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Monday, September 03, 2012

This Post is About Asian Americans (or, I Have No Proper Title)

I am currently taking a graduate-level course on Asian-American literature, which includes a considerable amount of theory, criticism, historical documents, and so on.  While reading the preface to Aiiieeeee!, an anthology of Asian-American writers edited by Frank Chin, Jeffery Paul Chan, Lawson Fusao Inada, and Shawn Hsu Wong, I came across the following quote:

Seven generations of suppression under legislative racism and euphemized white racist love have left today's Asian-Americans in a state of self-contempt, self-rejection, and disintegration.  We have been encouraged to believe that we have no cultural integrity as Chinese or Japanese-Americans, that we are either Asian (Chinese or Japanese) or American (white), or are measurably both.  This myth of being either/or and the equally goofy concept of the dual personality haunted our lobes while our rejection by both Asia and white America proved we were neither one nor the other.  Nor were we half and half or more than one than the other.  Neither Asian culture nor American culture was equipped to define us except in the most superficial terms. (viii)
What interests me about this quote is how relevant it is to all the stuff going on in my little world.  For example, in my Introduction to Literature course, I had my students read Trying to Find Chinatown by David Henry Hwang.  The play deals with two young men, a Chinese man living near Chinatown and a white man trying to find his father's childhood home somewhere nearby (he was adopted by Chinese parents).  Ronnie, the first man, takes issue with Benjamin's, the second, take on ethnic identity, calling Benjamin out for what he perceives to be racist stereotyping of Asian-Americans.  In many senses, Ronnie is right, but what he perhaps fails to realize is that he isn't talking to an everyday white man, but rather a white man raised by Chinese parents who feels a deep affinity to the legacy of his Chinese heritage.  Both characters misunderstand one another to a certain degree, which is really the point of the play:  to question our notions of ethnic identity.

Likewise, the news that Ken Liu won a Hugo Award for his short story, "The Paper Menagerie," links up with these very questions.  I recommend reading the story, because is is quite good.  At its most basic, "The Paper Menagerie" is about the troubled relationship between a young, interracial male (Chinese, I think, but please correct me on this) raised in America and his Chinese mother who married an American and moved from her home country, but never fully integrated into American culture.  The tension, then, lines up with the quote above, with all the emotional resonance you would expect.  I won't say anything else about it, though.  There are some clever uses of magical realism and the fantastic, and the development of the characters is worth exploring.  In fact, the more I think about this story, the more I love it, and the more I'm glad to see it win a Hugo.

And that's really all I have to say.  Hopefully you all will take something from this...

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  1. For me the big question after reading this post is: what constitutes "ethnic identity"? And is it inclusive or exclusive? And what is the divide between ethnic identity and personal identity by individuals within any given ethnicity?

    While people can belong to particular ethnic groups, we all really only have our own personally identities to understand in full. Within the larger, broader "ethnic" identity scope I wonder if any of us can claim to know anything about it at all? Can we individually claim to speak for an entire ethnicity? Even in small part? Can anybody?

    Theoretically, if ethnic identity is inclusive, then even the views of those outside the ethnicity contribute to the total sum ethnic identity, and it's arguably impossible to dismiss any given individual's piece or take on that identity. If ethnic identity is exclusive, then those outside can never access this identity, and it's again arguable that an outsider cannot share an insider's understanding. By definition, no one on the outside of an exclusive group can understand if the identity is indeed exclusive. That's not an excuse for aggressive or racist behavior, but it may be a reality that the "understanding" of this kind of identity has natural limits. I'm not sure an ethnic identity can be translated in words or art, but only by experience. And as individual experience varies based on circumstances, what exactly are we trying to define with an "ethnic identity" anyway?

    The quote from "Aiieeeee!" mentions that both American and Asian culture defined the "American-Asian" culture in only the most superficial terms. But I'm not sure an ethnic identity bothers with anything beyond the superficial, or rather, the surface level. Beyond the surface, an person's identity becomes personal, not ethnic. Trying to demand an ethnic identity absorb personal experiences, is asking for a definition so broad and wide-ranging it's no longer a definition, but a an infinitely expanding umbrella term.

  2. I'll respond to this later in the evening. Gotta prep for class :S