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.”

David Li’s Imagining the Nation

Li, David Leiwei. Imagining the Nation: Asian American Literature and Cultural Consent. Asian America. Stanford, Calif: Stanford University Press, 1998.

Li investigates the relation between As-Am exclusion and national formation, taking Asian American Literature as a site of cultural contestation and a means to subvert the dominant national narrative. So far, so conventional. But then Li moves from the heterogeneity of As-Ams to As-Am as abject and as object, and how As-Americans frequently moved through these roles in the object/abject dyad.

I see a great deal of this book as a precursor to Nguyen’s Race and Resistance, and Li’s ideas seem to be well placed as a transition between Lowe and Nguyen, where “Asian American formation is a problem in citizenship, which must be resolved through radical divorce of racial inheritance and national competence” (36).

“the object” as model minority and alienated subject seemed to dominate As-Am studies until Frank Chin’s insistence of As-Am as the “abject”, and in this sense, Chin’s project actually helps national formation by providing an “abjected object” to the nationalist narrative, and putting the abject into an anthology that accepts certain presuppositions dominant in the current racial formation–use of the English Language, for example.

In this sense, “Fifth Chinese Daughter” has been devalued for its eagerness to please “whiteness”, though Chin on the other hand is also addressing “whites” in his angry diatribes, and in a multiculturalist agenda, “pleases them”. So too does Kingston’s “Woman Warrior” help to reveal China’s status as an ancient, fantastic “blueprint” always abjected to the US national narrative.

The best part of this book is Li’s interpretation of my favorite As-Am novel, Kingston’s “Tripmaster Monkey”, as a novel that redefines the styles of national narrative–a heteroglossic, furious and dazzling legerdemain. This narrative creates a “sense” of ethnic battlegrounds and contestations, emphasizes itself as a work of individual lived experience that does not claim the burden of full representation of arbitrary pigeonholes (like As-Am) but has those burdens forced upon the text by critics like Chin. Kingston channels the burden of collectivity and shoves it aside as an unnecessary preoccupation with ethnic cultural identity.

Li goes through Jasmine (insists on its status as romance) and insists that the discourse of racial solidarity is actually intrinsic racism for it does not contemplate using race as a basis for inflicting harm (Appiah), noting that to bell hooks, “it is always the non-white who is guilty of essentialism” (121).

M. Butterfly (my favorite contemporary play!) makes an appearance as a confrontation with both Chinese emasculation and the legerdemain of “tripmaster”, when the butterfly turns out to be male, “sexploiting” the French “Pinkerton”.

The second half of Li’s text is similar to Kingston’s ending to Tripmaster Monkey, a diatribe against ethnic cultural politics:

Identity politics: these individuals seek their own gain and therefore do not represent the community, and their cultural claim is more or less arbitrary.

“Ambiguity of agent”: illusion of freedom on one hand, and acting for the agent of someone else on the other. Agency as mutually constitutive of author and audience, or representation disappears.

Representation: depends on full participation in nation-state, and demands an intensity of needs for help–must be active, otherwise “they” cannot be represented.

As-Am: Era of Nationalism, feminism, and the current era of heteroglossia, which is flawed for the same reasons that Nguyen extrapolates: the rising middle-class of AsAm is constantly ignored and becomes vilified, while As-Am as academic prospect is self-legitimizing, employing race as an arbitrary form of empowering collective. Empowering against what?–against the interests of other As-Ams. (I know, I keep using the hyphen…)

Li now attempts to understand an oncoming era of As-Am studies as focusing on:

Neoracism: (Balibar) not biological hereditary by insurmountably of cultural differences, exposing “tolerance thresholds” that demands minorities keep within their respective cultural boundaries.

Neoconservatism (Omi and Winan): Race as individual problem and choice, not collective, as it destroys collectivity and erases history.

Boutique Multiculturalism (Stanley Fish): The sacrifice of needs for white interest in consumer ethnicities,–also “consumer multiculturalism”.

While Post-Structural As-Am insisted on difference, it was a difference within certain interests and determinate goals. Rather, Li advocates a different type of multiculturalism that necessitates “real difference”.

Azuma’s Between Two Empires

Azuma, Eiichiro. Between Two Empires: Race, History, and Transnationalism in Japanese America. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005.

Japanese immigrants (issei) were able to spin the meanings of their own racial “otherness” in order to place themselves in an “inter-National” sphere, wavering between allegiances with Japan and America and rarely becoming too invested in either to become true-believers in either ideology.

At first the issei were “sent” by the Japanese as “emigrants/colonizers”, as representative of the Japanese interests overseas and therefore rarely thought of America as home. Yet their movement over time became more heterogeneous and individualist, considering Japan as a moral paradigm.

Then came their status as “minority”, and though they were at the top of the racial hierachy in America (after everything white, of course), they sought extreme means to distinct themselves from Chinese and Filipinos, publishing textbooks on how to act “100 percent American.”

This period didn’t last long until “scientists” placed Japanese in the same racial group as all Asians, casting them as “mongrels”. The “Japanese” side of the issei kicked in as a response to such prejudice, and they began to see themselves as racial pioneers, as a type of chosen people who were meant to suffer in America for the good of the empire. With exclusion acts and the racial violence of the great depression, this perspective only grew among the issei, a narrative with its own myths (Miss Okei) and telos.

The unwelcome in America grew worse first with the violence of the Nisei (2nd generation). It was feared that Nesei females would be married off to Filipino men, and race wars began between Japs and Filipinos, creating an even further need for Japanese essentialism to contrast themselves with the Fillipinos.

Azuma presents the issei as a migrant peoples that occupy the “interstices” between two identity types, and in trickster fashion, they were always prepared to guise themselves as something else in order to get the things they needed, and by this firm obsession with appearance, were able to appear as model minorities though they were really imperial (or vice versa). Until WWII the issei maintained their status at the top of the Asian hierarchy in America due to such adroit thinking (plus they were all middle-class).

Kingston’s Tripmaster Monkey

Kingston, Maxine Hong. Tripmaster Monkey: His Fake Book. New York: Knopf, 1989.

A Chinese American hippie living in the San Francisco Howl trials. Well, belatedly.
Kingston is one of my favorite writers, her narrative style and adroit asides are masterful. She’s also an elementary school teacher in Hawaii. Like all her books, this one is an exceptionary contribution to American Literature. Honest, and doesn’t give a fuck about fiction conventions, except that her novels expose the lived experience of a minority.
The protag, named after Walt Whitman, is a poet/playwrite with great ambition, but also as bohemian as hell. He’s overly sensitive to being termed a “Chinese-American”, like when his favorite author asks him where a good Chinese restaurant is. He lives a fanciful life, blessed with a “second vision,” he’s a true “Tripmaster Monkey”, marrying a Caucasian girl and then wondering where this Chinese girl is the next day, overtly calling her his “second love,” though he thinks he loves her. The story is insane, each episode is sometimes devoted to five minutes, sometimes to three months, and there are constant narrative interruptions by Kingston herself, commenting on her character’s idiosyncrasies. Finally the story ends with a diatribe about the way Asian Americans are treated as exotic representations of their race, of which they are always alienated from anyway.