In late April of 2012 I attended the Multi-Ethnic Literature of the United States (MELUS) Conference in San Jose, California, catching a number of lively panels and serving on a roundtable on poet Shailja Patel’s Migritude. Sadly I had to take an early flight home and missed a panel of particular interest, entitled “Teaching Asian American Literature Outside the U.S.” I was reminded of a series of essays Amerasia Journal published on this very subject back in 2008, and left curious as to what resemblance those essays might bear to these panel presentations–and what might and might not have changed since 2008.
So I contacted the three panelists and asked them to reprise their panel presentations as forum responses for AALR. Happily they agreed to contribute, as did a number of other professors we queried (many thanks to King-Kok Cheung and Elaine Kim for the generous, and sizeable, list of suggestions).
There is, one finds, a considerable and growing roster of professors across the world teaching Asian American literature. The “field” is burgeoning, and it has much to tell us about Asian American literature as a body of work, as a subject of inquiry, as a node, as a window onto transnational realities we at once study and bring into being.
What follows are responses to a loosely conceived prompt: what are your experiences teaching Asian American literature outside the U.S.?
–Lawrence-Minh BÃ¹i Davis, Editor
Chih-ming Wang of Academia Sinica, Taipei, Taiwan – Guy Beauregard of National Taiwan University, Taipei, Taiwan – Hyeyurn Chung of Sungshin University, Seoul, Korea – Donna T. Tong of Fu Jen Catholic University, New Taipei City, Taiwan – Kun Jong Lee of Korea University, South Korea – Jianping Zhao of Yunnan University of Nationalities, P.R. China – Donald Goellnicht, McMaster University, Hamilton, Canada – Guicang Li & Emily Tingting Xu of Zhejiang Normal University, P.R. China – Hong Fang of Nanjing University, P.R. China – Te-hsing Shan of the Institute of European and American Studies, Academia Sinica, Taipei, Taiwan – Monica Chiu of the University of Hong Kong, Hong Kong S.A.R. – Staci Ford of the University of Hong Kong, Hong Kong
Academia Sinica, Taipei, Taiwan
“What is wrong about being a model minority?”
In a graduate seminar on Asian American literature and culture that I taught in Fall 2007 at National Tsing Hua University in Hsinchu, Taiwan, after a short lecture on the danger of the model minority image, a young and intelligent student stood up to me, asking, “What is so wrong about Asian Americans being regarded as the ‘model minority’? Isn’t getting good grades and behaving politely what our parents expect us to do? Isn’t that a sign of success? Why is ‘model minority’ considered a negative stereotype?”
As someone whose mind was set in the Asian American critical tradition, I was surprised and in fact baffled by this student’s honest question. Indeed, what is wrong about being a model minority, especially when this is precisely what Taiwanese parents expect of their children: to speak English without an accent, to get a Harvard education if they can, and to pursue the American dream as any American citizen would? How could being a model minority be considered a negative stereotype when meritocracy and upward mobility are still encouraged in a time of neoliberal self-development? I don’t remember how exactly I responded to this student, but his question resurfaces in my mind when I begin to think about the forum’s topic of “teaching Asian American literature outside the U.S.”
In Taiwan, “Asian Americans” are hot. They appear on TV as pop singers and celebrities (Leehom Wang, David Tao, and even Yoyo Ma, to name a few); they show up as models of success who speak and act with the aura of America. But they do not exist as mere images on the screen; oftentimes they exist in our family as our “American” cousins and relatives whom our parents cannot stop singing the praises of and looking up to. For many Taiwanese families, Asian Americans are not foreigners but part of the extended family. Though they live away from us in a culture different from ours, they exist as one of us, as what could have been for us, for better or worse. They are hardly ever seen within the history of racism and struggle but perceived to be the embodiment of transnational success and positive hybridity, finely mixing the East and the West.
The hype about “Linsanity,” especially the attempts to claim his Taiwaneseness, is one of the latest instances. Asian Americans are evidence of what America can make of us. Andrew Lam has sarcastically described this sentiment in the Vietnamese perception of the Viet Kieu: in their eyes, “Visions of double-tiered freeways and glassy high-rises are to be extracted out of the Viet Kieu’s flesh. Squeeze a little harder, and who knows, you might just see Disneyland.”1 Jane Jeong Trenka, who has published two heartrending memoirs on the Korean adoptee experience, also recounts how Koreans see her as a transnational subject “who habitually drinks wine, eats cheese, sleeps in a bed, and speaks English.”2 She writes wryly, “I traded in three degrees of separation in this small gossipy rural village of forty-eight million people that is Korea for six degrees of glorious, spacious separation in America. I separated. I escaped. I shine with good luck. I was, at first glance, the person my students wanted to be.”3
These perceptions of Asian Americans as transnational subjects are deeply entrenched in the minds of Asians through a long history of immigration–since those who emigrated are usually believed to be rich and of the higher echelon in society–and the continual allure of America as the land of promise. These cultural, historical, and psychological codings of U.S.-Asian relations, as embodied by the positive images that Asians have of Asian Americans, provide important contexts for understanding how Asian American literature is read, taught, and studied outside the United States. That is, Asian American literature appears in Asia as both narratives about Asians in America and what America means to “us.” It tells stories not so much of what happened to them (Asian Americans) as what it could have become for us (Asians). It is a literature that is at once foreign and familiar in the visceral sense of dis/connection, a literature that in traveling beyond the U.S. territory embodies a complex articulation of Asian-Asian American relationality, one that can probably be summarized as the “desire for model minority.” As Bruce Robbins, reading immigrant narratives as stories of upward mobility, reminds us, “Under all sorts of circumstances, being on the receiving end of a rags-to-riches, star-is-born story would seem most likely to result not in inspiration, but in a sense of personal deficiency.”4 How to critically engage with this double-bind–of dealing with the desire for model minority in us–is the necessary challenge of teaching and studying Asian American literature in Asia.
In this response, I will argue that this double bind is created in the post/Cold War contexts in which Asian American literature came to Asia as both a critical study of America and an introspection of Asian modernity. The link between modernization and immigration furthermore made model minority a powerful trope that has structured Asian countries in the postwar transpacific dynamic, triangulated by Asian Americans. Given the nature of this writing, as a response to a theme, my comments may seem sketchy, but I hope that they will offer an engaging perspective for thinking about Asian American literature outside the United States.
Post/Cold War Beginnings
As the Cold War came to an end in the early 1990s, setting in motion another wave of global migration that made multiculturalism a matter of everyday reality in economically developing East Asia, Asian American literature quickly became a popular topic among Asian scholars and students of English studies.5 In Japan, Korea, and Taiwan, scholars all developed an interest in studying the literature written by, in their view, “Anglophone diasporic writers”–John Okada, Teresa Cha, Maxine Hong Kingston, etc.–and started treating them as a critical subfield that had been neglected by mainstream scholarships in both American literature and Asian studies. Concentrated studies of these “Anglophone diasporic writers” thus emerged and reached an apex in Asia in the 1990s, covering most major writers. This interest was soon extended to native-language writers in the diaspora and their works in the literary traditions of respective nations.6 Asian American literature is seen as the less trodden path that might lead to a critical re-engagement with America and its imperial formation, and at the same time, as a niche market for Asian scholars to occupy–or as a passage to enter–the global academy of humanities. As Asian societies became increasingly saturated by migrants and troubled by the cultural heterogeneity they brought along, Asian American literature is moreover considered to offer a critical lens for Asian societies to reflect on their multicultural remaking, to tackle their own racisms, and to advocate the principles of diversity, respect, and equality. In its 1989 inaugural statement, the Asian American Literature Association (AALA) in Japan took note of the collapse of the Soviet Union and the reunification of Germany as the important contexts in which Asian American studies emerged in Japan and contended that “how to respect different ethnic groups while retaining the nation as a unified entity becomes an issue that all countries in the world (including Japan) must tackle. In that sense, the existence of Asian Americans and their literature seems to provide us profound perspectives and insights.”7
The AALA’s emphasis on ethnicity is not merely a reflection of what was going on in the U.S. It is also a reflection on Japan’s ethnic heterogeneity created in a history of conquest and expansion, as well as a concern with the Japanese diaspora, which suffered immensely during World War II. Therefore, the study of Asian American literature in Japan–and in other parts of Asia as well–becomes an important means for Asian societies to deal with their own histories of expansion and dislocation, and to confront the specter of the Cold War that has aligned East Asia closely with the U.S. That is, as much as Asian American literature is about America and our relationship to it, it also offers a glimpse into our own social body-politic where the “others” within us have been incorporated, discriminated, and even sacrificed.
As Teruyo Ueki, one of the co-founders of the AALA, has contended, Asian American studies in Japan shoulders a triple function:
It is the act of liberating ourselves from a Euro-centric or Anglo-centric vision and relocating the image of America in a multi-ethnic, multicultural perspective. It is the act of rediscovering the histories and cultures of Asian Americans and those of their ancestral lands as well. It is the act of finding ourselves and our relationships with Asia, which has been so near to Japan in geography but so far in recognition.8
Ueki’s contention aptly situates Asian American studies in Asia as a critical endeavor that is not limited to the claiming of America and a resistant identity but can be expanded to include, and ally with, critiques of imperialism–both past and ongoing–and attempts at rearticulating modernity in Asia where sites of struggles, such as Okinawa, Jeju, or Lanyu, are becoming extremely significant. These island spaces–nestled uncomfortably within Japanese, Korean, and Taiwanese modern history as occluded sites of military occupation and indigenous dispossession and dumping grounds for nuclear waste–show an “Othered” Asia that remains locked in the nation’s quests for economic growth and regional security. If the mission of Asian American studies in Asia, as Ueki has rightly suggested, is to free ourselves from Eurocentric views and to rediscover lines of dis/connections across the ocean and between nations, then these islands which have been “Otherized” by the Cold War ideology can offer powerful anti-military, anti-nuclear perspectives to both advance and reshape the Asian American critical project by enabling a critique of immigration as modernity and development that the Asian American model minority image oftentimes emblematizes.
Model Minority Reconsidered
Lisa Yoneyama has recently contended that the liberal multiculturalism with which Asian American studies thrives as a celebratory discourse on diversity and identity in fact shares a simultaneity with Cold War geopolitics, which also posits ethno-national differences as the basis of its knowledge production (i.e. area studies) to cope with the consequence of decolonization. She indicates that “the liberal rendering of the world through the terms of ethno-national cultural differences and diversity has effectively served as a discursive mechanism for the Cold War management of the postwar world.”9 In other words, while ethnic studies and area studies developed with different agendas, the emphasis on ethno-nationally based identity and difference can be traced to the same Cold War origin that demarcated the postwar, postcolonial world through reified national differences and animated East Asia through the promotion of modernization theory. “Modernization” propelled East Asian countries to pursue economic growth and industrial production, and to maintain a tutelary relationship with the U.S., learning American-style democracy and consumption. This tutelary relationship applied to both Asians and Asian Americans in the Cold War era as they struggled to be recognized as model citizens and loyal allies. T. Fujitani in his excellent reading of Go for Broke–a 1951 movie about the reformation of Japanese Americans from internal enemies to valiant patriots–argues that Japanese Americans becoming a model minority “coincides in both logic and historical timing with the construction of a discourse on Japan as the honorary White nation.”10 That is, by reclaiming Japanese Americans as loyal, valiant, yet obedient American citizens in the postwar era, Go for Broke not only endorsed Japanese Americans’ model minority status but also allegorizes Japan’s metamorphosis–under U.S. guidance of course–into a modern nation-state that soon inspired the four dragons of the East Asia. Fujitani writes:
Modernization theory as applied to Japan began toward the end of the 1950s and reached the height of its popularity in the 1960s and early 1970s, in other words, precisely at the moment when the model minority discourse achieved its first explicit articulation. In effect, modernization theory remade Japan into what I would call the “global model minority.”11
Both Fujitani’s and Yoneyama’s discussions return us to the model minority as a trope created by both the desire for modernization in the postcolonial, late colonial world and America’s attempt to maintain a hegemonic order inside and outside its borders. It is an apparatus of recognition and domination, by which Asian nations and Asian Americans alike accept the racial and geopolitical hierarchy and take orders from America. Through a recognition of Asian Americans as both patriotic citizens and model Asians, the model minority image sets in motion the triangulating dynamic across the Pacific that posits the U.S. as the endpoint of modernity and Asian American as an injunction for Asians to follow. The Asian American-Asian relationship, in this sense, becomes a locus of desire motivated by an upward mobility narrative. Bearing at once a story of struggle within the U.S. racializing regime and the risky potential of interpellating Asians into the American dream, Asian American literature, when read and studied outside the U.S., must be very cautious of its double character and seduction as upward mobility narrative. As Robbins informs us, “the desire for upward mobility stories…has much to do with the desire in upward mobility story.”12 Likewise, we should be concerned with where and how the quest for modernity in Asia is collapsed with the desire in the model minority discourse and resist this developmental narrative, especially when it incurs the other’s suffering. After all, the spirit of Asian American studies lies not with the acquisition of rights and self-development but rather with the insistence on critique, including self-critique.
As literature or theory travels beyond its originary context, it is inevitably resituated and recoded to adapt to the local context. The processes and politics of adaptation are what makes this forum an interesting project, for what we are thinking is not only what Asian American literature is after it “leaves home,” but also what it may become and what ends it will serve, as well as the institutional and intellectual context that formed and shaped its other characteristics. Thus, what matters to Asian American literature outside the United States is not so much its aesthetic and political content as the ideological, discursive, and institutional position it takes. What matters to Asian American studies as a critical project is the ability to recognize but not concede to its complicity and sharpen its critical edge as it moves beyond its immediate concerns.
To return to my student’s innocent but important question with which I began this short response, we can argue that what is wrong with the model minority image is not what it contains, but the ideological, discursive, and institutional position it takes, as well as the narrative of upward mobility that in many ways intersects with the global narratives of development and modernization, which oftentimes happen at the expense of the other’s sorrows, suffering, and sacrifice. What is wrong is not the desire to fulfill parental wishes, but rather the negligence of the ideological nature of such wishes, which are nurtured by a neoliberal desire that is taking down and pulling apart the world we inhabit and used to cherish. Reading and teaching Asian American literature in Asia should not be a way to instill or multiply the desire in students for wanting to become Asian American, but rather to unravel the costs of that becoming, so as to arrive at an understanding of their situations and concerns as well as our own critical positions in this neoliberal, late colonial modernity. Perhaps the most important lesson to learn from Asian American literature is how to decouple ourselves from the model minority image and to develop an empathetic view towards struggles here and elsewhere as distinct yet connected on some deeper levels.
1 Andrew Lam, Perfume Dreams (Berkeley: Heyday, 2005) 128.
2 Jane Jeong Trenka, Fugitive Visions (Saint Paul: Graywolf, 2009) 99.
3 Ibid. 98.
4 Bruce Robbins, Upward Mobility and the Common Good (Princeton: Princeton UP, 2007) x.
5 On the development of Asian American literary studies in Asia, see Mie Hihara, “The AALA, and the Emergence of Asian American Studies in Japan,” Inter-Asia Cutlural Studies 13.2 (2012): 267-74; Kun Jong Lee, “An Overview of Korean/Asian American Literary Studies in Korea, 1964-2009,” Inter-Asia Cutlural Studies 13.2 (2012): 275-85; and Tee Kim Tong,“The Institutionalization of Asian American Literary Studies in Taiwan: A Diasporic Sinophone Malaysia Perspective,” Inter-Asia Cultural Studies 13.2 (2012): 286-93.
6 For instance, Nieh Hualing’s Sangqing yu taohong [Mulberry and Peach] is read in multiple contexts and now considered a classic in Chinese/American literature.
7 The Asian American Literature Association in Japan, “The Inaugural Statement,” http://www013.upp.so-net.ne.jp/aala/, accessed on 27 July 2012.
8 Teruyo Ueki, “Past, Present, and Future of Asian American Studies,” AALA Journal 6 (2000): 57.
9 Lisa Yoneyama, “Asian American Studies in Travel,” Inter-Asia Cultural Studies 13.2 (2012): 296.
10 T. Fujitani, “Go for Broke, the Movie: Japanese American Soldiers in U.S. National, Military, and Racial Discourse,” in Perilous Memories, edited by T. Fujitani, Geoffrey White, and Lisa Yoneyama (Durham: Duke University Press, 2001), 253.
National Taiwan University, Taipei, Taiwan
In the Spring of 1994, I had a chance to visit a classmate’s small yet meticulously organized apartment just off Commercial Drive in East Vancouver. Like a typical graduate student in English, I made my way to the bookshelves. Almost twenty years later, I still vividly remember spotting, and flipping through, a row of Asian American critical texts: Sau-ling Wong’s Reading Asian American Literature; King-Kok Cheung’s Articulate Silences; Shirley Lim’s and Amy Ling’s co-edited collection Reading the Literatures of Asian America; and, in a different yet related register, Rey Chow’s Writing Diaspora. All had been published in 1992 or 1993, and their proximity on that bookshelf signaled to me, powerfully, that a critical discourse was materializing.
My classmate had completed a directed reading with Dr Glenn Deer at the University of British Columbia, and I looked forward to doing so too in the Fall semester. At that time, there were no “Asian American” or “Asian Canadian” courses in the formal curriculum of the Department of English at UBC, and Glenn’s pioneering work provided a crucial opportunity for us to start engaging with these materials. It was urgent to do so at that time given the vast–and for me unavoidable–gap between Vancouver’s demographic realities and social history and what appeared to me as a blinkered denial of such realities and history in the formal curriculum, despite the numerous other critical and cultural perspectives (feminist, queer, indigenous, postcolonial) we were engaging with at that time. Yet at the level of cultural production, canonical texts such as Joy Kogawa’s Obasan had been circulating for more than a decade, and more recently published and formally innovative texts including SKY Lee’s Disappearing Moon Cafe and Hiromi Goto’s Chorus of Mushrooms were gaining critical attention. Roy Miki and Fred Wah had just co-edited Colour. An Issue, a special issue of West Coast Line, and a collective led by Roy Miki had organized the landmark Writing Thru Race conference. It was clear to me that there was a broad cultural movement trying, in different ways, to shift our understanding of the role of “race” in Canada, and that the modest collection of Asian American critical texts I had seen on that bookshelf was somehow connected to the changes I saw happening around me.
This historical moment has had a deep and lasting impact on my work. But I mention it here in the context of this forum not only to point out its personal significance. Instead, I wish to underline a key point in my contribution to this broader discussion: namely, that my first moment of engagement with Asian American texts was in fact “outside the U.S.,” in Canada–and that “Asian American” in this particular context signified a dynamic and evolving set of critical tools with great potential value. I felt then, and continue to feel now, that taking these critical tools seriously meant more than simply teaching or producing additional readings of Asian American literary texts, as important as this teaching or these readings may be. It instead involved a more complex and unsettled process of translation through which I wanted to take seriously the potential value of Asian Canadian critical and cultural perspectives too.1 So when I returned to UBC some years later as a postdoctoral fellow and had the opportunity to design and teach an undergraduate course on “Asian Canadian Studies” in Spring 2003, I jumped at the chance to extend our investigation of Asian Canadian history and culture and social formations by also addressing some key points of intersection with Asian American studies. In this course, we read about and discussed the student strikes at San Francisco State College and UC Berkeley in 1968-1969; the relevance of the so-called “denationalization debates” in Asian American cultural criticism in the 1990s; and the question of “ethnic studies” as an academic formation intimately related to the politics of the knowledge that had been and potentially could be produced around “Asian Canadian” or “Asian American” subjects. For many of us, these are of course familiar topics, but in the context of this course they provided an opportunity to scrutinize the adequacy of our existing institutional arrangements–and to ask how these arrangements might potentially be transformed, and to what ends.
Since the Fall of 2003, I’ve worked as a faculty member in Taiwan, where I’ve been fortunate to have space to design and offer courses of various kinds at the undergraduate and graduate levels. Before I came to Taiwan, I was familiar with some of the important critical work that had been produced here in postcolonial studies and cultural studies, and this work continues to be a source of considerable inspiration. But I soon learned about the history of Asian American studies here as well, particularly through the pioneering scholarship and organizing work of scholars based at Academia Sinica and elsewhere.2 While working in the context of postcolonial Taiwan, however, I admit I was reluctant to teach “Asian American literature” named as such, even as I consistently snuck into my courses various Asian American and Asian Canadian critical and cultural texts. Why was this? In Taiwan, terms such as Chinese–and, in different registers, Japanese, or Korean, or Filipino/a, or Thai, or Vietnamese–signify differently, if not in a singular or stable manner. Of course this is the case with all identity categories, which are always already socially situated, if not uncontested. But in this context, I was simply not able to imagine how I could adequately link the social history and cultural production of, say, Chinese Canadians (who have historically contended with, as well as contested, various forms of actual and attempted exclusion) with all the signifying traces of the term Chinese here in Taiwan, where the term can variously signify “structures of feeling” linked to discrepant histories of diaspora and loss; military threats from the People’s Republic of China coded in the terms of what Rey Chow has called “the myth of consanguinity”; historical and ongoing forms of state-directed dominance and a concurrent downplaying, or even outright denial, of Taiwan’s status as an invader-settler colony in which Han Chinese subjects have displaced and marginalized aboriginal peoples; and so on. What could teaching “Asian American” or “Asian Canadian” literature do in such an overdetermined context?
With the encouragement of a colleague, I eventually confronted my reluctance to address these matters and designed and taught an undergraduate course on “Asian North American Literature” at National Taiwan University in Fall 2010. I became willing to do so partly because of my exposure to various social movements in Taiwan (including but not limited to the period immediately before, and after, the lifting of martial law in 1987). These social movements have tried in various ways to organize and mobilize new collectivities not merely based on given identities but, crucially, on imagined future ones too. I don’t mean to romanticize this history, as so many of the struggles in Taiwan during and after that period of transition (over, for example, democratic governance, the teaching of history, environmental issues, nuclear power, aboriginal self-determination, ethnic identities, language policy, and the rights of migrant workers and so-called “foreign brides,” many of whom are from Vietnam and elsewhere in Southeast Asia)–so many of these struggles remain in different ways unsettled. Yet there was a link here, and a way to start talking about, and teaching, the Asian American movement along with Asian American and Asian Canadian culture: categories forged out of various social struggles that were and are historically situated, coalitional, and unfinished.3 So along with a mix of canonical and relatively recent–as well as controversial!–literary texts by Maxine Hong Kingston, Joy Kogawa, Lois-Ann Yamanaka, and Nam Le, we also addressed a series of what I considered to be potentially significant “interludes”: Vincent Chin in Detroit in 1982; Roy Kiyooka in Osaka in 1970; and the I-Hotel in San Francisco in 1977. These “interludes” were of course not the only historical moments or specific sites worth discussing, but when read serially in the context of this course they helped bring into focus the interventionary potential of Asian American and Asian Canadian texts.4 With the shifting nature of university education, and the push to “globalize” universities through networks of exchange agreements, the students who gathered in this course and participated in these discussions at NTU were not only from Taiwan but also from Singapore, Macau, Japan, Germany, the U.S., Australia–and even Vancouver. While I can’t presume to know what this course meant for each individual participant, I have come to see it as a turning point for me: an opportunity to think through, yet again, how and why Asian American and Asian Canadian critical work could matter.5
1 A decade ago, I attempted to theorize this problem in “What is at Stake in Comparative Analyses of Asian Canadian and Asian American Literary Studies?” Essays on Canadian Writing 75 (2002): 217-239. For a broader collective engagement with this problem, see also “Pacific Canada,” a special issue I co-edited with Henry Yu published in Amerasia Journal 33.2 (2007).
2 For an evocative discussion of this history, see Chih-ming Wang’s “Thinking and Feeling Asian America in Taiwan,” American Quarterly 59.1 (2007): 135-155. A broader inter-Asian engagement with the problems addressed in Wang’s essay has recently appeared in “Asian American Studies in Asia,” a special issue edited by Chih-ming Wang published in Inter-Asia Cultural Studies 13.2 (2012).
3 I’ve attempted to address this last point in “Asian Canadian Studies: Unfinished Projects,” Canadian Literature 199 (2008): 6-27. For additional perspectives that robustly address the state of “Asian Canadian Studies,” see the other essays collected in this special issue.
4 The texts we discussed in these “interludes” included Vincent Who? (2010), directed by Tony Lam; StoneDGloves (1970), by Roy K. Kiyooka; and The Fall of the I-Hotel (1983/1993/2005), directed by Curtis Choy. While each of these cultural texts deserves our continued engagement, Kiyooka’s remarkable mixture of photography and poetry deserves wider critical recognition as an intervention in the organization of national imperial space at Expo ’70 held in Osaka, a topic I’ve attempted to address in “Remnants of Empire: Roy Kiyooka, Osaka, 1970,” West Coast Line 71 (2011): 38-51.
5 Many thanks to Hyeyurn Chung, Szu Shen, and Donna Tong for generously commenting on earlier drafts of this short essay; to Lawrence-Minh Davis for expertly organizing and editing this forum; and to Glenn Deer, winner of a 2012 Killam Teaching Prize, for getting me started. Support from “Taiwan in Dialogue with the World: The Cultural Production and Knowledge Dissemination Project” and from the National Science Council in Taiwan (NSC 101-2628-H-002-007-MY3) enabled me to contribute to this forum and is gratefully acknowledged.
Sungshin University, Seoul, Korea
It has become quite commonplace to see Asian America as a transnational space, one inhabited by “flexible citizens” (to use Aihwa Ong’s term) who continuously produce narratives of “entry, reentry, expulsion, remigration and movement across and between borders” (Lim 1). As such, the process by which “Asian American Studies” has become a part of Korean classrooms is a clear testament to its transnationality as individuals possessing varying degrees of transnational mobility gather together to discuss a body of literature that prompts a figurative border-crossing. Still, the position of Asian American studies in Korea remains rather precarious.
Curricular and administrative restrictions notwithstanding, one critical factor for this dearth is student interest (or lack thereof) in Asian American literature. Some colleagues (as well as myself) have observed that it is specifically the relatability of (or the easier cultural identification with) the Asian American text which does not add to but curtails its appeal to Korean students, with very distinct (and unfortunately narrowly conceived) ideas about what American literature is and wish to resurrect the works of “dead white men” in their American literature classrooms. This demotion of Asian American literature seems to derive primarily from the (mis)perception of Asian American literature as “Asian,” rather than “American”; disqualified as authentically American, Asian American literature is passed over in preference for works by “canonical” authors.
Korean classrooms, I would say, closely mirror another Asian classroom described by Wai Fong Cheang in her essay “The Woman Warrior and My Freshman English”; Cheang observed how her Taiwanese students, who remained almost respectfully silent in lectures about canonical texts, became very vocal and active in critiquing Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior. Cheang bemoaned the fact that even as Kingston’s text provided a platform upon which her students could exercise their authority as an expert reader previously denied them by “canonical” works, her Taiwanese students ironically employed this prestige to discredit the very text providing them with their authority (14). Adding to Cheang’s observation, I posit that disinterest in Korean classrooms may come from Korean students’ lack of appreciation for the potentially “transgressive” traits of Asian American literature. In Teaching to Transgress, bell hooks proposes that teaching in the age of multiculturalism should be regarded, first and foremost, as a way to practice freedom (12). A teacher’s primary objective, then, is to impart to the students the ways in which they can “transgress” against the confines of oppressive social structures; in this way, the classroom becomes a “field of possibilities” wherein literacy arms students with a critical consciousness not only to confront the forces of the dominant discourse which serves to exclude them but also to gain an openness of mind to collectively imagine ways to move beyond its boundaries (207).
I strongly believe in the relevance of hooks’ approach to teaching in a transnational context, especially in that it emphasizes the need to challenge and subvert the absolutes, allowing for a destabilization of their set boundaries. Nevertheless, the salience of hooks’ pedagogy is somewhat diluted in a Korean context, wherein the act of transgression as a survival strategy is regarded with less exigency.1 Moreover, if Asian America and Asian American literature became a banner under which Asian Americans gathered together to express a collective identity in order to tackle racist discourse and stake out their place in America, the essential lesson of “practicing freedom” embedded within Asian American texts may have lost its significance for Korean students as it came to be seen mainly as a concept idiosyncratic to an Asian American subject and the sociopolitical context s/he confronts. Not only are they not able to fully appreciate the call to “transgress” inherent in Asian American literature, some Korean students may go so far as to see it as something of suspect. In fact, some may even align themselves with the (American) hegemony and coincidentally restore and reinforce the stereotype of the “immigrant subject” as “fugitive and furtive” (Lim), which has the potential to derail a constructive reading or provide a productive teaching moment in which to decenter and critique the currency of an ethnocentric perspective.
In particular, Korean students have demonstrated ambivalence to narratives of the transnational in Asian American literature. Scholars have observed how transnationalism at once calls attention to the transparency of the boundary and reinforces its materiality. Likewise, students may perceive the transparency of borders as a good thing, if not something desirable. However, the same flexibility in the hands of others suddenly renders it a source of anxiety as the self-same students express concern at the “unraveling” of their nation-state. Partly colored by recent negative media coverage of illegal ethnic Korean immigrants involved in heinous crimes against Korean nationals, Korean students do not necessarily conceive of “transnationalism” as something to celebrate. The transnational figure is certainly not an emblem of “opposition and resistance” because it is their “narratives of the nation” that are being challenged; it is their boundaries that are being “erased and disturbed” (Guarnizo and Smith 5). The facility with which these flexible citizens who, armed with transnational literacy, are able to “imagine, perform, and invent themselves anew or insert themselves into the unfamiliar politics of place and arrival” (Joseph 12) is specifically what renders them “fugitive and furtive.”
Certainly, Korean instructors of Asian American literature are confronted with many challenges. Seung Ah Oh argues that prior to remedying the dire situation Asian Americanists face in Korea, it is crucial to correct the perception of American literature itself–that it is not a body of work which reflects only the voices of “dead white men” but rather is a medley of voices from different cultures, races, ethnicities, classes, and sexualities; it is a task, Oh maintains, that takes us back to reestablishing America as a nation and a culture, and determining who is American, and what constitutes American literature. It is only after firmly resituating America as a nation-state that we can start to address the position of Asian American literature in relation to American history and American literary history. In addition, Oh, like many teachers of Asian American literature, emphasizes the importance of reading “universal” as well as “particular” elements of the text; as previously mentioned, focusing on the “commonality” between Asians and Asian Americans can go awry and bring about the unwanted results of erasing the “American” of “Asian American.” Rather than uncritically assuming an identification with Asian American works, Oh suggests that we teach our students to respect the differences between our experiences and theirs and to treat their literature with careful distance, rather than with easy familiarity. According to Oh, Korean students must be able to bid farewell to Korean Americans so that the latter may take their rightful place in America. Rather than seeing this departure as a betrayal or a renunciation, Korean students must be able to respect the fact that Asian Americans have begun to create their own identity and write their own history and literature, separate from their “kins” back in Asia (22).
For the most part, I agree with Oh’s contention that we must contextualize Asian American literature within America; yet such a move runs the danger of restoring the master-narrative of the nation-state and would, in fact, run counter to the transnational project of Asian American literature. And this is the impasse at which I find myself–in order to make Asian American literature matter to Korean students, I run the risk of recycling the nation-state myth (and with it, its inclusion-exclusion principle). Perhaps I am arriving at this conclusion too easily, but I think what all of this boils down to is a question of ethics; about roles and responsibility of readers and critics in the production of knowledge about those who are culturally different from (and sometimes similar to) themselves. It is important, according to Tina Chen, that we make sure that ethical criticism is mobilized in a way that helps students see and focus on the “real world stakes” of what we do when we examine issues of racial and cultural differences in classrooms (161).
1 As a disclaimer, I will note here that some of my observations are generalizations and cannot be applied wholesale to all Korean students.
Cheang, Wai Fong. “The Woman Warrior and My Freshman English.” The Journal of Teaching English Literature 9.1
Chen, Tina. “Towards an Ethics of Knowledge. ” MELUS 30.2 (2005): 157—74.
hooks, bell. Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom. New York & London: Routledge, 1994.
Joseph, May. Nomadic Identities: the Performance of Citizenship. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota P, 1999.
Lim, Shirley Geok-lin, et al. Transnational Asian American Literature: Sites and Transits. Philadelphia: Temple UP,
Oh, Seung Ah. “Between Sameness and Difference: Teaching Asian American Literature.” The Journal of Teaching
English Literature 13.1 (2009): 5-25.
Smith, Michael Peter and Luis Eduardo Guarnizo, eds. Transnationalism from Below. New Brunswick & London:
Donna T. Tong
Fu Jen Catholic University, Taiwan, ROC
My first encounter with Asian American literature came in 1993 with the film adaptation of Amy Tan’s novel Joy Luck Club. The film adaptation inspired me to find and read more of Amy Tan’s works, and from there I eventually undertook a college focus on American literature and a postgraduate specialization in Asian American literature and studies. There was something in the depiction of mother-daughter relationships in Joy Luck Club and some of Tan’s other novels that seemed to me to articulate some of my relationship with my own mother. However, upon more reflection and reading of her works, I gradually came to consider Amy Tan a writer who did (does) not really go beyond an Orientalizing view of Chinese culture. I find that Tan treats Chinese culture and tradition as exotic spaces that must be explained to an unfamiliar audience. Moreover, some details are inaccurate, including translations of Chinese terms. In The Deathly Embrace, Sheng-Mei Ma characterizes Amy Tan as “a new Orientalist” (110) whose “ethnicizing of the primitive contributes significantly to her success among white, middle-class, ‘mainstream’ readers” (113). He accuses Tan of “collaborat[ing] in updating for our times the chinoiserie tradition and ethnic stereotyping of Chinese” (110). But my disappointment, rather than discourage me, motivated me to look further afield for Asian American writers who did not exoticize their Asian ethnic heritages.
Upon (re)migrating to Taiwan to take a position at a university after competing my graduate studies in 2009, I hoped to be able to carry and convey these personal motivations and connections to my Taiwanese students, though I worried that the experiences of minoritization often portrayed in ethnic literatures would be too alien for them to consider in any but the most abstract terms. What I did not expect was a sense of apathy about Asian American literature that apparently stemmed from an outlook that considered such writings to be too familiar. This “apathy” was evinced in the undergraduate students’ literal snoozing when we were discussing Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior in the upper-division elective course “Asian American Women Writers.” One very articulate and high-scoring student asked me why we didn’t read any of Tan’s works for the class. I replied that I had chosen Kingston in place of Tan because the former has a self-conscious writing style that is aimed at having the reader introspect on issues of narratorial reliability and how those intersect with complications about Asian American identity. Then I asked what she had thought of reading Kingston–in other words, had my motivation found traction in this student’s particular response to the text. She replied that she hadn’t liked reading Kingston at all. I was a bit shocked by this apparently categorical dislike, and the student eventually said that Kingston just wasn’t very interesting.
At first, I thought that this lack of interest in Asian American literature and studies stemmed from the adage that familiarity breeds contempt. While few (if any) of my students had lived in the United States and therefore lacked experiences similar to those represented in these writings, there seemed to be an attitude that these novels and stories were not expressing anything novel to them. In other words, while they did not have personal experiences that allowed them to be able to relate experientially to the minoritization conflicts and processes depicted in the literature, somehow they appeared to think that Asian American literary works drew upon a shared cultural identity which was sufficiently familiar to them to engender the view that these works were nothing new. At that point, I found myself questioning if I was subconsciously replicating the situation where, for instance, Taiwanese retailers see one store successfully selling bubble tea and so open three or four more “clone” bubble tea stores right next to each other. Perhaps I was not “selling” anything new, but instead only offering a product to an already over-supplied market.
Ironically, I found this to be a teaching moment–for me. I considered that what I was construing as apathy might actually be an underlying and subconscious sense of disconnection from these literary works. In other words, I was not sufficiently showing how to connect literature to the daily lives, the social existence, of these students. Instead, since they were majoring in English literature and language studies, I had presumed that they already had a view of literature as important. Obviously, this was a dangerously naÃ¯ve presumption. I had fallen into the trap that Philip Holden identifies in “Histories of the Present: Reading Contemporary Singapore Novels between the Local and the Global.” As he argues, “reading practices involving texts in postcolonial and diasporic frames often ‘make sense’ to a reader because they are unconsciously reliant on transnational social imaginaries which tend to read out the static and interference that the local provides.”1 Since I had read these Asian American texts in this way, I had unconsciously assumed that I would not have to explicate why the students should read these texts.
Recently, I assigned Sarah Benesch’s Critical English for Academic Purposes: Theory, Politics, and Practice to a graduate level course, and myself learned a great deal about critical pedagogy from it. Benesch considers critical pedagogy to be centered on a critical engagement with, questioning of, and challenging of power relations, specifically as they pertain to students’ and teachers’ multiple identities, how they complicate teaching and learning; critical pedagogy “seeks to democratize societies through engaging students in decision affecting their lives inside and outside of the classroom” (xv). In trying to explain the importance of Asian American literature, I had to first consider what kind of power relations might be preventing good communication between myself and the students. I basically had (and have) to understand their social imaginaries.
At a fundamental level, what I had failed to understand was some crucial differences between American tertiary schooling practices and Taiwanese ones. Anecdotally, I conceive of the institutional variations that create this difference as rooted in the more rigid and codified educational tracking system in Taiwan, the lack of cross-disciplinarity and/or multidisciplinarity in curriculum at the college level, and a restriction of access for non-major students to take courses in other departments. High school student applicants to colleges do not apply to the university but to a department. In other words, they declare a major before they even enroll at an institution. There is no such thing as “undeclared major” in Taiwan colleges. Moreover, their choices of departments are determined by their national testing scores. This means that some choices are precluded by their scores, despite whatever personal interest they may have in a particular subject or field, and that they may have chosen their target departments not out of interest but out of pragmatic necessity (prestige of the university, likelihood of acceptance based on scores, tuition fees, to name a few factors that may trump personal or professional academic interests).
This comprehension of crucial institutional differences in educational systems meant (and means) that I do not only have to explain the importance of Asian American literature specifically to the students, but also the importance of literature in general. It is an interesting dilemma since, as reports in news media such as The New York Times and academically focused forums such as The Chronicle of Higher Education have surfaced frequently in recent years, there appears to be a growing necessity for the humanities to justify its existence in the face of greater budget cuts, lack of focused professionalization, and the rising technocracy of modern society. I personally thought, perhaps naÃ¯vely, that I would never be put in the position of having to justify the importance of literature to students of literature. In “Crisis of the Humanities II,” Stanley Fish comments on how this pressure on the humanities has congealed into an “argument for the solvency” of the humanities. In other words, there is an increasing institutional demand that the humanities pay for themselves. Fish notes that Robert Watson, a professor of English at UCLA, has found that “tuition revenues generated by humanities courses exceed the cost of mounting them and, rather than giving the surplus funds back, university administrators (which collect the revenues and put them into a big pot) redistribute them to the sciences and elsewhere.” I’m not interested in analyzing whether Watson’s point is accurate or only applies selectively. I merely note it to underscore the corporatization of the university in general, and as it applies to the humanities specifically. Fish goes on to point out that in this economic-focused scrutiny of humanities disciplines “the wrong questions are what benefits do you provide for society (I’m not denying there are some) and are you cost-effective”; “[t]he right question is how do you–that is, your program of research and teaching–fit into what we are supposed to be doing as a university.” One example that Fish uses to demonstrate how this challenging of underlying assumptions operates is to ask what impact “a knowledge of the Russian language and Russian culture make to our efforts in Far Eastern studies to understand what is going on in China and Japan.”
As Fish reminds me, I was asking the wrong questions. It is not a case of whether teaching Asian American literature and studies in Asia is equivalent to selling bubble tea to a market already glutted with bubble tea retailers, but rather first trying pedagogically to bridge our (teacher’s and students’) different social imaginaries. One way to do this would be to use fiction that students may find immediately accessible such as Tan’s Joy Luck Club precisely for its representation of mother-daughter relationships that not only struck an emotional chord with me as a young adult but no doubt also could with the students–as shown in that one undergraduate student’s questioning of the reading selections. In other words, because there is no monolithic social imaginary, no matter the commonality of a shared nationality or generation, it is necessary to build some common ground. From a common ground, we can then build a common understanding of both Asian American literature and literature in general. Here, I return to the puzzling dislike of and/or apathy towards Kingston’s The Woman Warrior. Perhaps what I misconstrued as contemptuous over-familiarity was actually the complication of presuming Kingston’s use of Chinese mythology to be familiar when actually her narrative technique works precisely to defamiliarize the Fa Mulan mythos; the students might have subconsciously felt alienated by this self-reflexivity, and their alienation was articulated as dislike that covered over their confusion over what Kingston was doing with her narrative. Rather than taking their reaction at face value, I could have engaged them to interrogate the underlying dynamics. This might have been a moment of establishing that common ground which I have realized now to be necessary but sometimes missing in the Taiwanese literature classroom.
1 In Modern Social Imaginaries, Charles Taylor conceptualizes the social imaginary as “the ways people imagine their social existence, how they fit together with others, how things go on between them and their fellows, the expectations that are normally met, and the deeper normative notions and images that underlie these expectations” (23). I had made assumptions about the students’ social imaginaries that these moments in the classroom challenged me to reconsider and interrogate.
Benesch, Sarah. Critical English for Academic Purposes: Theory, Politics, and Practice. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence
Erlbaum Associates, Inc., 2001. Print.
Fish, Stanley. “Crisis of the Humanities II.” Editorial. The New York Times Opinionator, The New York Times
Company. 18 Oct. 2010. Web. 6 June 2012.
Holden, Philip. “Histories of the Present: Reading Contemporary Singapore Novels between the Local and the
Global.” Postcolonial Text 2.2 (2006): n.p. Web. 14 March 2010.
Ma, Sheng-Mei. The Deathly Embrace: Orientalism and Asian American Identity. Minneapolis: University
of Minnesota Press, 2000. Print.
Kun Jong Lee
Korea University, South Korea
I am an African Americanist by training. My Ph.D. dissertation (University of Texas at Austin: 1992) was mainly on Ralph Ellison. But my area of interest gradually moved from African American literature to Asian American literature a few years after my return to Korea. Two factors crucially contributed to this change: the 1992 LA urban upheavals and Korean context. The 1992 LA riots broke out when I was finishing my doctoral dissertation. The African American confrontation with Korean American merchants was a great shock for me, a Korean graduate student majoring in African American literature and culture at a U.S. university. It made me realize, among other things, that something fundamental was missing in my graduate studies: I could understand the origin and development of the race riots from African American perspectives, but I had no training and tools to properly explain them from Korean American perspectives. After my return to Korea, I found that most of my students did not seem to be really interested in African American texts. They just read the texts simply because their African Americanist professor assigned those texts in their American literature course. I acutely felt that it was not fair to my students. I could immediately recognize the problem when I noticed their active participation in the discussion of the class that had African American and Asian American texts in the reading list. Put simply, my students felt that Asian American texts seemed to speak to them more directly than African American ones.The experience made me seriously wonder which of the ethnic American texts would be more meaningful to my students in Korean classrooms. And I came to regularly teach Asian American texts–with and without African American ones–in my undergraduate courses “Contemporary American Fiction” and “Ethnic American Literature.”
My students’ gradual interest in Asian American literature has also reflected the general reading public’s growing interest in Korean/Asian American narratives in Korea: Korean readers have become increasingly interested in Korean American writers since 2003, the centennial anniversary of Korean immigration to the U.S.; Korean mass media has featured Korean American writers in TV programs and newspaper articles; and most Korean American narratives and more than twenty non-Korean, Asian American narratives have been translated into Korean. No less significant, the demographic change of Korea has helped the successful institutionalization of Asian American literature in Korean colleges and universities. As many Koreans have moved to the U.S. for the American Dream, so have many foreigners come to Korea for the Korean Dream, at least since the mid-1990s. The number of migrant workers and foreign brides in Korea was more than 1.25 million as of the end of 2011. A self-proclaimed “homogeneous nation-state,” Korea has been challenged to deal with drastically changing racial demographics, which sparked a national campaign for the embrace of the “multicultural” families and children. All of a sudden, (im)migration, assimilation, intermarriage, mixed-bloods, race, ethnicity, color, xenophobia,transnationalism, and globalization have become staple topics in Korea’s sociocultural discourse. Consequently, the hot issues in Asian American literature and culture crucially matter in contemporary Korea as well. No wonder my students have found the relevance of the apparently (Asian) American concerns to a proper understanding of their own society and have liked to compare Asian Americans in the U.S. with migrant workers and foreign brides in Korea.
Needless to say, my students like Korean American texts most of all Asian American literature. They seem to feel comfortable also with Chinese American and Japanese American texts, which show immigration history and cultural practices similar to, if not the same as, those in Korean American literature. But they learn of the Nanjing Massacre and Japanese American internment for the first time through Chinese American literature and Japanese American literature, respectively. They prefer Vietnamese American texts to Filipino American texts probably because the former’s Confucian ethics, family values, and fratricidal, Cold War-era civil war sound a familiar ring to them. Significantly enough, some Asian American texts have helped my students look at themselves and Korea more objectively. For instance, my students were shocked to find the negative portrayals of Koreans in, among other works, Le Ly Hayslip’s When Heaven and Earth Changed Places and Peter Bacho’s Cebu. It was a shock to them because my students had been taught that Koreans are peace-loving people who have never invaded a foreign country. My students seem to have had an even more significant shock of self-recognition when they read Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner, Mohsin Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist, Nadeed Aslam’s The Wasted Vigil, and Kamila Shamsie’s Burnt Shadows. (In making a reading list, I have allowed myself pedagogical freedom and included not only the traditional Asian American texts but also South Asian American texts, Asian British texts, and Asian Australian texts.) Because of the turbulent developments in Afghanistan, my students had no problem approaching the texts set in Afghanistan/Pakistan. But they were shocked to recognize how much they have internalized the Western perspective and how ignorant they are about the history, religion, culture, and realities of South Asia when they read the narratives written by Afghan American and Pakistani (British) authors. At this point, I usually emphasized the importance of reading the Bible together with the Quran and Greek mythology in juxtaposition with, among other texts, the Persian epic Shahnameh. Lastly, I want to add that I have been using documentary films, Asian American films, and film versions of Asian American narratives in my classes on Asian American literature.
Yunnan University of Nationalities, P.R. China
I would like to begin by presenting a brief overview of teaching Asian American literature in China, then elaborate on my personal pedagogical experience in Yunnan, a province in the southwest of China, and finally propose a tentative syllabus for Southeast Asian American literature, with which I have been engaged for the past few years.
Chinese American literature has drawn the attention of more and more Chinese scholars and critics. It was introduced into Chinese academia in the 1980s, with a few texts listed in syllabi for English majors in influential universities like Beijing Foreign Studies University. In the 1990s, when “Chinese American Literature” became one of the main courses added to American literature programs, appearing in both graduate and undergraduate English curricula, a few universities established centers for Chinese American literary study that substantially improved the teaching in this field. Foremost among these was the Chinese American Literature Research Center of Beijing Foreign Studies University, established in 2003. Professor Wu Bing, director of the Center, Professor Zhang Ziqing of Nanking University, and Professor Xu Yingguo of Tianjin University of Science and Engineering have laid a solid foundation for the sustained research and teaching of this body of work.
For a long period of time the study of Asian American literature in China was limited to East Asian American literature, in particular Chinese American literature, and themes of generational gap, cultural clash, acculturation and assimilation, gender, race, identity, and diaspora. In recent years, however, the boundary of Asian American literature has stretched to cover South Asian American literature and Southeast Asian American literature. Chinese scholars have written a few critical reviews in these two areas, but neither area has emerged as a subject in syllabi, though some Indian American and Filipino American writers are mentioned in Asian American literature courses.
In 2001, as I was completing my graduate study at Yunnan University, I first heard about Maxine Hong Kingston and Amy Tan in a seminar entitled “ Chinese American Literature” and was totally captured by the identity issues and the familiar cultural context in their works. At the time, anthologies and essays by professors Elaine Kim and Cheung King-Kok were the requisite reference works. Since then ethnic literatures have opened my vision about the reconceptualization of American literature. During my teaching of American literature in the past six years at Yunnan University of Nationalities, my focus has been on traditional American literary texts, but it is undeniable that in a globalized world, listening to other voices and valuing other cultures and traditions are good ways to help English majors be aware of diversity. I have been trying to figure out the connection between ethnic American literatures and American literature, always asking myself what students can learn from this body of work. I have begun to hand out copies of works by Asian American authors to complement traditional American literary texts, focusing on the themes of “struggle, hope, and humanity,” which I find consistent with traditional American ideals.
Yunnan province is adjacent to Laos, Vietnam, and Myanmar and therefore an important passage to Southeast Asia; Yunnan province’s geographical location and cultural and ethnic affinity to Southeast Asian countries open new ways to teach Asian American literature. While working as an exchange teacher in Thailand in 2006, I began to read novels by Southeast Asian American and British writers and had the opportunity to experience Southeast Asian cultures. At present, I am completing a research project entitled “Study of Southeast Asian Diasporic Literature in English” financed by the National Social Science Foundation of China; most of the authors I have selected are American writers of Southeast Asian ancestry. Given the circumstances mentioned above, I think opening an optional course on“Southeast Asian American literature” is viable. Since it is an emerging subject, I intend to present the major works chronologically, provide historical and cultural background of the texts, and discuss relevant terminology to broaden the students’ understanding of this body of work. It is very tough to introduce the host of nationalities, languages, cultures, and religions embodied in Southeast Asian American literature, helping students understand the Eastern and Western values as well as local ethnic traditions, but I will seek an accessible way to teach Asian American literature from a new angle.
McMaster University, Hamilton, Canada
I have been teaching Asian North American texts and courses for more than twenty-five years at McMaster University in Hamilton, Canada, a post-industrial, working-class city situated approximately an hour’s drive southwest of Toronto. The undergraduate student population has many first-generation university attendees and the population has become dramatically more diverse since 1967, when a new Canadian Immigration Act, followed by the implementation of official state multiculturalism in the 1970s, changed the demographic of Southern Ontario in terms of race, ethnicity, and culture. Still, undergraduate classes in the humanities remain dominated by white students, while graduate classes have, in my experience, always been more racially diverse. As an example, the first graduate course I taught in “American ‘Minority’ Writing” (a title that now seems oddly antiquated, but which covered African American and Asian American material–more on this below) in 1992 had, among its ten participants, a Chinese Canadian student, a First Nations (Mohawk) student, a mixed-race African Canadian student, and a mixed-race (Chinese and Black) Caribbean Canadian student. Last year’s version of my renamed course, “Asian North American Literature, Culture, and Identity” (2011) had, among its eleven participants, two South Asian Canadian students, one African Canadian student, two Chinese Canadian students, and one mixed-race Chinese Canadian student.
As I’ve described elsewhere, I first taught an Asian North American text in the mid-1980s in an undergraduate “English for Engineers” course where the students were predominantly white and almost exclusively male. That text was Joy Kogawa’s Obasan (1981) and I selected it for three reasons that I still remember distinctly: 1) it uncovers a part of Canadian history–the Internment of Japanese Canadians during the Second World War–that has been well documented by academic historians but that had been silenced in the Canadian public sphere and in school histories, so that Canadians are often ignorant of this significant manifestation of racism, intolerance, and human rights violation in the nation’s history; 2) it tackles a number of feminist issues, including mother-daughter relationships and the theme of silence and speech, and I wanted this overwhelmingly male class to engage with issues of gender as well as race; 3) aesthetically, it’s a powerful novel that blends genres–from documentary reportage, letters, and newspaper clippings to lyric poetry and adapted folklore–and employs complex narrative techniques that I wanted the students to grasp and appreciate. That an appreciation of these postmodern narrative techniques would clash with the humanist approach to history that underlay my first objective didn’t register with me at the time; only later did I take up the challenging issues of the relationship between history, memory, and fiction in Kogawa’s novel. I was also unaware at the time that Obasan, an Asian Canadian text, would become my entry into Asian American literary studies, for it was quickly taken up by Asian American scholars and claimed as a foundational text. I soon came to be acutely aware of this type of cultural appropriation.
Teaching Asian American literature from a Canadian perspective has had its advantages and disadvantages from the outset. One of the significant advantages has been an approach that has been less U.S.-centric, that has taken “America” in the broad context of continental North America, in order to include Asian Canadian texts, and that has of necessity adopted comparative methodologies through reading texts by American and Canadian authors side by side. Through the efforts primarily of Canadian scholars, the term “Asian North American” has come to be fairly widely used to draw attention to shared histories of racism, discrimination, and exclusion, while we remain cognisant of significant differences between the two national situations.
Another comparative methodology that developed serendipitously for me, via the accident of Asian American literature initially being considered too insignificant on its own to warrant full courses in an English curriculum in Canada, was the teaching of Asian American literature in conjunction with African American literature, under the problematic rubric of “American ‘Minority’ Writing”–before such a comparative approach was deemed valuable in the last decade or so. In my graduate course throughout the 1990s, I used to teach African and Asian American texts, often in thematic or generic pairings–The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man with Me, for example, or Invisible Man with Native Speaker or Beloved with Comfort Woman–that drew out aspects of these texts that are not easily visible when Asian American material is taught on its own or in conjunction with texts from a white, mainstream American tradition. Such a combined approach was possible when my graduate course used to run for two semesters of twelve or thirteen weeks each, but since the implementation of single-semester courses and the firmer establishment of an Asian North American literary tradition, I have devoted the entire course to Asian North American material, changing the thematic focus from year to year.
The different institutional formations and histories at American and Canadian universities have had a profound impact on the ways in which I teach. There is no tradition of Ethnic Studies programs or departments, based firmly in identity politics, at Canadian universities–in 2012, the first undergraduate “minor” in Asian Canadian Studies is about to commence at the University of Toronto, but it is a top-down affair that appears to lack the political imperatives inherent in the founding of Ethnic Studies programs in the U.S. some forty years earlier. This has meant that scholars like myself, working on Asian American literature, operated pretty much in isolation for many years, with nothing like the institutional support and community of Ethnic Studies in the U.S. (I was personally lucky to make connections early on with extremely generous feminist scholars from the U.S.–Amy Ling, Shirley Geok-lin Lim, and King-Kok Cheung in particular–who assisted me in finding a place as a scholar in the burgeoning field.) This situation also meant that texts entered English departments not via Ethnic Studies programs, with their activist underpinnings, but as literary texts from the outset. Such an approach had the advantage of making students attuned to the aesthetics and style of texts, but the disadvantage of students being unaware of the institutional history of Ethnic Studies in general and Asian American Studies in particular, as well as being generally ignorant of the histories of Asians in North America. Official state multiculturalism in Canada, now an essential part of Canadian identity, has been remarkably successful in keeping histories of oppression and discrimination in Canada, with their legacies of entrenched systemic racism, hidden. In fact, one of the challenges of teaching studies based on race in Canada is the common misperception, held by many undergraduates, that Canada is a less racist and more tolerant society than the U.S. In the classroom, there is always a willingness to critique the U.S. state while viewing multicultural Canada as superior, when in fact, the anti-racist and anti-imperialist motivations behind the founding of Asian American Studies are more politically radical than what Smaro Kamboureli has called the “sedative politics” of Canadian state multiculturalism. Students need to have their sense of moral superiority challenged by being taught carefully that their own nation has an equally racist and discriminatory history in its treatment of immigrants from Asia. They need to learn about the exclusion of Chinese and other Asian immigrants and the internment of Japanese Canadians, about Canada’s involvement in a number of imperial wars in the Pacific and its current participation in the War on Terror, about Canada’s exploitation of Asian domestic labour, especially from the Philippines, material histories that are reflected in the literature and film we study.
Another institutional challenge that anyone teaching Asian North American literature in Canada faces is the already-existing incorporation of South Asian material into courses that were initially labeled “Commonwealth Literature” and later “Postcolonial Literature.” “Postcolonialism” in the Canadian academy represents, or initially represented, the study of a set of geographical regions of the old British colonial empire (literatures written in English that is not British or American), rather than a particular anti-colonial theoretical approach. What constitutes “postcolonial studies” has shifted over time, but the legacy of Commonwealth literary studies has meant that East and Southeast Asian literature continue to dominate the area known as “Asian Canadian literature,” even though a host of Canadian writers of South Asian origin (Michael Ondaatje, Rohinton Mistry, M.J. Vassanji, Shyam Selvadurai, to name a few) are more well known and celebrated. Still, the influence of postcolonial studies on Asian North American and Asian Canadian Studies in Canada has been profound. So while the integration of South Asian material into Asian North American Studies has perhaps been more difficult because it has tended to have a “home” in Canadian or Commonwealth/Postcolonial courses, the influence of postcolonial theory has been highly beneficial.
My perspective on teaching Asian North American literature and culture from a position outside the United States continues to shift and mutate as a result of personal and professional experiences. In 2011, for example, I was fortunate enough to spend three months on a research fellowship in Taiwan, where I didn’t formally teach Asian American literature but I engaged with those who do teach this material in Asia. I came away with a profound sense that what matters for scholars in Asia is not so much the personal trials of immigration or of a sense of displacement and dislocation that occurs when Asian American subjects are caught between cultures, but rather the larger experiences of macro-politics, of colonialism and imperialism in Asia, in which the U.S. and Canada have been deeply implicated. As a result, I restructured my graduate course to focus on the ways in which Asian North Americans represent the traumas of war, colonialism, and imperialism in Korea and Vietnam. At the same time, a number of my graduate students have been Southeast Asian refugees to Canada who have taught me a great deal and influenced my pedagogy as well. As someone who is in many ways an outsider (white, Canadian) to this field that is founded on identity politics (despite serious challenges to that foundation), I continue to be grateful for the privileges afforded me to learn and to participate in an area of literary studies that “matters,” that attempts to make a difference in the world. The ambitions I had those many years ago when I first taught Obasan still drive my teaching to a considerable extent, even though I am much more humbled now by what I don’t know in a field that has become so vast and diverse it is increasingly referred to as “Asian diaspora literatures in English,” a term that productively complicates the concepts of “inside” and “outside.”
Guicang Li & Emily Tingting Xu
Zhejiang Normal University, P.R. China
The database of China National Knowledge Infrastructure (CNKI) records titles of 158 Excellent MA theses and 34 PhD dissertations on Asian American literature in the past decade, with the overwhelming majority of titles on Chinese American literature (and the odds of being selected an Excellent MA thesis one out of hundreds). Chinese American literary studies is a burgeoning academic field in China, and now dozens of the most prestigious Chinese universities–and some privately funded ones, like Shantou University–offer courses for both undergraduate and graduate students.
Academic interest in the field dates back to 1981, when two introductory papers about Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior were published. There were no noticeable follow-ups until the year of the new millennium, right after China obtained membership to the WTO, at which point a decade-long boom of academic essays and monographs on almost every Chinese American author we know of began. The research extends to some Southeast Asian authors and, sometimes, to Chinese American authors who write in Chinese. Cultural and ethnic identity has always occupied a central place in the minds of scholars and students; scholars are particularly intrigued by how Chinese American authors delineate their Chinese cultural sensibility in “alien” (mainstream) cultural and social contexts, hence the popularity of Jade Snow Wong, Kingston, Amy Tan, Marilyn Chin, Shawn Wong, Frank Chin, and David Henry Hwang.
Unlike in the United States, where social movements usually precede pedagogical and academic changes, Asian/Chinese American studies in China was initiated by academics. The late Professor Bing Wu at Beijing Foreign Studies University began teaching Chinese American in her English Literature class in the 1980s, and in the 1990s, she offered “Asian American Literature” for graduate students in American studies. Professor Zhang Ziqing of Nanjing University, another pioneer in this field, has been editor-in-chief of the Translation Project of Chinese American Literary works, seminal in making Chinese American works accessible to the general audience and students in particular.
I partly oversaw the well-acclaimed pedagogical and curricular reform at Shantou University, where I chaired the Department of English from 2002 to 2008. The reform as a concerted effort was essentially motivated by a desire to align pedagogy with international standards and practices. Set in a reform climate, Shantou University redesigned all its curricula by providing most elective courses for its undergraduates, including many courses in Asian American literary studies.
To a large extent, Asian American literary studies has been energized by interdisciplinary dynamism in Politics, History, Education, and Chinese. Students take related courses and develop an intensively comparative perspective. Numerous universities in China now offer courses in this new field in different programs, e.g., Nanjing University, Jinan University, Nanjing Normal University, Shantou University, Xiamen University, Fudan University, Shandong University, Henan University, Minzu University, and Zhejiang Normal University, where I work as Dean of the College of Foreign Languages. In Nanjing University, courses in this field are also offered to PhD candidates in English Literature. In Jinan University, Professor Ruoqian Pu has taught Chinese majors Asian American literature for a number of years.
In response to the growing interest in Asian American literary studies, many universities have established research institutes, the best known of which is The Chinese American Literature Research Center (CALRC) at Beijing Foreign Studies University. It is the first of its kind and most active for translating Chinese American literary works, holding academic conferences, inviting guest professors from the United States to teach Asian American courses, and building its database. Other well-known institutes with similar visions include the Research Center for World Chinese-Language Literature (Fudan University), the Institution of Chinese American Studies (ICAS) (Tianjin University of Technology), and the Research Center for Overseas Chinese (Zhejiang Normal University).
Just to illustrate how fast this new field is growing: at the RUC-UCLA conference on “American Literature and the Changing World,” held June 30 to July 1 in Beijing, I chaired a panel discussion on Asian American Drama. It was exciting because I saw dozens of young scholars working everywhere in the field of Asian American literary studies.
Nanjing University, P.R. China
Teaching Asian American literature to Chinese students is a different experience from teaching it to Asian Americans students, though the two groups of students may look similar in appearance. How to present Asian American literary texts to Chinese college students whose experiences of reading English are very much related to preparing English exams? How to make Asian American experiences relevant to Chinese students whose native Han culture takes the dominant position in China? How to find chances to teach Asian American texts in an English Department in which literary courses make up a far smaller percentage than the courses on training in different English language skills? These are questions I have faced during my twenty years’ teaching in the English Department of Nanjing University, one of the top ten universities in China. Only in recent years, teaching Amy Chua’s Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, have I seemed to find a clue for the answers.
Teaching Asian American literature in Chinese universities means teaching Chinese American literature because instructors are fully aware of the double foreignness of Japanese literature, Korean literature, and South Asian literature for Chinese students. From 2001 to 2005, when Wenshu Zhao and I co-taught Chinese American literature as a selective course to first-year graduate students, we mainly transplanted American university course materials for teaching Chinese American literature. We taught Jade Snow Wong, Frank Chin, Shawn Wong, Maxine Hong Kingston, and Amy Tan, with an emphasis on Chin’s cultural nationalist attitude and Kingston’s feminist position. In an effort to engage our graduate students, who did not conceal their lukewarm interest in the racial experience of Chinese Americans, we brought in materials on Chinese American history and the split loyalties of male and female Chinese American writers. Two or three students were brave enough to wonder after class why we presented these frustrating experiences of Chinese Americans at a time when the students’ best wishes were to go to America as graduate students with scholarships and grants; they asked me whether I intended to discourage their pursuit of the American Dream. These responses made me think that it was time to tailor our teaching of Chinese American literature to the needs of Chinese students.
We began at the undergraduate level, where we only needed to replace one or two assignment readings per course. With the decreasing credit requirements on courses for the major and limited slots for courses on literature, we have never been confident enough to persuade our colleagues that a course on Chinese American literature is equally important as courses on American literature, British literature, drama, or fiction. Zhang Wenshu made Gish Jen’s Typical Americans an obligatory reading for his course on writing American Dreams, while I chose Amy Chua’s Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother (as a replacement for Jade Snow Wong’s Fifth Chinese Daughter) for my course on Coming-of-Age Novels.
It was not a surprise to see that Amy Chua’s Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother appeals to Chinese college students who would rather learn to drive than learn to cook Chinese dishes. Chinese college students relate to the book’s fight between mother and daughter, to its comparison of Chinese and American mindsets. The modern urban life style of Chua’s family–characterized by its quick pace, frequent trips, family visits, and music and sports performances of the children–appeals to the students. As the only children of their families, facing the high demands and expectations of parents, they fully understand Lulu needing a dog for companionship and fun. They are more ready to share Lulu’s happiness when her hard work on violin is rewarded by the gift of a dog than they are to share Jade Snow’s fulfillment when she first learns how to steam rice (vividly presented in Fifth Chinese Daughter). The conflicts between Lulu and her mother, who places high demands on her daughters, remind our students of their busy summers filled up with piano lessons, sketch lessons, roller-skating sessions, and swimming class.
Over-identification with the young protagonist Lulu also has its downside, as few of my students are aware of the social class to which Lulu’s family belongs. They would be appalled to know that what seems to them a typical American family turns out to be one of the elite families in America, and the tiger mother’s insistence on piano and violin training is her “anti-decline campaign” for the purpose of maintaining elite class status. My students, themselves as intelligent and talented as Lulu and her sister, are not able to realize that the tiger mother is lucky to have two talented daughters who have the potential to meet her high demands and strict discipline.
Though Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother may not be able to compete with Woman Warrior, Joy Luck Club, or American Knees for literary merit, it helps Chinese students improve fluency in reading and form the habit of thinking in English; it encourages them to write their own personal experiences in English, an important requirement for English majors in Chinese universities. In my class, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother beats Anne of Green Gables, which has been listed as the most welcomed novel in my coming-of-age novel class for years. This year 90 percent of my students chose to translate one chapter of Chua’s book rather than some portion of other books and stories on the reading list. Besides Chua’s easy diction, clear expression, and humor, what motivates the students is their identification with Lulu, a daughter who grew up with high expectations but is ultimately triumphant in gaining the control of her life.
Besides all the above reasons, is it possible that Chinese students favor Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother because many of them perform American universalism, which Audrey Wu Clark defines as the idea that “American democracy is accessible to all and internationally replicable”?1 Is it possible that our students resemble the protagonist in Carlos Bulosan’s America Is in the Heart and envision America as including their “multi-ethnic and multinational friends and family”?2 Is it possible that Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother wins the heart of Chinese students for its “minority cosmopolitanism”?3
1 Clark, Audrey Wu. “Forum,” The Asian American Literary Review, Vol. 3, Issue 1: Spring 2012, 28.
2 Clark, Audrey Wu. “Forum,” The Asian American Literary Review, Vol. 3, Issue 1: Spring 2012, 32.
Institute of European and American Studies, Academia Sinica, Taiwan, ROC
Teaching American literature outside of the U.S. is never about teaching literature alone.
Brought up in the school of New Criticism–the practitioners of which claimed to devote all their attention to the text per se–Taiwan scholars of my generation, who went to college in the early 1970s, read almost nothing about ethnic American literature. The only ethnic American literary text I read during my entire career as a student of English and comparative literature in Taiwan was Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man–which I read during an M.A. seminar in Contemporary American Fiction at National Taiwan University, the best M.A. program for foreign literary studies in Taiwan at that time. However, we have gradually learned to historicize and contextualize even New Criticism itself. And so, in addition to learning to undertake close readings of the text, we have also attempted to conduct some contextual studies, which have proven to be of great importance, especially when reading and analyzing ethnic American literature.
Learning and teaching Asian American literature outside of the U.S. actually involves at least three fields: language, literature, and culture. For in addition to teaching the literature itself, we, as teachers facing students for whom English is a second language, must explain the meanings, nuances, associations, connotations, and ambiguities of key words and expressions. A proper understanding and in-depth analysis of any piece of literature is impossible without an adequate command of the text at a linguistic level. Moreover, literature never emerges from out of a vacuum: the relationship between minority literature, canonical literature, and culture must also be accounted for before a deeper understanding of the cultural, historical, and political background and significance can be obtained. Therefore, as teachers, we need to explain to our students some of the key words and expressions in the texts, the literary skills and strategies employed by the authors, and the cultural, historical, and political contexts in which these literary texts were produced.
I used to offer a seminar in Asian American Literary and Cultural Studies at the graduate schools of the Department of Foreign Languages and Literatures in National Taiwan University, National Chiao Tung University, and Providence University, and found it very difficult to teach such a rich and diverse seminar within the constraints imposed by an 18-week semester, particularly as I wished to draw cultural studies into the class. Consequentially, the syllabus was highly selective.
Due to the significant position occupied by Chinese American literature in Asian American literature, and Taiwanese students’ sense of affinity to Chinese allusions, expressions, and stories therein, the main emphasis of the seminar was this specific ethnic American literature. Among the texts selected were Angel Island poetry, Maxine Hong Kingston’s China Men, Frank Chin’s Donald Duk, Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club, David Henry Hwang’s M. Butterfly, Russell Leong’s Phoenix Eyes and Other Stories, and Maya Lin’s “Between Art and Architecture.” Representative criticism in Asian American literature by American and Taiwanese scholars was also recommended.
Additionally, the following films and documentaries were included:
Wayne Wang, The Joy Luck Club;
Ang Lee, The Wedding Banquet;
Wayne Wang, Chan Is Missing; and
David Cronenberg, M. Butterfly.
Felicia Lowe, Carved in Silence;
Joan Saffa, Maxine Hong Kingston: Talking Story;
Christine Choy, Who Killed Vincent Chin?; and
—–, Maya Lin: A Strong and Clear Vision.
As a result, not much room was left for literature produced by other Asian American ethnic groups. Other works often included were:
Filipino American literature:
Carlos Bulosan, America Is in the Heart;
Japanese American Literature:
John Okada, No-No Boy; and
Korean American Literature:
Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, Dictee.
In order to ensure that students were well prepared before they came to class, and to encourage discussion and participation in class, students were required to submit their journals on a weekly basis, to give one or two oral presentations, and to submit a term paper at the end of the semester.
Emphasized over and over again in class was what I would name “dual contextualization.” That is to say, as bilingual and bicultural students of foreign literature in Taiwan, how do we make sense of these literary and cultural texts? Is there any specific Chinese or Taiwanese perspective that can be used to interpret and even to shed new light on these texts? Situated between two powerful cultural hegemonies, namely, American and Chinese, how do we make the best of this marginality, or rather, in-betweenness and intersectionality? How do we relate these texts written in English with the texts written in Chinese by writers of Chinese descent residing in the U.S.? How do we relate these texts, either in Chinese or in English, to Chinese diaspora? How do we treat these texts in Chinese as part of Sinophone literature? How do we apply polysystem theory in translation studies to the Chinese translations of the texts originally written in English? Most significantly, how do we, as students and teachers of foreign literature in Taiwan, find a niche of our own, so to speak, in the global republic of letters?
Fully aware of the limitations of the seminar and, to a larger extent, of doing Asian American studies in Taiwan, I have reminded my students and colleagues of the following imperatives: (1) to broaden our visions and themes to include literary productions and cultural expressions of other Asian American ethnic groups; (2) to historicize and contextualize our research more fully; (3) to test the applicability of Western theories and, hopefully, to come up with some “oppositional” or “contrapuntal” theories from our speaking position; (4) to adopt multiple and transdisciplinary approaches whenever possible; (5) to go international and global, but with a special emphasis on the local; and (6) to cultivate multilingual and multicultural or, at least, bilingual and bicultural, perspectives.1
In short, teaching Asian American literary and cultural studies in Taiwan is more challenging than doing the same in the U.S. because we have to overcome linguistic, literary, and cultural obstacles. However, this not only encourages us to delve deeper into ethnic American literatures and cultures, but also encourages us to learn more about them in relation to mainstream American literatures and cultures. Moreover, teaching and learning Asian American literary and cultural studies also provides us with a rare opportunity to reflect on the relationship between ethnic groups and the minority and majority literatures and cultures of Taiwan.
1 For a more detailed discussion of these critical reflections, see my paper “Branching Out: Chinese American
Literary Studies in Taiwan,” in Chinese America: History and Perspectives 2007: Branching Out the Banyan Tree
The University of Hong Kong, Hong Kong S.A.R.
In the penultimate class of a survey of American Literature at The University of Hong Kong (HKU) in spring 2012, I asked students to write a narrative in the style of Jamaica Kincaid’s “Girl.” In her piece, the speaker instructs the eponymous girl in domestic tasks while also admonishing her for seemingly immodest behavior, rendering the narrative a punitive pedagogical guide directing the female, Caribbean addressee. In “Push,” my student wrote about his experiences being educated in South Korea where he faced daily, unrelenting parental and social expectations about his academic performance and daily homework habits, by and large a very different primary and secondary school experience from that advocated by myself as a parent and by my children’s American teachers. This excerpt from “Push” is an apt introduction to Asian education, pedagogy, and academic success and a platform by which to unmoor some of the stereotypes surrounding these issues. My reflections are informed by the three undergraduate courses I taught as a Fulbright Scholar at HKU throughout the 2011-12 academic year and while overseeing my own two children’s education in a Hong Kong-based international school:
…are you studying?; I don’t think you are, how do you expect to compete with my friend’s kids like this?; when I was in school, I used to underline everything, see?; this is how I used to study; this is how you should study; I didn’t buy you all those highlighters for nothing, use them; are you studying?; an old work colleague just called, he only eats food he can eat one handed so he doesn’t have to stop working, you know; you should be grateful, meal times are a luxury; are you studying?; you’ll never go to college at this rate; why are you out here?; why aren’t you studying?; go back to your room; no you can’t see the replay, get back to studying; every second counts; no, I won’t stop cheering aloud; if you were concentrating, you wouldn’t have heard me; you weren’t concentrating were you?; are you studying?…you’ll be lucky if you get to state school.
The student-author adamantly reminded me that his experiences represented a very mild case of parental pressure, a “softer” approach, compared to that experienced by his South Korean peers. Concurrently, I recently had read Amy Chua’s Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, including some of the posted backlash that the author received for what many American readers viewed as abusive parenting. But as an Asian Americanist, I also was well aware of ongoing and often erroneous representations of the smart, hardworking, Asian/American student, the model minority, debunked repeatedly by scholars at the same time that the stated experiences of the Korean student above suggested its current existence. That said, I did not know what to expect upon entering my HKU undergraduate classrooms. Briefly, this is what I learned among a mix of local Hong Kong students, a few Korean students educated in South Korea and the U.S., one student from Taiwan, and a handful of American exchange students, mostly from California and predominantly Asian American.
Indeed, many well-prepared, very hardworking students enrolled in my courses (the same students who iterated parental pressures as did the student above). The numbers of these excellent, motivated students matched those enrolling in courses at the University of New Hampshire (UNH), my home university. At HKU and UNH, I also taught students who read little and thus contributed almost nothing to class discussions. I was warned by more than a few HKU colleagues that “students won’t buy books” (while others added, “much less read them”). The former may be the case, but cash-strapped students found nearly everything they needed online. Considering that all of my printed texts for the fall semester were ordered in August but began to arrive slowly only by November, these initially exasperating delays made for some interesting, on-my-toes teaching experiences.
Many of the students were accustomed to a British style of classroom pedagogy: two-hour lectures followed by a one-hour tutorial. But my small courses (the largest enrolled at 12) in HKU’s growing American Studies Programme demanded a seminar style of pedagogy. I permitted my five-person American survey course to meet weekly in the on-campus cafÃ© called the Global Lounge. With lattÃ©s in hand and a variety of Chinese and Western treats on the table, we discussed literature amid the din of student chatter and constant campus events set-up. The intimacy of literary conversations around a small table was ultimately more satisfying than the “larger” of my two spring courses that was relegated to an acoustically poor classroom located that shared a wall with HKU’s dental clinic (gratefully, we never heard the high whine of a dentist’s drill), to which students floated in 10, 20, sometimes 30 minutes past the hour. They were accustomed to large, sloping lecture halls, sneaking in through a darkened back door without much disruption. No amount of chastising on my part changed this behavior much; prior, seemingly accepted practice shaped their behavior. However, I did notice that other cultural contexts positively influenced the verbal expressions of my American exchange students, who slipped effortlessly into Hong Kong university culture in which professors are always called “Professor,” never merely “Hey” or by first name, and emails are graced with a respectful salutation.
Meanwhile, my children (aged 8 and 11 at the time) lamented that they were not only the “poorest” students in their international school (in one case, I embarrassingly mistook a student’s driver for his father), but also the only monolingual speakers in their respective grades. My daughter accused me of failing her on the latter front, and I duly accused the children’s U.S. public school for the unfortunate absence of language instruction until the sixth grade. Their local Hong Kong peers spoke Cantonese, English, and often Mandarin. One Polish student in my daughter’s class spoke four languages, while new arrivals from Sweden in my son’s class spoke Swedish, French, picked up English in eight short months, and were learning Mandarin. The ease with which these young charges took to language certainly overturns the English-only arguments of too many American parents, even educators, who claim that children cannot, should not, and do not want to learn foreign languages.
Another of my daughter’s peers who recently had been accepted at an English boarding school for the Fall 2012 year was pulled mid-Spring 2011 to work with tutors in Latin, Spanish, French, Italian, and accelerated math; he continued private cello instruction and daily swimming, all in preparation for his rigorous British (not Chinese) education abroad, thus throwing a wrench into the strict polarities separating Western and Eastern approaches to education.
While lecturing at Chengdu University in May, I learned that many Chinese parents begin sending their 12-year-old children to boarding schools for the week, driven by social pressure (if you don’t, you are regarded as hindering your child’s full, academic potential) but causing much parental heartbreak. There, these young charges study and attend classes from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m.
Because learning the characters and tones of Cantonese or Mandarin is difficult, and getting accepted into a university in China and Hong Kong is an arduous challenge, Chinese students must study long and hard. Hong Kong has only nine government-funded institutions of higher education, all prestigious, driving parents and students to justify academic pressures in primary and secondary schools. Again, my colleagues offered bits of stereotypical information on this front: after 12 years of such intense studying and testing, many intoned, HKU students are prone to view the college years as the only remaining fun years before the drudgery of the work world. They warned me that students find lectures, but not tutorials, dispensable; and many who do attend the former may arrive up to 30 minutes late, as I experienced.
Is the so-called Asian education system, as represented by Chua and discussed by Chinese parents and my South Korean student, a better system than that touted by the U.S., the latter focused on praising individual strengths and desires at the cost of challenging weaknesses and dislikes? Does China graduate more intelligent college graduates because of its unique educational system, and if so, what statistics prove this? Was my daughter’s desire, upon return to the U.S., to attend a private (what she named a “better”) middle school rather than her public (read “mediocre”) middle school, driven by the academic challenges she faced and met in Hong Kong (she completed between three and five hours of homework nightly, up to 15 hours on weekends) or by unconfirmed rumors of the low quality of our local public school–conversations about which she was keenly interested? Are Asian students who experience an education supposedly driven by memorization less able to find work in Western companies looking for flexibility and creativity? One American friend informed me that this was the case in his Hong Kong-based company which sought out American, British, and Australian graduates who were more likely than the Chinese, the company stated, to “think outside the box.”
My experiences lead me to refute this typing. Many of my local Hong Kong students engaged in lively conversations after a week of preparation and wrote extremely provocative essays that shed new light on literature and film (they certainly thought outside the box): for example, why the protagonists in Jack London’s “The Call of the Wild” and Eugene O’Neill’s The Hairy Ape should have used their so-called primitivism more strategically to survive the trials of nature and class relations, respectively; or in referencing cross-cultural relations in Gail Dolgin and Vicente Franco’s documentary Daughter From Danang, how “‘getting hurt by the truth shortly’ is better than ‘being comforted by a lie permanently,’” borrowing from Kyoko Mori on the cultural use of “polite lies” to argue that Vietnamese adoptee Heidi should have been more straightforward with her biological relatives concerning monetary issues and thus saved everybody from emotional hurt. Some possessed an English vocabulary and grammar that far exceeded those of native speakers; others had a good command, but needed editorial fine tuning. Overall, the top students, like the best students I’ve taught in U.S. universities, are eager for academic challenges and delight in discussing just the types/stereotypes I discuss in this essay between the so-called dichotomized East and West. In fact, while lecturing in another HKU course and discussing Asian/Chinese typing, HK local students were asked by their professor to name American types and impressions, an experience accomplished with much humor and good will: Americans think they know everything; Americans think they are good in math, but they really are not; Americans talk too loudly. These statements present equally interesting material to pursue with American students in U.S.-based Asian American studies courses.
University of Hong Kong, Hong Kong
When my family and I moved to Hong Kong in 1993, I was hired to teach in the American Studies Program and the Department of History at the University of Hong Kong (HKU), and I assumed our sojourn would last two years. Nearly two decades later I am, happily, still here. Hong Kong is, as historian Elizabeth Sinn calls it, “a place of flow,” and I am one of literally millions who have passed through, stayed for a while (or longer), and been changed as a result. This crossroads of cultures demands that we all think again about who we are and to what extent we are prepared to, literally, go with the flow. The brief reflection that follows is an attempt to explain how Asian American literature and history have helped me learn to do that.
I confess that when I arrived, I knew pitifully little about Asian American literature and history. That changed quickly. As part of my preparation for teaching American studies and U.S. history in a cross-cultural context, I began looking at links between the U.S. and Hong Kong (economic, political, and cultural), and it was scholarship in Asian American studies that introduced me to a more transnational worldview than the one I had known as a graduate student in educational history in the U.S. (I realize that the notion of transnationality within Asian American studies is a source of ongoing debate in North America,but in Hong Kong, Asian American literature and history offer me and my students ways to think about how places and people have been connected for centuries–well before either the U.S. or Hong Kong came into being as bordered locales.) Broad pan-Asian American historical works by scholars such as Ronald Takaki, Gary Okihiro, and Judy Yung illuminate connections between various national, ethnic (and sub-ethnic), geographic, gendered, and temporal histories, micro and macro.
Although I did my graduate study at Harvard and Columbia in the mid/late 1980s–where I was taught to view history through a multicultural lens–it wasn’t until I began teaching in Hong Kong that I realized just how little I knew about transpacific connections. As I studied Hong Kong history and Asian American history in tandem (in order to make my U.S. history and American studies survey courses more relevant to my Hong Kong students), I began to see the ways in which Asian American history is U.S. history: the highly gendered world of the China trade (in places like Macau, Canton, and Hong Kong, as well as in other treaty ports in Asia) was no less a bachelor society than Chinatowns in the U.S., but these enclaves in China waters were romanticized rather than demonized in most mainstream historical accounts (when they were mentioned at all). Multicultural histories of the U.S. in the post-Civil Rights period did the important work of bringing to light the dark side of frontier America associated with Native American genocide and African American slavery, but these same histories were/are often muted or silent when discussing the ways in which the “coolie trade” was also a form of slavery. Most U.S. history textbooks do not discuss the ways in which the U.S. profited from the opium trade in China, or how important the China trade was in subsidizing railroads and elite family fortunes in the U.S. Even today, many historical accounts overlook the mistreatment of Chinese and other diasporic Asian communities that played key roles in transport (particularly railroads and shipping), agriculture, textile production, or other enterprises. It is in the literary production of early laborers from Asia–verses on the walls of Angel Island, letters home to families in China, or stories passed from generation to generation–that the historical memory survives.
In addition to doing the cultural work of making hidden histories visible, Asian American literary and historical texts give my students permission to examine their own biases and identity negotiations as they look at similar phenomena within U.S. culture. When I arrived in Hong Kong in the early 1990s, there was significant anxiety among Hong Kong residents of all ages about the resumption of PRC sovereignty (what one t-shirt described as “the great Chinese takeaway”) four years hence. Four years earlier, many of these students witnessed parents and grandparents participate in Hong Kong’s public demonstrations repudiating the events of June 4th, 1989 in Tiananmen Square. Because of the concern about Hong Kong’s “return” to China, most of my students, their parents, and even their grandparents have had some connection to “the Hong Kong brain drain” (the outmigration of approximately 800,000 people from Hong Kong to destinations in the U.S. and elsewhere in the West between 1984 and 1997).
In the early days of the exodus, most ethnically Chinese students refused to even identify themselves as such. They were Hong Kong people, or willing to claim hybrid status as Hong Kong belongers with ambivalent ties to a British colonial heritage. Many of them embraced Aihwa Ong’s notion of “flexible citizenship,” even if they were not “astronauts” themselves. As such, I figured that there would be common ground between my students and Asian American authors who engaged questions of diaspora, hybridity, and the marginalization that often comes with being insiders/outsiders in the U.S. Initially, this was rarely the case. I was unprepared for the ways in which Hong Kong-born students wanted to distance themselves from those born in the PRC as well as from “ABC’s” (American-born Chinese whom they considered to have “lost their culture”) even as they mined Asian American literary texts for ways to counteract colonial mentalities and racism or celebrate hybridity. I am intrigued at the ways in which Chinese Americans in Hong Kong have a burden of representation to bear that I, a Caucasian American, do not–though they may be able to pass as insiders in ways I cannot. Recent work in translocal Asian/Asian American identity is offering new ways to think about common ground and difference in terms of sub-ethnic Chineseness and the Chinese diaspora in a global frame.
Teaching in Hong Kong has led me to think in a more expansive manner about the terms “Asian” and “American.” These maddeningly broad monikers mean different things to different people and meanings change with surprising speed. I witnessed my students shift from exhibiting a keen interest in “all things American” in the mid-1990s to taking a more nuanced and critical stance concerning Americanization today in Hong Kong. In recent years, our students at HKU have become much more cognizant of the mixed legacy of the American historical presence in Hong Kong, and of the ways in which certain Americans or U.S. institutions in Hong Kong were/are implicated in neocolonialist/imperialist projects.
On a personal level, I find it enlightening to compare and contrast particular historical periods through narratives in Asian American literature and narratives written by Americans in Hong Kong. In my recent book, Troubling American Women: Narratives of Gender and Nation in Hong Kong, it is women’s wartime narratives–those written by Caucasian women such as Emily Hahn and Gwen Dew, who were in Hong Kong during the Japanese occupation–that provide students with a view of internment in Asia. These works supplement more established texts such as Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston’s Farewell to Manzanar, or more recent texts such as Yoshiko Uchida’s Desert Exile and Julie Otsuka’s When the Emperor was Divine. I have also come to appreciate the ways in which Hong Kong texts–film as well as literature–fill important historical gaps in U.S. history. I have written elsewhere (as have others in film studies) about the ways in which Hong Kong films released in the 1980s and 1990s–known colloquially as migration melodramas–constitute an important historical archive of experiences often overlooked in more mainstream accounts in both the U.S. and in Hong Kong. Hong Kong film truly was and remains a bridge between Asia and America. Migration has and continues to change both places in ways that often remain underappreciated.
As important as Asian American history and literature have been in terms of enhancing my teaching and broadening my perspective, it is not just the works themselves, but the colleagues I have known–who have focused their scholarly energies on teaching Asian American literature in Hong Kong and Asia–who have modeled the cross-cultural encounter at its best. HKU has been a temporary home for scholars such as King-Kok Cheung, Geetanjali Singh, and Russell Leong, among others. Singh (who is now at Yale) pioneered a “Here’s Looking at you, kid” approach to American studies that broadened our curriculum to embrace postcolonial literature, as well as various Asian American authors. Her seemingly effortless juxtapositions of Abraham Lincoln with Bharati Mukherjee, or Bapsi Sidhwa, shattered student and faculty preconceptions about who/what is “American.” Not only did she challenge us to think in more global ways about Asia and America, she reminded us that far too often when teaching in East Asia our notion of Asian American studies is limited to works by Chinese, Japanese, or Korean authors. (She also foreshadowed Amy Chua’s Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother by nearly two decades by asking us to think about how various ethnic groups parent their children and about the commonalities between parents in pan-Asian familial imagined communities.) Reading student narratives alongside literary texts, she showed us that for many of our students, feminism was a malodorous Western import associated with American exceptionalism and on a continual collision course with another mode of exceptionalism, Asian values. She taught that we needed to not only pluralize our notions of feminism (after all, there are early histories of women’s rights activism in many Asian countries that predate movements in the U.S.), we needed to see how various notions of exceptionalism–American, Chinese, and diasporic Asian–were important formative influences in students lives.
Today, our HKU classrooms are filled with students from all over the world. In both my history and American studies courses it is not uncommon (as Monica Chiu notes in her post) to have exchange students from the U.S., the PRC, Europe and the UK, Australasia, and Southeast Asia sitting beside our local Hong Kong students. And the label “local” has taken on various valences as well. Students born and raised in Hong Kong constitute one cohort slightly different from those who were sent away for schooling during their formative years. The “children of the brain drain” are back in our HKU classrooms, and they often feel excluded from certain conversations and social interactions going on among both our local and our exchange students. In all cases, a broadened version of Asian American literature–that takes into account migration, transnational ties, and generational fissures–can come from either side of the Pacific.
King-Kok Cheung, who has managed to stay connected to intellectual homes at UCLA, in Hong Kong, and in Beijing, helps us to converse across borders and national preoccupations. Her writing on “Pedagogies of Resonance” comes out of her own determination to gently prod us all (students and teachers) to see where our biases are even as we think about what recuperative work we are doing through writing or teaching literary work. I quote her at length here because she has written of her own experiences teaching in Hong Kong and elsewhere in Asia. The long essay from which this excerpt is taken is a master course in cross-cultural pedagogy. She writes:
Five literary themes in particular have provoked critical self-reflections in East Asian audiences. The first is a legacy of a buried history. Scholars and activists in the United States have divulged lamentable historical chapters such as the genocide of Native Americans, slavery, and the Japanese American internment, but in some Asian countries many untold chapters of national history remain closed, to this day. The second is hate crimes. Many Asian as well as American students tend to think that racism is simply a matter of personal preference or distaste. By learning, through literature, film, or current events, about physical injuries inflicted on people of color, these students can better understand the grave import of racial prejudice, both in the United States and in their own countries. No less pernicious than hate crimes is self-hatred, the third theme; much contemporary literature reveals the psychological effect of racial subordination. The fourth theme I emphasize is that of the Asian American model minority. Although Asian Americanists have been denouncing this stereotype as a myth in the United States, many students in East Asia still preserve the characteristics associated with the model minority. The fifth theme is the stereotyping of Asian men and women in popular culture, which often sparks heated discussions among Asian audiences.1
Cheung’s notion of “articulate silences” was, and continues to be, an important reminder of the need for various forms of assessment in the classroom. Although I believe that views of Asian students as quiet, passive, or uncritical are often more a reflection of the teacher than the students themselves, it is true that many of my local students are troubled by the ways in which the more “Americanized” students will speak up–even when they do not necessarily have brilliant insights to contribute.
Finally, it is Asian American literature and history that puts flesh on the bones of the question “In what ways was/is the U.S. an empire?” Authors, scholars, and critics who are identified with Asian American literary and cultural production pay attention to the complex relationships between nation, class, ethnicity/sub-ethnicity, gender, culture, and time period. As Cheung reminds us, “in teaching American literature transnationally, we can also give it a transnational perspective.”2 We must also be willing to examine how we as individual teachers are implicated in the encounter as well. Teaching outside of one’s home culture–in a new home–offers multiple opportunities on a daily basis to think anew about that which we too often take for granted.
1 King-Kok Cheung, “Pedagogies of Resonance: Teaching African American and Asian American Literature and Culture in Asia,” in Noelle Brada-Williams and Karen Chow, eds., Crossing Oceans: Reconfiguring American Literary Studies in the Pacific Rim. Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2004, 13-14.
2 Cheung, “Pedagogies of Resonance,” 26.
Guy Beauregard teaches at National Taiwan University in Taipei. His work has appeared in Studies in Canadian Literature, Essays on Canadian Writing, Re/Collecting Early Asian America (Temple UP, 2002), Culture, Identity, Commodity (Hong Kong UP/McGill-Queen’s UP, 2005), Amerasia Journal, Canadian Literature, International Journal of Canadian Studies, and West Coast Line. He was born and educated in Canada and has lived and worked in Japan, the U.S., and Taiwan.
Monica Chiu is Professor of English and American Studies at the University of New Hampshire. She is the author of Filthy Fictions: Asian American Literature by Women and the editor of Asian Americans in New England: Culture and Community. She currently is working on a monograph about scrutiny and Asian North American fiction, or what she calls loosely defined detective fiction. Her co-edited collection on Hmong Americans is forthcoming from the University of Hawaii Press.
Hyeyurn Chung is an assistant professor of English at Sungshin University in Seoul, Korea. She was educated in the U.S., and her areas of study are Asian American literature and transnational American studies.
Dr. Staci Ford is an Honorary Associate Professor of History and American Studies at the University of Hong Kong. Her teaching and scholarly interests include U.S. cultural history, transnational American studies, Hong Kong-U.S. cross-cultural connections, and transnational feminism. She is also a co-convenor of the HKU Women’s Studies Research Centre. Her most recent book is Troubling American Women: Narratives of Gender and Nation in Hong Kong (Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2011).
Donald Goellnicht teaches Asian North American and African American literatures and critical race studies in the Department of English and Cultural Studies at McMaster University in Canada, where he is also Special Advisor to the Dean of Graduate Studies. He has published widely on Asian American and Asian Canadian literature and culture, his most recent publications being a special issue of Modern Fiction Studies (2010), co-edited with Stephen Sohn and Paul Lai, on “Theorizing Asian American Fiction” and an article in the Journal of Asian American Studies (2012) on Nam Le’s The Boat.
Fang Hong (B.A from Wuhan University, M.A from Nanjing University, and Ph.D. from the University of Hong Kong) is an associate professor of English in the School of Foreign Studies of Nanjing University in China. Her research interests are Asian American literature, African American literature, women writings in English, and ecocriticism. Her book Liminal Art in Kingston’s Writings was published by Nankai University Publish House in 2007.
Kun Jong Lee is Professor of English at Korea University, Seoul, Korea. He has published articles in African American Review, Amerasia Journal, CLA Journal, College Literature, Comparative American Studies, Early American Literature, Inter-Asia Cultural Studies, Journal of American Studies, PMLA, and positions.
Guicang Li, PhD (IUP), Professor of English, Dean of the College of Foreign Languages, Zhejiang Normal University (China), has published Red Dragons in the Land of Oz: The Literature of Chinese American Identity, The Weight of Culture: A Reading of Contemporary Chinese American Literature, and articles on Frank Chin, Faye Ng, Mei-mei Berssenbrugge, Sax Rohmer, and T. S. Eliot. Last year Li taught Ethnic American Literature at the University of Central Florida; currently Li is writing a book on Sui Sin Far (Edith Maude Eaton).
Te-hsing Shan is Distinguished Research Fellow of the Institute of European and American Studies, Academia Sinica, Taiwan. His publications include Inscriptions and Representations: Chinese American Literary and Cultural Criticism (2000), Transgressions and Innovations: Asian American Literary and Cultural Studies (2008), and In the Company of the Wise: Conversations with Asian American Writers and Critics (2009).
Donna T. Tong is an assistant professor at the English Department of Fu Jen Catholic University in Taiwan. She is Taiwanese American, raised and educated in the U.S., and specializes in Asian American literature and studies.
Chih-ming Wang is assistant research fellow at the Institute of European and American Studies, Academia Sinica, Taipei, Taiwan. His research interests include Asian American literature, transnational cultural studies, and institutional history. He has published articles in American Quarterly, Amerasia Journal, and Chinese America: History and Perspectives. He recently edited a special issue on Asian American Studies in Asia for Inter-Asia Cultural Studies, and his first book entitled Transpacific Articulations: Study Abroad and the Remaking of Asian America is forthcoming from the University of Hawai`i Press.
Emily Tingting Xu is an MA student in Literature at Zhejiang Normal University. From 2009 to 2010, she was an exchange student at Washburn University in Kansas, mainly taking literary courses and pursuing a strong interest in Ethnic American Literature.
Jianping Zhao is an associate professor in the School of Foreign Languages of Yunnan University of Nationalities, P.R. China. She is now a visiting scholar in the English Department of UCLA. Her research is focused on Southeast Asian Diasporic Literature in English.