivasan: I am a second generation American (my parents are immigrants from India). My short story collection, These Americans, includes 8 short stories and a novella about Indian-Americans. My novel And Laughter Fell from the Sky is about two twenty-something Indian-Americans trying to find love and their place in the world. My book Aruna’s Journeys is an autobiographical novel for middle-grade readers about an Indian-American girl’s search for identity.