Jen Sookfong Lee is the author of several books, including The Conjoined, The End of East and The Better Mother.
When Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s wedding is broadcast on Saturday, it will be four in the morning in Vancouver, where I live in a tiny townhouse on the eastern border of the city. I will set my alarm for 3:45 a.m., make coffee and, while my son sleeps, I will huddle in bed with my laptop, waiting for that magical moment when the future princess steps out of her car in her gown and pauses on the steps of Windsor Castle. I will catch my breath at her dress and tear up, just a little. I know exactly how my reactions will unfold because this isn’t a new ritual: I have done this before.
In July of 1981, when Lady Diana Spencer married Prince Charles, I was weeks away from turning five years old. I lived with my family in a Vancouver Special – the ubiquitous, once maligned, box-like house style that was designed for maximum urban space and most definitely not architectural creativity. My father was born in China and moved to Canada at the age of 13, where he grew up with an Elvis pompadour and a taste for DuMaurier Lights. My mother arrived nine years later to marry him, a man she had never met but had improbably fallen in love with over letters and photographs. Even more improbably, my parents had five children, all girls. We all had names intended to shield us from racist Canadian ridicule: Linda came first, then Pamela, Tina, Emma and me, Jennifer, the youngest by seven years, the one who was, according to my sisters, given the most freedom.
“I broke Mom and Dad in for you,” my sister Linda still says to this day, before laughing maniacally. I’m almost 42 now. She’s turning 59.
In 1981, my sisters and I had learned a particular way of moving through the world. We were Chinese girls from an immigrant family with a complicated history. My grandfather lived alone in Vancouver for 39 years, visiting his village in China periodically to see his wife and conceive four children, and was among the first Chinese men to apply for Canadian citizenship after the Chinese Exclusion Act was repealed in 1947. I still have his citizenship letter and the documents for his wife and children that he kept, carefully ordered in a cigar box, easily accessible in the top drawer of his dresser. In one, the Ministry of Immigration and Citizenship wrote it could not verify that his daughter Mary was real, and rejected her application. Photographs of my aunts and father as children and young adults are folded carefully into faded airmail envelopes, visual proof our family existed, even if the Canadian government didn’t always accept their legitimacy. For my grandfather, citizenship was a tenuous state. He had lived through the head tax, the Second World War and the strident racism from the Asiatic Exclusion League. All of this reinforced the fact that, for half of his life, he was stateless, a man with no rights in the country he had chosen to live in, but who also could not return to the country he had come from, where poverty and political instability were constant threats. Keeping every piece of paper proved he and his family deserved to be here, even if no one else believed that to be true.
My parents and grandparents wanted us to be safe. No makeup, no patting stray dogs, no boyfriends, no sleepovers. Performing well at school was a way to ensure future safety. Attending church was a way to keep busy and be protected from risk. Sewing your own ill-fitting clothes hid your body. No one lost track of girls who were on the honour roll, taught Sunday school and wore homemade pants with crotches that were too long. In a rare spurt of rebellion, I pierced the upper cartilage on my right ear three times during my final year of high school and my mother, who noticed while we were eating dinner, threw down her chopsticks and cried, “Are you one of those people who sits at the back of the bus?”
We were the girls who were going to work in stable careers, marry men who did not hurt us and raise children who cared for us in our old age, in our own homes.
We were, in 1981, on track for all of that. Linda had just finished her undergraduate degree in microbiology and was working in a lab. Pamela was entering her first year at university. Tina was still in high school and spent every Friday night styling our hair in the safety of our kitchen, one sister at a time. Emma, at 11 years old, was already a gifted singer, but only performed at church. And me? I had already learned to read and my parents were trying to decide how they could rein in my busy, restless brain. “You’ll make a good lawyer one day,” my father said. “You like to talk back.”
The year before, Lady Diana Spencer was 19 years old and working as a teacher at a kindergarten in London. Her relationship with Prince Charles was new and her identity unknown to the public, until one sunny fall day when paparazzi photographers caught her taking her students to a public park. The resulting image – of an unsmiling and fresh-faced young woman, balancing one child on her hip while holding the hand of another, backlit by afternoon sunshine, her legs plainly visible through her thin cotton skirt – is visual magic.
She was all the things my sisters and I were supposed to aspire to back then – pretty but not flashy, devoted to children, demure enough to be acceptable to a prince and, especially, his mother. And yet, there is a glimmer of defiance. She is standing with her legs wide apart, light filtering through her skirt. Diana was an assistant kindergarten teacher, a lady, the girlfriend of a prince, and she did not wear a slip or practical trousers or hose of any kind. Maybe she knew she would be photographed that day, maybe she didn’t. Maybe when she dressed that morning, she knew the day would be humid, as warm days in London can be. Maybe she just didn’t care.
My sisters and I, limited as we were by what was safe and guaranteed success, saw in this photograph the promise of subversion. Being a woman, especially a woman of colour, meant that life was always a long game. You worked hard. You kept your reputation clean. You waited for your opportunities. And then, one day, maybe you could be who you wanted. My entire childhood and adolescence I wrote poems and stories, which my parents – and particularly my father – read and enjoyed, but I never said that my greatest wish was to be a writer. Instead, I was on track to go to law school and I bided my time, waiting for the moment when this choice, being a writer, would seem safe enough. Even then, I knew I might have to wait for midlife, when I had six weeks of paid vacation to write, or even later, when I was retired and living in a nice waterfront condo and needed something to fill up my time.
Diana was hinting at a life she had yet to live. One day, propriety would no longer matter as she left her marriage and found her place as a humanitarian. She would admit to feeling giddy with happiness when she danced with John Travolta at a White House gala. She would tell the world the heir to the British throne had cheated on her and ridiculed her intelligence and emotions. She would date as a single mother, publicly. She would offer physical comfort to HIV-positive patients. That skirt, transparent in broad daylight, and her bare, uncompromising legs, were forecasting the future. She was not the sort of woman to wear a lined tweed suit and never would be. In 1980, well before the rest of her life would unfold, she was already telling us that.
In August of 1997, I turned 21. To celebrate, my girlfriends from high school and I borrowed a Dodge Caravan and drove down the coast to Los Angeles and then inland to Las Vegas. On our way, our van started smoking through the gas pedal, causing Vicki, who was driving, to yell, “Is my foot on fire???” We stopped in the middle of the night at the only rest stop between Barstow, Calif., and the city, and were swarmed by bats, which dive-bombed our heads while we huddled at a phone booth, trying to find a way to get towed to Circus Circus, the hotel I had booked because I had read Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas twice that summer and had decided any hotel that was weird enough for Hunter S. Thompson was weird enough for us.
Stuck in Las Vegas for three extra days while our van was repaired, we haunted hotel lobbies for cheap buffets and clean bathrooms. It was there we saw Michael Jordan stride into the back of a glitzy casino, where he disappeared through a pair of double doors that closed behind him with a whisper. At another casino, Vicki played blackjack against a trio of boys from Harvard and won. We drank watered-down margaritas at the nickel slots and ventured outside only at night to avoid the oppressive heat. It was an untethered, surreal time. By the time the van was fixed, we were itching to just get home.
We left our hotel the afternoon of August 31 and wasted no time speeding down the desert highway. We stopped for water, food, gas and toilets, sometimes brushing our teeth in service station bathrooms, sometimes not bothering. Afraid our van would break down again, we didn’t turn on the air conditioning and fell asleep with our heads at right angles, pressed against the car’s rubbery interior, only to wake up in pools of our own sweat that had collected under our cheeks. That night, the highway was pitch black, and we drove with NPR turned up loud, reasoning that if we were going to return to real life, then we should know what had been happening outside of the 24-hour climate-controlled casinos.
A man’s voice cut through the air. “We have breaking news,” he said. His solemn tone was alarming and Vicki turned up the volume even louder. I had been dozing in the back and sat up straight. “We have received a report that Princess Diana has been involved in a car accident and has died in Paris. We are still waiting to confirm, but it appears that, again, Princess Diana has died at the age of thirty-six.”
We were silent for a minute, Vicki fiddling with the volume dial as if she could fix this announcement that seemed so totally wrong. Finally, it was Sandra who yelled into the darkness, “What???”
I cried, the tears big and silent, running down my face, the same face that had sweated during our hours-long drive through the Mojave Desert. I remembered that photograph of Diana on a roller coaster with her sons, laughing as if nothing else mattered. I remembered her wedding, the puffed sleeves that made her seem more fairy-like and insubstantial than she ever really was. And I remembered that first public photograph and her legs in silhouette, a harbinger of what she became: the princess who divorced the future King of England, the princess in khakis and a helmet, looking for landmines, the princess who loved a man from Egypt.
At 21, on that day in August, I was just starting to figure out what my adult life was going to be. Within three months, I would meet the man I would go on to marry and then divorce. I was plotting to escape my mother’s house by attending grad school in Montreal, not for law, but for creative writing. I had already put in 21 years as a good Chinese girl. I knew how to make a perfect pot of rice. I had finished Cantonese school and piano lessons. I had already decided that in one year, I would be the person I wanted at my new school, in my own apartment, in a different city. Diana had done this. I had watched her my entire life.
According to Diana, when she confronted Camilla Parker Bowles about her affair with Charles, Camilla’s response was, “You’ve got everything you ever wanted. All the men in the world fall in love with you. You’ve got two beautiful children. What more would you want?” Diana replied, “I want my husband.” This conversation has always made my heart hurt.
Diana had what the world had scripted for her. She was a beautiful, high-born woman who looked good in a tiara and ball gown. She loved a prince who did not love her back, but, during the course of her marriage, she did what was expected of her. She gave birth to two princes. She didn’t make a fuss. What Camilla assumed was not necessarily what Diana had dreamed for herself, but rather what the world had trained her to believe was the right way to security, respectability and happiness. As it turned out, Diana wanted other things. Romance. Charity. Glamour. Maybe some drama, too. After her divorce and before her death, it seemed, at least for a short time, she got what she wanted. She sat on the prow of her wealthy boyfriend’s yacht in a swimsuit, feet dangling above the Mediterranean. A real, individual, and distinctly unroyal moment caught in a paparazzi photograph. It was a moment that was all hers.
It has been 21 years now since Diana’s death. Her sons, William and Harry, are adults with adult lives. Charles has remarried, to Camilla. I am a single mother. I am a writer. This is not what my parents imagined for me.
For years, I have been a royal apologist and many people have been confused as to why I care so much for the British monarchy. After all, I’m a Chinese-Canadian woman with no real ties to the United Kingdom, whose life could carry on, untouched by anything related to the Windsors, if I so wished.
Now Prince Harry is preparing for his wedding to Meghan Markle, a woman who is divorced, American and mixed race, and her respectability is not based on circumstance or origins, as Diana’s was. Meghan is 36 years old and has had time to have an adult life, well away from Kensington Palace. If the world expects her to be a good princess – pretty, personable and proper – then she has chosen to be a good princess. She isn’t 20 years old. She will not be subjected to a public discussion on her virginity. She is making a decision, one in a series of decisions she has made throughout her adulthood and career as an actress.
In the end, Diana left behind the future king and some respectability. She admitted to an affair. She told her story. She gambled on a womanizing businessman. These were her postmarriage choices, which led to the world understanding that princesses, no matter how beautiful, no matter how polite, are not at all perfect. Harry, the once misbehaving prince who dressed up as a Nazi and played billiards naked in Vegas, is marrying Meghan, who is not the woman that long-time royal watchers might have expected. Without Diana and her insistence on beating back respectability, it’s hard to imagine this wedding happening at all. Despite Diana’s apparent princess-ready exterior, she was made of less traditionally royal stuff. She upended expectations for herself and, as it turns out, for Meghan.
My career goal was a secret until I was 30 and my first book was published. My intimate goals were a secret too, until I was 38 and my marriage ended. I have had a few moments that remind me of Diana’s postrespectable life, when taking a risk resulted in pure joy: The launch of my third novel. The day I moved into the townhouse that I alone had paid for. Playing on a Thai beach with my son on our first vacation without his father. Had I followed the respectability script, none of this would have happened.
Maybe Diana was never really all that good in the first place. And maybe neither am I.