Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Asian American identity

I'm continuing the theme from the last post about Asian American identity because it's something I've been mulling over lately. In many ways, I feel like I'm back at Asian American Studies 101: What does it mean to be an Asian American? Who IS an Asian American? What is Asian American identity?

I'm actually looking for something beyond the basic answers of ethnic ancestry, phenotype, oppositional identity, social constructedness, political solidarity.

Or perhaps I'm looking for more nuanced discussions of these topics.

I remember having a very lively discussion with a friend in grad school--a woman who came to the U.S. from Hong Kong at the age of 7, who spoke fluent Cantonese and English and had lived a majority of her life in the U.S. and who felt the category of Asian American was odd and counterintuitive. Why should she share an identity with a Japanese American? These two countries, Japan and China, have been at war and in conflict over the course of several centuries. And what affiliation would a person with Pakistani ancestors have in common with a Filipino person? Interestingly enough, my friend actually developed an Asian American identity (or perhaps more specifically Chinese American identity) when she moved back to the West Coast from the East Coast.

I rebutted every one of her challenges, talking about Vincent Chin and civil rights and the Asian American studies movement and how Asian Americans get lumped as perpetual foreigners, regardless of their length of stay or perfect English--that there was a way we get perceived by others--that in fact, this threat to our individuality (ironically enough) is what pushed Asian Americans to band together into a political group, in solidarity with one another and with other minoritized groups of the 1960s (American Indians, Chicano, Gay and Lesbians, and of course African Americans) to fight for civil liberties and social justice.

So I guess my question is: Can you be an Asian American person without having an oppositional identity--without your identity being political--without any notion of essentialism? Can you be Asian American in any positive (as in affirming) way without devolving into cultural nationalism?

To put it another way, is the day when Asian American literature dissolves a good day because it will mean that Asian American literature is now American literature--is seen as being on par and indistinguishable from American literature and the expanded American canon, which includes John Steinbeck, Nella Larsen, Leslie Marmon Silko, Rudolfo Anaya and Sui Sin Far? (by the way, I don't think I'll see this day in my lifetime, but you can always project).

I guess what I'm wondering is what is the efficacy of an Asian American identity beyond political solidarity? And rather than saying just beyond political solidarity, perhaps this is more than enough...perhaps the fact that it is first and foremost a political identity because it is a racial identity is the key point and that I should stop being so concerned about the scope of Asian American collectivities beyond political concerns. That inherently Asian American as a category is political and its power lies in precisely this fact--that there are challenges and limitations, no doubt, but that a political identity that is centrally an oppositional identity--one that focuses on social justice, is perhaps the way to best understand what it means to be Asian American.


Cipher said...


E. San Juan said it best when he stated that we may need to re-think the category of Asian American literature once it continually makes the American canon at large; perhaps something like "emergent literature." I'm still married to Asian American literature as a terminology precisely because we have been doing canon work and overdetermining the importance of narrative in that structure. I'm teaching more and more fully poetry collections and drama collections in my courses in order to off-set that kind of problematic genre propensity. It's amazing how many small presses are churning out these fantastic Asian American poets and then these books go out of print. Take for instance, the case of Myung Mi Kim's Dura. Issued in 1998 by Sun & Moon Press and then goes unceremoniously out of print a couple of years later. This isn't just anyone; it's FUCKING MYUNG MI KIM, you know?

Now, I can buy my copy of Dura for 63.28 as a used copy on Asian American literature still has a long way to go. As an identity category linked to literature, I think it will always be in the process of rooting out the lost, the erased, and ultimately unremembered. And that's how I plan to wield it.

Jennifer said...

I like the way you linked the two--identity and literature. I do think that as an identity category linked to the academy, especially to literature, Asian American repositions our thinking in so many ways. I think I said this before, but I have a colleague who has done work on Italian and German nationals being imprisoned during WWII and he had heard that this same thing happened to Japanese Americans but didn't know if there was any extensive research done on this subject and could I, by the way, point him to some source material on the matter.

I was flabbergasted. Is there any research about the Japanese American internment? Are there any novels, historical works, drama, poetry, sociological studies, anthropological studies, environmental studies, memoirs, films, documentaries, artistic pieces, political statements...???

And this is someone with a PhD. Can you imagine our students?

So yes, I think you're right. I mean, the reality of race in America is such that do I think that there really is going to become a day in my lifetime when race doesn't matter, socially constructed or not?

And yet, I'm also wondering if Asian American, as a category, is starting to become something like being "white" in the sense that the particularities of one's ethnic background may start to fall by the wayside, either as intra-racial marriages and unions take place or as second, third, and fourth generations start to identify more politically rather than ethnically.

no name said...

NO, there is no asian american or whatever. when it all comes down we are all AMERICANS. doesnt matter if ur asian or not u shouldnt look and judge people by thier race. im asian american(chinese-american) but i look at myself not as an asian but as an american

Jennifer said...

Hello no name,

Thank you for coming to this blog and feeling compelled to leave such an opinionated comment.

I do have a few questions for you:

1) Are you suggesting that that race is not a valid category in the U.S.? I understand that you do not wish to be labeled as an Asian American, but how do you propose to keep others from categorizing you as such?

2) From the way you have typed your comment (using "ur" for "you are") I'm going to guess that you are in a 30 and under demographic (or a very hip and tech saavy 30+). I guess I'm wondering how you see yourself as positioned to be simply an "American" and whether you have read any history, especially Asian American history and if you are aware of the current discourse of anti-Asian hostility towards anyone who "looks" Asian, regardless of what their national or cultural affiliation is? In other words, there are many Americans of Asian descent who are constantly discriminated against based on people falsely believing that they are aliens or recent immigrants. How are you combatting this stereotype--and I understand if you, perhaps, have never faced this issue, but for all others who do, what do you recommend?

3) What do you mean by "u should not look and judge people by their race"? Again, I'm assuming from this comment that you are one who does not see race (perhaps like Stephen Colbert?). I agree that judging people based on race is problematic--and I don't think my post suggested that people do so. However, I would argue that ignoring or overlooking the racial identity of a person is nearly impossible--it is one way we use to categorize people--and there's really nothing inherently wrong in making a note, mentally, that someone is Caucasian or African American or of an indeterminate racial mixture--the problem is in the judgements and opinions attached to that observation.

Anyway, my last question is, as someone who apparently does not see race and believes one shouldn't comment on race, what drew you to a blog called "Mixed Race America"?

Unknown said...

As I've gotten older, I've started to look at asian american identity differently. We live in a world that means nothing without creating meaning through relationships through people and our understanding of ourselves and the world around us. It would be naive to say that race doesn't exist when society, language and culture are seen as constructs. How can one relate without knowing or trying to understand how others see us as individuals and as a group? People have a need to categorize and this categorization is a function of language. Dedier once wrote that 'language by it's very nature undermines the meaning that it seeks to promote.' It would be easy to live our lives without the historical baggage that race inherently reminds us of. We are all here because of history and pretending that race had nothing to do with why we are here today is to forget history, to turn our backs un culture and destroy our families' story lines