Thursday, March 27, 2003

Caught the tail end of what I gather is the second installment of Becoming American: The Chinese Experience on PBS. Once I had it on I felt obligated to keep watching despite Bill Moyers's smarmy narration (and the way he gets to keep saying "Chinaman," albeit with ironic inflection). When I tuned in there was a segment on Chinese American film star Anna May Wong which featured her complaints about always having to die at the end of her movies, since she could never be shown marrying the white male lead. (Cf. John Yau's "No One Ever Tried to Kiss Anna May Wong": "She's languishing / on a ledge, annoyed at all the times / she's been told to be scratched, kicked, / slapped, bitten, stabbed, poisoned, and shot.")

The series is obviously well-intentioned but seems a little confused in its politics. For one thing, there's that title: "becoming American," which suggests that a perfect assimilation was the ultimate goal of every Chinese immigrant, and that the history of Chinese Americans is just a progress toward that color-blind utopia. (On the website: "Share your family's experience of becoming American." What would this mean, say, for a third- or fourth-generation Chinese American?) And couldn't they have found a Chinese American to narrate? (Hey, I hear Connie Chung is out of a job...)

Actually, the best moment was in a teaser for the concluding episode. They showed a young Chinese American woman saying that she felt like she had no problem with her identity, but that she felt all this pressure to "be American." Bill Moyers asks, why? She says, "Why don't you tell me? You're the white guy."

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