As Asian as they wanna be

By Bernice Yeung, Illustration by Maxwell Holyoke-Hirsch | October 26, 2010 | Lifestyle Story City Life Culture

Growing up in San Jose in the 1980s, I lived in the shadow of Long Duk Dong, the iconic Chinese exchange student from John Hughes’ teen flick Sixteen Candles. In the hefty list of offensive Asian American media representations, Dong is somewhere near the top, alongside the furtive and obsequious Charlie Chan.

With his chop-suey accent and his knack for social disgrace, “the Donger” lacked any real human dimension. He was ridiculous in his foreignness, speaking in off-color platitudes preceded by the actual clash of a gong. (“No more yanky my wanky,” he blurted out in one infamous scene.) But mortifying as he was, Long Duk Dong became the unwanted poster boy for Asian America. Aside from rare exceptions—see Dustin Nguyen, the hunky cop on 21 Jump Street, and Claudia, the artsy teen from the Baby-sitters Club books—Asian American images in mainstream film and literature from my youth were frustratingly narrow. What we saw onscreen and on the page felt distorted and simplistic, like a reflection in a carnival fun-house mirror that was impossible to reconcile with what we knew of ourselves. Where were the Asian Americans who had successfully calibrated their biculturalism, who felt just as American as the Midwestern teen played by Molly Ringwald in the same Hughes movie?

In 1989, local author Amy Tan began to solve the problem with The Joy Luck Club. But with all due respect to the woman who pushed open the door for me and my peers, her bestselling novel about Chinese American immigrant families in San Francisco was an imperfect victory. To us, the book (and the feature film that followed) had the unfamiliar ring of an outsider’s nar­rative: a bit heavy on the Orientalism and the tired stereotypes. For that reason, Tan’s breakout work has become the oft-maligned Uncle Tom’s Cabin of Asian American literature. This may be unfair. One book couldn’t possibly resolve an entire community’s dissatisfaction—it told a single Asian American story among millions. (“You think Joy Luck Club is sad?” my dad asked as the credits rolled in the darkened multiplex in San Jose’s Oakridge Mall. “Wait until I tell you about our family.”) But her story was the only one America seemed to know.

That’s what prompted me to jump into the media-making fray, much to the chagrin of my parents, who came here from Hong Kong in the late ’60s and took on sensible careers in engineering and civil service. Like many new Americans, they initially pegged their hopes on the idea that their children’s perfect English would catapult them into fancy, high-wage professions as lawyers or business executives. When I majored in journalism in college, my folks comforted themselves with the idea of me as “the next Connie Chung,” though I clearly didn’t have the right hair for the job. Going off the grid to be a novelist or a poet was too much of a leap for them to contemplate.

But some of my peers did, and over the years, it’s become much easier for Asian Americans to go rogue and become artists or writers, especially in a region that prizes creativity. (I found mentors at San Francisco’s Kearny Street Workshop, a keystone for aspiring Asian American wordsmiths.) We’re also emboldened by the inescapable allure of the California dream, which teaches us to put a premium on passion over practicality like nowhere else in the world. As Yiyun Li, a 37-year-old Oakland author and newly minted MacArthur “Genius” Fellow who immigrated from Beijing in her 20s, told me of her decision to quit a PhD program in immunology to write full-time: “It sounds like a cliché, but at the moment, that’s what America meant for me—that maybe I could pursue something I really loved.”

Doing something we love has taken one form onscreen, where gongs and the Donger have given way to Margaret Cho’s raunchy stand-up, the goofy stoner antics of Harold & Kumar, and the musical stylings of Mike Chang and Tina Cohen-Chang in Glee. But in literature, we’ve been waiting for a parallel phenomenon: the moment when scores of talented young writers shrug off the mantle of ethnicity for ethnicity’s sake and exercise their right to explode expectations of Asian Americans on the page. It’s happening now—see “All Over the Map,” below—and the movement is well illustrated by Li and two other Bay Area authors with engaging new books.

Angie Chau was a Santa Rosa High homecoming-queen contender who deferred Cal to live in Spain, then earned an MFA at UC Davis before returning to the East Bay. The 36-year-old’s new collection about an immigrant family’s acculturation cherry-picks from her youth in deeply satisfying ways: Quiet As They Come includes a San Francisco teen’s story told through the lens of a Vietnamese American family who arrive after the fall of Saigon. The period details make an ’80s-raised cultural mashup like me identify with her stories, down to one young protagonist’s love of CHiPs and her serious crush on Erik Estrada. But Chau’s writing also strikes a chord because it’s about a bicultural power play.

In Quiet’s opening vignette, eight-year-old Elle, along with her sister and cousins, encounters a neighbor who hurls a racial epithet and blasts them violently with a garden hose as they make their way to the public pool. Elle responds not with subtle defiance, as the young women in Joy Luck Club might have done, but by throwing a rock at the neighbor’s head. Later, the children get reassurance from the owner of a pizza parlor down the street, who captures the deep ambivalence that immigrants often confront when he says, “I never told you to leave. I said you’re not supposed to be here.”

Another emerging talent, J.A. Yang—whose recent young-adult novel, Exclusively Chloe, feels like the Asian American response to Gossip Girl—frees himself from the ethnic lens altogether. As the author of a how-to man­ual on blogging, followed by Chloe and a humor book on relationships (in the proposal stage), the 32-year-old Yang insists, “My work has nothing to do with being Asian, except I’m Asian and my character [in Chloe] is Asian. I feel uncomfortable holding that torch on any level, but not because I want to distance myself from it—it’s just that I’m not responsible for holding any part of it.”

I’ve heard this hesitation before, a result of the undue pressure placed on minority writers who are expected to speak for an entire demographic. I can only imagine how Amy Tan feels. But Yang has another angle: He fully embodies what might be called post-identity Asian America. While he recognizes the political dimensions of race, he feels no need to go into contortions to make a point about his ethnicity.

Yang grew up in Southern California, where the Asian American population is big enough that identity politics don’t require constant attention, and his writing captures that undogmatic spirit. Exclusively Chloe, a conversational page-turner that’s partially ripped from the headlines, chronicles the personal dramas of 16-year-old Chloe-Grace, who was adopted from China as an infant by an A-list celebrity couple. Chloe-Grace is not preoccupied with questions of identity and assimilation at first—it’s only when her parents’ high-profile divorce gets splattered across the tabloids that she starts asking questions about her roots. But her untroubled attitude toward race is refreshing to me and, apparently, to Yang’s teen audience. “It’s something that Asian girls definitely latch on to,” the author says of meeting his fans at readings.

Likewise, Yiyun Li doesn’t love being labeled as an Asian American author—she identifies as international. She understands that her work broadens the scope of Asian Amer­ican literature, but she’s more focused on the expansion of the overall American experience. “My mentor, James McPherson, said something beautiful: ‘What is American? A mix of anything and everything,’” Li recalls when I meet her at her Oakland Hills home.

In the title story of her new collection, Gold Boy, Emerald Girl, Li writes about Hanfeng, a Silicon Valley immigrant who moves back to Beijing after two decades abroad. Though he notes that there are now more cars than bicycles on the roads of his hometown, his reverse migration feels fluid and easily reconcilable with mem­ories of his American life. As the tale unfolds, Hanfeng finds himself unexpectedly agreeing to an arranged mar­riage, and we can identify with his melancholy.

This is Li’s gift: Her writing is precise, thoughtful, and powerful in its ability to make universal sentiments—in this case, loneliness and compromise—palpable in any context. Her Chinese and Chinese American characters carry on modern, globalized lives in which culture and ethnicity are acknowledged as part of the picture, then transcended. “My impression,” she told me, “is that stereotypes of Asian Americans are about the food, the gestures. Those are part of the culture. But people have profound, rich inner lives.”

It’s deeply gratifying for me to see Li and other young authors refute outdated stereotypes by writing a world where there are no borders around Asian America. This is the moment I’ve been waiting for: I can step out of the shadow, shake off the mantle, and tell a story you’ve never heard before.

Bernice Yeung’s piece So Open It Hurts,” about a Web 2.0 romance, ran in our August 2008 issue. She is a cofounder of Hyphen, an Asian American news and culture magazine.

All over the map
From noir to fantasy to traditional fiction, Bay Area authors are rewriting the Asian American literary canon. Don’t go looking for exotic parables or outdated Orientalism—these modern narratives from the past two years, nearly all penned by Gen-X and Gen-Yers, cover celeb­rity teens, political activism, transnational migration, and even outer space.

May-Lee Chai: Dragon Chica
Coordinates: S.F. via 14 states and 4 countries.
Litscape: Bil­dungs­roman.
An appealing novel about a Chinese Cambod­ian teen in the Midwest who learns to manage family drama, negotiate the fierce hallways of public school, and harness the freedom of being in the driver’s seat.

Nafisa Haji: The Writing on My Forehead
Coordinates: Marin via L.A., Chicago, Karachi, Manila, and London.
Litscape: Global soul-searching.
Haji’s debut novel tracks the journey of Saira, a gutsy Mus­lim American woman who chooses journalism over an arranged marriage and eventually finds the right balance of faith and biculturalism.

Angie Chau: Quiet As They Come

Coordinates: Oakland via Vietnam.
Litscape: Tales of transition.
The roller coaster of acculturation is captured in Chau’s debut collection, revealing the triumph of a Vietnamese immigrant family as they make their way in a new home.

Yiyun Li: Gold Boy, Emerald Girl
Coordinates: Oakland via Beijing.
Litscape: Pensive, emotive vignettes.
An engrossing collection that penetrates the inner lives of its characters—from a journalist on assignment to a gaggle of elderly lady detectives—as they grapple with solitude, power, and the consequences of truth.

Shailja Patel: Migritude
Coordinates: Berkeley via Nairobi and London.
Litscape: Transnational poetry as memoir.
This literary pastiche, which began as a work of theater, hopscotches between Patel’s multinational background and larger overlooked histories, including an elegy to victims of the war in Afghanistan.

Andrew Lam: East Eats West

Coordinates: S.F. via Vietnam.
Litscape: Nostalgia with plenty of spice.
A thoughtful, witty NPR commen­tator bounces back and forth between his native country and his adopted home, chewing his way through the cultural divide as an “American adult” who has witnessed the rise of ethnic as chic.

Karen Tei Yamashita: I Hotel
Coordinates: Santa Cruz via Oakland.
Litscape: Oral history on paper.
A collage of poems, screenwriting, prose, and mixed media that captures the polyph­ony and raucous spirit of San Francisco’s Asian American movement in the ’60s and ’70s.

Neelanjana Banerjee, Summi Kaipa, Pireeni Sundaralingam (eds.): Indivisible
Coordinates: S.F. and Berkeley via Ohio, Mich­igan, and Sri Lanka.
Litscape: Genre bending.
In the first-ever anthology of South Asian American verse, 49 poets tackle topics ranging from sacrifice and memory to curly fries and Kerouac.

Barbara Jane Reyes: Diwata

Coordinates: Oakland via the Philippines.
Litscape: Capturing the spirits.
This ether­eal but precisely crafted poetry collection draws from Filipino and Catholic mythology, resulting in feminist meditations on colonization and war.

Sanjay Patel: Ramayana
Coordinates: Oakland via London and San Bernardino.
Litscape: Modernized myth.
An ancient Hindu legend gets a cheeky retelling in this graphic novel by a local Pixar artist, which features glorious hypercolor illustrations.

J.A. Yang:
Exclusively Chloe
Coordinates: S.F. and San Diego via Taiwan.
Litscape: Gossip Girl meets Us Weekly.
This charming YA novel stars Chloe-Grace, an adopted teen who seems to have it all—including A-list parents and a Mini—but just wants to lead a normal life and learn a little about her Chinese birth family.

Claire Light: Slightly Behind and to the Left
Coordinates: Oakland via Hong Kong, the Southwest, and the Midwest.
Litscape: Feminist sci-fi.
Quirky, entertaining stories about spaceships and the great beyond, including a piece in which Japanese Amer­ican internment is likened to alien abduction.

Erick Setiawan: Of Bees and Mist
Coordinates: S.F. via Jakarta.
Litscape: Multicultural magical realism.
An engrossing work centered on Mer­idia, a lonely girl from a family haunted by a mysterious mist, who finds love in the winsome Daniel—only to discover that his family is beset by its own curses, lies, and manipulations.

Leonard Chang: Crossings
Coordinates: Antioch via Long Island.
Litscape: San Fran­cisco noir.
A down-and-out carpenter gets conscripted into working for Korean Amer­ican gangsters, then finds new purpose when he sets out to rescue a woman his bosses have trafficked from Asia.


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