Asian-American Dreams

May 15, 2009

Reading Helen Zia’s “Asian American Dreams”

I’ve never really written narrative non-fiction writing before, and, by extension, I had never commented on myself as an Asian American, a woman, or a lesbian, which are three aspects of my identity that I feel are important to how I am viewed by others and how I view myself. I think that the reason for not writing about these important identities is because of self-censorship—the fear of judgment, the fear of incomplete assimilation that I’ve fostered since I was young. I grew up in a predominantly white, upper-middle class town where I was only able to fit in by dressing a certain way, looking a certain way, and having relationships with people of a certain gender. My options were to assimilate or be called a “Ching-Chong Chinaman”— I could either play down my Asianness or become an object of spectacle a la Amy Tan. And I learned, after being called a Chinese vampire for several weeks when I told a friend that duck’s blood was a delicacy in mainland China, that it was better to be quiet, unassuming.

Helen Zia’s book, “Asian American Dreams” is a book that I’ve been thinking a lot about since I’ve begun writing non-fiction, beginning with a memoir centering around the event of my grandfather’s death. The book interesting to me as a writer because it’s written both as a memoir as well as a historical essay (though not without some “I” references when she writes about historical Asian movements that she had been involved in in the early 1980s). She begins each chapter with a short anecdote about how the topic of the chapter relates to herself as an Asian American woman and her own experience of racism and being an ethnic minority—for instance, in a chapter titled “Gangsters, Gooks, Geishas and Geeks” she begins talking about the ethnic slurs people would throw at people who were of Asian decent. After the anecdotal prologue, the rest of the chapter contains scholarly-type essays about the history of Asians in America. The book presents shock-and-awe-type information about the widespread racism and inequality Asians have faced since they first immigrated to the United States—a history that has had little-to-no visibility in terms of public knowledge or even Asian-American knowledge. I didn’t even know about many of the events written about in the book, despite my childhood of reading about the unfair Chinese labor involved in the making of the Transatlantic railroad at the injustices of the Red regime in Communist China.

I responded very strongly to this book. Zia is quick to point out the situations and events where the Asian-American visibility binary (marginalized vs. exoticised) has historically been an issue that the government, the law, and various racist groups have played upon in an attempt to “other” Asians as well as to “push them out,” which brings to mind that old racist, very un-PC phrase, “Go back where you came from.” The fact that she tells her own personal accounts of the racism and injustice that each chapter contains speaks a lot to me as well because it turns the nearly-invisible idea of Asian-American civil rights into an urgent contemporary struggle that has foundation in the everyday, which was something I could relate to intimately. If people didn’t call me a China doll, ask me where my people came from and ask me to speak to them in “my language,” they would end up telling me that Asian people are, essentially, white people, and there’s nothing special about them ethnically. Either view is incredibly, incredibly mistaken.

I’ve felt that I’ve never fit in to either polar opposite category. And it’s very difficult to reconcile the fact that I am not one-faceted, defined by a single adjective, which, according to my looks, must be “Asian” when people look at me and automatically assume my identity to based on stereotype and prejudice. There are other components to my identity that are not included into the mix when race is taken into account (writer, musician, etc), but Zia manages to flesh out the Asian-American experience in such a way that makes Asians not one-dimensional, but three-dimensional. The people she writes about in this book become real people who respond like real people to the prejudice and problems around them. One thing that made an impact on me was one of the quotations from the book’s advance praise, which was printed on the back of the dust cover. Here various Asian authors, professors and political activists wrote about the effect the book had on them. Kaying Yang, who speaks for the Southeast Asia Resource Action Center wrote,

“Powerful and encompassing. For the first time, I feel as if I am not an outsider reading about other communities. This is the first comprehensive account of the Asian Pacific American political movement that my generation has the power and position to shape.”

I feel the same way. The book itself propelled me into ways of thinking about writing my own experience as an Asian American because it is singular and unique. Similarly, as Yang writes, my generation can change things. And, at this point, not many books have been published written about Asian Americans who are not turned into exotic antiquities (see Lawrence Yep or Amy Tan) and I realize that my cultural view point as a writer is very important and has the possibility of impacting Asian visibility.

I recently read Adrian Tomine’s graphic novel “Shortcomings,” a present given to me because I have been reading a great deal of graphic novels lately. Graphic novels have intrigued me as an art form since I was 13, when I picked up the first book installment of “The New X-Men” by Grant Morrison.

I suppose I’ve always loved graphic novels and comics; the former present the narratives in one complete dose, and the latter present it with the suspense of waiting for month-by-month serial installments. I’ve had my share of both — of excitedly buying a comic’s issues 1-10 pre-packaged in a glossy, soft-cover book, and of waiting for my “X-Men” comic to come in the mail every month, only to be disappointed in the fact that at its close I’d be waiting, sometimes mid-caption balloon, for what came next month.

Looking back, it was like an addictive, sci-fi soap opera. Drama! Intrigue! Murder! I still held on, even while being sorely aware of the plot devices, the somewhat predictable twists and turns and the cliffhangers that were immediately resolved within the first page of the next installment. But there was still a childish part of me that endured all of the month-by-month suspense because I sympathized with this world. I wanted to have superpowers when I was 14 (and even now, at 21), and I’m sure many others can sympathize with that feeling too.

I dropped my subscription of “The Ultimate X-Men” when I was 16, aware of how the series wasn’t keeping my interest like it had a year or two before. From there, left without a monthly comic to read, I moved from the comic world into the world of graphic novels.

It was there that I became increasingly aware that the word “graphic novel” enveloped much more than the expected fantasy, sci-fi or superhero genres. The graphic novel, which once transported me from one world to another (a world where men shot lasers out of their eyes), could now transport me inward. The graphic novel could also allow for a great deal of introspection into the mundane, delving into the details of a world within our own instead of transporting me out of it.

A few years ago I read the “Optic Nerve” comics by Adrian Tomine, an Asian-American graphic novelist whose work has appeared almost everywhere, including the cover of the New Yorker, the New York Times Magazine and on the cover of Yo La Tengo’s live-in-studio covers album “Yo La Tengo is Murdering the Classics.” Tomine is known for his crisp, subtle illustrations that visually map out and emulate the multifaceted anatomy of a scene, a gesture or an emotion.

A single, two-by-one inch panel in “Shortcomings,” for example, contains a speech bubble reading “Okay” and an Asian man and a Caucasian woman looking at one another intensely, eyes somewhat closed, lips pursed; this panel embodies the complex height of an infinite amount of sexual tension related to infidelity, race relations and sexuality that a thousand words on the matter could never come close to fully expressing. The dreamy, familiar look from one person to another covers enough complex and emotionally grounded material, it seems, to occupy an entire Marvel Universe.

Tomine’s graphic novels made me want to return to fiction writing. His ability to somehow find the oddest, sparkling moment in the mundane has always intrigued me. I’ve always admired his — and other graphic novel writers’ — odd and paradoxical ability to be unsentimental while telling a story with such sentimental undertones, hitting on points such as nostalgia, love or jealousy without getting “gushy,” “cheesy” or, scarily enough, “emo.” It’s the artist’s ability to stretch out, expand and renew the boy-meets-girl or the I-shouldn’t-have-cheated-on-you tale that make stories worthwhile, because, essentially, we have read their basic, bare-bones plots before at one time or another, but perhaps not in the particular way Tomine presents.

As for those interested in graphic novels that examine life in its confusion and complexity, I would suggest Allison Bechdel’s graphic memoir “Fun Home,” which is primarily a personal examination of Bechdel’s neglectful, homosexual father who committed suicide when she was 20. Also worthwhile is Chris Ware’s “Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth,” which, contrary to its title’s suggestion of childlike fantasy, follows the adult Corrigan through his profoundly tragic, lonely life and his oddly liberating dreams of peach trees and robots.

Finally, there’s David B.’s “Epileptic” — a graphic memoir that covers the childhood of David B. and his disabled epileptic brother Jean-Christophe. It tells the story of Jean letting his life fall into the tragic hideaway of his illness, and, consequently, David letting his life fall into the tragic hideaway of his art.

For me, the introspective quality of Tomine’s graphic novels created a new looking-glass through which to view the world. Simply put, graphic novels have done what literature, film and many other art pieces have done: They have presented the real and the mundane, and then renewed it for us, making it exciting and different. I’m glad to see that this medium has been making a great deal of headway, becoming a legitimate art form in the eyes of the public, and I’m looking forward to seeing what other areas artists will examine it in the future, from the macrocosm of the Marvel Universe to the microcosm of the moment.

on the train

March 20, 2009

I am sitting here thinking that I may or may not be depressed when two ladies walk through the center aisle of the train. One is plump, sporting a butch, feathered-and-moussed hair cut and an XL sequined T-shirt popular only with legging-panted mothers in the early ‘90s. Behind her is a skinny woman, nose pointed and birdlike, hair cut straight in one layer right above the shoulder. The bird-woman is drowning in a pumpkin-colored athletic sweatshirt.

The two of them quickly trot back from the dining car. The pumpkin-colored one asks incredulously in a thick nasal, midwestern accent, “You can eat pizza without salt?” The butch, sequined lady, looking over her shoulder at her pumpkin companion at the rear, replies, “Only if it’s good pizza.”

saying it: “i love you”

December 30, 2007

My last day in Manhattan consisted of a self-directed walk through SoHo’s art district, and it ended with a hug from my grandmother, who asked me in Toisanese if I was going to return to New York next summer. I said yes, and told her to take care of herself, because we don’t say “I love you” in Chinese; we ask if you’re healthy, if you’re safe; we show things, do things. She wouldn’t stop filling my dinner plate with fish and eggplant dishes that evening, asking me repeatedly if I was full enough; I told her to stay safe for me. I think this is a good method of communication.

There is no word for love that we (my extended family and I) say with frequency. The closest spoken equivalent of “I love you” is something that sounds kind of like “ngaw oy nay” (a phrase which is slightly awkward to say in all practical situations) and we don’t really do hugs or kisses or any traditional means of communicating these types of imperative feelings of endearment. In my grandmother’s apartment, I’ll usually end up sitting there, heart bursting with love, and I won’t know what to do with myself to express it, so I’ll get up and start doing the dishes, or I’ll clear off the tiny dinner table of dirty plates and cups and wipe it down with a cloth rag. Seeing all of this, my grandmother will respond, with all of the ferocity her four-foot, eleven-inch frame will allow, saying that I should sit down and please stop washing the dishes; go and eat something, there are buns in the fridge.

I know (always, always, always; as always as the moon will be in the sky) that I will be told not to do whatever cleaning it is I’m doing. But, to me, the mere act of trying (sometimes fighting) to be helpful is meaningful, especially to my grandmother, even when I know that it will inevitably end with me eating a bun or two. Events like this will conclude in my grandmother’s scariness petering off, and, rubber gloves donned, scrubbing away at the tea rings in her gigantic blue mugs, she’ll say to my mother that I’m a “gwai neuri,” or a good girl. This is the highest term of endearment I can receive from my grandmother, and when I hear it (often through my mother), love for this tiny woman bursts in me again, and then I might go around carrying her shopping basket up two flights of stairs to the apartment, or insisting on carrying all of the groceries back from the market on Mulberry street, or bringing her some egg tarts from the bakery when I’m walking home from work.

There is so much that can be expressed silently through the mere act of doing, of making meaning through the actions we create. Sometimes when I’m in my grandmother’s kitchen and I’m reading a book, she’ll approach me, tell me I need to straighten out my back and proceed to direct me to a chair with a comfortable backing; she then will go out of her way to retrieve a small, red, paint-chipped incandescent lamp and place it in front of me, insisting I use it so that my “eyes don’t go bad.” She will then go to the refrigerator, retrieve a large box and ask me if I would like some taro root buns (in the box will be two neat lines of at least twelve of these buns, as I expressed that I liked to eat them during the summer) and then she will start a kettle boiling so that she can make me a quart-jar-sized mug full of peach ginger tea with honey.

There is only so far “I love you,” will go, you see.

September 10, 2007

The books I have read do not necessarily compose all of who I am, but they provide a vital muscular structure that pulls against my scaffolding and bones, compelling motion: as muscle pulls bone to motion, so do the literary works move the growing pieces of who I am, maneuvering me through my experiences of the past nine months.

I am reading, currently, Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes. What strikes me is that while Shakespeare was writing King Lear in 1605, Cervantes published the first installment of his work about the madly chivalric (or is it chivalric-ly mad?) knight of La Mancha. And still Cervantes manages, four hundred years after the fact, to make me laugh out loud as I read the satire, irony and hyperbole he expresses while merging the line between the imagined and the insane. As a reader, I am unsure if the man controls the fantasy, or if the fantasy controls the man; either way, I relate to the idea that freedom can come through imagination (Quixote imagined himself a knight; I imagine myself a writer) and how this idea can seem absurd to those around us (“he is surely mad,” the townsfolk say, perplexed, to Quixote; “What can you possibly do with an English major,” people’s fathers tell me, not ask me, condescendingly). The pure fact that this book, written in 1605, is currently moving my life is testament to how thoughts, imagination, and ideas can move the world.

This past summer I was in New York City in pursuit of what I could do with an English major. I applied to, and was accepted for, an internship with Publishers Weekly, a national magazine that reaches a circulation of 35,000 libraries, book sellers, writers, and publishers nationwide; it is a huge cog turning within the book publishing industry. It was during the end of my stay, in early August, when I would sit in bed at 3 a.m. and read Lolita in my apartment in Manhattan’s Union Square. As I envisioned American landscapes sweeping by Humbert Humbert’s car, I was lulled to sleep by the audible Americana sweeping past my window shade, making my room glitter with the reflections of street lamps and stopping signals, smearing the never-silent cityscape with the sounds of shouts, vehicles, and blaring pop music. It was remarkable that it took one Russian man, to whom English was his third language, to embody what America looked like through the silent pages of a controversy.

First arriving in New York City in June, I had no idea what to expect from a gigantic city that housed, as far as I knew, my extended family and a culture I didn’t have access to in the Midwest. I began work, a rookie, by opening hundreds of pounds of mail a day—hundreds of pounds of books, that is; even this “dirty work” was interesting. I was able to see the unbound manuscripts of new prints from Harper-Collins; I was able to see fully-bound manuscripts by self-published writers whose texts contained indistinguishable mixing pools of “your” for “you’re” and “their” for “they’re.” My hands went through at least a thousand books during my time working with the magazine. And in the quick time in which my fingers became latticed with pink paper cuts, my hands bearing the occasional band-aid, the reviews editor asked me to edit several book reviews, and eventually she asked me to review a book of my own for the magazine.

I began reading my pre-review copy of Common Ground by Bob Beckel and Cal Thomas as I ate dinners of fried tofu at the local Whole Foods store, and as I sat in my grandmother’s kitchen and sipped tea and honey from a mug the size of a quart jar (she is fond of tea; so am I). I read Common Ground with the review in mind, using pencils and highlighters, crossing out important phrases with bright ink. I read about political scandal and polarization, for the first time seeing how politics, as disconnected as they may seem from real life (the kind of life where tummies hurt and hearts are devastated), have an impact on who we are as people. The book outlined how politics personally affected how people acted: the democratic and republican divide caused citizens to become vicious and vile or ambivalent and cold to our government, to each other. The book proposed a utopia: Can’t we all get along? Can’t we all think for ourselves? I wrote my review. It was 200 words, a lukewarm review that was published in the August 13th issue. Could we all get along? I decided that no, this is too utopian a concept. Through this book, I learned why we act the way we do, but again, I realized that we can’t forgive our divisions with such hypothetical ease and fluidity; we are much too stubborn for that.

The Inferno by Dante Alighieri was the book I wrote my final paper on in conclusion to my freshman year of college. I read the book feverishly as I trudged through a swamp of carbon bonds and integrals, my mind made up on my major: English and Screen Arts. That semester, I had been taking organic chemistry and advanced honors calculus in tandem with honors psychology and one writing class: Great Books. This class proved to be my only solace for the semester. I would stay for eight hours or more in the Graduate Library with my orgo book, writing out the differences in structure between a carbon enantiomer and its diastereomer (as I write this, those two words are underlined in red, not even in the Microsoft Word spell check). In turn, I read The Inferno for hours in Espresso Royale, not sipping but pouring cups of house coffee down my throat in an attempt to stay conscious. And surprisingly, I did. It wasn’t because of the coffee, necessarily, but this book; I saw the beautiful literary metaphor in every circle of hell, in every sinner who, frozen in the ice of the ninth circle, would make the clicks of a stork, singular sounds echoing into the air. I wasn’t alone in my passion for writing, in my passion for understanding why the world works; this was communicated to me by a man who wrote of Hell itself and the striving we have to understand the unknown.

It was New Years Eve and I was re-reading a book I first read when I was fourteen (I should really be writing my psychology paper, I told myself worriedly, to no avail). This book was The Hours by Michael Cunningham. At fourteen, I fell in love, simply, with the book. I loved everything about it: the front cover (which depicted a very lonely withered pear), the flawed, palpable characters, and most of all, the fluid writing that dissected every moment, peeling away the mundane and reaching the bare, raw core of the matter. This, I thought, is how I see life, and how I wish to see life. I wanted to know, through my writing, through my reading, that my moments were brilliant, even when they were wasted.

With hindsight, and after a few peruses through Michael Cunningham’s other novels, I realize now that it wasn’t Cunningham’s prose I was in love with, but with the Virginia Woolf he tried so desperately to divine into his work. Mrs. Dalloway and To the Lighthouse are now sitting on the shelf in my dormitory. Interesting how authorship, in this case, was communicable: through reading one author, I became enamored with another. In my efforts to understand the Pulitzer prize behind The Hours, I realized that it is interesting, in its own way, how through reading one author, we can expand the scope of our own writing, and thus, expand the world in which we think and live.

learning on my own (again)

December 17, 2007

I am at home, currently swamped in final papers and take-home exams, and I am dreaming of the things I’ll do when I am sane, well-rested, and self-motivated (at the moment I am none of these, except for well-rested; instead of writing a paper on the writing styles of Flaubert and Cervantes, I’m listening to Joy Division, eating a cinnamon bun, and drinking tea).

In further attempts to procrastinate, I’m making a list of things to do over break. I realized that an overarching theme in this whole list is the idea of self-education—I really need to begin self-educating myself again, through the books I want to read, the music I want to listen to, the ensuing conversations I will (want to) have with people. Sometimes I feel incredibly archaic in what I know, and I need to work on developing my own intellectual environment where I not only learn things academically, but in all other facets of my life, as well.


1.) Read (some/all of) the following books, all of which I was aptly able to fit into my backpack (my backpack weighs four thousand pounds):

a. 3 Books: Body Rags; Mortal Acts, Mortal Words; The Past by Galway Kinnell, a poet I happen to love, whose poetic style I admire greatly.

b. Essential Brackhage: Writings on Filmmaking by Stan Brackhage – he is an avant-garde filmmaker, and I love his lyrical style; if there were any person I would emanate as a filmmaker, it would be Brackhage.

c. The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov – Emma gave this to me for Christmas, and when I received it, I began to awkwardly scream, which was most likely terrifying. Very excited about reading this.

d. The Ode Less Traveled by Stephen Fry – Amy gave me this book, and it is all about academic poetry (versus postmodern poetry) and its stylings and nuances. Oh poetry! Oh noetry.

e. Through the Children’s Gate by Adam Gopnik (essayist for the New Yorker) – I’ve been working my way through this vignette-filled book, and I’m going to try to make sure I finish it this winter break.

f. The Selected Writings of Gertrude Stein (especially “Tender Buttons”) – I bought this thick volume during our escapade in Detroit. I read an essay by her in my poetry class; the essay was about what defined “contemporary” art and how the contemporary would never be truly accepted until after its time.

g. The Unfolding of Language by Guy Deutscher – A book about linguistics and language’s evolution. Jessie’s book. I’m hoping to read it and finish reading it soon.

h. Monday or Tuesday (Short Stories) by Virginia Woolf – I want to work on my short-story-writing abilities, and oftentimes the best way to become a better writer is to read works by writers you admire. I love Virginia Woolf.

i. The Modernist Papers by Fredric Jameson – This book is about the transition from modernisn to postmodernism and the different essays, events, and people who motivated this change (topics range from Kafka to Gertrude Stein and Proust).

j. The Book of Laughter and Forgetting by Milan Kundera – I began this book one day when I was extremely hungover and feeling extremely nihilistic. I need to finish it.

k. Laughable Loves by Milan Kundera – More Kundera. I found this lovely woman-silhouette-laden copy in Detroit, which Emma said contained “one of the better translations” of the text.

2.) Listen to albums by and read histories on the following artists: Led Zeppelin, The Velvet Underground, Bob Dylan (after seeing I’m Not There, I have a renewed acceptance of Dylan’s currently-laryngitic voice), Lou Reed, Nico, David Bowie, Cat Stevens, Morrissey, The Smiths, Nick Drake, Joy Division, and The Doors.

3.) Write short stories (At least one over break, minimum of ten pages, double-spaced. I’m hoping to find a decent cafe in the SoHo area in New York, where I can sit around, drink coffee, and eat over-priced pastries while writing in my graph-paper notebook with a fine-tipped ballpoint pen. I unfortunately can’t do the whole “dramatic, cigarette-smoking writer” thing because it’s illegal to smoke in these establishments in Manhattan.)

4.) Write poems (At least one I am happy with every couple of days. I hope to write poems that don’t involve statements like “my soul is torn” and “I bleed for you” because, unfortunately, these poems would in fact be ironic and hyperbolic when considering my life. I would think my life is somewhat haggard, but not torn, and when I bleed, I don’t necessarily bleed for you; I bleed mainly because my skin is flapping open and my veins are gushing forth.)

5.) Watch Brackhage’s short films and documentary – I borrowed the Criterion collection of his films (many of which are crazy and slightly disturbing) and I have a copy of “By Brackhage,” a documentary done on Brackhage before he died of lead poisoning.

6.) Watch Sadie Benning’s short films – Benning is a filmmaker involved in the New German Cinema movement; she investigates ideas of gender identity and sexuality in her films.

7.) Design a possible Litost zine cover – once I get some time, a scanner, some blank paper, and some pens, I will probably be able to come up with something cool-looking.

8.) Blog like a motherfucker – that is, if a motherfucker blogs profusely, intelligently, and on a regimented basis.

When I was young, I read Edward Lear’s The Owl and the Pussycat, wondering what a runcible spoon was. I did some reading on it recently, and it’s interesting to find that nobody really knows what that type of object it is (and, according to the all-hailed Wikipedia, which Cannot Be Wrong, Lear was apparently very fond of the nonsense adjective “runcible” because his “other poems include mention of a ‘runcible cat,’ a ‘runcible goose,’ and a ‘runcible wall'”).

When I was little (probably around 7 or 8 years old), I broke out the English dictionary and looked up the phrase. The dictionary speculated that a runcible spoon was akin to a spork, a type of spoon-fork hybrid with a sharp edge. The illustration in the children’s book I had read recalled the Owl and the Pussycat sitting in a boat with a pair of sporks, eating a plate of ambiguous objects, as the poem goes, “they dined on mince, and slices of quince, which they ate with a runcible spoon.” I distinctly remember that, in the picture book I was reading, they were eating a pie-like, spinach quiche-type edible, but now that I know the terms “mince” (tiny bits of chopped meat), and “quince” (a type of fruit that, after roasting, can be eaten) I don’t believe these images can be correct.

Oh childhood and the ambiguity of your children’s books. I’m glad I had a library at close hand when I was growing up.

The Owl and the Pussycat, By Edward Lear

The Owl and the Pussy-cat went to sea
In a beautiful pea green boat,
They took some honey, and plenty of money,
Wrapped up in a five pound note.
The Owl looked up to the stars above,
And sang to a small guitar,
‘O lovely Pussy! O Pussy my love,
What a beautiful Pussy you are,
You are,
You are!
What a beautiful Pussy you are!’

Pussy said to the Owl, ‘You elegant fowl!
How charmingly sweet you sing!
O let us be married! too long we have tarried:
But what shall we do for a ring?’
They sailed away, for a year and a day,
To the land where the Bong-tree grows
And there in a wood a Piggy-wig stood
With a ring at the end of his nose,
His nose,
His nose,
With a ring at the end of his nose.

‘Dear pig, are you willing to sell for one shilling
Your ring?’ Said the Piggy, ‘I will.’
So they took it away, and were married next day
By the Turkey who lives on the hill.
They dined on mince, and slices of quince,
Which they ate with a runcible spoon;
And hand in hand, on the edge of the sand,
They danced by the light of the moon,
The moon,
The moon,
They danced by the light of the moon.


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