Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Personal reflections on Chinese America

A request from a friend taking a summer Ethnic Studies course at school served as the excuse to finally get some thoughts down that I've been hoping to commit to paper ("paper") for a while, now.

Thoughts are scattered, quite randomly arranged, and topics range wildly about. Many thoughts are unsupported, at best, and citations are nonexistent. This is more to have this on record and for those who care to get a stronger sense of my background and current stance on certain issues.

Reading over my thoughts - or, properly speaking, even as I typed them out in more or less stream-of-consciousness flow - I worry that I am myopic. My image of Asian America is gilded and almost universally positive: at least, my first responses to Chinese-American culture is always to assume that the minority has been victimized, is guilt-free, and has taken at most a passive part in the lead-up to the current state of affairs. I acknowledge freely, I think, that Chinese immigrants have been complicit in their own sufferings: but I do not first jump to the domestic abuse epidemic rampant in our communities (and countries of origin).

I tend to lionize the underprivileged and vilify the dominant. This is not wrong, but it is not right: worst of all, it is not true. The causes of current circumstances are manifold, and to simplify it down to Western imperialism (cultural, political, economic, and military) is to discredit my own claims. I worry about this, in the long run: I will have to become far more balanced and willing to critique China, Chinese America, and the Asian milieu if I am to be a credible and caring commentator.

I also have large holes in my discussions of gender. I make assumptions about female roles, rights, responsibilities, and representations (3 cheers for that alliterative streak) that are founded entirely on my male understanding of the female experience and role in society. This is dangerous, and I apologize if I wrongly offend. It's on my list of things to work on.

That said, the text of my response is presented below (cleaned up & edited in brief, most portions of the original text/questions remain):

1. experiences:
a. family traditions/customs/holidays
b. experiencing racism
c. basically, how was it like growing up chinese american?

(attempting to answer the breadth of a-c in one long breath:)

Basically, when I was young, being Chinese-American (which is, I might note, a different term than "American Chinese" or "American of Chinese descent") wasn't something that I thought about at all. There are a few factors that contributed to this: my parents were second- (or greater) generation, already, being born in Southeast Asia to families that had previously immigrated from China, so I was at least two degrees separated, on both sides, from direct ties to Chinese culture and heritage. I knew, on a fairly abstract level, that there was something tying my past to "China" - but that word, "China", referenced an empty concept, for me. Apart from Geography Bee-level details - the Yellow River, the Yangtze, Shanghai, Beijing, Hong Kong, etc. - I had no knowledge of China, and definitely no personal connection. The only glimpses of Chinese Culture that I received were in our shamefully irregular visits to my Nai nai/奶奶 (father's mother), who lives outside Washington, DC with her second husband (now deceased). There, I got my most transparent hints of the rich culture underlying our family's roots: conversations carried out in incomprehensible tongues; homecooked Chinese food utterly unlike my mother's Western cooking or greasy "Chinese" takeout; red envelopes of New Year money (that were, I realized much later, not months late, but simply operating according to a different calendar), watercolors of tumbling Chinese mountains, etc.

In short: our family traditions, customs, and holidays were as utterly middle-class, suburban American as one can get: dressing up for Easter Sunday, stockings on the mantle & gifts under the Christmas tree, ice cream cakes at birthday parties.

Which is why, I think, for me, racism was always a little bit of a surprise. After all, the far greater part of my upbringing was indistinguishable from your average American Dream: in the middle of the upper-middle-class, attending a Protestant church and Sunday School every weekend, straight-A report card, etc. But a few incidents stick out, in particular:

  • While growing ever-more-increasingly Westernized, my parents, throughout my youth, continued to frequent the local Asian Groceries (albeit more and more infrequently). One of the snacks they would occasionally purchase there - and which I found not so much tasty as intriguing - was made of this sort of cheeto-like material; except, instead of being coated in "cheese" and "cheese" flavoring, it tasted like shrimp. One time, during a kindergarden lunch, I made the mistake of bringing - or my mom made the mistake of packing, in the best of intentions? - a bag of them to school. The White girl with whom I usually traded sandwiches and snack foods turned up her nose at them, declaring them - I'm paraphrasing - "smelly" or "yucky". I must have been 5 or 6; that was, I believe, the first time I had ever been told that something which I considered normal - banal, even - might be Different.
  • Towards the end of my attendance of that Christian school (I realize, only at this moment, that the reason my parents probably entrusted me to them was that both my mother and father grew up going to Christian schools in Southeast Asia; and they were likely sending me to this school in hopes of my attaining the same education with which they had been bestowed), I recall that I came home one day and casually, after dinner, reading some book about geography or cultures or something of that nature, pulled my already asiatic eyes up into an exaggerated slant, telling my mom: "look. Chinese!" I can still remember her horrified response, the shock with which she realized that this so-called Christian education (I don't blame the church, of course; I do blame the ignorance and idiocy of young children, coupled with the race-blind/PC-disavowing/culturally underinformed nature of many well-intentioned evangelical communities) was actually driving a wedge between her son and her own background (I recently discovered that she had actually been planning, prior to the time she became pregnant with me, to go into law to help out asian-american and immigration issues). Shortly thereafter, for a host of reasons, my parents pulled me out of that school.
  • Something that's often echoed by various generations and varieties of Asian-Americans is the sentiment of being a "perpetual foreigner": a Japanese-American senator, whose family has been in this country for over 80 years, once remarked that he still continually receives compliments for speaking English "so fluently". As a youth, I too had these jarring encounters: trivial at the time, I brushed them off casually, dismissing them as isolated incidents of ignorance or misinformation. Of course, the fact remains, at 23, and with a far broader range of experiences in the intervening years, I can still remember, vividly, the repeated confusion of being asked by young White children, "So, where are you from?" and the frustration of having to, repeatedly, explain that I was from Illinois - or California - or Delaware. I knew who I was, and where I was from; so why couldn't these other kids? A dilemma emerged: either they were simply stupid and couldn't see the blatantly obvious (which seemed unlikely, given that my American-ness seemed to me overt), or the premises on which I had established my identity, with my internal concept of The Normal American Childhood derived from my own experience, were faulty.

2 & 3. as a chinese american, how do you identify yourself? what does being "chinese american" mean to you

Given the circumstances of my upbringing, and my parents' immigration, I think it wouldn't come as much of a surprise to hear that my view of myself, in my younger years, was basically that line about "diversity" that we were fed back in the day: "We want to be color-blind." I bought into the construal of Ethnicity that said the best way to accept everyone was to "just look at people as people, not as their skin color." So I applied this happily homogenizing view to myself, and those around me, and assumed that our points of view, personal experiences, and inculcated values more or less lined up. The emphasis in those days was definitely more on "American" than on "Chinese".

In recent years, I've been coming to hold a more subtle approach towards regarding my ethnic heritage: without running out the clock (because I definitely could), the basic outline of my thoughts go as such:
  • The term "Asian-American" is in itself dangerous, because it is an umbrella term for vastly disparate groups: in the same way that pitting inner-city Boston Irish youth with jailed parents against as Upper East Side, trust fund, private school kids is unfair in terms of social neediness, so is judging the children of Hmong, Vietnamese, Cambodian, and Filipino refugees against the kids of Chinese, Japanese, and South Korean businessmen, professors, etc. Not to mention that thinking that every Chinese immigrant is privileged, well-educated, and well-behaved - the "Model Minority" myth - is itself damaging in many ways to Chinese-American communities, for a whole variety of deep-seated reasons.
  • For those of us who identify as "American of Chinese Heritage," there is a fine balance to be struck between that "American" and "...of Chinese Heritage". It's foolish to think that I am Chinese: in China, I might be allowed to call myself a "hua ren" (华人) that is, one of the Han Chinese, but I am not a "zhongguo ren" (中国人) that is, a Chinese person. Culturally, in terms of my fundamental assumptions about the world, I am a product of the West. It's important to point out that I don't harbor unnaturally Sinocentric political sympathies, and I'm not going to be a threat to peace in the American homeland or abroad (well, I oppose American hegemony - but that's for entirely different reasons): it's important to remind myself, and others, of this, because the reality is that many still fall into the mindset of Executive Order 9066 and "Yellow Peril", where any Asiatic face is viewed as a potential defector to the long-left-behind "Motherland." Of course returning to China - or heck, even Asia - gives me a warm feeling. But I have White friends who acquire the same sense of Homecoming upon their return to England, France, or Poland; and there is no forbidding sense of fraternizing with the enemy that lies upon their journeys.
  • One interesting thing that I have realized is that "Asian America" exists: even as I decry the use of the term, the fact is, whether for right or wrong (I would say more wrong than right), we are seen as a monolithic group. But that makes certain connections possible in the American "melting pot" that otherwise may never occur: a Chinese person in China may never deign to bridge the gap and initiate a friendship with a Japanese individual. But my relationships with my Japanese and Japanese-American friends - heck, even your own parentage, right? - demonstrate that "Asian America" can serve as something of its own melting pot; even if we remain, perhaps, to the side of the rest of the "melting pot" (whether cultural, genetic, or otherwise), at least Asian America has served, it seems, to bridge divides that may not have happened in our mother countries.
There are other thoughts, but these are the ones that first come to mind.

4. how do you think "chinese american" is being represented? by AA? by the public? How accurate are these portrayals?

I think that the public image of Chinese-Americans is problematic, with the blame being distributed all around (though perhaps not equally): Chinese-Americans are at fault for playing into the role of a "Model Minority", passively or actively unwilling to speak out against a dominant and domineering culture, choosing to succeed by means of intellect or behind-the-scenes work instead of through protest and resistence (to generalize largely). Of course, Chinese immigrants' approach to a hostile culture is not to blame: given particular cultural values held by Chinese-Americans, this was the natural, moral, course. And the White media and government is at fault: anti-miscegenation laws, portrayals of the threat of "China Rising," anti-Japanese WWII propaganda (but no propaganda supporting our allies, no pro-Chinese or pro-Korean messages to counteract the inevitable conflation of our three sister cultures), E.O. 9066, all these were designed to Otherize and tokenize Asian peoples, to aggrandize the panic of American businessmen and laborers concerned with increasing competition from across the Pacific. The inherited reminders of these shackles - whether in popular culture or governmental representation - is still evident.

When talking about public, popular, media images of Chinese-Americans, three concepts spring to mind: Kung Fu Master, Exotic Asian Beauty, and Smart Chinaman.
  • These portrayals are all highly damaging. Exoticism has been dealt with in a lot of gender/ethnic studies literature, but, in brief: to describe someone as "exotic" is to claim that they are attractive because they are not-me: they are the Other. Exotification is objectification and tokenization taken, in many ways, to its height: a person no longer represents a valued individual Self, but instead an alien, unrecognizable, unable-to-be-sympathized-with culture.
  • Media obsession with Exotic Asian Beauties is particularly disturbing given that much contact between Americans and Asian women was in the form of soldiers interacting with wartime prostitutes during the Korean and Vietnam wars. The stereotypes of the Shy Asian Girl and the Seductive Asian Woman (the "Dragon Lady") conflate into a figure that is deserving of both moral scorn and sexual depredation. This is, of course, a faulty stereotype: it is an incredibly transparent attempt to remove en masse the femininity and womanhood of Asian females, in the same way that Black women were degraded by simultaneously being sexualized and defeminized by becoming the unacknowledged mistresses of slave-owners.
  • Of course, one subtype of the Exotic Asian Beauty, that deserves particular mention, is the Madame Butterfly: caught up in the wiles and victimized by her brutal countrymen, this woman must be saved by the noble White hero. This stereotype is particularly notable because it implies that the Asians can't be trusted with taking care of their own: whether the next generation, the land, the businesses, the government, or the military, the natives need to be rescued by the strong white Savior. While it's true that Asian - and, yes, particularly Chinese culture - has been incredibly behind in terms of gender parity, and while I am by no means an anti-miscegenist, I do worry about the more or less pervasive idea that an Asian woman's dream is to escape the bonds of her culture and fly away to Western civilization and, apparently, cultural enlightenment.
  • The Kung Fu Master is, in its own way, a dangerous stereotype. On one hand, it is fairly empowering and masculinizing. The downside of it is that any Chinese-American who shows strength will be associated with the Kung Fu Master. A strong Black man is not automatically compared to Mohammad Ali: but strong Chinese (or even broadly Asian) men will almost inevitably be compared to Bruce Lee. Again, this stereotype - while not necessarily negative - strips the target of his or her individuality, and places them within a narrowly defined role with little room for expansion beyond.
  • And the Smart Chinaman is the very type of the Model Minority myth: the backhanded insult, the barbed compliment. It can be simultaneously dismissive of individual accomplishment - "Of course you did well on the math test, you asian" - and concealment for more subtle racism - "OK, so maybe Chinese-Americans have some problems, but you guys are doing so well! Look at your college acceptance rates! How can you complain about a couple of movie roles and some jokes on the radio and TV?"

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