Asian American representation in the COVID-19 era
“In being represented as citizen within the political sphere, the subject is ‘split off’ from the unrepresentable histories of situated embodiment that contradict the abstract form of citizenship. Culture is the medium of the present . . . but is simultaneously the site that mediates the past, through which history is grasped as difference, fragments and flashes of disjunction. It is through culture that the subject becomes, acts, and speaks itself as ‘American’”. –Lisa Lowe, Immigrant Acts 2
In the process of creating a culture of Asian American literary history, the Asian American subject must define its place within the national literary history of America. The creation of this literary culture is the assertion of the Asian American voice in mainstream American media—a task that is especially relevant amidst the present wave of racial equity movements spurred by the tragedies of the COVID-19 era. In these rekindled discussions on race, the minority experience of Asian Americans is largely discredited and misrepresented. Coupled with the disease-racialisation rhetoric of the pandemic, (e.g., the “Kung flu” and the “Chinavirus”), Asian Americans have become the target of newly damaging stereotypes that have revitalised existing forms of discrimination. The Asian American subject is silenced into assimilation, while suffering an extensive history of racial scapegoating by politicians and mainstream media. In order to breakthrough this ongoing identity erasure, the need to create a culture of Asian American representation is especially detrimental during the present pandemic.
Relatively recent in comparison to the history of other minority groups in the U.S., the history of Asian America roughly begins towards the end of the 19th century, prompted by mass Chinese immigration during the California Gold Rush (1848-1855). Yet by the U.S. Federal ‘Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882’, which prohibited the lawful immigration and citizenship of Asians, Asians in America have experienced an extensive history of discrimination. With few written records prior to WWII, the narrative of Asian America has been largely muted by the dominant historical voice of white U.S. hegemony—as such, the history of Asian American literature is relatively recent. By using literature as a medium, the reconstruction of this missing narrative from the collective national memory of America is an endeavour undertaken by Asian American writers to speak against this historical silencing and establish an identity within the American literary canon.
Through a close reading of Chang-Rae Lee’s A Gesture Life, we will examine how Lee and other Asian American writers utilise the Bildungsroman model to chronicle processes of racial assimilation and American indoctrination within Asian American identity. Though published in 1999, the cultural and identity politics of Lee’s novel raises important issues relevant to the contemporary Asian American experience, in particular the invidious scapegoating and displacement of Asians/Asian Americans that is still prevalent amidst the current COVID-19 pandemic. Lee’s novel subverts the “Model Minority” myth of racial assimilation to portray the complex paradigms of Asian American identity formation and in doing so illustrates the use of the literary medium as a potent device for Asian American writers in demanding political accountability and historical memory in the 21st century.
The failed “Model Minority”
“People know me here”. (Lee, Gesture Life 1)
Chang- Rae Lee’s A Gesture Life, opens with the self-assured first-person narrator of Doctor Franklin Kurohata: an ex-military doctor and senior Japanese American resident of the affluent Bedley Run community in New York. Within the opening lines, Franklin Kurohata confidently declares his place within the community:
“There’s no longer a lingering or vacant stare, and you can taste the small but unequaled pleasure that comes with being a familiar sight to the eyes. In my case, everyone here knows perfectly who I am . . . Whenever I step into a shop in the main part of the village, invariably someone will say, ‘Hey, it’s good Doc Hata” (Lee 1).
Warmly recognised and enjoying ‘an almost Oriental veneration as an elder’, Doc Hata seems undoubtedly established in Bedley Run (1). Despite his racially foreign “otherness”, Hata has become a “familiar sight” and is re-baptised to the nickname “Doc Hata”. Well incorporated and socialised within the framework of Bedley Run society, Doc Hata fits the role of a perfect Model Minority who has seemingly secured his place and privileges within the community. The “popularized image of Asian Americans as the perfectly assimilated and presumptively accepted ethnic minority in the U.S.”, became a political invention of the Cold War, designed to advertise a false promise of white assimilation; this was used to disguise the insidious subordination of minority races by American hegemonic rule to contain “the red menace of communism, the black menace of racial segregation, and the white menace of homosexuality” (R. Lee 10). A Gesture Life’s narrative subverts this illusion of the successful Model Minority by depicting the undeniable incompleteness of Hata’s assimilation. The community’s acknowledgement of him as a “familiar sight” no longer marked by a “vacant stare” does not erase his distinctive otherness but only emphasises the society’s apathetic acknowledgment of his presence. Ironically referred to as Bedley Run’s “number one citizen”, Hata has but established a reputation of politeness and civility within the community.
What we come to understand of Hata’s assimilation is an orchestration of calculated gestures as he performs the role of the Model Minority citizen: “stoic patience, political obedience and self-improvement” (Said 146), which amounts to a life “consumed by gestures of accommodation and assimilation” (Edwards 89). Hata painstakingly mimics the idealised image of perfect upper middle-class whiteness (Edwards 89), which is noticeable when he first moves to Bedley Run and weighs the proper “response” to his neighbors’ welcome gifts:
“Even when I received welcome cards and sweets baskets from my immediate neighbors, I judged the exact scale of what an appropriate response should be. . . and I know that this helped me gain quick acceptance from my Mountview neighbors, especially given my being a foreigner and a Japanese” (Lee 44).
Hata’s keen awareness of his difference as a Japanese foreigner pressures him to work diligently not to disrupt the “fragile balance” of the community’s system of formalities. Aware that such a disruption could jeopardise his acceptance, his careful observance amounts to a “careful choreography of comparison and mimicry” (Edwards 90). Unfortunately, Hata’s mimicry does not erase his foreignness, but reduces him to a utilitarian caricature (R. Lee 12); the emasculated “Good Charlie Chan,” whose unquestioned submission to white hegemony exists to “measure his usefulness to strategies of white upward mobility” and distinguish the Asian minority from the historical fear and distrust associated with less “obedient” racial groups,( i.e., Black and Latinos). The “Charlie Chan” stereotype, as addressed by Frank Chin in his text “Racist Love”, is a form of racial oppression towards Asians that highlights the uniquely damaging stereotype ascribed to Asian American submissiveness (65). The antithesis of this submissive stereotype is the dangerous “Yellow Peril” or “Fu Manchu” spawned from the propagandist rhetoric of the Cold War, which portrayed Asians as threats to liberalism—rhetoric that eerily echoes the present racially-imbued language of disease racialisation.
In Hata’s case, his submissiveness to these racist norms as a racialised subject evokes Homi K. Bhabha’s discourse on mimicry, with mimicry being always a partial failure—”almost the same, but not quite . . . almost the same, but not white” (Bhabha 89). As David Eng and Shinhee Han argue in A Dialogue on Racial Melancholia; Asian Americans are forced to mimic the model minority stereotype in order to be recognized by mainstream society—in order to be at all. To the extent, however, that this mimicry of the model minority stereotype functions only to estrange Asian Americans from mainstream norms and ideals (as well as from themselves), mimicry can operate only as a melancholic process. (Eng and Han 350)
As an Asian American forced to choose between dutiful mimicry and invisibility, Hata must not contest the “dominant order of things” to prevent his ostracisation from the community (Lee 44). His only path toward visibility and acceptance is by performing the role of the Model Minority, even if it means denying or downplaying his own feelings of exclusion. Hata’s transformative re-naming from his chosen Anglophone prename “Franklin” as a “self-imposed marker of national affiliation” (Caroll 598) to the Bedley Runners’ reduction to “Doc Hata”, symbolises his accommodation to white hegemonic socialisation. Hata’s performance as the “number-one citizen” cannot inaugurate him into the community of privileged whiteness he so desires. In fact, “the very perfection of his performance—the excessiveness of its adherence to the norm—paradoxically renders him abnormal, Other.” (Edwards 91) Hata’s abnormal obsession and excessive adherence aligns with Bhabha’s discourse on mimicry as: “the discourse of mimicry is constructed around an ambivalence; in order to be effective, mimicry must continually produce its slippage, its excess, its difference […] emerging as the representation of a difference that is itself a process of disavowal” (86). Never truly equal, Hata’s desire for assimilation only enhances his otherness and racial marginalisation which serves to strengthen the white racial hierarchy. Hata’s failed performance of assimilation extends beyond himself to his strained relationship with his adoptive daughter Sunny who rebels against his forced indoctrination of “Americanness”; in truth, it is she who points to his fake “Good Charlie” reputation and divulges the futility of his aspiring mimicry: “Well, no one in Bedley Run really gives a damn. You know what I overheard down at the card shop? How nice it is to have such a ‘good Charlie’ to organize the garbage and sidewalk-cleaning schedule” (Lee 95).
As Hata’s ethnic origins are revealed, his aspiration for cultural assimilation appears to be an extension of a transnational desire for national belonging. An ethnic Korean, Hata is born in a Japanese slum to a family of hide-tanners (72). As a child, after scoring “exceptionally high on several achievement tests”, he is taken in by the Kurohatas, “a well-to-do childless couple”, and had since adhered to his Japanese family and society who have fostered his escape from poverty: “I think of them most warmly, as I do my natural parents, but to neither would I ascribe the business of having reared me, for it seems clear that it was the purposeful society that did so, and really nothing and no one else” (Lee 73).
Hata becomes “Japanized” (Wang 30) by strictly obeying to this “purposeful society”, marking the beginning of his obsession with assimilation. Thus, Hata’s “Racial Melancholia” (Eng and Han 350) manifests as a constant delusion of desired racial assimilation, one that crosses transnational boundaries. His transnational assimilation, going from Korean to Japanese and Japanese to American, reveals the shifting, yet paralleled dynamics of his internal colonisation. His malleable identity evokes the passage of imperialistic hegemonic colonisation, as one identity is removed in favour of the “dominating authority” (Bhabha 86), resulting in an ultimate loss of self. This haunting fracture within the assimilative process places Hata in melancholic detachment to his adopted town and, by extension, nation. His hyper-awareness of his difference, of his not-quite- belonging, thus continues to fuel his futile desire to become the “number-one citizen” (Lee 95).
Racial assimilation and the Bildungsroman
By depicting Hata’s failed journey towards his ideal of successful American acculturation, A Gesture Life uses conventions of the Asian American Bildungsroman to interrogate and contradict American ideals in the complex construction of Asian American subjecthood (Chu 7). In her study Assimilating Asians, Patricia Chu highlights the adoption of the Bildungsroman model by Asian Americans writers to illustrate this conflict of self-identification. She highlights this model as a “contradiction of idealized Americanness; the arduous struggle between the seemingly incompatible forces (of American and Asian cultures) as the very catalyst of the genre, the birth of modern subject/citizen, and the American cultural identity” (Chu 7), whereby Asian American writers utilise the Bildungsroman as an axis of analysis to “advocate and challenge American democratic ideals” (Yoon 7). To this end, Lee utilises this genre in A Gesture Life to debunk the false mythology of “the narrative of Americanization”, where the successful transformation of the “Oriental from the exotic to the acceptable as a sort of latter-day Pilgrim’s Progress” is deconstructed (Said 146). In their essay “Racist Love”, Frank Chin and Jeffrey Paul Chan identify institutionalised white racism towards Asian Americans as a form of “racist love” that forces Asian Americans into a crisis of identity; effectively torn between “white American assimilation” and the “cultural subjugation of a race of people” (66). The construction of these modern racist stereotypes has forced Asian Americans into an ultra-submissive narrative of American identity formation, where their oppressed muteness is exploited to strike divisions among minority groups to enable white supremacy. As per recent events, the Asian American minority experience has been largely discredited compared to those of other ethnic minorities, who feel that Asian Americans, through the flawed illusion of the Model Minority Myth do not experience racism.
Through Chang-Rae Lee’s utilization of the Bildungsroman model to denounce the illusion of assimilation and racial mimicry within Asian American identity formation, this essay argues that literature serves as an effective medium of the present to voice the Asian American minority experience. By recognising the historic racism against Asian Americans, this will serve to expand the imminent discourse on systemic racism, to acknowledge the varied ways racism affects each ethnic minority. While the racism shifts in form, its essence remains the same; any marginal acceptance into white hegemony is a superficial alteration of the terms, while the discrimination and the unsurmountable feeling of never quite belonging are essential realities of the Asian American subject. Hence, during these racially polarising times, the need for Asian American representation in mainstream media is especially crucial in order to create a space for a voice that has been lost and unconsidered for the majority of American history.
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