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In several papers I received recently from college students in a first-year writing seminar, the following exemplifies how many described the family members who are the protagonists of Gish Jen's novel The Love Wife: "The Bailey-Wong family consists of Blondie, an American; Carnegie, a Chinese-American; Wendy and Lizzie, two adopted Asian girls; and Bailey, the natural son of Blondie and Carnegie." In fact, every member of the Wong family is American by citizenship, four of them by birth. Carnegie is a second-generation Chinese American. Of the two daughters, one is adopted from China, the other is of unknown Asian heritage and born and adopted in the United States. Blondie, as one can readily guess from that descriptive nickname, is Caucasian, and she alone merits being labeled "American." This was very frustrating to me. The seminar class had had numerous conversations precisely about the issue of the unconscious equation of "white" with "American" and vice versa. We had discussed how, in Changrae Lee's novel Native Speaker, the Korean American protagonist's description of his Caucasian wife as "my American wife" (16) disclosed his alienation from full participation in and claim to American society. To break that unthinking equation between race and citizenship and to draw attention to the exclusionary subtext of that equation were among the basic aims of my course. And, at least with some students, I seem to have failed. Further, just as students readily associate the descriptor "American" with Caucasians of European heritage, they are even more ready to conflate "Asian" and "Asian American," so that geographic origin, no matter how remote, trumps any subsequent affiliations for persons of Asian heritage in the United States. A hint of this thinking can be seen in the description in the student paper quoted above of the two adopted girls as "Asian." Similarly, students will use "Japanese" for Japanese American, "Korean" for Korean American, etc., so that the second is unproblematically subsumed under the first. Such essentialist thinking finds further expression in the students' desire to read ethnographically the behavior of Asian Americans represented in literary texts as reflective the norms of some native culture, rather than an accommodation to or negotiation of their place in America. Thus when confronted with the variously silenced protagonist of Maxine Hong Kingston's Woman Warrior, students will remark on the stereotypical quietness of the Asian or Asian American woman, despite Kingston's explicit characterization of her Chinese mother and Chinese women in general as loud, and her complex examination of the sources of the protagonist's silences. So, too, the Japanese American family in When the Emperor Was Divine is described as "introverted," turning the stereotype into a matter of negative personal psychology. More often than not, students will overlook any causal relationship between the protagonists' behavior and the historical experiences--the internments--that shape their lives and psyches.

January 1
Southeast Conference of the Association for Asian Studies
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