Viet Nguyen’s Race and Resistance

Nguyen, Viet Thanh. Race & Resistance: Literature & Politics in Asian America. Oxford [England]: Oxford University Press, 2002.

Asian American Representation is in crisis! To Nguyen, in an ideological battle for hegemony, the Asian American intellectuals are continually misrepresenting As-Ams, creating a politics of exclusion under the guise of a homogenous ideological structure. Nguyen sees an ever rising danger in the way As-Am books are canonized and taught, consistently favoring the “bad subjects” and ignoring any “model minorities” who may see coming to the United States as an actual beneficial experience. He believes that Asian America is “obfuscating differences of power within Asian America…that ensue from an ideological belief that Asian American is only a place of ethnic consensus and resistance to an inherently exploitative or destructive capitalism” (11). Asian American critics then must turn their ideological lenses on themselves, and “engage in a self-critique that results in an understanding of Asian America’s limits” (11).

Nguyen’s main attack is on the discourse of the “bad subject,” which in As-Am, is always presented as a binary opposition to the “model minority.” The discourse of the bad subject ignores the Asian Ams who find themselves “adequate in pursuing the short-term goals of middle-class based project of nationalist assimilation” (24). The Bad Subject becomes a false, idealized vision of radical change, onto a society that most migrants do not feel it necessary to resist. His first example of these conflicting discourses is the first Asian American writers, Edith and Winnifred Eaton, one of which has been canonized and held to ideal heights within the Asian Am community for embracing her Chinese heritage and never becoming assimilated (Edith), while the other sister, Winnifred, assimilated quickly, claimed to be Japanese rather than Chinese, and favored capitalism. Though Winnifred was the first As-Am novelist, she is rarely recognized as such, and her books are viewed as conventional flattery toward the United States. But why shouldn’t she? Having moved from China in the late 19th century, isn’t it possible that she actually did not wish to be a “resistor?” Or must we blame US censorship?

Nguyen’s concept of “panethnic entrepreneuriship” is a term he uses for Asian Americans who favor capitalism, and in fact attempt embody the American dream, but who are also ignored because they are not interested in becoming “sites of resistance.” But even in “panethnic entreprenership,” resistance is performed through Homi Bhabha’s “mimicry.” Mimics like Winnifred Eaton create instability, as one who “subverts the gaze of authority that observes her lack by returning that gaze” (53). The American “capitalist” then witnessing the Japanese entrepreneurs as their own self-identity rather than simple mimicry, displaces the ideas of origin and authenticity. It is similar with the Model Minority, who assimilates so quickly and so well that they can no longer be viewed as “unassimilated Asians,” destabilizing once again what it means to be an “American.”

Carlos Busolan and John Okada are interpreted by the As-Am intellectuals as writers of resistance, but Nguyen discovers how they blurred the line between these false binaries of “Bad Subject” and “Model Minority”. In Busolan’s case, the tortuous experience of migrancy resulted in his needing to become a model minority, yet Nguyen discovers the objects of desire in Busolan to be “American” values–the continual desire for “innocent” caucasion women, and the desire for freedom. So too does Okada’s No-No Boy exemplify the model minority, for while Ichiro is a “Bad Subject,” his best friend who went to war and lost a leg has the far preferred life, and Ichiro goes through the novel wishing to become more like his best friend, and when he isn’t pondering that, he’s incorrigibly materialistic. Interesting that in these novels, capital goods, freedom and “model minority” become the main “goals” for the characters, and yet these aspects of Busolan and Okada are continually ignored in favor of “resistant readings” such as Michael Denning, who reads “America is in the Heart” as “an expression of the Communist Party’s Popular Front Rhetoric,” a statement which Nguyen attacks, since Busolan didn’t really discover communism until after the book was written, and in fact, “Busolan compromises with American pluralism in the conclusion, exercising a standard rhetorical trope of a feminized America” (70). America becomes the “mother” to these writers, rather than the “totalitarian father”.

Nguyen calls for a new hermeneutical method that does not see As-Am in the binaries of “Bad Subjects” and “Model Minorities,” since these are not only false representations, but that the “Bad Subjects” hold a hegemony over the racial formation of As Am intellectuals. By continuing these binaries, intellectuals ignore the fact that “Asian Americans can frequently occupy both situations simultaneously or, at the very least, alternate between them, as realized most graphically in the role of the panethnic entrepreneur” (144-5). The Entrepreneur utilizes their race in order to realize the American dream, and is able not only to switch from “resistor” to “assimilator,” but is able to resist and destablize the American nationalist order by being assimilated into it (mimicry).

Finally, Nguyen discovers what may very well be the end of Asian America. While Lisa Lowe acknowledged the Asian Am’s heterogeneity in experience, race, ethnicity and “body politic,” what must now be recognized is the numerous ideologies within Asian Americans, and that no single ideology (such as the bad subject) can come close to creating a unity in the present era, which is more or less absent of “common suffering”. What As Am intellectuals promise actually “run counter to the ideological beliefs of many Asian Americans,” especially in the view of many post-1965 Korean, Chinese and Japanese embrace of global capital, and the intellectual’s vilification of it (168). By continuing As Am studies in this way, intellectuals are interpellating As Ams to act in certain ways, to live by their ideological beliefs and to see themselves only in terms of their race. To Nguyen, the Asian American Racial Project is, in the heterogeneity of As Ams ideologies, an actual essentialist project, since it construes racial difference of the ideas of race alone: “the discourse of the bad subject is predicated upon the insistence of a fundamental racial difference from whites” (169). In other words, it is not ideology or experience that should unify Asian Americans, but only their racial differences from whites. Nguyen finds this the most insidious element of the Asian American racial project that must be abandoned.

Nguyen’s acknowledgment of ideological differences leaves much to be said about the future of Asian American studies. To Nguyen, it must first abandon this false binary of “Bad Subjects” and “Model Minorities,” but taking into account that a type of “full assimilation” is possible and in fact already underway. Nguyen uses the examples of the Irish, who in the late 19th century were surely not white, and in polls were always described as a different race entirely, but because of their assimilation and history, they are now under the banner of “whiteness.” The same example he uses for the Jews and Italians, who like Asian Americans, were exploited and abused in the first century that they arrived in the United States. By “discovering” the limits of Asian American studies, Nguyen doesn’t seek to end it, but to parse out its ideological beliefs to reflect the heterogeneity of the Asian American ideologies, rather than combining every Asian American experience into a rubric that always demands “the bad Subject.”

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