I ordered the book “The Barbarians Are Coming”, borrowed the book “Pangs Of Love” from Archive.org, and are planning to proceed to Chang-rae Lee’s books sometime later. I haven’t read any books by Asian American authors for a long time, all because of “Joy Luck Club”. It’s not that I don’t like the book. On the contrary I really like the book, especially its writing style–well crafted but one doesn’t feel it is crafted, well versed but so natural that the sentences seem to melt right in my ears. Yet I don’t feel it is about Asians. I feel it is about a group of exotic people (from the author’s relatives’ memory) who live in an Asian style house, wear Asian clothes, play mahjong, even do things Asians tend to do, but this group of exotic people are not really Asians, at least not the Asians I know, probably the mirage of Asians in the eyes of people who don’t understand Asians. I read the book so long ago that I can’t recall any details, but the feeling has been with me until now. I don’t know why I feel this way and can’t provide any evidence to support my statement unless I reread the book. I should do that but I know I don’t have the time. If I reread it now, I would discover the reasons why I feel the way I feel. I am sure I am a better analyzer now, better at dissecting a hard to pin down feeling and presenting a cogent argument than ten years ago when I first read the book.
Recently my sentiment has undergone a change, probably because of the Black Lives Matter movement, probably because I’ve grown out my conservative shell a little bit more, probably my understanding of the concept of “Asian” has progressed to a new point. It is hard not to examine oneself when all these statues are called into question and some are even pulled down. I don’t know much about the American Civil War and its generals, but I know about Christopher Columbus and Queen Victoria, both are extolled and respected figures with statues, movies, books singing their praise. I even visited a museum in Texas with the replicas of the three ships that Columbus took to the New World. However people rarely talk about the blood on their hands–a lot of blood of the people they colonized.
When I watched the videos of the statues, some pushed into a ditch, some beheaded, some splattered with red paints, I felt something moved, shifted, cracked open, reversed in my mind. Is this a signal for us to reexamine our bias and prejudices, to un-learn what we learned before, to change our long formed habits, to dig up all those books we’ve read to reread and rethink?
Criticizing history classes, favorite authors are the first thing to do. Then I feel the pang of guilty when I recall a conversation between C and me. C was born in America of Asian parents and grew up here. “Americans don’t think I am an American and Asians don’t think I am an Asian.” She said with a sigh. I said, “Of course you are an Asian. You just don’t think like a real Asian.” Why did I say that? Why couldn’t I comfort her by letting her know that she is fully accepted by me as an Asian? What did I mean by “real Asian”? Why did I say things that sound so egocentric? It is true that C orders food in an Asian restaurant exactly like an American–egg fried rice. A real Asian will never order egg fried rice in a restaurant because the egg fried rice in New Jersey is not the real egg fried rice. It is true that C told me that Tang poetry is corny and she doesn’t like it but had to study it for one of her college classes. I almost let out a cry of pain and surprise when she said that. A real Asian will never say that. “It’s all because of the bad translation. I feel sick when I read the translated version of Tang poetry.” I explained to her. She’s not quite convinced and I thought to myself that she’s not a real Asian.
“There’s such a flourishing black literature in America, but there’s almost no Asian literature here.” C said to me. This was new to me since I’d never thought about it. “Can’t think of a book other than ‘Joy Luck Club’. I like James Baldwin very much. His books are on sale and often downloadable. Toni Morrison’s books are never on sale.” I said. As a typical Asian, I never buy anything that’s not on sale. This was before I knew about archive.org where I can borrow books, sometimes for only one hour. One hour. Who can finish a book in one hour? C is right that being Asian is being invisible. Even if when Asians are visible, they are not real Asians. For example, “Fresh Off The Boat”. Since I watched a little bit recently, I can recall the details well. In one of the episodes, Eddie’s parents fought Uncle Gene to pay the bills at a restaurant. It has all the ostentatious Asian actions of pushing arms and tugging money in the other’s pocket, but it lacks the underlying essence–the respect they feel for each other, the love they convey through little voices pretending to be annoyed. It should be an Asian dance formation to express mutual affection, but unfortunately the TV series make it into a caricature. There are numerous other places in FOB that Eddie’s parents don’t behave like Asians at all. For example, the one episode when Eddie’s father goes to a bar to play pool with a blonde and Eddie’s mother arrives unexpectedly. That’s so fake.
Last time C and I talked over the phone, I apologized to her and said that she shouldn’t take my comments too seriously since I’m too ignorant of the diaspora. My idea of being Asian is out of date. I could feel that C was happy to hear that.
And living in Edison, New Jersey, one can’t help but think about diversity and what the word really means, not the official definition or the meaningless fake talk, but something real.