If Fong See and Ticie Pruett gave way to the content of See's works, then her mother, Carolyn See, gave her the tools with which to create.
Lisa See's mother, Carolyn See, is an esteemed author in her own right. Not only was she awarded the L.A. Times Book Prize's Kirsch Award for lifetime achievement, but she also received a Guggenheim Fellowship. As a previous professor of creative writing at UCLA, she was a regular book critic for both the L.A. Times and the Washington Post, served on the board of PEN Center USA West, and was a leading literary figure of Southern California.
However, Carolyn See's dysfunctional family eventually permeated both her works and her daughter's.
The wedding of Richard See and Carolyn Laws, 1954
In the Introduction of Dreaming (Hard Luck and Good Times in America), Carolyn See goes through "the pigskin chest that holds about seventy-five years of family photographs" with her daughter, Clara, for this book. She recounts telling family stories to each other--again.
Book cover for Dreaming, Carolyn See
Much of Carolyn See's childhood was spent trying to "hold her family together". Having endured an alcoholic father, See divorced Richard for his gradual descent into alcoholism. As a child, Lisa See watched as her parent's got divorced and her mother began indulging in drugs. When her mother was high, See took care of her younger sister, Clara, brought coffee to guests that passed out on her living room floor. When her stepfather left, she sewed a jacket for her mother in attempts to console her.
Twitter post from Lisa See on Teacher Appreciation Day of 2018
Photo to the right: Lisa and Carolyn See attending a festival for the LA Times
Both Carolyn and Lisa See eventually chose to write about their family.
Although their works are similar, the main difference resides in the fact that Carolyn See wrote about the delusional American Dream.
Lisa See wrote about fulfilling it. As a Chinese.
The discrepancies between subject matter (encompassed in the differences between Dreaming and On Gold Mountain) can be generalized to one factor. Because of the chaotic and often oppressive environment at home, Lisa See was turned to the F. Suie One company owned by her paternal grandparents, which quickly became her childhood refuge.
Photo of Lisa See in an interview at the F. Suie One
It was here that Lisa See fell in love with Chinese culture. At the F. Suie One, her Chinese grandparents, great-aunts, and great-uncles told her stories about Fong See--the "patriarch of Los Angeles Chinatown"--that lived to be 100. "I loved those stories," See says, "and so did many other people, who often approached my family to write a book, a magazine article, or even a film script about my family."
This became the factor that differentiated Lisa See from her mother--while Carolyn See wrote about her natal family and the shattering of the American Dream, Lisa See documented her family's saga in On Gold Mountain to preserve the permanent stamp her childhood had received at the F. Suie One.
However, because a large source of Lisa See's childhood memories came from the F. Suie One, Lisa See grew up looking American, but believing herself to be Chinese. This, coupled with her Chinese roots from Fong See, created the most significant core of Lisa See: her biracial, bicultural identity.
Photo Above: A woman from the Akha tribe; a minority in China
Photo Left: Fong See family portrait before Lisa See's birth
It is without doubt that See brings this integral part of her identity into her literature. China has been the initial setting in every single one of her novels, and America has been a regular destination. For example, Shanghai Girls follows the heart-wrenching journey of Pearl and May who escape the Sino-Japanese War by illegally immigrating to America. The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane documents a girl born from the Akha minority who eventually works her way to the West in search of her daughter. Dreams of Joy struggles with Joy's escape to China and her eventual return to the United States.
Although See does not understand Mandarin, all of her novels to date have been based in China. From Snow Flower and the Secret Fan that deals with foot-binding during parts of the Taiping Rebellion to Dreams of Joy that deals with the Great Leap Forward in the 1950s, See has researched and penned China old and new into her pages. Combining her Chinese roots and her Western education, See has provided an opening for North Americans to begin understanding China and its culture. None of this could have been possible without, sadly, the dysfunction of her family, and the roots of Fong See.