Not My Job: We Quiz Novelist Amy Tan On Tanning Techniques

Aug 5, 2014
Originally published on August 25, 2014 11:51 am

Amy Tan grew up all around the Bay Area where her Chinese American family was part of a group of friends they called "The Joy Luck Club." In 1989, Amy published a book of stories by that name, which became an international bestseller. Her latest novel is The Valley of Amazement.

We've invited Tan to play a game called: "It's the bronze golden look that says, 'early death from melanoma!'" Three questions about tanning and the tanning industry.

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And now the game where seriously accomplished people attempt to accomplish something casual. Amy Tan grew up all around the Bay Area, where her Chinese-American family was part of a group of friends they called the Joy Luck Club. In 1989, Amy published a book of stories by that name, which became an international bestseller, inspired a movie adaptation. Her latest novel is "The Valley Of Amazement." And we are delighted to have her here. Amy Tan, welcome to WAIT WAIT ...DON'T TELL ME.


AMY TAN: Thank you.

SAGAL: They like you here. And I'm not surprised because grew up here in San Francisco and Oakland - all over the place. You moved around a lot?

TAN: That's right. Local girl.

SAGAL: Local girl? So where were you born?

TAN: Born in Oakland.

SAGAL: Born in Oakland.


SAGAL: Oak-town?

TAN: Oak land, yeah. Oakland - 41st, 51st, 61st Highland Ave. I was everywhere.

SAGAL: Really? Why were you moving around so much?

TAN: My mother believed in the American dream. And by moving up in the world, you kind of moved up - 41st, 51st, 61st.


SAGAL: Yeah. But we have heard, Amy Tan, that you had kind of a wild side growing up. Is that true?

TAN: Who told you?


TAN: I mean what...What? I was...

SAGAL: Actually, your bio on your own website. I don't know...


SAGAL: Whether you know.

TAN: Oh, was it when I tried to run away with that German guy and get married in Austria?

SAGAL: That might have been it.


TAN: Or was it when...

SAGAL: I'm interested in hearing...

TAN: When I was arrested for drugs in Switzerland?

SAGAL: Oh, where you?

TAN: Yeah. Better than Oakland.

SAGAL: I think so.


SAGAL: So what happened? You were arrested for drugs in Switzerland?

TAN: Well, you know, I was so - my father was a minister. And I was so innocent. Everybody smoked pot and hash over there. I thought it was legal.

SAGAL: In Switzerland?

TAN: Yeah.

SAGAL: How did you get from Oakland to Switzerland?

TAN: Boat.


SAGAL: That's a method, I guess. That'll work.

TAN: You know, it was actually - it was not a happy reason. My mother thought that our house was cursed.

SAGAL: Really?

TAN: Or that we were cursed and that we might as well move away and get away from the cursed house, or at least move away and have a good time before we all died.


TAN: And so we ended up in Switzerland.

SAGAL: Doing drugs.

TAN: Well, she had - yeah. (Laughing) It's a long story.


TAN: Yeah. I mean, I just went a little crazy, you know? I used to go to church every day. And then suddenly I was in Switzerland...And snow - you know? - and boys. And over there, all the guys thought I was cute. They thought I was exotic. They thought I looked like an Eskimo.

SAGAL: Yeah.


SAGAL: So you made some choices that maybe you regret.

TAN: I - yeah, I did. I did. I regretted it deeply. I didn't get married, and I didn't stay in jail. I mean, I wasn't sent to jail. I was just arrested, and I had to promise I would listen to my mother and always obey her. And so I said, yeah, you know.


TAN: And then that was it.

PAULA POUNDSTONE: It you can be arrested for not listening to your mother?


TAN: In Switzerland, you can.

POUNDSTONE: Oh, man. My family and I are going there.


SAGAL: I see. So what happened to the guy you were going to marry?

TAN: My mother, she was - she hired a police detective. He happened to be the mayor of the town of Montreux 'cause it was a very small town. And she gathered all this evidence. And he and all my friends were arrested and deported.



TAN: So that is one way you get rid of your daughter's boyfriend.


SAGAL: Did you eventually - how did you feel about this? I mean, it's one thing of, like, your mother disapproving of your boyfriend, another thing of, like, your mother having him deported with all of his friends. That's another thing.


TAN: Well, actually, I was relieved because I really did want to break up with him.


TAN: I mean, that is a terrible thing to say. I felt really bad because also, when I saw him, she took me over to the border to see him. And that really put an end to it.

SAGAL: Wait a minute. She did? She took you where?

TAN: She took me to the border to meet him after he was deported, which was a really smart thing to do because now, the only reason I really liked him was to get back at her. But now, she's taking me to the border. And, you know, we kiss and everything, and I'm thinking, oh, thank god. You know, his bad breath and everything was...

SAGAL: Oh, wow.



SAGAL: So did you thank your mother?

TAN: No, of course not. I was 16, you know? Of course I didn't do that.

MAZ JOBRANI: Your mother is very Machiavellian.

SAGAL: Yeah.


TAN: She was very - she was brilliant, you know?


SAGAL: Now, you wrote about your family, quite famously, in the stories that became "The Joy Luck Club," released as fiction, right? And was your mother there to see the book and read it and appreciate its acclaim?

TAN: She was my first reader.

SAGAL: And what did she think?

TAN: She loved it. I mean, she ended up thinking that I knew her so well that all the stories she used to try to tell me, like why she got mad at somebody - she used to go on for three hours, you know, and then she did this and then she betrayed - and then she'd say - after the book, she'd say, I don't have to tell you. You understand. You're just like me - 'cause she read the book.

SAGAL: That's wonderful.

TAN: Yeah.

SAGAL: That's a great - I mean, every author, or every would-be author, imagines that moment of writing the book about their childhood and about their family, giving it to their family and them saying, you understand so well.

TAN: And also, Mother saying, I don't have to go on for three hours.


SAGAL: Yeah. We can skip it. So instead of going on about - instead of going on about somebody she disliked, she just gave you a page citation to the original edition.

TAN: Yeah, yeah.

SAGAL: And did she see the film?

TAN: She did. I was very nervous that she was going to faint or, you know, go crazy. And I was watching her at the screening, you know. And there were people crying and everything. At the end I said, are you OK? And she said, yes. And I said, it wasn't too much? She says, oh, no, in China everything was so much worse. This was better.


SAGAL: There you go.

POUNDSTONE: I sobbed over that movie. I mean, just sobbed. And I had - I had already read the book, which was brilliant and I love. I'm an enormous fan. But this idea that you could write a book and then your mother would feel that she didn't need to go on and on explaining things. When my son hears this...


POUNDSTONE: He is going to go into his room and write.


POUNDSTONE: This is very good, I think, for kids to know - that if you just write a book, then your mother will be quiet.


SAGAL: You don't have kids, but you have dogs.

TAN: I have dogs, yes.

SAGAL: Do you - are you ever the stereotypical Chinese mom to your dogs?

TAN: Why did you do that? Why did you pee on the floor? Yes.


TAN: I am.

SAGAL: You've brought shame to the family.


TAN: You've brought stink to the family. You brought stink to the rug.

BODDEN: Have you had any dog deported?


TAN: No, but I have threatened.


SAGAL: Well, Amy Tan, we are so delighted to talk to you. We've asked you here today to play a game that this time we're calling...

BILL KURTIS, BYLINE: Amy Tan, Meet Tan Amy.

SAGAL: Your name is Tan, but what do you know about tanning? We're going to ask you three questions about tanning and the tanning industry. Answer two of them correctly, you'll win our prize for one of our listeners, Carl Kasell's voice on their voicemail. Bill, who is author Amy Tan playing for?

KURTIS: Sasha Fredericks of Oakland, California.


SAGAL: All right. People do some interesting things to get a great tan. Which of these is a popular, if controversial, tanning technique used in some U.S. salons? A - the full-body microwave oven. B - laying out on the top of skyscrapers to be closer to the sun. Or C - swallowing orange food coloring?

TAN: You know, I would want to go with A. But I'm going to go with B 'cause a lot of people like to get high.


SAGAL: That's true. I'm afraid it was the C. It was swallowing orange food coloring. It's called canthaxanthin. It's a chemical used to make foods orange. And some salons sell it in pill form. You eat it; it turns you orange. The FDA does not approve.


SAGAL: All right. You still have two more chances here, so this is good.

TAN: Oh, no.

SAGAL: You can still take your - you can still make your mother proud.


TAN: I'm nervous.

SAGAL: Let's say you want a tan and money is no object. You could go out and get which of these? A - a $350 single application of tanning lotion with real, crushed up diamonds for that sparkly look. B - a $13 million trip on a Russian spacecraft with special starlight tanning time. Or C - a $500 session in the spray booth, a repurposed, former car painting machine now spring on tans.

TAN: I go for A.

SAGAL: You're going to go for A? The diamond tanning lotion? You're right.


SAGAL: The product is called Diamond Tan. It's available at your high-end salons. It has actual diamonds in it, so you'll look sparkly. And you can sand your fine woodworking products with your skin.


SAGAL: OK. This is exciting. If you get this last one right, you win. Let's say you are really dedicated to tanning. It's what you love to do. Well, if so, you should invest in one of these. A - a stay at the Ritz Carlton in Miami, where the tanning butler - his official title - will keep you oiled up and remind you when it's time to flip over.


SAGAL: B - you can get yourself a membership in the National Association of Actually Colored People, a tanning advocacy organization. Or C - you buy a naked mole rat, which high-end tanners use as a kind of a canary in a coal mine. When the mole rat starts to sunburn, you know it's time for you to cover up.


TAN: That last one is a trick question.

SAGAL: You think?

TAN: Yeah. A.

SAGAL: You're going to go for A? A stay at the Ritz-Carlton with a tanning butler? You're right.


SAGAL: If you're interested in having services of the tanning butler at the Ritz-Carlton South Beach, rooms start at $329 a night - book now. Bill, how did Amy Tan do in our quiz?

KURTIS: Amy got two right. And in our book, that's winning.

SAGAL: Yes. Yay for Amy Tan.


SAGAL: Amy Tan's new novel is "The Valley Of Amazement." It's out in paperback now. Go get it. It's amazing. Amy Tan, thank you so much for being with us. Amy Tan, ladies and gentlemen.

SAGAL: In just a minute, Bill gets freaky with a gecko. Call 1-888-WAIT-WAIT to join us on the air. Support for NPR comes from NPR stations and Subaru, featuring the all-new Subaru Legacy. It's not just a sedan, it's a Subaru. Learn more at The Ford Foundation, working with visionaries on the frontlines of social change worldwide, at And Arizona State University, with more than 70 campus degrees now available 100 percent online, at We'll be back in a minute with more of WAIT WAIT ...DON'T TELL ME from NPR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.