Friday, September 14, 2007

Asia as Sign and Symbol

I'm in the Pacific Northwest doing research on the Japanese American internment (I'm looking for obscure references to an obscure policy that exempted a scant number of women and children of Japanese ancestry from internment). It's great being back on the West Coast. I'm doing work and staying with friends and yesterday I had two experiences that reminded me that while I may be back on the West Coast, and while there may be more of a critical mass of Asian Americans (than in the South) there are still incidents that remind me that "Asia" and references to "Asia" and "Asians" (whether American or not) are still used as signs and symbols of difference.

Incident #1: I am talking with my friend in a public spot with some acquaintances of hers and we are talking about her Thai friend and another person mentions having met this Thai friend and another man turns to us (we, I should say, are the only Asian American women in this group) and the man says: "I knew a Thai mail order bridesmaid." Believing he had misspoken, that he meant to say "bride" instead of "bridesmaid" I say "Wow, that makes me sad" and the man comes over to sit next to me and explains that it was supposed to be a joke--one that a comedian Steven Wright had made once upon a time. But the timing of it, as well as the creepy factor I got from him made me feel like it wasn't an innoccuous or innocent reference.

Incident #2: In the play, "Distracted," that we went to later that night, a play about a white suburban California family who are coping with figuring out how to handle their son's diagnosis of ADD, there are several references to outsourcing of jobs to India, cheap goods made in China, the perils of not inoculating your child because there are all sorts of children now coming into the country and into our public schools--from Asia, Africa, Korea, China, Ethiopia, El Salvador, and Mexico, and they are bringing their diseases with them, and my favorite, a query about whether a man is black or muslim because his skin is so dark, and whether it would be possible for him to be muslim because he is in a gay relationship.

All of these remarks were peppered throughout the 2 1/2 hour play--and they were minor incidents--said for quick laughs. The main drama was about this white suburban family struggling with the trauma of their son's diagnosis of ADD. And I'm not trying to say that family issues and particularly ADD isn't a real or serious issue, but the entire play smacked too much of white middle class privilege--of the kind of norms that one often takes for granted that the U.S. is made out of. And very subtly, with all these references to "Asia," made for cheap laughs, it also reinforces the continued notion that to be "from Asia" or have ancestry in Asia is to not be fully incorporated within the American social fabric. After all, you may be part of the brown hordes bringing diseases to the uninnocculated white children of America.

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