Assimilating Asians: Gendered Strategies of Authorship in Asian America [NOOK Book]


One of the central tasks of Asian American literature, argues Patricia P. Chu, has been to construct Asian American identities in the face of existing, and often contradictory, ideas about what it means to be an American. Chu examines the model of the Anglo-American bildungsroman and shows how Asian American writers have adapted it to express their troubled and unstable position in the United States. By aligning themselves with U.S. democratic ideals while also questioning the historical realities of exclusion, ...
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Assimilating Asians: Gendered Strategies of Authorship in Asian America

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One of the central tasks of Asian American literature, argues Patricia P. Chu, has been to construct Asian American identities in the face of existing, and often contradictory, ideas about what it means to be an American. Chu examines the model of the Anglo-American bildungsroman and shows how Asian American writers have adapted it to express their troubled and unstable position in the United States. By aligning themselves with U.S. democratic ideals while also questioning the historical realities of exclusion, internment, and discrimination, Asian American authors, contends Chu, do two kinds of ideological work: they claim Americanness for Asian Americans, and they create accounts of Asian ethnicity that deploy their specific cultures and histories to challenge established notions of Americanness.
Chu further demonstrates that Asian American male and female writers engage different strategies in the struggle to adapt, reflecting their particular, gender-based relationships to immigration, work, and cultural representation. While offering fresh perspectives on the well-known writings—both fiction and memoir—of Maxine Hong Kingston, Amy Tan, Bharati Mukherjee, Frank Chin, and David Mura, Assimilating Asians also provides new insight into the work of less recognized but nevertheless important writers like Carlos Bulosan, Edith Eaton, Younghill Kang, Milton Murayama, and John Okada. As she explores this expansive range of texts—published over the course of the last century by authors of Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Filipino, and Indian origin or descent—Chu is able to illuminate her argument by linking it to key historical and cultural events.
Assimilating Asians makes an important contribution to the fields of Asian American, American, and women’s studies. Scholars of Asian American literature and culture, as well as of ethnicity and assimilation, will find particular interest and value in this book.
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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“Bringing fresh perspectives to much-discussed work, Assimilating Asians is a fine book.”—Elaine Kim, University of California, Berkeley

“Chu brings social theory and literary analysis together with smart and elegant readings. Hers is one of the first works of Asian American literary criticism to foreground the gendered aspects of narratives of assimilation.”—Priscilla Wald, author of Constituting Americans: Cultural Anxiety and Narrative Form

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780822381358
  • Publisher: Duke University Press
  • Publication date: 3/8/2000
  • Series: New Americanists
  • Sold by: Barnes & Noble
  • Format: eBook
  • File size: 331 KB

Meet the Author

Patricia P. Chu is Associate Professor of English at George Washington University.

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Assimilating Asians

Gendered Strategies of Authorship in Asian America
By Patricia P. Chu


Copyright © 2000 Duke University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8223-2430-0

Chapter One

America in the Heart: Political Desire in Younghill Kang, Carlos Bulosan, Milton Murayama, and John Okada

Trip seemed a dream, or if real, hidden now by all the obstacles of fate, time, space, and the world. But I did not forget her. Nor what I had come to America to find. And I set out now inspired to seek the romance of America.... I became the man who must hunt and hunt for the spiritual home.-Younghill Kang, East Goes West

In this white dominated society, it was perhaps natural that white girls seemed attractive personally as well as physically. They were in a sense symbols of the social success I was conditioned to seek, all the more appealing, perhaps, because of the subtly imposed feelings of self-derogation associated with being a member of a racial minority. In the inner recesses of my heart I resisted the seductive attraction of white girls because I feared I was being drawn to them for the wrong reasons. . . . Behind the magnetism there may have been an unhealthy ambition to prove my self-worth by competing with the best of the white bucks and winning the fair hand of some beautiful, blue-eyedblonde-crowning evidence of having made it.-Daniel Okimoto, An American in Disguise

Exclusion and the Immigrant Romance

The fictional narrator of Younghill Kang's 1937 novel, East Goes West: The Making of an Oriental Yankee and the autobiographical narrator of Daniel Okimoto's 1971 memoir, An American in Disguise, share several definitive traits: a desire to construct themselves as Americans, an awareness of their status as outsiders due to their race, and an interest in white women as representatives of their ideal of America. In questioning his attitudes toward white women and assimilation, Okimoto demonstrates a more contemporary political consciousness of his vexed position as a Japanese American; Kang, writing much earlier, does not have the same language available to analyze his immigrant hero's fixation on Trip, but his novel makes clear that Trip's importance to Han is heightened by Han's isolation as a Korean in a racist country.

Patricia Ann Sakurai has called the trope of the Asian American man's desire for the white female body "the trophy paradigm." In the case of Okimoto's quotation, the desire for the white woman is explicitly critiqued by Okimoto himself as emblematic of "an unhealthy ambition" not only to cross socioeconomic boundaries but to erase the author's own race and to compensate for the "feelings of self-derogation" that he recognizes have been "subtly imposed" on him as a Japanese American. Sakurai suggests that the trophy paradigm is not a fixed signifier with a constant meaning but a complex signifying practice that emerges intertextually. As these quotations suggest, the trophy paradigm recurs in the writings of men from different ethnic groups and in both immigrant and American-born authors' texts. But I suggest that its recurrence throughout such a broad range of texts is nonetheless symptomatic of a common anxiety among Asian American male authors and that this anxiety is not simply about Asian American manhood but about the construction of such manhood in the form of real and literary fatherhood-in short, a racialized anxiety of authorship in America.

While Sakurai notes the importance of the white female body as a potential trophy for Asian American males in the race to assimilate, critics of American literature have documented the widely dispersed trope of the land itself as a female body to be conquered and subdued. I argue, however, that the white woman often serves another function in the "immigrant romance" of the Asian American male author: whether she is a teacher, muse, critic, or reader, she represents the American cultural establishment with which the Asian American author must negotiate in order to establish both his literary authority and his Asian American subjectivity. To put it another way: the appearance of desirable but elusive white women in Asian American men's texts marks the struggles of Asian American males to establish identities in which Americanness, ethnicity, and masculinity are integrated. Various metanarratives may be applied to interpret these struggles, but the one I propose is that for Asian American male writers the struggle to establish their masculinity is linked to the struggle to establish their literary authority and a literature of their own.

An essential starting point for interpreting the functions of white women in male-centered Asian American texts is Asian American history: one of the master narratives of that history is the narrative of exclusion and its effects on Asian American sexuality. The exclusion narrative can be read as a narrative about the legal enforcement of compulsory sexual segregation-from Asian, white, and other women-for generations of Asian males who were welcomed to the United States as laborers but not as permanent Americans. Because of this thinking, most Asian immigrants were made ineligible for naturalized citizenship through a series of court cases. From 1875 through 1943, the immigration of Asian men was severely restricted and the immigration of Asian women was gradually cut off (Sucheng Chan, 54-56), resulting in the segregation of most immigrant men from their countrywomen, who remained in their homelands. In addition, some states -notably California, where many Asians lived-passed miscegenation laws forbidding marriages between Asian men and American women or construed existing laws (passed with black-white matches in mind) to apply to such unions (Chan, 59-61). Finally, female U.S. citizens who married Asian immigrants ("aliens ineligible for citizenship") from 1922 through 1936 lost their own citizenship (106). Thus, many Asian men were prevented from legitimizing any sexual or romantic unions they were able to initiate.

In Asian American studies, exclusion refers specifically to the laws restricting Asian immigration and naturalization but more broadly to the whole range of discriminatory practices designed to prevent Asians from identifying themselves as Americans. These practices included segregation in housing and schooling, the passage of alien land laws that prevented Asians from owning property, mass evictions, and outright violence (Chan, 45-61).

The largest group affected by the exclusion laws was the Chinese community, a de facto bachelor society (though many men were married to wives living in China). Because immigration laws were slightly more liberal where Japanese and Koreans were concerned, there were more Japanese and Korean families, but these ethnic communities still had a surplus of single men. Filipino immigrants to the United States were usually young single men. Therefore, our questions about gendered literary representations of the process of assimilation may reasonably begin with two immigrants who wrote about the experiences of their bachelor communities. Younghill Kang, a Korean aristocrat who arrived in the United States in 1921, published his second book, the autobiographical novel East Goes West: The Making of An Oriental Yankee, in 1937. Carlos Bulosan, the son of a Filipino farmer, arrived in the United States in 1930 and published his autobiographical novel, America Is in the Heart, in 1946. In each case, representations of desiring Asian men and rejecting white women need to be read through the metanarrative of history but also as part of a distinctly literary signifying practice-a literary representation, not a report, of Asian American men's social experiences. The need for this double reading-both historical and literary-links these texts, and others, despite the differences posed by their representations of different ethnic groups in different decades.

Younghill Kang was one of a small number of Koreans who emigrated to the U.S. mainland, where he wrote about a small community of Korean exiles, including a scholarly narrator based on himself, in the novel East Goes West: The Making of an Oriental Yankee. Chungpa Han, the narrator, arrives in the United States at age eighteen in the early 1920s "just in time before the law against Oriental immigration [the Immigration Act of 1924] was passed" (Kang, 5). In her influential study Asian American Literature: An Introduction to the Writings and Their Social Context, Elaine H. Kim attacks American critics who read the book as celebrating the openness of American society. Kim's reading emphasizes Han's experience of exclusion from American society (32-43); indeed, the narrator's strong sense of being a wanderer in permanent exile, his friend Kim's sense of hopelessness (which he often shares), and his feeling of belonging to a dying culture must be seen both in terms of the history of Asian exclusion in the United States and in terms of Japan's occupation and colonization of Korea. Han acknowledges this by referring to the Immigration Act at the outset of the novel, and again at its end, when he is befriended by an American senator who urges him to think of himself as an American:

He said, "Yes, young man, I can see you have come to America to stay, and I'm proud and glad. Now you must definitely make up your mind to be American. Don't say, 'I'm a Korean' when you're asked. Say, 'I'm an American.'"

"But an Oriental has a hard time in America. He is not welcomed much."

"There shouldn't be any buts about it! Believe in America with all your heart. Even if it's sometimes hard, believe in her.... I tell you sir, you belong here. You should be one of us."

"But legally I am denied."

Senator Kirby actually pooh-poohed this objection. "There are still ways and means of proving exceptions. And that unfair law perhaps will not always last. Next time I hold government office" (... his party had been out for a long time), "write me and I will help you." (383)

By reporting this as a dialogue, Kang the author demonstrates the mixed message Han receives from America. Kirby urges him to consider himself American, first overlooking the laws against Han's presence and naturalization then denying personal responsibility for that law and offering help in some unspecified future. By diplomatically withholding comment on Kirby's final promise, Kang leaves the final assessment of Kirby's promised "help" open to the reader.

By the end of the novel, Han has established an entry-level literary job for himself as the oriental news correspondent of a monthly magazine. But his tenuous position in America is summed up in a dream wherein he is first distracted from entering a paradisiac, clearly Asian garden by the loss of his American money and car keys and then chased into "a dark and cryptlike cellar," along with "some frightened-looking Negroes," by men with knives and clubs. As the (implicitly white) men outside shove flaming torches into the cellar gratings, Han awakes and proclaims unconvincingly that in Buddhist terms the dream augurs "growth and rebirth and a happier reincarnation" (401). Clearly, the dream conveys Han's sense of being doubly alienated; he is too Americanized to return to Korea, yet he cannot gain full entry into America because of the color of his skin.

In this context, the novel's interracial romances serve to extend its dominant theme of homelessness. Of the four Korean men who fall in love with white women, only Richard Chai, a brilliant, charming, and disciplined Korean American medical student, wins his beloved in marriage. George Jum, a playboy enamored of a white dancer, fails to sustain her interest and retires to Hawaii, where he becomes engaged to a Korean American bride. Although his prospects seem idyllic ("So here in Hawaii I will spend my hours in eating, loving, and sleeping"), George seems slightly disappointed at his failure to succeed as a movie actor (399). The happy love story of Chai and his WASP bride, Martha Wright, suggests that attitudes toward Asian men were not wholly rejecting; moreover, George's strategic retreat to the welcoming Korean American community in Hawaii suggests one alternative to the battles of assimilation on the mainland. However, the stories of Kim and Helen and Han and Trip are more important to the novel's central themes of wandering, exile, and homelessness.

Kim, a brilliant but gloomy man of letters, wins the affection of Helen Hancock, a New England lady, but not the approval of her relatives, who separate the two. Later, when Kim learns that Helen has died, he commits suicide. When Han hears of the deaths, he thinks of Kim in literary terms but with an intensity that is best understood in terms of Korea's struggle for survival under Japanese occupation. Han remembers Kim comparing himself to Ulysses, set adrift by an earlier Helen, in a revisionist reading that emphasizes Ulysses's wandering over Paris's sexual passion: "Without Helen, Ulysses would never have been shipwrecked again and again in the black treacherous sea. Always he tried to reach the receding horizon ... (391)." After linking Kim with famous literary suicides of the East and West, and with the English Romantic poets as a "child of revolution" (395), Han finally figures Kim as a beloved but hopelessly defaced Korean text: "But the greatest loss to me, Kim's friend, was himself, his brain which bore in its fine involutions our ancient characters deeply and simply incised, familiar to me. And over their classic economy, their primitive chaste elegance, was scrawled the West's handwriting, in incoherent labyrinth, and seamless Hamlet design. To me-to me almost alone-a priceless and awful parchment was in him destroyed. Could it not have been deciphered, conveyed to the world?" (393). In Kim, whose mind is "deeply and simply incised" with "ancient characters" cherished by Han for their "classic economy, their primitive chaste elegance," Han sees a reflection of his own mind and heart, in which Korean culture was once inscribed but has since been obscured by the destructively "incoherent labyrinth" of Western writing. By identifying Western culture with a cryptic labyrinth, an obscure place of entrapment and slaughter, Han links it metaphorically with the "dark and cryptlike cellar" where he finds himself in the final image of the novel. That Helen Hancock herself is not as important as the abstract hope of belonging, and of being mentally at rest, which she represents, is suggested by the fact that Han identifies Kim with Ulysses the exile, not Paris, and Hamlet the displaced prince, not Romeo the thwarted lover. Despite the lack of overt historical references, the political subtext may explain the intensity of Han's grief here: the "priceless parchment," which Han so wishes could have been deciphered and conveyed to the world and which he feels "almost alone" in mourning, seems also to be Korea itself, an occupied country of which most Americans at that time (1921-37) had not yet heard. Although the love story is not an overt national allegory, and the novel is not explicitly political, it is not as devoid of historical consciousness or nationalist feeling as some readers have suggested. For a character who loves literature and culture as much as Han does, and who cannot identify with political or military solutions to his country's plight, this passage expresses the deepest possible sense of mourning for his homeland as well as alienation from this adopted country.

That Kim is a "parchment" also indicates the slight archaicism that Han associates with the kind of classical East Asian education Kim and he share. That the double writing of Eastern and Western characters has made Kim unreadable except to a fellow exile suggests something about the difficulty these émigrés encounter in reconstructing themselves as American men of letters in the absence of a living community of peers who know how to "read" them and their writing. That their difficulty is not only one of identity or race, but specific to their class identities as exiled upper-class scholars and to the problem of gaining cultural recognition, is suggested by the fact that Richard Chai, the doctor, gains access to the feminized American body of his (blonde, Phi Beta Kappa, medical secretary) beloved through his expert medical knowledge of the (non-racially marked) human body. As a Korean American, Richard also has a more subtle grasp of the rules of American social interaction, which no doubt contributes to his success in courting the aptly named Miss Wright. George Jum, who falls for a dancer and fails as a Hollywood actor before "settling for" a beautiful Korean American wife, is also locked out of success as an American cultural worker. After expressing his disgust that he can expect only minor parts in Hollywood, he goes to Hawaii, where, he writes, "lazy monkeys can pick up the nuts without working" (399). Though George's self-deprecation is typical of his sense of humor, it may also suggest that his self-image has been affected by his stay in Hollywood, where his body marks him as intrinsically "minor."


Excerpted from Assimilating Asians by Patricia P. Chu Copyright © 2000 by Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents


Introduction: "A City of Words"....................1
1 America in the Heart: Political Desire in Younghill Kang, Carlos Bulosan, Milton Murayama, and John Okada....................27
2 Authoring Subjects: Frank Chin and David Mura....................64
3 Womens' Plots: Edith Maude Eaton and Bharati Mukherjee....................90
4 "That Was China, That Was Their Fate": Ethnicity and Agency in The Joy Luck Club....................141
5 Tripmaster Monkey, Frank Chin, and the Chinese Heroic Tradition....................169
CODA. "What We Should Become, What We Were"....................188
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