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Rewatching A Beijinger in New York

Ying Li talks to her novelist mother, Lin Chang, about the first Chinese-language TV show to be shot in the United States.

By Ying Li

Without money or English skills, Wang Qi Ming and Guo Yan’s relationship fractures under the pressure of surviving in the Big Apple: they make and lose a lot of money, they have affairs, and their teenage daughter joins them in America only to become a drug addict. That’s enough to test any marriage. But in your experience, did a lot of Chinese couples have their marriages torn apart when they immigrated to the west?

Oh, a lot of married couples separated, without a doubt. Back in the ’80s and early ’90s, most people in China had steady jobs and didn’t have to worry about putting food on the table. When they moved abroad, suddenly it was a challenge just to feed yourself and find an income. If the wife found a job, and the husband couldn’t, now you’ve got a problem. A lot of men ended up doing manual labor gigs even though they had promising careers in China. Their wives might not be so happy about that. So sometimes the wife would find a man who was more successful and leave her husband, or the husband would find a woman who had fewer expectations of him. Also, in the west, you have all these status markers: the kind of car you drive, the kind of house you live in. Suddenly, everyone could see what everyone else was worth. It wasn’t like that back then in China; there were no cars to buy, houses you could own. These are all potential sources of conflict. So yes, many couples did separate.

Do you think moving to the West affected men and women differently?

I think prior to the early ’90s, women were quicker to adapt to life abroad than men. With all the household conveniences of the western world, you didn’t have to spend as much time on housework. We didn’t even have a phone when we lived in Beijing, or hot water for that matter. These modern conveniences gave you more time to focus on your career. Also, as depicted in Beijinger, it was easier for female immigrants to be accepted.

Guo Yan and Wang Qi Ming are dropped off in their
new neighborhood.

So Wang Qi Ming and Guo Yan’s daughter joins them in New York.

Yes, towards the end of the series, Ning Ning arrives. One day her dad sees her with a white boyfriend, hugging or something. He flips out and goes to her school to complain to her principal. He also confronts the boy’s dad. That was a very Chinese parent thing to do back then, and Chinese people in China would absolutely take those actions if it had happened in China. But I really don’t know any Chinese immigrants who would do this in the west. When Chinese people come abroad, they tend to be a somewhat more subdued version of themselves. They probably would not confront a principal or go to a white person’s house to tell them off. What could a principal do about it?

The book provides more depth to the Ning Ning situation. At one point in the book, she says to her parents that when they had left her alone in China—which was a common practice back then—all she wanted was their love and attention. But when she arrived in New York, they were preoccupied with making money and told her to work on assimilating into American society. Yet when she did assimilate, her parents were angry at her for doing American things like having a boyfriend and experimenting with drugs. I really enjoyed that part. I like how the parents conceded that raising a child in America was confusing.

What do you think the show was trying to say about Chinese Americans?

The show was not made for people like us. It was tailored to viewers in China. It depicted Caucasian Americans as being very selfish and individualistic to a fault—which were what Chinese people used to think of capitalists. And the show warned viewers that Chinese people who stay in America long enough will also pick up on these bad qualities.

The TV show was written from the traditional Chinese perspective of that time. The book was not like that, it was more credible—it didn’t try to generalize. But the television show was made by Chinese people in China, for broadcast on the state network. They knew that they would have to include some political statements about what a bad place America was. If the show had portrayed America in a positive light, it probably wouldn’t have been broadcast in China. Those were the years right after the Tiananmen Square protests.

I remember that when Beijinger came out, all of our Chinese immigrant friends watched it and talked about it. What was the impact of the Beijinger franchise in China?

It started a trend where all the novels about the Chinese immigrant experience were very… bloody. Full of revenge and sex. Years later, when I was trying to get my novel Toronto After the Snow published, one of the publishers who rejected it said to me: “Your book isn’t what Chinese people believe foreign countries to be like.” Can you believe it? I will never forget that. Nowadays, people in China are more familiar with foreign countries and wouldn’t find those stories believable.

But you eventually did get Toronto After the Snow published and it got made into a TV show too, called Farewell Vancouver. Do you think the TV show betrayed the authenticity of the book, like what happened to A Beijinger in New York?

Not at all. Farewell Vancouver was filmed in Canada in 2002. There had been a lot of changes in China in the ten years since Beijinger and there was less pressure for a TV show about Chinese immigrants to have a political message, even though it was also broadcast on CCTV. I’ve heard anecdotally that Chinese immigration companies recommend the show to their clients intending to move to Canada, as a sort of primer.