Thursday, March 06, 2014

On the Poetry Foundation's "Asian American Voices in Poetry"

This letter was originally sent to the Poetry Foundation's web editors in response to their feature "Asian American Voices in Poetry," which includes a list of some 100 Asian American poets.  When originally posted, the list included a "country of heritage" for most of the authors.  In response to this letter and other feedback received by the editors, the "countries of heritage" have since been removed.

Dear Editors,

I want to begin by thanking you for posting "Asian American Voices in Poetry." This is a wonderful and even groundbreaking recognition of the large, vital, growing community of Asian American poets, and I'm delighted to be included alongside so many other great writers. I'm particularly impressed by the work of not just listing these authors but of creating bios for each of them--a tremendously important contribution, given that little information about many of these writers, even the established ones, is available online.

I do want to raise one significant concern about this feature. I find the decision to list the "country of heritage" for each author troubling. I acknowledge the good intentions behind this choice, but I fear, as others have pointed out, that it reinforces the image of the Asian American as perpetual foreigner. I was not born in China, so to see myself listed as "Timothy Yu, China" is a rather alienating experience, one that makes a curious statement about my identity and my work. What does it mean for me to be labeled "China"? Does it mean that I have more in common with others on the list who share the label "China" than with those who have other labels?

There is a significant difference, I would suggest, between labeling me "China" and calling me, say, a Chinese American. Asian Americans in particular have often struggled to be recognized as Americans at all; as several others have pointed out, your feature on Latina/o writers, in contrast, does not list each writer's "country of heritage." The corresponding claim that Asian American writers "emerge out of a broad range of Eastern influences" risks exoticizing Asian American writers, since it assumes that all of us feature some kind of "Eastern" element in our work.

Many authors on this list may simply view themselves as Americans. Others, like myself, may identify more strongly with a community of other Asian Americans--a pan-ethnic, politically defined category that is defined more by links and connections in the present, or by US histories of race and racism, than by evocations of some ancestral past.

I would urge you to strengthen this feature by removing the "countries of heritage" entirely. If you choose not to remove these labels, I respectfully request that my country be changed to "Asian America."

Timothy Yu

Friday, September 27, 2013

Chinese Silence No. 80, for David Gilmour

I said I would only teach the people that I truly, truly love. Unfortunately, none of those happen to be Chinese, or women.

I can’t really give you the tour.  I’ve just moved, it’s a mess, and I just got out of bed, and the books here, well, they’re so sophisticated you probably wouldn’t understand them, and…

Okay, I’ll be honest.  It’s because you’re Chinese.

I don’t have anything against Chinese people.  I just don’t love them.  When I was given this job I said I would only teach the people that I truly, truly love.  Unfortunately, none of those happen to be Chinese. 

Usually at the beginning of the semester a hand shoots up and someone asks why there aren’t any Chinese people in the course.  I say I don’t love Chinese enough to teach them, if you want Chinese go down the street to Lee’s Garden.

Chekhov, of course, was not Chinese.  He had a loud Western laugh, so they would never let him into a Chinese restaurant.  Everyone who ever met Chekhov somehow became a little less Chinese.

I’m a natural teacher.  What I teach is guys, real guy-guys.  Heterosexual, not Chinese.

I read this book about China once.  There were men with long fingernails stroking tiny bound feet.  I know the difference between pornography and great literature.  All my favorite parts are underlined.

I teach only the best.  What happens with great literature is that the Chinese in the shadows keep moving around.  Stop that.  What’s intolerable is Chinese who give up all their secrets, like Fu Manchu.  I’ve watched him a hundred times and there’s nothing new in him. 

Wednesday, July 03, 2013

The Tang of Silence

Last week, the Academy of American Poets' Poem-A-Day posted Bruce Cohen's "Tang," which included the following note from the author:  
Lately I have been worried and depressed over the fact that my poetic voice was becoming stale, my persona and language too familiar, and quite simply, I was bored with myself.  In order to shake myself out of my funk I started reading some translations of the more obscure ancient Chinese poets to trigger or shock myself into some alien sensibility; paradoxically, I aspired to be un-American while remaining nostalgic...
Of course, Cohen's talk of China as an "alien" and "un-American" culture made him a perfect subject for my series of Chinese Silences. So here's my response to his poem.

Chinese Silence No. 77
after Bruce Cohen, "Tang"

If I do not witness these poets turning Chinese, who will?

I quiet myself:
I will not think

Of myself as an obscure Poet from the Alien East,
Ancient yellow monster
Astronauts found orbiting a silent planet
That became a quaint modern poetry staple,

The excluded alien's bitter tears on the voyage out,
Anything differing in nature or character to the point of incompatibility.

Isn't it a very poetic moment when each of us
Recognizes we are Chinese,
That we're shocking, un-American perhaps,
& need translation to make us valid,

Sidekicks on the cutting-room floor,
Cracked hands digging for buried ore,
Born in the aftermath of earthquake's wrack,

Or watching your poems grow
Nostalgic about us
That we discover it is
To ever become
One hundred percent American?

I am bored with you right now, in this poem.

My mind's not as silent as it used to be either.
There is all this ching-chong chatter.

None of us can shake our Chinese lives.

I mean American: I meant fake:
Lately I have been worried and depressed over the fact that my poetic voice was becoming stale, my persona and language too familiar, and, quite simply, I was bored with myself. In order to shake myself out of my funk I started reading some translations of the more obscure ancient Chinese poets to trigger or shock myself into some alien sensibility: paradoxically, I aspired to be un-American while remaining nostalgic - See more at:
Lately I have been worried and depressed over the fact that my poetic voice was becoming stale, my persona and language too familiar, and, quite simply, I was bored with myself. In order to shake myself out of my funk I started reading some translations of the more obscure ancient Chinese poets to trigger or shock myself into some alien sensibility: paradoxically, I aspired to be un-American while remaining nostalgic - See more at:
Lately I have been worried and depressed over the fact that my poetic voice was becoming stale, my persona and language too familiar, and, quite simply, I was bored with myself. In order to shake myself out of my funk I started reading some translations of the more obscure ancient Chinese poets to trigger or shock myself into some alien sensibility: paradoxically, I aspired to be un-American while remaining nostalgic - See more at:
Lately I have been worried and depressed over the fact that my poetic voice was becoming stale, my persona and language too familiar, and, quite simply, I was bored with myself. In order to shake myself out of my funk I started reading some translations of the more obscure ancient Chinese poets to trigger or shock myself into some alien sensibility: paradoxically, I aspired to be un-American while remaining nostalgic - See more at:
Lately I have been worried and depressed over the fact that my poetic voice was becoming stale, my persona and language too familiar, and, quite simply, I was bored with myself. In order to shake myself out of my funk I started reading some translations of the more obscure ancient Chinese poets to trigger or shock myself into some alien sensibility: paradoxically, I aspired to be un-American while remaining nostalgic - See more at:

Monday, September 17, 2012

"I Refuse to Ever Date an Asian Man": Racetrolling, Self-Sabotage, and How Not to Read Junot Diaz

A couple weeks ago, my Facebook feed blew up over a post called "I'm an Asian Woman and I Refuse to Ever Date an Asian Man." Eye-roll, please: there's nothing more likely to get Asian Americans riled up than the subject of interracial dating--except maybe the question of why some Asians don't find other Asians attractive. Self-loathing, betrayal, the emasculated Asian man--all wrapped up into one infuriating headline. And, most of us thought with a groan, it's all been said before.

But there was something weird about this one. On Facebook, Angry Asian Man called the piece "one of the more misguided and self-loathing things I've ever read," but added: "The confounding thing is, the author seems to be fully aware of that." (He declined to post a link to it on his main blog, but that didn't stop 160 FB commenters from chiming in.) The piece, authored by Jenny An for the blog xoJane, was peppered with inflammatory comments ("I'm a racist") and seemingly ignorant self-loathing ("Dating white men means acceptance into American culture"). But idiotic self-hating racists don't generally reference "white supremacy," "patriarchy," and "cultural sexism," while finishing off with a quote from Junot Diaz. 

It was a crazy jumble. It cited stereotypes of Asian American men ("geeky," "scrawny," "effeminate," "small penises"), but then An said she liked those things, and that she preferred white men anyway. It expressed hatred for the "model minority" stereotype, but then said that dating white men was a way of escaping (not reinforcing) that stereotype, and that it was also a fuck-you to "antiquated ideas of Asian unity" (kiss my ass, Asian American movement!). Whaaa? The piece left Asian Americans with heads spinning--but mostly mad.

The indefatigable Jeff Yang decided to get in touch with An and see what the hell she was up to. Yang, like many readers, assumed that the piece was a deliberate provocation, and An confirmed as much:
The notion that An came up with was to write from the perspective of someone whose ideals were shaped by “white supremacy,” showing its “impact on non-whites.” “Seriously — one of the pictures is of me holding a white elephant in a room,” she says. “And well, I figured nobody likes being told that they are racist, so I decided to use the first person. Plus, it's xoJane. That's their thing.”
Well, it's a pretty typical defense for a writer accused of racism: to say the whole thing was a persona, a fictional voice. It's a convenient move, since it allows the author to dodge responsibility for her statements while simultaneously ridiculing critics who are too unsophisticated to know a persona when they see it. (Poetry readers among you may find a echo of Tony Hoagland's debate with Claudia Rankine, in which Hoagland asserts, "Of course I am racist.") And, like all such explanations, it wasn't very plausible. Its seeming obliviousness to the piece's effect on readers seemed disingenuous. It reminded me, as it did many others, of Amy Chua's backpedaling in the wake of the Tiger Mother backlash, when she lamely claimed that her book was "self-parody"--which made me wonder if she'd read it.

Yang had a much better explanation. He rather brilliantly dubbed An's work "racetrolling": "putting outrageous, extreme and possibly offensive racial statements defiantly in plain view and waiting for reaction to roll in." Asian Americans, with their major online presence, are especially ripe for such trolling, and so An and xoJane found just the right triggers that would drive Asian Americans bonkers--especially when voiced by an Asian American.

So why bother with An? Why not just consign her post to the dustbin? Because I think Yang is right, and that we're seeing in her piece a new phenomenon.  Not just that someone's figured out that you can get a whole lot of page views by provoking Asian Americans.  But that An's piece is representative of a new mode of confusion and self-sabotage among Asian Americans--one also embodied, in very different ways, in another recent text An name-checked in her post: Wesley Yang's "Paper Tigers."

Here's how it basically goes: Jenny An is pretty smart. She attended some elite college that's a "bastion of liberal thought," where she learned enough to toss around terms like "patriarchy" and "white supremacy." She knows how Asian Americans are stereotyped and doesn't like it. She appreciates writers of color like Junot Diaz who call out racism. And despite all this, she has a concept of what it means to be Asian American that is so meager, so impoverished, that she can only be revolted by it. It's only an identity of elimination--what you are when you're not something else. So you've only got two choices: act out the stereotype, or withdraw into nihilism. One FB commenter cracked that it was like An had taken half of an Asian American studies class at some point. To which I responded, if she did, it was the wrong half.

Let's begin with An's claim that her post should be read as satire. As she puts it in a follow-up post:
Writers create characters. Call it first-person character, a writerly persona, performance art, whatever. Stir in some strong statements to make it more bloggable, call it a troll if you will. Or call it saying: I'd never, ever, ever do this, but it's just, yeah, I don't do it all that often.
Satire works, when it works, when an author has an exquisite degree of control over all those "whatevers" and "if you wills." If you want to use a persona to critique or satirize a position, there needs to be another position in which your reader can stand to see that persona and see the ways in which it's wrong. Or, if you're really clever, you can also satirize the reader himself by playing with his expectations, not giving him such a place to stand, by constantly showing him how his own position is just as benighted as any.

Unfortunately, An chose neither of these paths.
Nobody wants to be a racist. And by proclaiming my character as one, I thought I was stating that the position I was presenting was in the wrong. I didn't think I needed to unpack that one.
The basic idea here is that since no one would actually say, "I am racist," it should have been patently obvious that An was creating a fictional character.

Sorry, but that's just lazy. It would be nice if being racist, or admitting to it, automatically disqualified you from being an actual human being, but that's hardly the case. In fact, you might even say that it's become vaguely fashionable to be "honest" about your biases, to be "politically incorrect"--because hey, isn't everyone a little bit racist?
Anyway, An doesn't have much of a leg to stand on, since the whole point of her follow-up post is that she is, indeed, a racist, and that it is courageous of her to admit this:
Until I could say out loud that I was racist toward Asians, I couldn't accept my Asian-American self.
For god's sake, the piece itself is called "Recognizing My Internal 'Racism' as an Asian Woman Is the Only Way for Me to Fix It." So if An's goal was to create a fictional "racist" persona, she did a pretty lousy job of it.

How on earth could An have thought that was she was doing was not just insightful, but literary? One of the few things that caught my attention in her original post was her shout-out to Junot Diaz; I'm a big fan of Diaz's work, and I teach his novel The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao to my undergrads on a regular basis. Surely, I thought, someone who respectfully quotes Diaz cannot be as stupid as this article suggests.

In her conversation with Jeff Yang, An claimed to have been inspired by Diaz's depiction of "racial self-loathing" in Oscar Wao, "especially when it relates to romantic relationships." I wasn't the only Diaz fan to say: Huh?

What there is, indisputably, in Oscar Wao is an awareness of racial hierarchies. The elite private school that Oscar's mother attends in the Dominican Republic is a prime example: Oscar's mother is a dark-skinned outcast, while the rich boy she longs for is quite literally the fairest of them all. But even as he's showing us how his characters internalize racism, Diaz schools us in how those hierarchies come about, as his narration and footnotes sketch out the histories of colonialism and genocide that lie behind them.

Actually, Diaz has a short story that's right up An's alley: it's called "How to Date a Brown Girl (black girl, white girl, or halfie)." It's written as a how-to dating guide, broken down by race and class:
Don't panic. Say, Hey, no problem. Run a hand through your hair like the whiteboys do even though the only thing that runs easily through your hair is Africa. She will look good. The white ones are the ones you want the most, aren't they, but usually the out-of-towners are black, blackgirls who grew up with ballet and Girl Scouts, who have three cars in their driveways. If she's a halfie don't be surprised that her mother is white. Say, Hi. Her moms will say hi and you'll see that you don't scare her, not really.
Now I guess you could say, if you're An, that this is a study in "racial self-loathing"; the "you" prefers white girls to black ones, and tries to act like a "whiteboy" even though he isn't one. But that would hardly do justice to what's going on here. Diaz is offering up a painfully detailed analysis of race, class, gender, geography, acknowledging racial hierarchies (white girls as "the ones you want the most") while showing how the protagonist himself is shaped by them (trying to act like "the whiteboys do"). The protagonist doesn't just perpetuate these hierarchies; he's implicated in them, and so are we--a fact emphasized by the story's second-person address to "you." Diaz challenges us to confront our own racism, but he does so by showing how complex it is, how tied up it is with the texture of everyday experience and desire.

It's important to see that what's effective in Diaz's story is not its "honesty," its willingness to admit that racism exists. Instead, it's the story's objectivity, it's willingness to portray racism in all its nuances with an utterly cold eye--as the basis for a how-to guide. The result is powerful, but also chilling.

Maybe--just maybe--Jenny An thought she was trying to do something like this. She quotes Diaz from an Boston Review interview with Paula Moya (which if you haven't read, you should go read right now in all its brilliance) saying, "If a critique of white supremacy doesn’t first flow through you, doesn’t first implicate you, then you have missed the mark." But I guess An didn't read the rest of it, where Diaz goes to say:
But exposing our racisms, etc., accurately has never seemed to be enough; the problem with faithful representations is that they run the risk of being mere titillation or sensationalism. In my books, I try to show how these oppressive paradigms work together with the social reality of the characters to undermine the very dreams the characters have for themselves.
An does give us a few glimpses of the "social reality" that surrounds her confession. She cites statistics on outmarriage for Asian Americans (although she seems to think it's just a recent "trend"), references the model minority stereotype (although I'm not sure she actually understands what it is), and is creeped out by white men with Asian fetishes (until, I guess, she decides to date them). But the piece is so incoherent because An just simply has no idea how these social facts "work together" with an individual consciousness to make racism happen. The result, as Diaz warns, is titillation without insight.

Put simply: Jenny An thinks "I'm a racist" is a purely personal confession--as if it were a revelation of some embarrassing personal preference. (After all, this is in a feature called "It Happened to Me.") Everything that's cringeworthy in the piece--"what I'm looking for doesn't come in an Asian package," "it's because I can date non-Asian dudes," "my closet is filled with J. Crew," "it's the lifestyle I grew up with"--comes from this idea. But racism isn't just a preference--saying "I don't like Asians" isn't the same as saying "I don't like anchovies" or "I don't like football." Racism is a social phenomenon that affects individuals. Diaz gets this; An doesn't.

That's also why An's follow-up post about her own "internalized racism" is, if anything, even more painful. By claiming that her original post had theraputic value (for her), she shows that she's writing in an echo chamber, with no sense of her words' effects on others, and no sense of others who have gone through the same struggles, or the many who have already confronted and called out precisely the kinds of racism she finds in herself. I don't really care if An wants to "own her shit" or not. I do want to know if she realizes, at all, that there are other Asian Americans out there going through the same thing. When you don't realize that, all you've got is yourself and the stereotypes that surround you, which you can either accept or reject. And so self-consciousness becomes self-stereotyping.

It's here that I'm seeing a point of connection with the only other piece of Asian American writing referenced in An's piece: Wesley Yang's widely read essay "Paper Tigers." Now, there's little comparison between Yang's lengthy, extensively researched piece and An's tossed-off rant. But what An and Yang do have in common is that as much as both rage against the stereotypes that hobble Asian Americans' self-image, both ultimately accept those stereotypes, concluding that the only way to be free of them is to reject Asianness altogether.

Jenny An blames her aversion to Asian American men on her hatred of "the lifestyle I grew up with." Yang pretty much agrees; what makes the the Asian American man unattractive and weak is the shortcomings of the Asian culture he's been raised in:
What if you missed out on the lessons in masculinity taught in the gyms and locker rooms of America's high schools? What if life has failed to make you a socially dominant alpha male who runs the American boardroom and prevails in the American bedroom? What if no one ever taught you how to greet white people and make them comfortable?
Yang's essay, like An's, purports to be an indictment of racism, but ultimately it's an indictment of Asian Americans themselves, whose traditional upbringings leave them unequipped to make it in American culture. Self-loathing becomes the natural refuge: Yang's essay notoriously opens with a pitiless inventory of his own "slanted eyes," "pancake-flat" face, and "reptilian...impassivity." The only way out is by rejecting everything that could possibly be labeled "Asian":
Fuck filial piety. Fuck grade-grubbing. Fuck Ivy League mania. Fuck deference to authority. Fuck humility and hard work. Fuck harmonious relations. Fuck sacrificing for the future. Fuck earnest, striving middle-class servility.
Isn't this just the male version of "I'll never date an Asian man"? If being an Asian American man is nothing more than being a collection of these traits, than what can an Asian American man do but hate himself? And what can an Asian American woman do but refuse to have anything to do with him?

Yes, this is "internalized racism." But what An and Yang do is not to analyze that racism (as Diaz does), but to affirm its truth.

The saddest statement in An's follow-up post is this one:
I wish someone would have told me earlier that these feelings of otherness are normal, that you just have to recognize them and be truthful. That those feelings are internalized racism so you can resolve them to expunge yourself of it.
I wish that too, because then maybe An wouldn't think that the only way to deal with feeling different is to "expunge" that feeling, or to retreat into a fantasy of what she calls "self-race annihilation." Because although she references Diaz on white supremacy, she doesn't seem to have the slightest inkling that Asian American writers themselves have grappled with these very issues for generations. How about Frank Chin's 1972 essay "Confessions of a Chinatown Cowboy":
The stereotype of us being a race without manhood has been so thoroughly and subtly suffused throughout American culture for so long that it's become a comfortable part of the American subconscious...Our lack of manliness and all that manliness means in this culture--aggressiveness, creativity, individuality, just being taken seriously--is subtly but visibly confirmed in the movies and life imitating the dark art. Chinese America was rigged to be a race of males going extinct without women.
For all the extremity of his argument, Chin--unlike An or Yang--recognizes that stereotypes have a history, and that they have a function in suppressing the Asian American voice.

Or how about Maxine Hong Kingston's Woman Warrior, warning us against any assurance that we "know" what Asian culture is:
Chinese-Americans, when you try to understand what things in you are Chinese, how do you separate what is peculiar to childhood, to poverty, insanities, one family, your mother who marked your growing with stories, from what is Chinese? What is Chinese tradition and what is the movies?
Jenny An, for all her "honesty," knows less than these Asian American writers of the 1970s knew. White supremacy and the model minority are cliches to her, lines she learned in a classroom; racism is so obvious it doesn't need to be explained. And her piece shows the danger of this half-knowledge: she knows enough to know the stereotypes about Asian Americans, but not enough to know that these stereotypes are not facts. Nor does she know that Asian Americans have, for decades now, been struggling to define themselves in a way that goes beyond such cultural cliches--a struggle that depends on the idea of "unity" that she so casually dismisses. An's "confession" doesn't expose racism so much as it reinforces it. By presenting anti-Asian racism as a merely personal failing, rather than a social fact, she robs us--and herself--of the tools we need to understand how Asian Americans might see themselves, and each other, differently.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Jeremy Lin, Ping Pong Playa, and Asian American Dreams

Asian Americans (and plenty of other folks) are going bonkers over Jeremy Lin, the undrafted point guard from Harvard who's become an overnight sensation for the New York Knicks. Now, Lin is not the first Asian American to become a superstar athlete; nor is he the first Asian to star in the NBA. He is merely, as the sports pages have been so carefully putting it, the first American-born player of Chinese or Taiwanese descent to play in the NBA.

Yet many Asian Americans see Lin's rise as nothing short of revolutionary. The veteran blogger Jeff Yang--whose eloquent coverage of Lin's triumph over the Lakers is a must-read--wondered on Facebook immediately after that game if "this is where everything changes." Poet David Mura posted: "Seeing an Asian American guy go down the lane and jam it? Science fiction. A little frightening how hopped up it makes me feel." More than one full-grown Asian American man reported himself on the verge of tears that night.

So what's the big deal? Sure, the spectacular rise of an unheralded "underdog," as reporters were calling Lin all week, is a heartwarming human interest story, and the fact that he's an Asian American in a sport where Asians are exceedingly rare is a novelty. But how does the emergence of Jeremy Lin as a basketball star "change everything" for Asian Americans?

To answer this question, we could do a lot worse than to look at a 2007 comedy called Ping Pong Playa, which is about another Asian American kid with NBA dreams. It's a film that hilariously, but also quite brilliantly, shows how the fantasy of an Asian American basketball star is a parable about  the limits Asian Americans face--and about a racial masculinity that Asian Americans have historically been denied.

Directed by Jessica Yu (no relation, really), Ping Pong Playa is the story of Christopher Wang, a young Chinese American man from California who, like Jeremy Lin, dreams of being the first Chinese American in the NBA.  Chris's aspirations make him a misfit in his comically model Asian American family: his parents run a ping-pong academy and shop, and his older brother is (of course) a doctor.  Chris, in contrast, is a slacker who can't hold down a job, and whose swagger, slang, and hip-hop style (he insists on being called "C-Dub") make him a seemingly bizarre spectacle to his parents and their friends.

Most of the movie's humor flows from the idea that its premise is inherently absurd: it's just ridiculous for an Asian American to want to play professional basketball. Why? Well, we're just not built for it. Andrew Leonard of Salon reminded us of this in hitting one of the few sour notes on the rise of Jeremy Lin, calling him "a triumph of will over genetic endowment." Translation? Asians are short. As C-Dub puts it in the opening scene of Ping Pong Playa: 
People think that sports is fair, you know, just 'cause it got rules and stuff. You know, but is it fair that, you know, Chinese people are short or, you know, we have fewer fast-twitch muscles in our legs?
 C-Dub uses his "genetic disadvantage"as an excuse for his failures, but the truth is starker: he's got no talent anyway. That's hammered home in a humiliating scene in which C-Dub's African American best friend arranges a pickup game with a group of middle-aged African American men. These "geezers" proceed to destroy C-Dub on the court:
C-Dub's shots are blocked, his dribbles are stolen--worst of all, he even gets dunked on. Check out the angle on that first shot: it's as C-Dub is being looked at from above, cowering in fear at his opponent's intimidating glare. The message is clear: on the court with real players (who are all black men), C-Dub can't compete. Too short, too slow, no game. Asian men can't jump.

C-Dub isn't just faking it on the basketball court. His style (always wearing a basketball jersey) and speech are also interpreted by other Chinese Americans as a racial masquerade. His mother's friends whisper about him as "the one who talks like a black person." It comes up again in an argument with his father:
C-Dub: C'mon, dawg, man, it's just--

Father: Dog! [In Chinese] This is what I'm talking about! You call your father a dog? Why do you always talk like a gangster?
Well, that's what the subtitles say; C-Dub's father is literally saying, "Why do you talk like a black person?" So whether it's on the basketball court or in everyday speech, this is C-Dub's central comic flaw: he is pretending to be black.

I'm reminded here of a passage I often teach to my students from Frank Chin's provocative 1972 essay "Confessions of a Chinatown Cowboy," in which Chin recalls taking as his schoolboy models of masculinity "bad blacks and bad Mexicans," since as a Chinese American he had "no manly style of my own":
They had a walk, a way of wearing their pants on the brink of disaster, a tongue, a kingdom of manly style everyone respected...There I was, hair held up high and back with Tuxedo wax, edges of hair by my ears turned down and shaped into fake sideburns and spit curls, toothpick in my mouth, pants low, belt buckle on my hip, and black-and-white basketball shoes...copping another man's flash.
Like C-Dub, Chin discovers his masculinity is a pose, copied from those--primarily African American men--who truly own it.

C-Dub eventually redeems himself through a reluctant embrace of a more culturally "appropriate" sport--ping-pong--when he enters a tournament in place of his injured brother. For C-Dub, becoming a ping-pong player is at first a humiliating capitulation to stereotype--right down to the embarrassing short-shorts his father gives him to wear--but he eventually infuses his game with his own style, making his entrance for the championship round in a basketball jersey and to a hip-hop beat on the soundtrack.

What Ping Pong Playa shows us is that the basketball court is a proving ground for a certain kind of American masculinity--one that is pretty much owned by African American men. And in its clever, lighthearted way, it tells us that Asian Americans can't compete there--that they best find more appropriate avenues for proving their manhood. It's probably no accident that another contemporary film of Asian American youthful angst--the drama Better Luck Tomorrow--also features basketball frustration, as the high-school protagonist turns to a life of crime after being denied in his basketball aspirations.

So what does all this tell us about Jeremy Lin and why Asian Americans are obsessed with him?

Well, in some ways, Lin is less like C-Dub than like C-Dub's older brother--a model Asian American boy-next-door. He is the son of immigrants, excelled in academics, and graduated from Harvard. He's humble and self-effacing, deflecting attention from himself and heaping praise on his teammates and coach. He's a devout Christian and a "testament to perseverance and hard work." In some ways, he looks to be every inch the "model minority."

And yet...he also does this.
In Ping Pong Playa, getting dunked on is the ultimate humiliation for C-Dub. But here's Lin, dunking on the guy who was the No. 1 draft pick in the year that nobody drafted Lin. On seeing this, most people's reaction was like that of Lin's teammate Tyson Chandler: "I didn't know he could dunk." To which Asian Americans responded with glee, "Yes, AN ASIAN GUY CAN DUNK."

I think what many Asian Americans respond to in watching Jeremy Lin is not the stellar numbers or the winning streak. It's the body language, the way he moves and carries himself on the court. He doesn't just defer to others, hang back waiting for a shot or pass the ball around. He attacks the basket, directs the offense, gets in opponents' faces. He's fearless. And he celebrates with his whole body, without restraint or self-consciousness, and with a touch of mischief.
What we see in Lin is someone who can go toe-to-toe with basketball's best, not just in ability but in his whole way of being. His earnest humility doesn't stop him from strutting a little after hitting an incredible shot. What might seem like a pose for someone like C-Dub feels utterly natural for Lin: he might have needed a lucky break to get his shot, but on the court his body language tells us he's apologizing to no one for being there.
Lin is electrifying Asian Americans because he's telling us that Ping Pong Playa is wrong. In a culture where Asian American masculinity has been deemed nonexistent, Lin is rewriting the script. There's a reason a number of Asian American pundits have begun comparing Lin to Bruce Lee, another Asian American who revolutionized our culture's image of Asian men. Let's put it bluntly: Lin can perform on a stage filled with powerful African American athletes, stand shoulder-to-shoulder with them (and even outplay them), yet remain utterly himself and comfortable in his own skin. There's nothing fake, nothing posed in his persona on or off the court. Somehow he combines things widely associated with being Asian American--hard work, selflessness, intelligence, piety--with a physical presence and confidence we've never seen before in the public arena. It's not a surprising combination to anyone familiar with younger Asian Americans--Jeremy Lin may well be what our future looks like--but it is utterly, exhilaratingly new on the American scene.

This is why Asian Americans love Jeremy Lin: he's everything we are, and he's everything we've been told we can never be.

Monday, January 30, 2012

"Unleash Ch(i)ang"

A Q&A with Senator Marco Rubio, Republican of Florida and Tea Party darling, in Sunday's New York Times Magazine included a puzzling anecdote about former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and an ancient Chinese warrior:
After you became the first Cuban-American speaker of the Florida House of Representatives, in 2006, your mentor, Jeb Bush, presented you with a sword. What was that about?
Chang is a mythical conservative warrior. From time to time, if there’s a big issue going on, you’d see Jeb say, “I’m going to unleash Chang.” He gave me the sword of Chang.

From which mythology does this conservative warrior hail?

I think it’s a Jeb Bush creation.
Indeed, Bush described the legend of Chang at some length at that event: 
“Chang is a mystical warrior. Chang is somebody who believes in conservative principles, believes in entrepreneurial capitalism, believes in moral values that underpin a free society. 

“I rely on Chang with great regularity in my public life. He has been by my side and sometimes I let him down. But Chang, this mystical warrior, has never let me down.”

Bush then unsheathed a golden sword and gave it to Rubio as a gift.

”I’m going to bestow to you the sword of a great conservative warrior,” he said, as the crowd roared.
It turns out, though, that Jeb most likely inherited the catchphrase "unleash Chang" not from ancient legend or from a kung-fu movie, but from his father. As Timothy Noah writes:
"Unleash Chang," or the more historically precise "unleash Chiang," is something Jeb Bush's father, the 41st president of the United States, liked to say when he was about to smash a tennis ball over the net. It meant "give you the best that I've got..."

"Unleash Chiang!" is a reference to the nationalist Chinese exile leader, Chiang Kai Shek. Specifically it was a battle cry of the American right during the Korean War. It meant that the U.S. should remove the Seventh Fleet from the Taiwan Strait (there to keep the peace between the mainland and Taiwan) so that Chiang could re-invade communist China and whup Mao.
Evening Independent, 10/7/66
Noah scolds Rubio for being ignorant of this meaning, although that seems a little harsh; as Matthew Yglesias notes, it's rather more embarrassing that Jeb (the "less stupid" Bush) himself doesn't appear to know what it means. 

What I'm most interested in is the little Legend of Ch(i)ang that Jeb has substituted for the real Chiang--a story that has at once nothing and everything to do with the original context, and that goes some way to explaining why contemporary American conservatives love to unleash their inner "Changs."

Jeb Bush's "Chang" is a "mystical warrior," a sword-wielding badass ripped straight from martial-arts stereotypes. But he is also, of all things, a champion of "entrepreneurial capitalism," an ideal that doesn't really feature in your typical Hong Kong action flick. What's that about?

Here's where Jeb's Chang meets up with a statement recently attributed to his fellow Republican, Newt Gingrich. In comments written for (then deleted from) a 1993 speech, Gingrich remarked:
For poor minorities, entrepreneurship in small business is the key to future wealth. This is understood thoroughly by most of the Asians, partially by Latinos, and to a tragically small degree by much of the American black community.
For both Gingrich and Jeb Bush, being Asian has some "mystical" connection to being an entrepreneur and capitalist--one that, in Gingrich's elaboration, is not shared by other non-white racial groups.

What we're seeing here, of course, is yet another version of the model minority stereotype, in which Asian Americans rate as "whiter" than other minorities because of their supposed allegiance to values of hard work, self-reliance, and accumulation of wealth. Because these traits are often attributed to "Asian" cultural values ("Confucianism"), they're often extended to Asians in Asia--an extension often abetted by Asian leaders (most famously Singapore's Lee Kuan Yew) who attribute their nations' booming capitalist economies to Confucian values.

All of this helps explain why conservatives like Gingrich, Jeb Bush, and Rubio would not just admire but identify with Asians--at least as imagined through figures like the great warrior "Chang." Bush speaks of Chang as a kind of conservative conscience, a mystically pure version of the Republican platform...who just happens to wield a sword.

But the resonant slippage from "Chiang" to "Chang" shows that this caricatured Asian has a more vexed background. To American Cold Warriors, Chiang Kai-shek, and other right-wing Asian strongmen like him, represented bulwarks against a much more sinister image of the Asian: that of the Yellow Peril, here embodied by the advance of Chinese Communism. To "unleash Chiang" was to sic the good Asian on the bad Asian, to defend capitalism against communism.

Noah notes that the elder Bush would have employed "unleash Chiang" with a healthy dose of irony, having served as envoy to the People's Republic of China during the normalization of relations. Jeb's warrior Chang, as a sword-wielding cartoon, has no such irony about him, but he still fills the role of the good Asian, one who is both a reflection and a purification of the values of the American right. It's likely no accident that as China is on the rise again--now as a (threatening) economic power--that anxious American politicians are searching for another, easily domesticated version of the good Asian, and conservatives like Jeb Bush, Rubio, and Gingrich are unleashing Ch(i)ang.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Tiger Mom Is Still Better Than You

"Tiger Mom" Amy Chua returned last month with a new essay in the Wall Street Journal. She's a little more circumspect, a little more "hands-off." But don't worry. She's still a better parent than you are.

Chua's older daughter is now in college (at Harvard, of course). Tiger Mom is constantly looking over her shoulder, right? Wrong! That's for inferior Western "helicopter parents," who have to hover over their incompetent college-age kids because they didn't follow the Chinese way when they were younger! Ha!

Chua's new essay, like every public statement she's made since starting the "tiger mom" controversy a year ago, is an exercise in spin. It has nothing to do with what she actually advocates in her book. Her contradictions are so breathtaking that she must assume no one has really read the thing. (I have, by the way.) But it's interesting insofar as it reflects the treacherous landscape of stereotypes that Chua waded into--and added to--with her book. Stung by the backlash that labeled her "Chinese" parenting as scary, foreign, un-American, Chua in this new essay makes the equally implausible case that what she called "Chinese" was always unthreateningly all-American, after all.

The basic gist of Chua's new essay is that "tiger parenting" is a strategy to be used only in childhood, then let go:
It's really only about very early child-rearing, and it's most effective when your kids are between the ages of, say, 5 and 12.
Well, that would be a surprise to the author of Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, whose idea of a compromise with "Western" parenting is this:
"I've decided to favor a hybrid approach," I said. "The best of both worlds. The Chinese way until the child is eighteen, to develop confidence and the value of excellence, then the Western way after that. Every individual has to find their own path," I added gallantly.

"Wait--until eighteen?" asked Sophia [Chua's older daughter]. "That's not a hybrid approach. That's just Chinese parenting all through childhood."
Yup. Real Chinese parenting, according to Chua's book, is a lifelong enterprise. Letting your kid alone when she goes off to college is a sentimental American indulgence. But that was the book, which nobody's read anyway. In this latest essay, Chua seems intent on claiming that tiger parenting is not a permanent state but just an early phase of child-rearing, one that is loosened up in order to give a child more freedom as she becomes a teenager. (Never mind that many of the most harrowing scenes of conflict in Battle Hymn come when Chua's daughters are thirteen and sixteen.)

What's Chua up to here? What she's been up to for the past year: trying to rehabilitate herself, and to salvage her claim that "tiger parenting" is a real model rather than a caricatured monstrosity.

Now you'd think that the major thing Chua would want to defend herself against is the charge that her parenting model is cruel, abusive, and psychologically damaging. But the criticism that most infuriates her is this:
[W]hat drives me the craziest may be the charge that tiger parenting produces meek robots and automatons.
This is interesting, because if you read Battle Hymn you'd think that the most likely outcome of tiger parenting would be psychotic freaks. The charge that tiger parenting produces "robots" has nothing to do with Chua at all, and everything to do with stereotypes about Asians--as a faceless mass of nerds, skilled only at math and science, lacking social skills and personality.

Facing down this criticism is a missed opportunity for Chua. She could take this moment to reflect on how stereotypes about the Chinese shaped the way her own claims about Chinese parenting were received. Maybe she could even have reflected on her own complicity (knowing or otherwise) with those stereotypes. But instead, she gives us yet another disingenuous revision of tiger parenting, leaving anything Chinese far behind.

Tiger parenting, Chua now tells us, "is all about raising independent, creative, courageous kids." Oh really? I dare you to find any of those words used in a positive way in Battle Hymn. (They do appear: "Independent" is a trait of a dog who is difficult to train. And "creative" does get mentioned as a trait--of the tiger mother herself, not her children.) Parenting in Tiger Mother is, instead, a virtuous (or vicious?) circle of shame and obligation, in which the parent's relentless labor, however humiliating to the child, is later repaid by the child's boundless gratitude and respect. Yet Chua would now have us believe that her model of parenting produces idiosyncratic college-dropout geniuses like Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg, because those guys show us how we should apply the values of hard work to "something that we feel passionate about." The Chua of Battle Hymn would laugh that one out of the room:
[Western parents] just keep repeating things like "You have to give your children the freedom to pursue their passion" when it's obvious that the "passion" is just going to turn out to be Facebook for ten hours which is a total waste of time.
Take that, Mark Zuckerberg!

But in claiming that tiger parenting can produce Jobses and Zuckerbergs, Chua is confronting a real stereotype about Asian Americans: we make great engineers and programmers, but we simply don't have what it takes to be true leaders, entrepreneurs, innovators. Despite the heavy presence of Asian Americans in US technological fields, they're rarely seen among the icons of the field or the leaders of major tech corporations. (There are, of course, exceptions, like computer pioneer An Wang and Yahoo co-founder Jerry Yang.) Wesley Yang's "Paper Tigers" gives us the standard explanations of this phenomenon: it's either due to a racist "bamboo ceiling" that limits Asian American advancement or the result of shortcomings within Asian culture that keep Asian Americans from being leadership material.

Chua has an opportunity to provide us some insight into this debate. Instead, she simply pretends it doesn't exist. Asian parenting, she asserts in her new article, just does produce entrepreneurial geniuses the way it produces math whizzes and concert pianists. But it's really difficult to see how the model of parenting described in Battle Hymn could produce a Steve Jobs or a Bill Gates--both college dropouts who spent a good deal of their childhoods goofing around with arcane computer technology. Are we really supposed to believe that Chua ("children on their own never want to work, which is why it is crucial to override their preferences") would have been supportive if her daughters wanted to spend all day in the garage taking computers apart? How would she have reacted if, instead of playing violin and piano, they wanted to start a band or lock themselves in their rooms programming video games? (I think I can tell you about the band: Chua asserts in her book that playing the drums would have been out because "playing the drums...leads to drugs.") Far from convincing us that tiger moms produce innovators, Chua's book seems like Exhibit A for those who think there will never be an Asian American Steve Jobs.

Guess how many times the word "Chinese" appears in Chua's new article? Zero. That's right: the woman who rose to fame declaring that "Chinese Mothers Are Superior," and whose book is about the desperate quest to make her daughters as Chinese as possible, has completely abandoned the idea that being a tiger mom has anything to do with being Chinese. Instead, it's now "not that different from the traditional parenting of America's founders and pioneers." Ben Franklin was a Tiger Mom too!

Being a tiger mom has gone from being too culturally specific (it's all about being Chinese) to having no content at all (it's just good old-fashioned American parenting).

My problem with Amy Chua has never been her actual parenting advice. What bothers me is the intellectual dishonesty. In her book, it was the willingness to slap the label "Chinese" on her invented, high-stakes methods of parenting. In her subsequent public statements, it's her blithe willingness to misrepresent what her own book says, assuming that her audience is ignorant or gullible enough to believe that "tiger parenting" is whatever she says it is today. In all of this, Chua does nothing to question the stereotypes that have framed the reception of her work; instead, she uses them to her advantage, exploiting the assumptions Americans make about Asian parenting to fashion a platform for herself. Professor Chua's field is law, but she really ought to try politics: she can flip-flop like a master.