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The Stories We Tell, and Don’t Tell, About Asian-American Lives

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In the mid-nineties, David Eng was a professor of English and comparative literature at Columbia, and Shinhee Han, a psychotherapist, worked for the school’s counselling and psychological services. After a seemingly popular Korean-American undergraduate at Columbia committed suicide, Eng and Han got to talking about what seemed, to them, like a wave of depression afflicting the school’s Asian-American students, and about how unsettling they found it that so few of their colleagues had attended the student’s funeral. There were many Asian-American students at Columbia, but Eng and Han had noticed that these students often spoke, in the classroom and at the clinic, of feeling invisible, as if their inner lives were of little concern to those outside their immediate community.

The category of “Asian-American” was created in the late nineteen-sixties. At the time, the term, for those who adopted it, was a way of consolidating the political energies of various immigrant communities. The category crosses ethnic divisions and class lines, encompassing refugees from Southeast Asia struggling to adapt to the American hustle, multigenerational American families with only an abstract connection to their ancestral homelands, and the children of transnational Chinese élites who have been sent to America for schooling, among others. (In recent years, Asian-Americans have become the most economically divided ethnic or racial group in the United States.) Education has traditionally been one of the shared interests that binds these disparate constituencies together. Another has been a reluctance to acknowledge any difficulties with mental health: studies show that Asian-Americans are less likely than the general population to seek out counselling. Eng and Han wanted to understand what Asian-American students had in common, drawing on the perspectives of culture, history, and social class, which Eng had studied, and seeing how these forces played out in the therapist’s office, where Han spent his time.

Racial Melancholia, Racial Dissociation: On the Social and Psychic Lives of Asian Americans,” which was published earlier this year, is the result of their collaboration. Eng now teaches at the University of Pennsylvania; Han works as a psychotherapist at the New School and in private practice. Their book, which is built on psychoanalytic theory, readings of classic Asian-American literature, and Han’s case studies, attempts to shade in the broader contexts that help produce, or amplify, individual feelings of waywardness, alienation, and loss. The title echoes the work of the scholar Anne Anlin Cheng, whose book “The Melancholy of Race,” published in 2000, offers a theoretical framework for considering grief and mourning as defining vectors of the racial experience. One isn’t melancholy simply because of the experience of racism, Cheng suggests; melancholy, and its dynamics of loss and recovery, are the foundations for racial identity.

These terms descend, in part, from Freud, who described mourning as a conscious process in which we deal with the grief of losing someone or something we can identify. Melancholy, for Freud, involves a kind of grieving, too, only we are at pains to identify what we have lost. Our inability to comprehend the reason for our melancholia pushes us further into our subconscious depths, and manifests as a kind of permanent mourning. To Eng and Han, this phenomenon seemed akin to the “interminable sadness” of many of their students. Perhaps the dislocations of immigration and assimilation had something to do with their inability to identify what they had lost.

Psychoanalysis examines the texture of individual experience, but its theories often presume a universal subject who is white by default, and therapeutic approaches tend to privilege private realms above collectively experienced public ones. “Psychoanalysis is focused on the mother but rarely considers the motherland; it is attuned to family dynamics but rarely thinks about the family of nations,” Eng and Han write. Literary analysis, meanwhile, often relies on generalization and abstraction, turning fictional characters into representative figures rather than treating them as specific individuals. By merging the approaches of their respective disciplines, Eng and Han felt that they could sketch a fuller picture of the forces guiding their students’ lives.

One of Han’s patients, a woman she calls Elaine, speaks of the pressure she puts on herself because of her parents, whom she believes would have been much “happier” had they remained in Korea. The sense of loss that her parents feel is “transferred onto and incorporated by Elaine for her to work out and to repair,” Han writes. Elaine’s life becomes a way of fulfilling, or justifying, her parents’ sacrifice—though she doesn’t consciously realize that she is seeking an impossible kind of comeuppance on their behalf. It’s a familiar story line in many immigrant households. It is also, Eng and Han show, a constant theme in Asian-American literature, from Maxine Hong Kingston’s “China Men” to Gish Jen’s “Typical American.” But, Eng and Han wonder, “Are Asian American parents as completely selfless as the theme of sacrifice and ideals of Confucian filial tradition suggest, or is this idea a compensatory gesture that attaches itself to losses, disappointments, and failures associated with immigration?” In other words, is the narrative of sacrifice a way of retrospectively turning the first generation’s dashed hopes into a comprehensible and redemptive story? “In turn,” Eng and Han continue, “do children of immigrants ‘repay’ this sacrifice only by repeating and perpetuating its melancholic logic—by berating and sacrificing themselves?” What Eng and Han suggest is that this cycle of unhappiness, attributed to a “pathologized Asian culture,” is the product, rather, of the false promise of meritocracy.

Within a racial paradigm that positions black and white as opposing poles, those who, like Asian-Americans, don’t fit on either side occupy a state of flux—they can be recast as “good” or “bad” depending on the political mood, becoming an alien threat one moment and a model minority the next. The students of my generation, people who were born in the seventies and eighties, came of age at a reverential distance from the civil-rights era and in the shadow of the Cold War; many of us wanted to figure out how our family’s experiences fit within broader stories of racial struggle. According to Eng and Han, today’s young people have a markedly different relationship to racism, sexism, and xenophobia. In the second half of the book, they focus on recent Asian immigrants, many of them “parachute kids” from wealthy families, whose parents sent them to America for schooling. These more well-to-do students, reared in a relatively inclusive and legally “colorblind” era of globalization and multiculturalism, have fewer hangups about their identities than those who came before them—yet they still experience a feeling of otherness that they have difficulty articulating. Eng and Han describe their experience as one of “racial dissociation,” because the conceptual frameworks they have learned, which downplay or ignore the realities of racism, do not adequately reflect the actual world they live in. These subjects live under a kind of historical amnesia, making it even more challenging to locate their sense of loss, which has become “dispersed,” ambient. Rather than sharp pangs of guilt there is simply constant anxiety. They feel “psychically ‘nowhere,’ ” ill-equipped to deal with the subtler yet still existing barriers to assimilation.

What unites both generations, Eng and Han suggest, is a kind of linguistic lack, a missing vocabulary—a paucity of stories that they might tell themselves about where they are going, and what it would mean to feel whole.

In 1971, the writer Shawn Wong was browsing a used bookstore when he came across a novel called “No-No Boy,” which had been published in 1957 by someone named John Okada. “No one knew anything about it,” Wong, who now teaches at the University of Washington, recently told the Los Angeles Times. Okada’s novel depicted the lives of Japanese-Americans after the Second World War. Wong, together with his friends and fellow-writers Frank Chin and Jeffrey Paul Chan, tried to get ahold of Okada, only to find out that he had died, just months before. Three years later, Wong, Chin, Chan, and the poet Lawson Fusao Inada published “Aiiieeeee!,” the first major anthology of Asian-American writing. Building on the success of that book, they tried to get “No-No Boy” republished, but nobody was interested. They reissued it themselves, in 1976. In 1979, they entered into an agreement with the University of Washington Press to keep the book in print.

“No-No Boy” tells the story of a quiet, angry young man named Ichiro, who is shunned by his fellow Japanese-Americans after spending the Second World War in prison rather than in the internment camps with most of them. He was a “no-no boy,” someone who answered no to two questions on an American loyalty questionnaire administered to Japanese Americans in the camps: Would you serve in the U.S. armed forces, and will you pledge “unqualified allegiance” to America and “forswear” any and all foreign powers? In real life, the no-no boys posed a principled challenge to wartime America; eventually, their actions would help reshape the civil-rights code. But Ichiro is not a man of precise convictions. He can’t quite articulate why he did what he did. In one pivotal scene, Ichiro is struck by the kind gesture of Mr. Carrick, a thoughtful liberal trying to make amends for what happened to Ichiro and those like him. Carrick is trying to welcome Ichiro back to normal life by offering him a job at his engineering firm. Ichiro wonders, “What could he say to this man whom he had met but once and probably would never see again? What words would transmit the bigness of his feelings to match the bigness of the heart of this American who, in the manner of his living, was continually nursing and worrying the infant America into the greatness of its inheritance?” He does not know what to say. This isn’t the place for him, so he says nothing, and he leaves.

Much of “No-No Boy” takes place inside Ichiro’s head. He doesn’t say much but he is constantly thinking and reminiscing, rationalizing the parental abuse and rash decisions that delivered him to his present moment, in which a bright future seems impossible. As his friend Kenji, who fought for the American Army, observes, there is no pattern that will help them make sense of their lives—no “point of wholeness and belonging” to which they can return. Words fail not only Ichiro but other Japanese-Americans, who bear the scars of the war in their own ways. Some fought, others were interned, a few were imprisoned. They are all trying to pick up the pieces of a broken narrative.

“No-No Boy” was reissued in May, by Penguin Classics, along with three other early works of Asian-American literature avant la lettre: H. T. Tsiang’s “The Hanging on Union Square,” from 1935, which recounts a bumbling innocent’s dystopian odyssey through Depression-era Manhattan; Younghill Kang’s “East Goes West,” from 1937, a satire about a young, idealistic Korean-American at once drawn to and repelled by the American melting pot; and Carlos Bulosan’s “America Is in the Heart,” from 1946, a fictionalization of the author’s own journey from the Philippines to the migrant-labor circuits of the American West. (An introduction I wrote for an earlier republication of “The Hanging on Union Square” is included in Penguin’s new edition.) In the first half of the twentieth century, it was rare for an Asian author, especially one interested in criticizing the status quo, to get a book published without the blessing or endorsement of a mainstream author. (Kang’s big break came when he was teaching at New York University and a famous colleague, the novelist Thomas Wolfe, recommended Kang’s first book, “The Grass Roof,” to the Scribner publishing house.) Tsiang’s entire literary career was a string of rejection notices; he reprinted some of these snubs in the first, self-published edition of “Hanging.”

All of these books, like “No-No Boy,” were rediscovered by subsequent generations of Asian-American writers and scholars who were desperately searching for artistic predecessors. As the Penguin quartet reflects, these efforts often skewed male; the “Aiiieeeee!” editors criticized successful female authors such as Jade Snow Wong, Betty Lee Sung, and Pardee Lowe for being too politically conciliatory. Not everyone is happy with how Penguin handled the reissues: the publisher insists that the University of Washington never renewed its copyright claim on “No-No Boy,” leaving the book in the public domain, and it reportedly did not seek the approval of Okada’s family before going to press. (A representative from Penguin told me that the publisher is currently in conversation with Okada’s estate.) There is, in any case, something at once powerful and ironic in seeing authors like Okada or Bulosan included in the vaunted Penguin series, which reflects both a growing interest among mainstream publishers in more diverse books and markets and also the gradual acceptance of Asian-American culture. The histories and perspectives that made these books so unmarketable in the forties or fifties is precisely what makes them so prized today.

All of this probably would have baffled the authors themselves, none of whom lived to see that they were laying the foundations of something called Asian-American culture. And yet they were: each of these books expresses a perspective with striking family resemblances to the outlooks of the first-generation immigrants whom Eng and Han describe in “Racial Melancholia, Racial Dissociation.” The books are set in wildly different locales—the Communist cafeterias of lower Manhattan, a Japanese-American neighborhood in Seattle, the farms of central California—but they are all books about yearning, a search for the like-minded, countrymen or otherwise. The Filipino laborer in Bulosan’s “America Is in the Heart” finds kinship among the Mexicans and African-Americans he meets in the fields. Kang’s “East Goes West,” an occasionally funny story of an “Oriental Yankee,” ends on a note of unrequited longing, as the Korean-American protagonist, defined by his “rootlessness,” dreams of a “happier reincarnation” in the next life. He never quite feels seen or heard.

Reading the books today, one feels our distance from a time when authors like Okada, Kang, Bulosan, and Tsiang lacked the kind of shelter that can be found within a shared identity. It’s not that identifying with such a community, or as an Asian-American, is the sole answer. (I’ve often wondered if Tsiang, for example, wouldn’t have seen modern identity politics as an annoying imposition.) But belonging and community are such simple, basic desires, and these novels are filled with characters who feel they have no claim to America or its language, even as their authors write with great beauty and conviction. They wrote themselves into being, for it was the only recourse they could conjure. Generations later, we make sense of those struggles as a history we can enter into.

Today, an Asian-American writer who is curious about literary antecedents can consult a comparatively robust and eclectic archive. One of the most striking aspects of Eng and Han’s book is the relative ease with which it toggles back and forth between psychoanalytic case studies of people in various stages of suffering and characters in novels who were created to embody themes of beauty and triumph, suffering and fracture. Novels are not self-help books or manifestos, and sometimes the contemporary critical focus on representation and symbols can feel like a weak proxy for actual politics. But encountering another’s story, and recognizing the traces of history that bear upon our lives, help us imagine how our lives could be different, suggesting paths that might not have naturally occurred to us.

In one arresting chapter, Han talks about “Christopher,” a gay student who is originally from China. He is untroubled by his racial identity; at first, he doesn’t feel particularly aggrieved about having to learn the mannerisms and dispositions required by the white corporate world. Unlike those of previous generations, he doesn’t fear any negative consequences for being gay in America; it’s so normal that he never even feels the need to “come out” to Han—something that would have been a part of the therapeutic process as recently as a decade ago. (His sexuality is, on the other hand, a source of stress in his relationship with his family.) Christopher’s life is rigorous and meticulously managed, robotically structured toward achievement and proving himself to his peers. He has come to Han because of panic attacks. The moment they begin talking about the larger structures dictating his life, and his feelings of invisibility, the attacks dissipate. It is, as Han puts it, a genuine talking cure: language and storytelling help him to cope with and comprehend a society that has told him that he should not be feeling any of this.

Identity isn’t a prescriptive solution. But when you’re uncertain of your place within society, it can help to have ready-made categories or narratives, even if you choose to reject them. There’s a power in being able to recognize our struggles as the result of paradoxes we live within rather than seeing them as purely private failings. It’s a step toward imagining lives that we might be the authors of, with endings that we write ourselves.



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Thanks !

Thanks for sharing this, you are awesome !