Things That Reassure You of Your Chinese Americanness

…Despite Feeling Most Days Like Any Other Tired Mama-Writer-Filmmaker Trying to Make Her Mark

Part in the Fourth

so, what is so especially chinese american about me? because for the most part, i think i’ve worn out identity politics. i’ve consciously tried to think of my life and who i am in terms of verbs, and not nouns. (see P i l l o w b o o k header, for example.) that person does many things: writes umpteen million grant applications, calls umpteen million people, digs for tiny scraps of information, stews in the juices of the stories i’ve been told and writes a new one that weaves all those other ones together. works with a crew to make a film. decides what’s for dinner, or better yet, where to go to eat. answers a thousand and one kid ponderings. kisses and hugs aforementioned pondering kid. (notice how there’s a criminal lack of physical fitness regime, chocolate bon bons eaten in bed, or books read/movies viewed in that list of verbs.)

in that way i’m exactly like every other parent who marvels that they used to have ENTIRE SUNDAYS to read the paper and the sale circulars and still catch two movies per weekend. there’s nothing particularly “ethnically” marked about my life in a lot of ways. so i wondered, what happened to that chinese/asian american identity that at one time of my life seemed to define my outlook?

i was prompted to do this exercise by a post on Anti-Racist Parent a while back. and of course, parenthood itself is a daily test of what you value and what you want your child to believe about the world.

so looking at the first-draft, unfiltered, off-the-cuff list of things that reassure me i’m not post-racial…first of all, what’s so reassuring about it?

there’s a lot on those lists about

  • what is clean
  • what is civilized
  • how people should relate to one another
  • what’s assumed that a person’s life will be at major life points: birth, education, partnership/marriage, childbearing/rearing, aging, death

much on those lists are silly and a generalization, a good deal on those lists i’m horrified by even as i write it or i know there are many who believe it apart from what i think and believe, and some on those lists are things i definitely cop to. (eat veined shrimp? eeeeewwwwwwww.)

why would it induce unease to be post-racial or a-racial? why the need for reassurance of a moth-eaten, flawed, useless-or-worse in parts identity?

well, here’s the secret thought process that a lot of immigrants/children of immigrants harbor, i suspect. (and it forms the core of much immigrant conservatism, i.e., fear of the unusual/non-standard/new.) when we see the pinwheeled-eyed, robotic lost children of sci***tology, for example, gathered in mindless swarms outside the scary hubbard-hives on franklin ave or the hubbard-hives near the hospitals in the lower part of los feliz (preying on the emotionally devastated, no doubt), ALL DRESSED THE SAME, and whose members seem to be 99.99% white, well. this child of immigrants thinks, “pitiful. scary. these people are so bereft of family and friends they had to go find creepy new ones.” we think, “there’s something about the deadened soullessness in these people’s faces that they gave up all ties to who they once were.” they obliterated their pasts and instead exist in an unending cheerless state of now, and they pay for the privilege of doing it.

if that’s not the blind end of american rootlessness/individuality come to its (paradoxically) borg-like conclusion, i’m not sure what is. of course the world’s most ethnocentric people, the chinese, would conclude that gwai lo culture is simultaneously source and problem. now, i know for sure that’s what my parents would think, and given that starting point, it’s one short leap from “those lost sc***tologists” to “those lost dirty-barefoot hippies/burning man attendees/kids who beg for spare change/drug addicts/homeless people etc.” you see how that leads to red-state republican trouble. (how is homelessness or drug addiction solely limited to white/mainstream american culture? and so on.)

so the secret is, even though immigrants might have to choke down the random bolt-from-blue racist comment (karate chops and “hiiii-ya!” noises from kids while at k-mart, anyone?) or more homoepathic doses of the same toxin at work (no raise/promotion but “great worker, is sooooo articulate and good at following directions!”) or worse, nevertheless—even the humblest garment factory worker, the most modestly-paid cab driver or take-out food deliverer goes home to his or her tight-knit little family (such as it is) and says a silent prayer of thanks that they are not so spiritually bleached of color and life that they now live like the dead-eyed gwai lo.

i’ve seen countless examples of this gathering up of the tatters of ‘culture,’ however a person defines that against mainstream american culture, around them like a protective cloak. i wouldn’t be surprised if this pattern were repeated among immigrants of all stripes and with every encounter the immigrant generation who comes as an adult has with what they see of america. it’s like the little nugget of truth amy tan captured in JOY LUCK CLUB: “american opportunities with chinese values.” if only we chinese americans would avail ourselves of the economic opportunity and material well-being, BUT maintain adherence to “traditional chinese values.” because while it’s fucking amazing to get a coach bag for 60% off at the designer discount outlet, if your kid turns out to be one of those dirty-footed shiftless hippies on telegraph avenue, you have failed. your entire reason for leaving the old country has been negated.

american opportunities with chinese values: if only the world broke in half so cleanly.

so chinese culture’s importance is as a critique of mainstream american culture, which tells a story about individuation, modernity, and freedom. chinese culture offers a lived method, complete, by way of contrast—a story about sociality, ethnically-meaningful modernity, and connection. as i see it, the ongoing collision of these stories, or discourses (in a Foucauldian sense) of self and society, comprises chinese americanness.

let me tell you a labor day story by way of illustration.

we took the Unreliable Narrator to the beach to play in the sand. there was strong sun at the beach, of course. while there i saw something that was so indicative of how i understand chinese culture to work: a young asian/chinese? mother walked past carrying her 5-month old baby and was accompanied by her elderly mother and father. the adults had the typical body-canted forward, plowing-into-a-headwind gait of people walking ankle-deep in sand. the young woman’s father wore shoes and socks and shuffled forth as best he could. at the end of her extended arms, the young woman’s mother held out a floppy-brimmed hat that was perhaps intended to shade the infant or maybe her daughter’s face—i wasn’t sure which, as the hat did neither. (it had to have been the daughter’s mother, the mother-in-law would’ve just directly shielded the child.) but they all slowly inched forward, dad with his socks filling up with sand, young mama hugging her lovely sack-of-potatoes infant to her, her mother valiantly forging onward in her aerosoles with a strong desire/wish to protect (and heartbreakingly low efficacy in those aims)—everyone maintaining a steady motorcade speed in close formation ’til they got to their blanket.

chinese culture is the grandmother with the hat: should anyone get terribly sunburned, grandma would gladly flay herself alive if it were possible, and trade skins with the sunburned one. she would no more abandon the hat or put it on her own head than throw the baby into the ocean. nope, not gonna happen. because you at least get cred points for effort. chinese culture is all about observance to forms and correct execution of process. (almost to a fault: the result can be a giant clusterfuck but if the forms were observed and a great deal of effort expended, then the resulting clusterfuck is often mitigated if not outright excused.)

traditional chinese culture IS the hat. it’s imbued with mostly symbolic meaning & purpose, yet stops short of actually being useful depending on its application—nine times out of ten, it’s wielded ineptly and pretty much inadequate to the job of giving any one of four people the protection they need from the sun.

as i said earlier, though, lately i dwell in verbs, not asbtract nouns. and i’m not content to let chinese language to represent the sum total of chinese culture, though it’s an undeniably large part. when i think about chinese american culture, i think of gestural moments that you understand and live in the marrows of your bones…an almost pre-verbal, extremely concrete understanding of who, what, how, and why.

i guess the test for the Unreliable Narrator’s grasp of chinese american culture would be to see if he understood why the po-po (daughter’s mother) was holding up the hat even though nobody was getting shade.

i couldn’t ask him if he saw what i saw, felt what i felt, though. he was off splashing in the waves.

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