Thursday, December 29, 2011

Has Asian American Studies Failed? Continued

(image via bigWOWO)
I've been amazed by the response to my last post on Asian American studies--some great comments here and even more discussion on Facebook, and even a shout-out from angry asian man. It seems like the state and place of Asian American studies is something a lot of people have been thinking about, although I get just as strong a sense that people are eager for a more open discussion of some of the challenges facing the field.

Since not all of the comments are collected in one place--and many reflected much more thought on the topic than my off-the-cuff remarks--I thought a follow-up with some comment on the responses might be useful, in order to keep the conversation going. So, a few issues raised for me by the responses. (Some of these comments were made on my Facebook page, so I won't identify those commenters by name unless they choose to identify themselves.)

  1. Defining "the public." Much of my post was devoted to the question of Asian American studies' impact on "the public sphere." As one colleague pointed out to me, "success" or "failure" in this realm may well depend on how we define the "public" that Asian American studies is designed to reach and serve. This colleague suggested that Asian American studies might in fact be aimed at creating "alternative public spheres" that lie outside mainstream institutions and are critical of them.

    I think this is an excellent point. The "public" is not defined entirely by the New York Times and Wall Street Journal. Asian American studies has, in fact, been reasonably successful in creating alternate public spaces (see #5 below). Some of those spaces have been within the academy (academic programs, journals), although of course such spaces have their own problematic relationships with power. There are also alternative spaces of publication (a major element of the movement was its creation of Asian American journals, and that continues today). Asian American literature itself can be such a space.

    I think that my question, though, was a little bit different. Given the existence of such hard-won alternative spaces, how, if at all, do those alternate spaces interface with a larger public space? Do such alternative institutions speak only to a small audience, while having little impact on a larger discourse? What audience, what community does Asian American studies speak to? (More on this under #2.)

  2. Our "activist roots." Quite a few comments linked what I was saying to a complaint that is frequently heard about contemporary Asian American studies: that it is locked up in the ivory tower, and has lost touch with its activist roots.

    I actually think this is not what I am saying.

    I don't know if I speak for other younger Asian Americanists in saying this, but "get back to our activist roots" feels like a non-starter to me, for at least two reasons.

    First, about the worst way to motivate a politically committed person under 45 is to say, "Why can't you do it the way we did it in the '60s and '70s?"

    Second, and more seriously, younger Asian Americanists have grown up and been educated in an entirely different context. If we think about the roots of our field, we think of activist students who shut down colleges and staged hunger strikes because they wanted a place for Asian Americans and Asian American studies within the university, a place that did not then exist. Four decades on, that place has been established (though it's always tenuous, and needs to keep expanding). The fact that students across the country can now take Asian American studies courses and degrees, that graduate students can be trained in the field, that Asian American studies is recognized as a legitimate field of scholarly inquiry--this is a realization of the vision of the activists who fought for our field. There's a deep irony, then, in seeing some Asian Americanists actually feeling bad or guilty about being within the university, about occupying that space that is the product of so much struggle.

    By no means am I saying that Asian American studies should turn away from politics. It can't, even if it wanted to. Asian American studies is, by definition, a political field, since its object--"Asian Americans"--is itself a politically defined category. In fact, all academic fields are political in this sense--it's simply that Asian American studies, like other fields in ethnic studies, must constantly remain conscious of its political nature, since race in America is always a site of controversy and struggle.

    I guess what I'm saying is that in Asian American studies at its best, teaching is activism. When we go into our classrooms and tell students hard, overlooked truths about the history of Asians and anti-Asian racism in America; when we make a case that Asian Americans have produced a culture and a literature that is worth studying; when we show Asian American and non-Asian American students alike that there is a place for Asian Americans in the curriculum and the classroom--that is activism, but that is also just what we do every day. Serving and educating our students can and should be an activist mission. (And scholarship, in this sense, is activist too.)

    Of course, I don't mean that teaching and scholarship are the only forms of activism that Asian Americanists should undertake. I suppose the thing that links my concerns with the "activist roots" argument is the question: what connects Asian American studies to the wider world outside the university?

    I guess where I differ from the usual response to this question is that I don't think that the answer lies in abandoning what we are currently doing in favor of some more "real" form of activism. I guess what I'm suggesting is that we do what we are currently doing in a "bigger" way, on a bigger stage, in a way that is far more public.

    We often hear that Asian American studies should serve the Asian American community. Indeed. But how is that community to be defined, now, in 2011? In the past, "community" might have been defined in terms of local Asian American populations, and the question of an individual university's relationship to the particular community that surrounded it. That's still true today; much of what we do in Asian American studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison is inflected by the significant Hmong population in our state and our student body. But my sense is that there is now a greater awareness of a national Asian American community, one that has become aware of itself through politics, media, the Web.

    This is a community that tends to react to--indeed, to come into being around--major traumas or media events. Sometimes these are acts of violence against Asian Americans, from the murder of Vincent Chin to the death of Private Danny Chen. At other times, it's a response to more quotidian media controversies, like the rise of the "tiger mom" or the notorious "Asians in the Library" video. Much of the energy that drives this sense of national community comes from younger, college-educated, media-savvy Asian Americans who spread news and images through social media and are often the first responders to anti-Asian images in the media. In more sustained controversies, we'll often see such Asian Americans working in conjunction with more traditional advocacy groups, elected officials, local community activists, etc.

    It would be easy to argue that some of these controversies, such as that over the "Asians in the Library" video (or, in an earlier decade, the Abercrombie & Fitch boycott) focus on relatively superficial media images that don't speak to the deeper social, political, and economic needs of the Asian American community. But it's also true that these kinds of controversies can galvanize Asian Americans--particularly younger Asian Americans--into activism. And it's also clear that such controversies are sites where Asian American studies is uniquely positioned to make a strong intervention--although it often has not done so.

    Last spring, when the "Asians in the Library" video went viral, I tried pointedly to ignore it. But I quickly discovered that my students were not ignoring it: they wanted to talk about it in class, and I soon found myself invited to a student-organized discussion on the video. What I quickly discovered was that the video referenced any number of stereotypes that are common fodder for discussion in Asian American studies--from the idea of Asian Americans as unassimilated foreigners to fears of Asian invasion--but that the students themselves weren't familiar with this context, making the video feel both like a raw and personal attack and like a set of images that seemingly came out of nowhere. But the real revelation for me was the way a discussion of the video opened up into a range of student experiences with racism, from run-ins with campus police to the casual harassment Asian students experienced walking down State Street on a Saturday night.

    What I saw in that discussion was the way the lessons of Asian American studies could provide a context for Asian American students struggling to navigate the racism that permeates everyday life and media. Yet it was an opportunity I would have missed if my students hadn't pulled me into a discussion of something that had caught their attention, but that I (mistakenly) thought was beneath mine.

    How can we be sure that when events like these occur, Asian Americanists are not just reacting, too slowly and at too great a distance, but aggressively intervening in public discourse, helping to set the tone and provide context? We can't count on the media to ask us for our opinion, so we've got to find other ways of putting ourselves out there--blogs, op-eds, social media--and to do it in the heat of a controversy, not well after it's past.

  3. Professional academics vs. professional activists. Blogger Bryon Wong responded to my earlier post by suggesting that we shouldn't expect Asian American studies to train activists:
    The purpose of Asian American Studies is to study, not to change. I don’t know if everyone would agree with this since AAS came about by people who fought for change on the streets. But I would submit that while AAS was conceived on the streets amid protests and sit-ins, the purpose of the departments themselves were always to transmit knowledge of literature and history, rather than to teach people how to create change.
    I guess in what I've said above I'm somewhat agreeing--although perhaps from a rather different angle, by suggesting that study and activism are not necessarily so rigidly separate. But it's certainly true that Asian American studies courses are not generally in the business of training students how to be professional activists--organizing, advocating, reaching out to the community, communicating to wide audiences, etc. Which makes me wonder if the apparent divide between academics and activism is more a practical than an ideological gap.

    Example: Ramey Ko, who provided some insightful comments on my original post, is a man who wears many hats. He's an Austin municipal judge, a progressive activist who's part of the White House Initiative on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, and a lecturer in Asian American Studies at the University of Texas-Austin. Ko observed that
    more AAS programs could use folks with activist and organizing backgrounds more effectively as adjuncts. I'm an AAPI political activist, and by teaching adjunct in AAS at UT, I try to make engagement, awareness, and activism a part of my lessons. We also have adjuncts teaching classes on campus organizing, AAPI political movements, etc. from a more hands-on perspective.
    But as Sarah Park, another academic, noted in another comment:
    I don't think this topic is unrelated to the ongoing conversations at AAAS regarding how to support AAS faculty in our pursuit of tenure, etc. We should be advocating and commenting on issues affecting our communities, but it's hard to do when other obligations loom.
    That's certainly true. The professionalization of Asian American studies, and the rise of tenure-track positions in the field, is absolutely a positive in terms of the field's long-term health. But it brings with it all the usual pressures to publish and focus on university service, and junior faculty members may well find it difficult to imagine doing any kind of public advocacy work in addition to their other obligations (or, worse yet, feel that such work is too risky to their careers). I think it's no accident that I started this blog when I was a grad student, largely abandoned it when I was an assistant professor, and am returning to it now that I have tenure.

    Both Ko and Wong suggest that Asian American studies programs could get more into the business of training activists, and Ko suggests that adjunct positions can be a good way of getting professional activists into the classroom. This is a great idea, but it doesn't quite address the issue Park raises, which is the other side of the arrow: how can we provide space for those who are professional academics--Ph.D.-holding researchers whose primary workplace is the classroom or the library--to address wider public audiences?

  4. Networks. As several people pointed out, there are many organizations devoted to Asian American activism and Asian American media; a few that were mentioned included student groups like ECAASU; the Asian American Journalists Association; and the Banana bloggers' conference. The question is whether Asian Americanist academics are making connections to these kinds of groups; the answer, so far as I can tell, seems to be no. Can AAAS, our professional organization, play a more active role in forging such links? Should AAAS itself engage in more public advocacy? Perhaps a caucus of members interested in public affairs or advocacy would be a good start. (One commenter even suggested that AAAS could hire a media specialist, but I doubt there's money for that.)

  5. Media. Since mainstream media outlets are unlikely to feature Asian American voices, one major vehicle for the Asian American movement has always been the creation of alternative, Asian American publications. In the 1970s, journals like Gidra and Bridge mixed politics and culture. Amerasia was the first scholarly journal devoted to Asian American studies, and has since been joined by the Journal of Asian American Studies. Many younger Asian Americans, though, have long wished for a successful general-interest Asian American magazine that could bring Asian American issues and culture to a wider audience. a.Magazine sought to fill that role in the '90s; since its demise, the best aspirant to this role has been Hyphen, which has done a fine job of mixing politics, culture, arts, and books coverage with a strong online presence, and has even made efforts to bring Asian American academia into the conversation. (I'm admittedly biased on this front, having been part of a recent Hyphen roundtable on Asian American poetry--but hey, what other glossy magazine is actually going to have a roundtable on Asian American poetry?)

    There have also been numerous attempts to create an Asian American literary journal with some staying power. This has been a particularly difficult challenge: the first, groundbreaking Asian American literary journal, Aion, published in 1971, lasted only two issues. The relatively new Asian American Literary Review has been publishing not just Asian American poetry and fiction but something that we've rarely seen in Asian American letters--serious non-academic literary criticism (though often penned by professors, myself included). And there are at least two other Asian American literary journals currently publishing: Kartika Review and Lantern Review. Add it up and that's something like the most promising landscape we've seen for Asian American publications in years.

    I'm highlighting such publications because I think they have the potential to provide a bridge between Asian American academia and a broader audience. As both a poet and a scholar who focuses on Asian American poetry, I think there's a real hunger out there among Asian American poets for a greater sense of context for their work; Asian American writers have found a range of ways to forge communities with each other, but many younger writers don't have a strong sense of the tradition of Asian American writing, since it's rarely on the menu in most college or MFA classrooms. Literary journals that bring some part of the academic conversation into contact with working creative writers can play a huge role in closing that gap. Similarly, a general-interest magazine can provide a forum where the kinds of conversations that go on in Asian American studies can be brought to bear on the latest debates and controversies. Academics ought to support and engage with these journals and think of them (if the journals are receptive) as ways to reach an audience beyond their academic peers.

    Whew. OK. Enough from me for the moment. The bottom line, I think, is that there are actually a lot of avenues out there for us to make the lessons of Asian American studies more public; we've just got to connect the dots.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Has Asian American Studies Failed?

Episode 1: The New York Times publishes a review of the learning center at Heart Mountain, one of the sites of the internment of Japanese Americans during WWII. Halfway through, the piece takes a hard turn toward historical revisionism. Internment was "more the rule than the exception" and was applied to other ethnic groups too. Japan was a "racist, militant society" and many Japanese Americans were "strategically devoted to the mother country." And "the Japanese were known for similar espionage elsewhere."

These are precisely the kinds of arguments that were made in 1941 to justify the internment, so it's rather shocking to hear them repeated in 2011. Moreover, they're precisely the lines of reasoning that have been thoroughly debunked by Asian American historians. Only Japanese Americans, and not German or Italian Americans, were subjected to mass internment based solely on ancestry. The FBI, far from seeing Japanese Americans as dangerous, found no evidence of espionage or disloyalty in the population. (Don't take my word for it; just glance at Ronald Takaki or Sucheng Chan, or any standard history of Asian Americans.)

A week later, the NYT printed two letters responding to the article, both from Japanese Americans. Although both eloquently rebutted the review's falsehoods, the Times' choice of letters suggests a merely personal response from Japanese Americans, leaving aside the larger question: How could a reporter writing for the New York Times in 2011 be so utterly ignorant of the basic facts of Asian American history?

Episode 2: The Wall Street Journal publishes an article by a Chinese American Yale law professor called "Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior." The article sings the praises of a harsh "Chinese" mode of parenting, including ridicule, shaming, and relentless perfectionism, and proclaims it superior to permissive "Western" parenting. A firestorm of controversy ensues, with the author of the article denounced as a monster and an abuser, and the term "tiger mother" enters the language as shorthand for extreme Asian parenting.

You can read my own take on the "tiger mother" controversy elsewhere, but for the moment the point I want to make is this: The debate that went on in the media was almost entirely between the "tiger mother" herself and her white critics. Although almost every Asian American I knew had an opinion, and many of them shared them publicly, their voices went practically unheard. Perhaps most baffling was that the author herself, American-born and Ivy League-educated, seemed utterly ignorant of the idea that such as thing as Asian American identity existed. Her argument was based entirely on the idea that she (and her mixed-race daughters) were purely "Chinese" and not American. She seemed not at all aware that the struggles with cultural identity, assimilation, and resistance that underpinned her parenting struggles were exactly what we talk about when we talk about "being Asian American."


Two depictions of Asian Americans in the pages of two of our country's leading newspapers. In both cases, what's misleading in the pieces could easily have been avoided if the authors had ever taken Asian American Studies 101. Or if even the most basic elements of Asian American studies had filtered out into mainstream American consciousness. But they haven't.

Which is why I ask: Has Asian American studies failed?

The question may seem a bit perverse. By many measures, Asian American studies has enjoyed notable success within the academy over the past several decades. The field boasts its own professional organization, the Association for Asian American Studies, with its own journal and annual conference. Over 30 colleges and universities across the country now have Asian American Studies programs, and many more schools now offer coursework in the field. Asian Americanist graduate students and faculty can be found across the social sciences and humanities, and the wealth of books and articles in the field continues to grow. It's a vibrant field of intellectual inquiry.

Yet despite all these successes, it would seem that Asian American studies has a long way to go in reshaping the larger public discourse on Asians in America. We can't expect every college graduate to have taken a course in Asian American studies. But would it be so much to ask that some of the basic insights of the field--its rewriting of the historical record on Japanese American internment, its assertion that Asian Americans are not simply foreigners or aliens, but have an experience and history of their own--be more common knowledge? Why don't we see Asian American scholars being quoted in the media or publishing books that reach a wide audience?

Perhaps what I'm describing is simply part of the perceived (and perhaps growing) divide between academic and popular writing. Certain people I know have written quite extensively about the history of this divide, and it's not surprising that as Asian American studies has matured as an academic discipline, scholarship in the field has become more specialized. The question is: how, if at all, is that scholarship reaching readers outside the field?

The job of popularizing the insights of Asian American studies, when it's been undertaken, has generally fallen to journalists. The work of Helen Zia is exemplary in this regard; her Asian American Dreams is one of the few works of popular nonfiction that I can think of that attempts to cover some of the same ground that work in Asian American studies does. More recently, bloggers like Jeff Yang and angry asian man have served as a rapid-response team for Asian American media images.

What we don't see, though, is any kind of direct conduit for the lessons of Asian American studies, as taught and practiced in the academy, to reach a wider audience. The two examples I've cited above, and innumerable others, suggest to me that such a channel is needed--that we need to find new ways for what we do in Asian American studies to have an impact in the wider public sphere.

How might we do that? A few ideas:
  1. Popularize. Asian American studies is interesting. It talks about hot-button issues like race, gender, sexuality, the media. It's politically engaged and upends conventional thought about America and American history. We ought to be finding ways, from journalism to popular nonfiction writing, to communicate the discoveries of our field to a wider public. (Note that I do not mean that our scholarly work needs to be conducted in "popular" language--that's another debate--but rather that we can and should translate some of that work for popular audiences.)
  2. Look outward. Asian American studies has its origins in activism and in service to the Asian American community. We might say it has historically looked inward, toward the Asian American community, because that is its natural audience. Is it also now time for us to look outward, toward "mainstream" audiences? Not to tell those audiences what they want to hear, or to abandon our history of Asian American activism, but to look at what is lacking in public discourse about Asian Americans and try to fill that gap. 
  3. Advocacy. When a controversy blows up in the media about Asian Americans, quick response is needed--and academics are rarely positioned to respond quickly. We can't depend on the media to call up a professor of Asian American studies when comment is needed on anti-Asian racism or a misrepresentation of history. Can we form our own "rapid response teams" of Asian Americanists who can jump on a controversial issue quickly and intervene in public discussion? (In some fields, activist professional organizations have taken on this role; it might be worth asking whether AAAS, or some subgroup within it, could be more aggressive in speaking out on public issues.)
  4. Public intellectuals? Asian American studies has not, for better or worse, produced professors who can also command attention in popular media--think Henry Louis Gates, Jr. or Cornel West in African American studies. I'm not saying we need to go out and create Asian American academic celebrities, but might there be something to be said for Asian Americanists thinking of themselves more as public intellectuals, who have something to contribute to public discourse on the widest level?
These are admittedly half-formed ideas. I'm looking to start a conversation here about the role of Asian American studies in the public sphere, and to try to close the gap between the successes of Asian American studies within the academy and the continued ignorance of those successes outside of it. 

Sunday, December 18, 2011

War Is Over (If You Noticed)

In March 2003--more than eight years ago--I ended my first blog post with these words:
I don't think it's a coincidence that I'm feeling compelled to start one of these things at the very moment that the U.S. has engaged in a mad war on Iraq. The blogger, the poet, and the dissenting citizen seem to have a lot in common these days: they're all trying to make themselves heard in a culture that seems intent on not listening.
In our worst nightmares, I doubt many of us could have imagined that the Iraq war would become one of the longest in American history--lasting longer than the war in Vietnam, but still sadly surpassed by the ongoing war in Afghanistan.

I saw few of my friends commenting on the formal end of the Iraq war this week. There's certainly little to celebrate. The bloody cost of this needless war, most of all to Iraqis themselves, has been simply staggering. Here at home there's little enthusiasm these days for giving credit to President Obama for much of anything, even for keeping his campaign promise to end the Iraq war.

I wish I had something more profound to say about the war's end. But thinking back to the beginning of the war did make me think back to that eight-year-old blog post, and more broadly to the question of how, if at all, public and political discourse has changed in that time.

When I started the blog, we were in the depths of the George W. Bush administration, the most hysterical moment of the "war on terror," and the march toward war seemed inevitable. The space for dissent seemed nonexistent. The sudden flowering of blogs by poets seemed to be a teeny little space where neglected and unpopular topics--from politics to poetry--could be hashed out, mulled over, shared in public. Even if there was little public there to receive them, doing this kind of personal writing in public seemed a transgressive act of its own.

As public dissatisfaction swelled in the second term of the Bush presidency, new spaces seemed to open up for political discourse. Barack Obama won in 2008 in part because he was best able to embody this transformation of public space--from fear to hope, to put it simply--and mobilized a new level of political engagement among his supporters. Unsurprisingly, the shine came off quickly, thanks to the cratering economy and disappointment that Obama turned out, after all, to be a politician and not a revolutionary or a saint. The 2010 backlash against Obama's mildly progressive agenda made it start to feel like we were back in the bad old days of the previous decade.

But then something else happened. In February, tens of thousands took to the streets of Madison and occupied the state capitol to protest against--of all things--a frontal assault on unions. In September, Occupy Wall Street took the fight to the banks and the financial elite. The common denominator for occupations all across the country was the occupation--the reclaiming--of public space. These are spaces not just of physical occupation but of democratic exchange and speech; the cynicism of Mayor Bloomberg's call for protesters to "occupy space with the power of their arguments" notwithstanding, the point is well taken: these physical occupations have opened up space for ideas previously unheard or shouted down to be taken seriously and even to drive public debate.

So does that mean it's time to start thinking and writing "in public" again? Shall the blog rise again? We'll see.

Wednesday, February 09, 2011

The 500 Project: Do You Care about Asian American Literature?

Kartika Review and poet Bryan Thao Worra have thrown down the gauntlet. Can we find 500 Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders--10 from each state--who love Asian American literature?

The 500 Project is seeking responses from Asian Americans in all 50 states. The goal is to find at least 500 "writer activists who will express without equivocation that Asian American literature matters" in order to begin to "build a vibrant, amazing network of readers and writers." There's a questionnaire to fill out, and the Kartika Review folks will post the number of responses they get from each state.

Angry Asian Man has picked up the story, and asks: "I'm sure they'll have no problem finding respondents from California and New York... But what about everywhere in the middle?"

The middle? Them's fightin' words. So I wrote in to make sure Wisconsin was in the house. My response to their questionnaire, below.

Does Asian/Pacific Islander American literature matter to you?


Why does APIA literature matter to you?

APIA literature is our best window into the Asian American and Pacific Islander experience. It's the place where we continue to ask the question of what it means to be APIA, exploring different voices, different stories, different forms and different politics. It's exciting because it's a literature that's still being created, like Asian America itself. And because of that it can be a source of creativity and renewal for American culture as a whole.

Cite the last 3 works of APIA literature you read.

Lawson Fusao Inada, Legends from Camp; Adrian Tomine, Shortcomings; Karen Tei Yamashita, I-Hotel.

Who are your favorite APIA writers or poets and why?

There are so many great APIA writers, but my two favorites are Maxine Hong Kingston and John Yau. Kingston is a powerful storyteller who constantly challenges us to rethink what we mean by "Asian" and "American," and who mashes up and rewrites stories to make them her own. Yau is a brilliant and uproariously funny poet who takes pleasure in remixing stereotypes of Asians to create new hybrid characters (like "Genghis Chan: Private Eye"), but who also has a remarkable sense of lyricism.

In your own words, you are:

I'm a poet, critic, and teacher who sees in APIA literature what I care about most deeply in writing: a spirit of creativity and fearless exploration. I'm a Midwesterner (born in Illinois, living in Wisconsin) who sees that the Asian American experience is happening here, too, and that its story is just beginning to be written.

In your own words, APIA literature is:

APIA literature is Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders inventing our culture.

Wednesday, February 02, 2011

Paper Tiger Mother: On Amy Chua

Amy Chua’s new book, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, has provoked controversy for its supposed argument that Chinese mothers are better than American ones. But don’t be fooled. Chua’s book is not about being a Chinese mother. What Chua’s actually doing is inventing a new model of high-stakes, high-pressure, middle-class American parenting—and calling it “Chinese.”

Chua’s book leads us into a trap, one Chua herself has fallen into. To “be Chinese,” in Chua’s mind, is to excel through relentless work; to “be Western” is to fail, to settle for lazy mediocrity. It’s no wonder, then, that the fear of not being “Chinese” enough is palpable on every page of Chua’s book, and that “Chinese” parenting becomes something like an extreme sport.

At the book’s end, I felt sorry not for Chua’s children but for Chua herself. The relentless pressure she puts on her children to succeed, and on herself to be a “tiger mother,” is rooted in a myopic view of Chinese and American cultures and their fundamental incompatibility. What I wanted to say to her was: relax, Professor Chua. You’re not Chinese; you’re Chinese American.

"Chinese Mothers Are Superior"

I first heard about Chua’s book in early January, when a friend who worked in publishing mentioned a Yale professor who had written a book about being a Chinese mother. A few days later, a former student sent me a message asking, “What do you think of this?” Attached was a link to the now-infamous Wall Street Journal article “Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior,” a selection of excerpts from Chua’s book. The article sets out to explain “how Chinese parents raise such stereotypically successful kids,” and proceeds to lay out a series of jarring contrasts between “Chinese” and “Western” mothers:
“Western parents are concerned about their children’s psyches. Chinese parents aren’t.” Western parents will praise a B grade, while Chinese parents will “excoriate, punish and shame the child.” And Chua describes calling her daughter “garbage” when she acts disrespectfully.

“Chinese parents believe that they know what is best for their children and therefore override all of their children's own desires and preferences,” even if this means “coercion.” Example: Chua threatens to donate her daughter’s favorite dollhouse to the Salvation Army if she doesn’t get a piano piece perfect.

“Even when Western parents think they're being strict, they usually don't come close to being Chinese mothers.” Example: Chua’s daughters were never allowed to “attend a sleepover, have a playdate, be in a school play, complain about not being in a school play, watch TV or play computer games, choose their own extracurricular activities, get any grade less than A, not be the No. 1 student in every subject except gym and drama, play any instrument other than the piano or violin, not play the piano or violin.”
My first reaction to this article, predictably, was that it was awful. It ratified every stereotype about strict, punitive Asian parenting producing model-minority success stories who’ve never had a day of fun in their lives (in fact, it could have been a sidebar to Maclean’s “Too Asian” article). Worse yet, it could have been in the dictionary next to “essentialist.” Chua’s choice of “Western” (as opposed to, say, “American”) as the opposite of “Chinese” reinforced the idea that these different parenting styles were the result of a fundamental, unbridgeable cultural gap between East and West. And despite a few halting attempts at humor, the piece seemed to lack any kind of self-awareness or irony.

The reaction to the piece was swift and surprisingly vehement. Critics labeled Chua a “monster” and a “Mommie Dearest”; columnists like David Brooks and Ayelet Waldman inveighed against her; and she even reportedly received death threats.

Less widely reported on (OK, not reported on at all), was the heated response to the article among Asian American readers. Many argued that Chua’s article showed everything that was wrong with the “Crazy Asian Mom,” particularly in her psychological effects on her children; Betty Ming Liu captures this sentiment in her headline, “Parents like Amy Chua are the reason why Asian Americans like me are in therapy.” Others pointed to the high rates of suicide among young Asian American women.

Since then, Chua has been making the rounds of interviews and talk shows, spinning furiously. She has argued that the excerpts in the WSJ article were taken out of context. She has insisted that Tiger Mother is ”not a how-to guide”. She has called it a “memoir” of her “journey and transformation as a mother” in which she is ultimately “humbled” by her daughter. She told NPR, “I do not think the Chinese way is superior.” She even claimed to Stephen Colbert that the book was intended as “self-parody.” (Colbert’s response: “Can I get you a bicycle to backpedal any faster?”)

Well, I’ve actually read the book, and I can tell you that these claims are—to use one of Chua’s favorite terms of affection—garbage. Chua does assert, over and over again, that the Chinese way is better, and spells out in great detail how to follow it. Over the course of the book, she neither grows nor changes, and her beliefs and practices about parenting never shift. She is never humbled, although she is defeated—exactly once—in response to which she simply changes tactics and presses on. As much as I wish it were parody, the book is always in deadly earnest; even at those moments where we might laugh (uncomfortably) at Chua, she is never laughing with us. There is no journey, only the relentless pursuit of a quixotic ideal of Chineseness, and the grim determination to make her daughters Chinese, at any cost.

Chinese Parenting for "A Nation of Wusses"

Here’s the first question: why would anyone care, just at this moment, what a Chinese mother has to say about parenting? Chua gives us a glimpse of this at the end of Tiger Mother, when her older daughter Sophia gives a triumphant violin recital in front of an audience of supreme court justices from around the world at Chua’s house. Afterwards, the justices crowd around her, asking: “What is your secret? Do you think it’s something about the Asian family culture that tends to produce so many exceptional musicians?” Chua’s response: “I told them I was struggling to finish a book on just those questions and that I would send them a copy when it was done.”

Tiger Mother, of course, is that book, and don’t let Chua tell you that it isn’t a how-to book. She offers answers for every middle-class parental worry: how to make your daughter happy (force her to be “the best violinist in the state”); how to get her to practice piano (threaten to sell her stuff); how to respond when your child gives you an inadequate gift (throw it back at her and tell her that it’s “not good enough”). This is what Chua calls the “virtuous circle” of Chinese parenting: you force your kids to do things they don’t want to do (through coercion, shaming, relentless practice and “rote repetition,” if necessary), since “nothing is fun until you’re good at it.”

Some of Chua’s statements seem shocking, but they’re also not: they’re just exaggerated versions of exactly what we’d expect a Chinese mother to say. Those judges, like many Americans, believe there’s something about Asian parenting that produces hard-working, high-achieving, musically talented children who are more disciplined than their non-Asian counterparts—a belief Chua is only too happy to capitalize on. It’s a belief that’s been around in the U.S. since at least the mid-1960s, when stories about how Asian Americans were “outwhiting the whites” (to borrow from the title of one Newsweek article) began appearing in the media. It’s what we’d now recognize as the “model minority” image: Asians upholding the values of discipline, hard work, and capitalist individualism that white and black Americans seemed to have forgotten.

But of course the more immediate context for the attention Chua’s book is getting is the global rise of China—a context cited by nearly every non-Asian American review of the book. In this case, China anxiety sounds a lot like the model minority writ large. China is kicking our butts because—as Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell recently put it—America has become “a nation of wusses,” in contrast to the disciplined, forward-marching, calculus-doing Chinese. Maybe the secret is in Chinese parenting—or so the people snapping up copies of Chua’s book seem to have hoped.

They’ve gotten a bit more than they bargained for, because Chua’s relationship to “being Chinese” is a lot more complicated than it would appear. The “crazy Asian mom” is more stereotypically the immigrant mother, but Chua herself is American-born. She claims that Chinese parenting is something she learned from her own parents and is trying to pass on to her children; but Chua’s version of Chinese parenting is far more extreme than anything her Chinese parents did.

Inventing the Chinese Mom

In describing her father, Chua hits all the familiar notes: he found A-minuses unacceptable, saw getting second place as a “disgrace,” banned sleepovers and forced her to drill math and piano daily. (It’s interesting to note that all of the Chinese parenting Chua chooses to replicate comes not from her mother but from her father; a “tiger mother” sounds a lot like a Chinese father, crossed with an anxiety-ridden, overscheduling middle-class American mom.)

Plenty of Asian Americans can tell you about having a parent like this. Some respond by dutifully getting straight As and becoming doctors, engineers, or concert pianists; others rebel, fall into depression, become novelists or artists. But I can think of few Asian Americans who do what Chua does: double down on the Chinese parenting by going to lengths that her own parents could never have imagined.

Chua’s father may have drilled her in piano. But did he say these things to her?
1. Oh my God, you’re just getting worse and worse.
2. I’m going to count to three, then I want musicality!
3. If the next time’s not PERFECT, I’m going to TAKE ALL YOUR STUFFED ANIMALS AND BURN THEM!
Those are some of the things Chua said to her daughter Sophia to get her to practice—techniques that were, Chua reports with satisfaction, “highly effective.”

And would Chua’s frugal Chinese parents have spent thousands of dollars and driven 18 hours round-trip for a single weekend of lessons with a famed teacher, as Chua does for one of her daughters? Or celebrate her other daughter’s Carnegie Hall debut by buying a gown from Barneys and busing her entire grade in for a lavish reception at a fancy hotel? Of the latter, Chua writes, “My mother was horrified by my extravagance.”

That’s a perfect choice of words to capture the oddity of Chua’s parenting style. The literary critic Sau-ling C. Wong, drawing from Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior, has characterized the conflict between the immigrant and American-born generations in Asian America as a clash between “necessity” and “extravagance.” The older generation emphasizes frugality, survival, discipline, tradition; the younger generation’s “American” desires seem like excess and frivolity in comparison. Chua’s parenting somehow manages to combine necessity and extravagance; her fantasies are not simply of success for her daughters but of spectacular triumphs (winning worldwide competitions, playing Carnegie Hall), and the lengths she will go to in order to achieve these goals are extravagantly irrational.

Again, it’s Chua’s own Chinese mother who questions her extreme methods. When Chua’s younger daughter, Lulu, begins to rebel and act out—fighting with her violin teacher, chopping off all her hair—Chua has the following remarkable conversation with her mother:
“You have to stop being so stubborn, Amy. You’re too strict with Lulu—too extreme. You’re going to regret it.”

“Why are you turning on me now?” I shot back. This is how you raised me.”

“You can’t do what Daddy and I did,” my mother replied. “Things are different now. Lulu’s not you—and she’s not Sophia. She has a different personality, and you can’t force her.”

“I’m sticking to the Chinese way,” I said. “It works better. I don’t care if nobody supports me. You’ve been brainwashed by your Western friends.”
The Chinese mother is not Chinese enough for Chua. The “Chinese way” is so absolute that it is impervious to the sensible advice of one’s own Chinese parent. Any deviation from that path is a sign of “Western” weakness.

Chua’s narrow and dogmatic view of what is Chinese thus has as its counterpart a skewed image of the “Western.” Chua describes “Western parenting” as if it is the product of fundamental cultural differences, but it’s really nothing more than a caricature of permissive, post-Dr. Spock, white middle-class American parenting. The “Western” mothers that Chua mocks worry about their children’s self-esteem, let their children make their own choices and praise their mediocre accomplishments. Then they “have a glass of wine and go to a yoga class” or “fly off with friends for a few days to mud springs in California.” Chua differentiates herself from these insufferable, self-indulgent yuppie moms by making Chinese parenting above all about hard work--“a never-ending uphill battle” and a “24-7 time commitment” that is “miserable, exhausting, and not remotely fun.”

The extremity of Chua’s parenting style is not the product of Chineseness, but of her own cultural misunderstandings. Taking two exceedingly narrow visions of parenting, Chua understands them through a bogus cultural divide, imagining that her parental choices are somehow a test of her fundamental Chinese identity.

From Chinese to Chinese American?

The only hint of a way out of the Chinese-Western binary is offered by Chua’s children, who are, after all, only half Chinese (Chua’s husband is white). In one of the few passages in the book where Chua’s older daughter, Sophia, gets to be heard, she questions her mother’s labels:
[W]hen I referred in passing to Sophia as being Chinese, she interrupted me: “Mommy—I’m not Chinese.”

“Yes, you are.”

“No, Mommy—you’re the only one who thinks so. No one in China thinks I’m Chinese. No one in America thinks I’m Chinese.”

This bothered me intensely, but all I said was, “Well, they’re all wrong. You are Chinese.”
Lulu, the younger daughter, puts it more bluntly: “I know—I’m not what you want—I’m not Chinese! I don’t want to be Chinese. Why can’t you get that through your head?”

Well, why can’t she? The agony of this book—the source of the relentless torture that Chua puts herself and her daughters through—is that Chua just can’t break out of her binary thinking. When her will prevails and her daughters succeed, Chua sees it as a triumph of Chinese parenting. When her daughter wins a fight and gets to make her own decision about something, Chua thinks, “What a Western parent I’ve become…What a failure.”

The possibility Chua refuses to see, I think, is the possibility of being neither Chinese nor Western, but Chinese American—by which I mean not a blend of or compromise between East and West, but a more complex and fluid sense of what it means to be a person of Chinese descent in America. In the book’s last chapter, Chua briefly entertains what she calls a “hybrid” approach to parenting, but that just means “The Chinese way until the child is eighteen” and “the Western way after that.” Chua passes up every opportunity for insight, growth, or change in the book because she is unable to move beyond the idea that Chineseness is an absolute.

Chua could benefit from one more piece of wisdom from a book I’ve already mentioned, Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior. Every time I think I know what it means to “be Chinese,” or any time I’m confronted with a student who claims that same certainty, I return to Kingston’s challenge to her readers:
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?

Kingston is as interested as Chua in what it means to be Chinese, and what it means to be a Chinese mother or daughter. But Kingston is also humble enough to know that her experience is just one among many, full of idiosyncrasies, and that the things she calls “Chinese” may not be Chinese at all. What makes Kingston’s book so compelling is that it starts with no assumptions about what is Chinese; instead, it is an exploration of Chineseness, full of questions, inventions, stories told and retold. This spirit of openness is what makes Kingston’s book a Chinese American text, and it’s what allows Kingston to both draw on the power of her Chinese mother’s voice and make a kind of peace with it. Understanding that one can be Chinese American helps us avoid the trap of the Chinese vs. the Western, showing that such categories can both guide and limit our lives.

So if I were Chua’s tiger mother, I would assign her to reread The Woman Warrior over and over again, until she realizes that it’s possible to be not just Chinese, but Chinese American. Until then, no playdates.

Saturday, January 01, 2011

Does (Paid) Criticism Matter?

The New York Times Book Review has a feature up on “Why Criticism Matters,” with six book critics opining on the continuing value of literary criticism. Is it necessary? Is it dead? Here’s my question: what does the NYT mean by “criticism”?

They don’t just mean “reviews,” since (as the editors point out) we’re awash in those, from stars to rotten tomatoes to likes and dislikes. And they certainly don’t mean academic literary criticism, since only one of the six critics is a university professor of literature. Instead, they mean something they call “serious literary criticism,” which is less concerned with thumbs-up evaluation than with “larger implications--aesthetic, cultural, moral.”

While this would seem to give “serious criticism” broad scope, it actually severely limits the venues in which we might seek such criticism. It excludes one major mode of professional literary criticism--the kind produced by professors and published in scholarly journals--while dismissing the evaluative reviews that comprise the universe of popular and online discourse.

“Serious criticism,” then, is limited to criticism published in venues aimed at a general, literate audience—venues like the NYTBR itself, or the New York Review of Books, magazines like the New Yorker or Atlantic, or in an earlier era the Partisan Review or Paris Review. The names cited are figures like Lionel Trilling, Alfred Kazin, or Randall Jarrell. This mode of criticism is a genre that exists in the nebulous realm between review and essay, between journalism and scholarship. To simply call it “serious” hides its particularity and reinforces its own sense of self-importance. I suggest, instead, that we follow the label offered by Katie Roiphe in her piece, which refers to the “paid critic” in order to distinguish her from the “amateur.” “Serious” criticism could more accurately be described as “paid criticism.”

“Paid criticism” is not meant to characterize this mode of criticism as crassly commercial, but to describe its place in the literary marketplace. Paid criticism is typically published in venues that pay contributors, making the critic akin to a freelance writer or journalist who is paid by the article and who may generate a significant part of his income from such publications. In contrast, scholarly journals of literary criticism do not compensate their contributors. As an English professor, I receive a salary, but I am not paid to publish, nor is my salary directly dependent on the number of articles I publish (at least in the U.S. academic system) or the number of people who read them. And “amateur” reviewers, like those on Amazon, of course receive no payment for their reviews.

It’s little wonder, then, that the NYT contributors see paid criticism as an endangered species. General-interest publications like the New Yorker or the Atlantic devote less and less space to book reviews, even as their readership declines with the rest of print media. The range of books reviewed has become narrower; readers of poetry in particular know that the major book reviews abandoned us long ago. It’s absurd to blame the Internet, as the NYT does, for this symptom of the decline of American print culture; blame TV if you have to. Paid criticism has been dying for thirty, forty, fifty years. It’s no accident that the major names cited by the NYT contributors all hail from the mid-20th-century heyday of the New York intellectuals.

So let’s restate the NYT’s question: does paid criticism matter, and should we try to revive it? Adam Kirsch presents the most eloquent case for paid criticism, arguing that a “serious critic” goes beyond evaluation of a book to say “something true about life and the world.” The serious critic is thus a figure for that even rarer bird, the social critic or public intellectual, who speaks not to a specialist audience but to the “common reader.” But Kirsch is self-aware enough to add the deadpan remark that if the body of “common readers” still exists, “the readership of The New York Times Book Review is probably it.” That’s exactly right: the “common reader” is not a sociological fact but an ideal projected by print culture. It would be foolish to imagine today (if it was ever reasonable to do so) that the readership of the NYTBR or any other book review was representative of the general public, or even of the class of readers that most matter.

That still leaves open the question of whether paid criticism should try to speak in its traditional, generalized idiom, to make statements of broad significance whether or not anyone is listening. That’s where we get to what I think is the great unspoken Other in this forum: the kind of literary criticism practiced by literature professors.

In a few days, several thousand literature professors, myself included, will descend on Los Angeles for the Modern Language Association convention, four days of panels, lectures, receptions, and book fairs focused on literature and language. The New York Times, if it bothers with us at all, will write its standard story ridiculing us and then ignore us for the rest of the year, even as it laments that no one cares about literature or criticism anymore. Academic criticism, from the perspective of the paid critic, has become irrelevant in its hyperspecialization and its obscure language—writing by professors meant only for other professors.

This rivalry between academic and paid criticism is hinted at in Pankaj Mishra’s contribution, which laments that literary criticism has become “a private language devised to yield a particular knowledge about a self-contained realm of elegant consumption.” Even Stephen Burn, the lone English professor in the group, values the opinion of “nonspecialist readers” over their “professional counterparts.” Fading into irrelevance themselves, paid critics shore up their position by pointing to the even greater irrelevance of the academic writer.

The idea that academic criticism may in fact enrich paid criticism is rarely acknowledged, but one need only think of the way terms like “deconstruct” and “postmodern” have become staples of journalistic writing (whether used correctly or not) to see how academic thought flows into the realm of journalism. Elif Bautman’s contribution to the forum is likely the first time Fredric Jameson’s essay “Marxism and Form” has been referenced in the pages of the NYT, and if the NYT editors need further evidence of the impact academic critical training can have, they need look no further than their own film critic, A.O. Scott, whose background as a graduate student in literature is evident to any professorial reader of his reviews.

The answer to this rivalry is certainly not that professors should take over the writing of paid criticism; one need only read any of the tedious and interminable articles penned by professors in the pages of the New York Review of Books to be convinced of that. Academic literary critics, too, fret about their narrow audiences and dying field, and are fond of seeking “public intellectual” status for themselves as well, only to find that there really is no such thing anymore.

There are some interesting exceptions. British publications like the London Review of Books still manage to strike something of the tone the NYT contributors idealize; perhaps this is due to the rather different relationship between academic and print-journalistic cultures in Britain (the specialization of the American university has improved its prestige compared to its European counterparts, whatever its impact on public culture), or to the more straightforwardly essayistic mode the LRB encourages (see, for instance, the LRB writings of Stanford professor Terry Castle). The Boston Review is that rare example of an American journal that seems to bridge the gap between academic and paid criticism, but it succeeds in part due to a more pointed political and intellectual focus that moves away from the fiction of the “general reader” the NYTBR still embraces.

So does paid criticism matter? In its current form, no. It is a relic of a model of print reviewing that has not been with us since at least the 1960s. It cannot even pretend to reach that narrow slice of the population formerly called “common readers” (and who were not common at all), and its insistence on walling itself off from more specialized or academic forms of criticism leaves it with an exceedingly constricted space within which to operate, with little to do but wait for Jonathan Franzen to publish his next novel. A critic wanting to speak on issues of broad social importance is more likely these days to write a work of popular science, economics, or psychology--or to write a screenplay or start a blog.

But maybe we’re looking in the wrong place altogether for the future of criticism. What if we looked not at the face-off between two professionals--the paid critic and the academic--but at the interface between the professional and the amateur? Roiphe echoes the NYT’s editors in her loathing of the Internet-empowered amateur: “so many Amazon reviewers and bloggers clamoring for attention, so many opinions and bitter misspelled rages, so much fawning ungrammatical love spewed into the ether.” Something that lively, that messy, that repulsive, is likely where we should be looking for change.

Why can’t Amazon reviewing be an art form? The Bay Area poet and critic Kevin Killian has written over 2300 Amazon reviews, covering everything from poetry to popular movies to porn, and has even collected some of his reviews in print form. A single four-paragraph review by Killian has more energy and verve than an entire issue of the NYTBR, and yet there is no tradeoff in insight: his film reviews are crammed with intertextual references (idiosyncratic, but illuminating), and his poetry reviews pop with one-of-a-kind anecdotes. They’re brilliant, damn funny, without an ounce of snobbery, and viewed by a wide public (Killian is the #65 ranked reviewer of Amazon’s many thousands). If this is the brave new face of online criticism, I’m not a bit afraid of it.