Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Conference...an academic's version of vacation

So tomorrow I'm getting on an American Airlines flight *hopefully* and leaving for a conference. So this means that I may not be blogging on a regular basis (although I'm sure this conference will provide plenty of fodder for this blog, especially since I'll be immersed in all things Asian American since this is the big "A" conference for me--A as in #1, A as in Asian, A as in ... America?)

Anyway, in honor of the fact that I will soon be immersed in a world of jargon and a sea of dark haired people...

[OK, let me be really frank: I've already talked about feeling tired, sometimes, exhausted, sometimes, when I recognize that I'm the "only one" in a room -- which happened AGAIN when I went to a Southern U. meeting of about 50 faculty/staff/students from around the university and I was the ONLY Asian face in this "important meeting" (sigh). So one of the things I'm looking forward to by going to this conference is that I will NOT be the only one: not the only one working on Asian American issues, not the only one interested in issues of social justice related to Asian American populations, not the only one who has read the latest journal article on Asian American literature, and not the only Asian American person in the conference hotel, although I also want to note that there are many fine academics who are NOT Asian American--like Professor X who gave the wonderful Japanese American Internment talk. So for any of you more conservative readers out there, I don't even want to HEAR you tell me that this is a segregationist/racist conference. Personally, it's a place I get to re-charge once a year--to be with folk I share a shorthand with--and quite frankly I really need it, because damn it, I get tired of the face staring back at me in the mirror being the only Asian face I see most days.]

Rant over.

What was I saying?

Oh yeah. In honor of entering into the land of academic jargon, I thought I would actually write this post dedicated to Asian American literature (a topic near and dear to my heart), specifically picking up a comment thread from the discussion I started on Ha Jin's novel A Free Life about Asian Immigrants becoming Asian Americans.

One of the commenters expressed a disdain for Jin's latest novel--feeling like it rehearsed worn out themes already expressed in the canon of Asian American literature. I don't know that I entirely agree with this statement, but I understand where the comment is coming from. Because Asian American literature is so often associated with "THE IMMIGRANT EXPERIENCE," as if those are the ONLY types of experiences that Asian Americans are having or are capable of relating, or, perhaps more accurately, are getting publishing contracts. In other words, there seems to be a certain "vogue" for Asian American novels that depict a type of "immigrant" experience.

Case in point: This past Sunday's New York Times book review had an ad for a book I've plugged in the right sidebar of this blog (under "Jennifer's Current Book Recommendations"), Free Food for Millionaires, by Min Jin Lee.

And in the ad, there is a quote from a reviewer (who is unnamed) that reads:

"Not since Jhumpa Lahiri's The Namesake has an author so exquisitely evoked what it's like to be an immigrant..."

Now, I have to tell you--this is NOT what I think about when I think about this novel. Because the main character, Casey, who we follow for 800 pages, is a first-generation American born Korean American woman, whose life follows the plot of a sprawling Russian or English novel. I did not see resonances with The Namesake, and can only conclude that this reviewer wanted to compare two Asian American immigrant experiences together (I mean, why not compare it to Nicole Krause's The History of Love, which also deals with multiple immigrant experiences (Russia, Poland, England, Latin America), or Jeffrey Eugenides' Middlesex, which talks about the Greek American immigrant experience? Must Asian immigrants always be compared against one another?)

It would seem that the only way you can "sell" an Asian American book is to draw upon the typical tropes of "Asian-as-foreigner" which means "Asian-as-immigrant," which brings me full circle back to my point in the April 12 post: when does an immigrant actually become a citizen? When does an Asian immigrant, in particular, become American? And when will Asian American writers be free to write whatever kinds of stories they want to write about, with whatever cast of characters they want to choose to write about--without invoking the typical tropes of immigration or generational or cultural conflict?


The Constructivist said...

Your closing comments resonate in a huge way for me with the way the world of women's golf (players, LPGA, media, tv announcers) is dealing with the presence of so many world-class Asian (esp. South Korean) golfers leaving their "home" tours and succeeding on the LPGA. What you typically see are the usual tropes--yellow peril, model minority, and all the metaphorical baggage and tired imagery that goes with them--with the occasional paean to globalization thrown in. Even apolitical and conservative fans of various individual players notice this and are outraged by it. (Check out the Seoul Sisters discussion board and The Florida Masochist blog to see what I mean.)

I get the feeling that even when golf writers know better, they gravitate to the same stale rhetorical maneuvers b/c it's easy and b/c they think that's what their audience will expect.

To get back to the main idea of your post, this can be an opportunity for Asian Studies to make the Toni Morrison move (in the early '90s, she argued that teaching the uses of African Americans representations by non-Africans Americans should be part of Black Studies) and build more comparative work into its core courses. Ethnic studies at its best has always been transnational, postcolonial, and global--it has always put stories of immigration alongside stories of exile, diaspora, and forced relocation so as to raise questions about identity, culture, and politics.

One example of how it can build on this history. In A Nation Among Nations, Thomas Bender points out that studying immigration patterns to the U.S. and the effects of Asian exclusion legislation can be augmented by looking at where in the world emigrants from a particular country decided to move to (this can be just as illuminating of Italian as Japanese emigrants, he shows). Karen Tei Yamashita (and, for that matter, 2007 LPGA Rookie of the Year Angela Park) start looking like the norm when "America" has a hemispheric referent and when emigration histories are as valued as immigration histories.

The reason why I say this kind of approach needs to be implemented in core classes is twofold: one, it may help attract more students, minors, and majors into ethnic studies courses; two, for those students for whom one of such courses is their only one, they'll be better prepared to see the kinds of relevant connections/comparisons you identify and have less patience for irrelevant or distracting ones.

John B. said...

Enjoy your conference. The experience you describe reminds me, in reverse, of a colleague of mine at Rice, a 17th-18th-century specialist who is also Chinese-American (her surname is easily identifiable as Chinese). She'd interview for jobs in her field and at the interview get questions such as, "Do you have any interest in teaching Asian-American Lit. classes?"--something the ads had said nothing about and that she was not marketing herself as. It grew to be frustrating for her and made her a bit cynical as to just why schools were interested in her: less as a Swift scholar than as someone about whom the search committees had a set of (stereotyped) assumptions. It's hard to know a department's true motives when writing up job descriptions or assessing candidates, but my friend's experiences served to make her a bit suspicious of committees who appeared fixated not on her scholarship and stated interests but on her surname and ethnicity.

CVT said...

As the person who pretty much side-tracked your whole original question in the last one, I thought I'd jump in here and try to right the ship:

There are two ways to look at it here: the "American" viewpoint, and the immigrant's OWN viewpoint.

Let's start with American (I was going to write "white" American, but that's not true - I think Americans of color are just as likely to play this "Asian-as-immigrant" game as anybody else):

"Americans" aren't going to accept an Asian person as a "real American" until that person has pretty much thoroughly "Americanized." My mom immigrated from China at a young age, but everybody I know who has ever met her tends to comment about how "American" she is. She doesn't have an accent, she's hip and has "modern" style tastes, etc. Nobody would think of her as an "immigrant.

My grandmother, on the other hand, moved here with my mother in her forties. She lived in Chinatown (New York and Oakland) for almost her entire "American" life, had a very obvious accent, wore Chinese coats, etc. She was always an "immigrant" for any "American" that ever met her. This is in spite of the fact that she was very un-"Chinese" in a lot of ways. She was a fiercely independent woman who loved to travel the world and see other cultures. She was VERY involved in politics and loved to Bush-bash as much as (or more than) typical liberal Americans. But she would always be an "immigrant" in this country.

That's the "American" way. I joke with my friend from Turkmenistan (Central Asia, even if people don't think of it that way) about all the things she must now do as an "American" (she became a citizen two months ago). And she is a young, cool "American" in a so many ways. But because of her accent and pride in her home country, I don't think a large percentage of Americans would retract the "immigrant" aspect of how they identify her.

On the flip side:
I'd say for the immigrant themselves - they become "American" once they have fully committed their lives to America. Now I don't mean that in a "wave your flag and sing the national anthem" kind of way - but when "moving back" to the home country is not longer a thought. When it's about having family come to stay in the U.S., and not about regularly wanting to be back in the country of origin.

The same way a new city officially becomes "home" to anybody: I've lived in Portland for five years, but it will never be my "home" because I'm not fully committed to it. I intend to live out my life somewhere else (to bring it full circle - because I'm sick of being the "only one" here).

That's when an "immigrant" becomes an "American."

My mom is American. My grandma was American. And my friend from Turkmenistan is now American (as she plans to move her family out here within the year). They might not all be widely-accepted as such - no Asian person is going to be TRULY widely-accepted in this country, anyway - but their hearts have committed to "American-ness."

Did that make sense? I think it did.

This topic brings up all sorts of other thoughts about how an American-born person can or cannot "be Asian" in this country (the popular emcee "Lyrics Born" only popular after he changes his name from "Asia Born," for instance) - but I don't need to sidetrack a second dialogue. Can you do that one soon?

Jennifer said...

Hi all,
This is going to be a lame comment because it's 10pm CST and my body thinks its in EST and I need to crash soon. But I just wanted to say that I agree with all of your astute comments--and I have had similar observations/experiences to the ones you've all shared.

Thanks for your insights--I will write when I return from this conference since there's no free wifi and I'm being run ragged (but in a good way!)

Shaun said...

HI Jennifer,
Keep the blogging coming. I share your frustration at being the representative for my race in academic settings, and it's a constant struggle between wanting to educate, but not wanting to be the only educator.
Mostly though, I just enjoy the blog to know what my BFF in CH is up to.