Plunging Ma’s Immigrant Subjectivities

Ma, Sheng-mei. Immigrant Subjectivities in Asian American and Asian Diaspora Literatures. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1998.

To locate immigrant subjectivities as distinct from Asian Americans, Ma shows that these are not only separate, but that Asian American literature typically “realign[s] their symbiotic relationship with Asian immigrants as an adversarial one” (3). In contrast to Asian Americans, Asian immigrants are subject to ESL education and become known as “‘pale imitations’ whose incomplete absorption of the language and its related skills dooms them to a life of menial jobs” (7). As writers without political identity or “roots,” Ma also investigates the “writers’ conformity to hegemony” as well as their resistance to it. In the late 1990s, Ma is breaking new ground here, and the untested territory also severely limits his scope: “A comprehensive survey of Asian Diaspora literature in the United States at this time is all but impossible due to the lack of scholarly attention in this field” (8). Yet it is also this lack of critical awareness in Asian Diasporic subjectivities that leads Asian Americans to frequently “resort to mainstream, somewhat Orientalist, perspective in depicting Asian immigrants” (8).

The story of immigrants is frequently heart-breaking mystical and easy to appropriate to their children, Asian American writers, for whom the stories of their parents’ or grandparents’ migrations to the United States both enables their entrance into a market that begs for ethnic commodification. Yet, to Ma, while these texts remain marketable, “immigrants remain largely a blank, an absence—the voiceless, plastic other waiting to be born  by their children” (11). The writers that Ma explores often resort to Orientalism to prove their own non-orientalness, or towards a cosmopolitan universal. In either scenario, “their Asian heritage is portrayed as an incidental, almost negligible appendix to their Western and cosmopolitan identity” (14). For Maxine Hong Kingston, this negligence is found in the “contemporary feminist spin” she puts on her immigrant mothers, especially Brave Orchid. Ma tracks the discourse contesting identity through Frank Chin and Kingston’s debates, which eventually culminate in Tripmaster Monkey, to show how arguments over commodified histories and gender identity often reproduce the Orientalism of the immigrant. Such orientalizations manifest through imagined linguistic parodies and garbled pidgin, where “the Chinese body and pidgin English are often taken to be the indicators of the Oriental’s alienness and at times degeneracy” (27). In order to resist being besieged by Orientalist stereotypes as well as the feminism of Amy Tan and Kingston, male Asian American writers “they Oritentalize Chinese to demonstrate their distinct Americanness” while Asian American feminists, to empower themselves, “perpetuate the estranging Chinese body and pidgin English, and prosecute the misogynist, male-oriented Asian tradition” (39). The focus on immigrant eccentricity, finally, leads to the repeated representation of the immigrant as schizophrenic, where “to label someone else schizophrenic entails the assumption of a well-integrated personality of that labeling subject, which is in itself a political act” (45). Schizophrenia then, as a trope of immigrant representation, is employed to show Americanness in the Asian American, and insanity in the Other.

To resist the dangers of “being mainstreamed” in his exposure of immigrant subjectivities, Ma proposes a method of reading texts “interdisciplinarity, against the grain of their alleged literary and cultural tradition and along with the ever-shifting social realities” (6). His inclusion of Bataille, Orientalism, film studies and psychology reflect this method. Besides the orientalism of the immigrant, Ma also named the eroticism of the white female body as a “political symbol within which lies the promise of power yearned by the ostracized” (67). White women then comes to symbolize “angelic motherhood, and the spirit of freedom and democracy.” It is perhaps too easy to pinpoint this misrepresentation on Carlos Bulosan, though the immigrant subjectivity of Phillipino migrants is not really compared to the Chinese and Taiwanese experiences Ma uses throughout the rest of the book. Ma takes his interdisciplinary technique further to Taiwanese student immigrant literature, an immediate disciplinary problem since the field of literary analysis is “dominated by English-language texts:” “A territorial protectionism lies at the heart of this genre’s being sinologized within and without modern China studies: China specialists are thus satisfied that overseas student literature is their terrain; postcolonial and Asian American experts are satisfied that it is not” (94). This tactic Ma sees as especially important for post-colonial studies, which he believes has “focused almost exclusively on Anglophone and Francophone literatures” and “suffers from cultural and linguistic self-containment” (101). By focusing on the former colonies of Britian, France and Portugal, postcolonial studies has “de facto rendered European colonial discourse the “master narrative,” totally ignoring, for instance, Japanese colonialism of Asia” (102). In this process, “post-colonial studies reaffirms rather than subverts the supremacy of European languages and Continental philosophy:

One of the pitfalls of postcolonial theory’s Eurocentric obsession is, evident from the aforementioned critics’ Marxist approach, its neglect of the urgent issue of neocolonialism or multinational capitalism, a phenomenon by no means confined to former European colonies. (102)

In Taiwanese overseas student literature, post-colonialists often excuse the biased presentations of the United States and unduly romanticized view of the home community as a means of resisting empire, while the ideological work of these novels in their own language and audience (Chinese) goes uncriticized and unquestioned (112):

Their education in the Chinese and Taiwanese mold saturates them with ethnocentricism so thoroughly that even their advanced education in American institutions and, ultimately, their naturalized American citizenship fail to decenter their ideology. In fact, the ideology based on an allegiance to “Chineseness” frequently neutralizes and absorbs alien elements in immigrant subjectivities…these writers eventually become not only products of “Ideological State Apparatuses” but re-producers of that structure…these writers create a “nation” through their “narration.” (128)

“Nativist” literature of Taiwan disrupts many of the overseas nation building of the diasporic students, albeit while erasing the aboriginies of the island, by celebrating the grotesque folk humor that, as he says, “is in danger of vanishing amidst Westernized degeneration” (133). This celebration is linked to a lament of the fate of rural workers, satirizing Chinese overseas as “fake” Americans, and problematizes the American presence on the island as always linked through sexual exploitation, military prominence or the interests of global capital expansion.

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