Name: Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan
Location: New York City
Education: Bachelor of Science in Journalism from Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism
Job title: Author, freelance fashion, travel and food writer
What she does: We all hear stories about coming to United States in pursuit of the American Dream. But for Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan, a native of Singapore who lives and works in America, it was returning to her roots that helped bring her life’s dream to realization. Cheryl is the author of A Tiger in the Kitchen: A Memoir of Food and Family, a book she wrote about journeying back to Singapore to live with her female relatives and learn how to make the home-cooked meals she ate as a child. “A Tiger in the Kitchen was very much about me learning about the women in my family through spending time in the kitchen with them, piecing together snippets of their lives, our collective family history, by discovering their recipes,” says Cheryl. Right now, she’s traveling to promote Tiger – she just returned from doing six book events in Singapore – and she’s currently working on her second book. She also freelances for the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, the Washington Post and magazines like Food & Wine and Afar.
How she got her gig: From a very young age, Cheryl knew that writing was her calling, but she was afraid that her cultural upbringing might stand in the way of pursuing her dream career. “Growing up in Singapore, a country in which parents still nudge their children toward professions like medicine or business, I knew ‘writing books’ as a career would be a hard sell,” says Cheryl. “So I persuaded my parents to let me study journalism in college.” After writing an expose on an illegal puppy mill in Singapore which led to the government shutting it down right away, Cheryl was hooked. “I ended up being in fulltime journalism for more than 10 years, working at In Style magazine and the Wall Street Journal. But in the back of my mind, I always thought about writing books someday.”
Returning to her roots: Cheryl was living in the United States for more than fifteen years when she began to miss home and the foods from her Singaporean childhood. “I had grown up in Singapore determined to have a career, so I emulated the men in my family, who were allowed to go out and have great careers. I wanted to be remembered for that, not for making good braised duck for my family,” says Cheryl. “So I had shunned the ‘womanly’ lessons like cooking that my family had wanted to teach me. It wasn’t until I was in my mid-thirties, living far from my native land, when I started to feel a real yearning for this food and a sense of loss over never having learned how to make it.” Although Cheryl had spent so many years eschewing the role of the traditional female in Singapore, she was suddenly compelled to travel home to let the women in her family teach her how to cook – and eventually, find the material and inspiration she needed to write her memoir.
Setbacks aren’t always what they seem: For Cheryl, getting laid off from the Wall Street Journal in early 2009 was initially devastating – but soon, she would come to see it as a fortuitous bump in the road. “I was covering fashion and retail for the paper as part of a bureau that had been formed at the height of the economy to cover retail, luxury goods spending etc. At the time, I had just made my first trip to Singapore to learn how to make my late grandmother’s pineapple tarts and had begun to think about writing Tiger,” says Cheryl. “When I thought about the sabbatical I would need to take in order to research and write Tiger, however, I decided I simply couldn’t do it. We were in the midst of a recession -- the worst time to ask for a sabbatical.” Two days after that regretful decision, Cheryl and the entire bureau found out their positions were being axed. Devastated, she briefly wondered how she’d be able to bounce back from what seemed like an unavoidable setback in her career. “But in the very next moment, I realized, Wait, now I can write the book I really want to write. It was a very liberating feeling -- I felt like a big sign had been handed to me saying, ‘OK you whiner, now there’s nothing in your way: get off your butt and go write this book!’”
Finding your audience: While there have been several stand-out moments over the course of Cheryl’s career, one of the highlights so far was getting the very first review for A Tiger in the Kitchen. “It was Kirkus, which is famously tough, and I’d been expecting the worst. But it was a wonderful review that made a comparison with Maxine Hong-Kingston, whom I had read as a teenager and worship. I just could not believe what I was seeing when I read that review,” says Cheryl. But her most memorable moment so far happened at a book party that the Asia Society Washington and Singaporean Ambassador to the US threw for Tiger in Washington D.C. earlier this year. “That night at the Singapore embassy, the room was packed with more than 200 diplomats and other Washingtonians -- I look up on a wall and my grandmother’s smiling face is beaming down at us from a projection,” says Cheryl. “It was surreal. My grandmother would be the first person to tell you that her recipes, her stories, are so simple, not special at all -- and yet there we were in the Singapore embassy in Washington, D.C., and her face was beaming down at this crowd she would never even have imagined ever meeting.”
This job’s for you if: you have enough faith in yourself to let go of your doubts and just allow the words to flow. “If you want to write, the best thing to do is just sit down and do it,” says Cheryl. “Don’t be afraid, don’t doubt yourself. Almost everyone has something unique to say. You just have to find out what your something is.”
Name: Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan