In truth, the miles between Hong Kong and Denver can't be counted. So how does one individual reconcile such an insurmountable distance? M. Elaine Mar doesn't exactly have the answer, but she's living testimony to the process, a uniquely American rite of passage she chronicles on the most personal level in her new memoir, Paper Daughter. A Harvard graduate now living in Cambridge, she'll return to her adopted hometown of Denver next Thursday for a book signing at the Tattered Cover.
"I've never felt like a hyphenated American," Mar says, although her family arrived at her aunt's home on Jasmine Street when she was only five. "I'm always either wholly American or wholly Chinese. The two parts are not blended--they sit in different compartments inside my head." That said, it's not hard to fathom the gulf she's had to constantly swim since then: From the very beginning of her Americanization, Mar lived in two distinct worlds--the outside world, full of taunts that she encountered at school, and her family's world, bound by language and traditions not easily broken.
Her American name, Elaine, was chosen for her arbitrarily by a family friend (her given name is Man Yee). Her surname, Mar, is actually pronounced "ma," and no one really knows where the "r" on the end came from. And even her native language is a puzzle to solve for readers, as Mar explains in the introduction to Paper Daughter. To remedy that, she approximates her family's Toishanese dialect, itself a whole different language from spoken Cantonese or Mandarin Chinese, using her own romanized system of translation instead of the more widely accepted Wade-Giles or Pinyin transliterations. Everything in her life, it seems, has had to be explained--transliterated--back and forth between worlds.
"I got to the point where my entire life was a lie," Mar says, noting that the extra pressures she endured as a student at Harvard--a "good" Ivy League school not traditionally attended by poor, working-class kids from what might be ascertained as an alien culture--compounded that perception. "Never telling the truth about myself was partly unconscious--it was just the way that I presented myself. People make assumptions about who you are. If you go to Harvard, they assume you have a good background. Then the lying actually became conscious."
Which is why, Mar explains, she chose to write a memoir at all. "All the lying affected me," she says. "I feel like so much of my life has been fiction. It was time to come to grips with who I was and be honest about it." And the resulting book does more than simply accomplish that goal (although it does that extremely well); Paper Daughter also distinguishes itself as a fine work of storytelling that chronicles life passages in terms anyone can relate to.
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Part of its success, though, is due to Mar's unwaveringly unfeigned eye and voice--things she learned were not easy qualities to coax. "It's really hard, so much harder than you can anticipate," Mar says. "You think you have a thick skin until you write about yourself." Regardless of screaming bouts with her editor and entire weekends spent in bed, however, she came through the experience of spilling her guts a stronger writer--and person. "In the end, it actually isn't so bad," she maintains. "It's like you made it through. You're okay. Somebody must have loved you."
And for Mar, who's now contemplating her next writing project, that's an accomplishment: "Stories are wonderful. What I have to say was not a simple thing. I grew up between two cultures and tried to write my book in a way that brings people inside my body, where I have lived so long."
M. Elaine Mar reads from Paper Daughter, 7:30 p.m. August 12, Tattered Cover LoDo, 1628 16th Street, 303-436-1070.