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Winter 1995, Volume 12.1

Essay

 

Amy Ling

Whose America Is It?


Amy Ling (Ph.D., New York University) is Associate Professor of English and Director of the Asian American Studies Program at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. Her book,
Between World: Women Writers of Chinese Ancestry, was published in 1990 by Pergamon Press. She has since co-edited six books including Imagining America: Stories from the Promised Land (NY: Persea, 1991), Visions of America: Personal Narratives from the Promised Land (Persea, 1993), Reading the Literatures of Asian America (Philadelphia: Temple UP, 1993), and the Heath Anthology of American Literature.

 

It was a grey November morning, 1945, as the army troop transport U.S.S. General Stewart neared its destination, its decks crowded with American soldiers and nurses, and a handful of Chinese and Indian immigrants, mostly mothers and small children. From Calcutta, India, through the Suez Canal, the Mediterranean, across the wide, rough, gray-green Atlantic Ocean, it had been four long weeks at sea. My three-year-old brother and I stood with our mother at the rail, caught up in the excitement. We'd been scrubbed and brushed; mother had dressed him in woolen shorts, a navy blue jacket; me in a red woolen dress that she had knitted, and she tied a big plaid ribbon in my hair. Mother herself wore a red Chinese dress with a daisy trim—red the color of celebration and joy. We stared in awe as the giant green lady with the torch and book slid past us, and the jagged skyline of New York City grew larger and larger, gradually looming over us.

"These are the tallest buildings in the world," mother explained.

"Whose America is it? Theirs or ours?," my brother asked suddenly.

"Theirs," mother answered.

Tears streamed down his chubby cheeks. "Then they'll throw me into the ocean."

Mother tried to reassure him that this wouldn't happen. We had reached America; the land of the free; the country where everyone was treated equally; the land that belonged to Grandma Traub, her adopted mother, who would take care of us; the land where Daddy had been working for a year buying furniture and preparing an apartment for us. We were the fortunate few who had connections. We were able to leave a war-torn China where food was scarce, bombs were dropping, people were dying. America was the Beautiful Country; that was its name. It was the land of wealth and opportunity. No need for tears. This was a time to celebrate.

But now, with hindsight, I realize my brother was wise beyond his years, for how did President Bush greet the Haitians crossing the waters between their island and Florida in 1992? How did President Clinton receive the Chinese passengers on the Golden Enterprise trying to land in July 1993? The 9 August 1993 cover of Newsweek announced that 60% of people in the United States population believe that "immigration is bad for the country." And where do I stand on this complex issue? How can I say we must close the door to others like me longing to take part in the American Dream? How can I agree with Garrett Hardin's cold and logical "lifeboat ethics"? On the other hand, now that I'm on this side of the "golden door," wouldn't I lose if the door were open to everyone? The world has too many "tired" and "poor," innumerable "masses yearning to breathe free." We would no longer be a country of wealth, opportunity, and open spaces if everyone were to come in. But then is it morally right for a few nations to hold so much of the world's wealth? On the other hand, I must admit that I feel relieved and lucky (and guilty) to have been on the U.S.S. General Stewart in 1945 rather than the Golden Enterprise in 1993.

What is my work in Asian American literature today but an effort to make a home, a comfortable place, for myself in this still too often hostile land. The educational policy in the United States when I was growing up was totally homogenizing and assimilationist. The prevailing national self-concept was Israel Zangwill's metaphor of the large melting pot, where all the peoples of the world would be mixed together and come out WASP, celebrating Columbus Day and Thanksgiving from the Pilgrims' point of view; Memorial and Veteran's Day and the Fourth of July, waving the red, white and blue. I was not supposed to notice that in the three decades of my developing and maturing years, the United States fought three wars in Asia against people that looked like me: in the Forties against the Japanese, in the Fifties against Koreans and Communist Chinese, and in the Sixties against Vietnamese, Cambodians and Laotians. It's extremely difficult and totally confusing to feel American and to look like the enemy, to think myself at home and be asked where I come from, to be a professor of literature and complimented on my good English. As Maxine Hong Kingston has written, "I learned to make my mind large, as the universe is large, so that there is room for paradoxes." (When people compliment Maxine on good English, her response is a gentle but pointed, "Thanks. So's yours.")

As a child, though I did not take conscious note of the larger political scene and how I did or did not fit into it, I couldn't help but notice that in the land of the redwhiteandblue the redyellowandbrown were generally relegated to inferior positions. No matter how enthusiastically we waved the flag, our skin color, eye shape, hair texture and facial features did not change. Nor did our positions in the hierarchy based on skin color and race. Being "yellow" was perhaps not as bad as being "brown" or "black," but, without a doubt, it was not as good as being "white." There was some acknowledgment of the venerable age of Chinese culture and the high level of craftsmanship and attention to detail in the objets d'art that came from that part of the world, but, as I imbibed from the general atmosphere and from frequent remarks, Chinese people were so funny looking. Why didn't they open their eyes more? How could they see out of such slits? Their noses were so flat; they couldn't hold up glasses. And they did everything in such an upside down way: imagine having your last name come first, reading a book from the back to the front, writing up and down on a page instead of from side to side, having soup at the end of the meal! All these inversions could only be explained by the fact that these creatures came from the underbelly of the globe.

When I was growing up, being any color but white and from any culture but WASP meant you were of an inferior order with no right to enter certain places, like country clubs and Ivy League schools. For peoples of color to buy a house in certain neighborhoods in the 1950s was either impossible or, as happened to one Chinese American family in New York shortly before we purchased our house in Queens, was to risk being stoned. We were all taught that white was right and beautiful, and obviously, everything else was wrong and ugly. Being a good student, I believed what I was taught, even if it meant self-rejection and self-denial.

I grew up on a diet of Mother Goose nursery rhymes and European fairy tales, wishing I could be a blue-eyed princess with long blond hair. Since our first four years were spent in Allentown, Pennsylvania, and Mexico, Missouri—small towns where we were the only Chinese family—I never saw another Asian face apart from my own and those of my family. I became so self-estranged that I'd sometimes do a double-take when passing a mirror, wondering who that Chinese girl was that I caught out of the corner of my eye. I couldn't even say the word "Chinese," much less be one. The only Old World connection I held on to was Chinese food, which I continued to enjoy and to eat with chopsticks. Otherwise, I was perversely pleased to be ignorant of things Chinese and was surprised when people wished me a happy Chinese New Year. How superficial to judge a book by its cover, I thought. Just because I have Chinese facial features doesn't mean I know anything about China or Chinese customs. I'm American!

Moving from all of Andrew Lang's rainbow collection of fairy tales, and every dog and horse novel in the library, I discovered a "kindred spirit" in L. M. Montgomery's Anne of Green Gables and savored all the volumes of Anne's story, feeling great pangs of loss at coming to the end. Here was a home for me even if it was on Prince Edward Island in Canada. I enjoyed all of Louisa May Alcott's work, never noticing, as Maxine Hong Kingston has noted, how Alcott put down the Chinese. What did they have to do with me or I with them? Having a nose for English classics, or was it because my mother had been an English major?, I came upon Jane Austen at about age twelve and was electrified. Through her novels I experienced a luminous world of verbal wit and grace, of social complexities, but ultimate harmony and happy endings. I pressed Pride and Prejudice on all my friends and was puzzled when their response was less than enthusiastic. I couldn't understand why my ninth grade English teacher was impressed by my having read all of Jane Austen; what was extraordinary about that? But I was pleased, in my senior year, at age sixteen, to be informed that I had received the highest grade in my high school on the New York State Four-Year English Regents examination.

So it seemed natural that I would be an English major in college and go on to graduate school. After much soul-searching, I disregarded my father's warning that no one would ever hire a Chinese English teacher. I disobeyed his request that I train to be a kindergarten teacher because his kindergarten teacher had been the most influential person in his life. I didn't think anything of being the only Asian person in my English classes; after all, there were only a handful of us in the entire college, and so one couldn't expect to see Asian Americans in every discipline. Besides, the professors always knew my name long before everyone else's.

I was awed by the vistas opened to me through the literature I was assigned: Beowulf presented a primitive, dark, ancient world that yet could speak to me; Chaucer's Canterbury pilgrims were delightful in their vitality; and Shakespeare was a brave new world to explore and marvel at. I thought of this great body of literature as the torch of classics and culture that I, the honored and proud torch-bearer/teacher would pass on to the next generation. For the Ph.D. I wanted to enlarge my reading beyond England so I wrote a dissertation in Comparative Literature on the painter in the lives and works of William Thackeray, Emile Zola and Henry James. Poetry, literature and the artistic sensibility were for me the Olympian heights. I could think of nothing nobler to devote my life and my energies to.

Then Civil Rights and the Women's Liberation Movements struck me like a bolt of lightning, rousing me from what I now realized had been a dormant state. Why indeed had Blacks and women been denied equal status in this society? Of course, Black is beautiful and so are yellow and brown and red. I looked at the torch I was bearing and began to wonder how I fit into the picture: why wasn't one writer of color part of this torch? Was it possible, as my professors and colleagues argued, that nothing really worthwhile had ever been written by any person of color? If it had been, they argued, then, like cream, it would have risen to the top and we'd certainly all know about it. I was learning now that what had risen to the top was determined by who was doing the lifting. It made good sense. Books didn't rise like cream. Some are promoted; others are ignored. Investigating for myself, and also taking advantage of the groundbreaking work beginning to be done by other scholars, I discovered that there were powerful books written by women and peoples of color: Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man, Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God, John Okada's No-No Boy, Hanama Tasaki's Long The Imperial Way, Carlos Bulosan's America is in the Heart to name only a few. The trouble was not that no one from a racial American minority had written any good books, but that no scholar, since they were almost exclusively white and male, cared about what "those people" had written. Or perhaps, since these texts were written out of multicultural contexts, they were classified as "ethnography" or "anthropology" and not considered "literature." Maxine Hong Kingston's second book, China Men, was so classified by the Library of Congress, and Imagining America, a collection of multicultural short stories Wesley Brown and I co-edited, was reviewed in The Nation by Robert Fogarty as "social reportage" and "anthropology"; he was surprised to discover that a few of the stories "are more textured and have all the style and complexity of a 'best' story" (593).

Thus, when presented with the task of writing a book to maintain my university teaching post, I faced a fork in the road. Should I rework my dissertation, as most people did, or start a new project altogether? The world already had shelves and shelves of books, many critical "loose, baggy monsters" on Thackeray, James, and Zola. What I had to say added nothing to the hundred-year-old discussion among the experts. What was infinitely more attractive to me was the opportunity to explore a question I needed answered for myself: what have Chinese American women like me written in English and published in the United States? Like Toni Morrison, I decided to write the book I wanted to read.

I began with the only handful of writers that had been uncovered by Asian American literature anthologizers: Kai-yu Hsu, Frank Chin et. al., and David Hsin-fu Wand. By the time I finished my project, ten years later, I had collected nearly forty names, and this list was limited to women prose writers of only one Asian ancestry. As an undergraduate I had once toyed with the idea of being an archeologist, but was discouraged by my anthropology professor who asked if I really wanted to spend my life digging in the hot sun unlikely ever to uncover anything so exciting as Troy. Literary archeology, I discovered, was less exhausting and equally exhilarating, for each writer uncovered was to me a delight.

Contrary to what I had been told, there were Chinese American women writers out there, writing in English. Despite Chinese custom that left wives back in China to care for their husband's parents, despite U.S. immigration laws that tried to keep them out of this country, women writers of Chinese ancestry managed to have a history one hundred years in length. That was a remarkably long period since the Chinese men themselves had only been here for one hundred and fifty years. Each writer I uncovered affirmed me, made me less of an anomaly; each seemed a gift. Not all of them turned out to be accomplished writers by today's standards, but in some cases, such as the Eaton sisters, their life stories were as fascinating as the stories they wrote. In many ways, I found myself mirrored in Mai-mai Sze's Echo of a Cry, Chuang Hua's Crossings, and Lin Tai-yi's The Eavesdropper. Like me, these were cosmopolitan immigrants from China; like me, some were also painters who had lived in France; and all, like me, shuttled constantly—physically and psychologically—between worlds: the western world of their present and the Asian world of their past. To discover these women's writings, to research their lives, to organize this disparate and unwieldy group, to publicize and disseminate their work—here was my real home, the intellectual and psychological place exactly suited to me.

When I began this project, the reaction of my colleagues in a traditional English Department of a large Eastern state university made me feel I had stepped off the face of the earth and exiled myself far from the known, civilized world and into "terra incognita where dwelt monsters" (Westfall 359). A friend told me I was a trailblazer, but blazing a trail to a place no one else wanted to go. In the mid 1980s, in the academic winnowing process called tenure, I was told I was chaff after twelve years of being wheat (or was it rice?). One colleague tried to comfort me by telling me that our university did not need any Chinese experts because there weren't any Chinese students in the English department (Decidedly rice). I asked him how many sixteenth-century Englishmen we had. My poetry was lambasted by a professor who admitted he did not know anything about "Chinese" poetry, but he didn't think much of "this stuff." He hadn't seemed to notice that I was writing in English, nor did he find any contradiction in his confession to ignorance of the genre and his readiness to pass a negative judgment. Most candidates had five outside letters evaluating their work; for me, the chair solicited eight. All were favorable, but none were brought into the discussion. One colleague risked his own position by breaking the "confidentiality" of the tenure meeting and thus helping me prepare a grievance; still others were brave enough to step forward to testify on my behalf.

Those were the dark years when my emotional, mental, and spiritual distress took the form of physical illness. I was hospitalized and operated on for an obstructed bowel; my intestines had literally become tied in knots. I was repeatedly afflicted with bronchitis, trying to cough up all the junk in my lungs. The night before the grievance hearings began, I went to bed tremendously anxious about the next day's events. Having to face my chair and colleagues and accuse them of racial bias was a frightening prospect. Was I making a huge mistake? Would I be forever blackballed from the profession, now that I had begun to find my place? That night, I had a dream that I shall never forget.

I dreamt I was handed a sword and told to go on stage to perform with the other sword dancer. I protested that I had not rehearsed and didn't know what to do. I was given no choice, but pushed onto the stage. I had seen the Chinese sword dance performed several times, once by my own stepmother, and it was an exciting show of flashing swordplay. But to my horror, this was no choreographed display; these swords were heavy and sharp, and the other dancer was trying to decapitate me. Going into this ordeal with no training, no preparation, I would certainly lose my head, but I fought my best. Having taken fencing in college, I parried and thrust, and somehow my sword was always in the right place at the right time. After what seemed an interminable period, the music and the attack came to an end. Scarcely believing that my head was still intact, I stepped down from the platform. But no sooner had I taken my seat than they brought me the sword again and required me to return to the stage for another bout. Aghast, I remounted the steps like the condemned going to the guillotine. But once again, as if my sword had a life of its own and were wielded by some other force, I escaped unscathed.

I awoke feeling tremendously relieved and comforted. Someone had lifted a boulder from my chest and reassured me. Was it the spirit of Hua Mulan, the Woman Warrior, whom I knew through Maxine's book? Or was it the spirit of a woman warrior deep within me, a force in my own subconscious—my conviction that I had Right on my side and need not worry. I just had to be strong, to go through the ordeal without breaking down, and everything would be all right.

Needless to say, I won the grievance. But since the entire process was the university's way of policing itself, my victory consisted of another three-year contract and going through the same crucifixion, being evaluated by the same colleagues again in three years. I returned to work, a marked woman, snubbed by colleagues who glanced away uneasily or scowled when we crossed paths in the mailroom or in the halls. Even my friends seemed uncomfortable to be seen with me.

Over the years, I had compiled a thick folder of rejection letters from publishers who did "not see a place for my book in their lists," or who told me to go to the "natural audience" for such a text, presumably China or perhaps Chinatown. At a National Women's Studies Association conference, however, I met Gloria Bowles, editor of the Athene Series at Pergamon Press, who asked to see my manuscript on Chinese American women writers and was enthusiastic about having it in her list under the imprint of her Oxford-based press. And suddenly, the world took a dizzying one hundred and eighty degree turn. Since then, I've had the unusual and gratifying experience of finding myself respected and feted as a pioneer. Before giving a lecture as part of the interview process two years ago at my present university, I received the most glowing introduction I'd ever heard. I couldn't believe my ears. Was it really me that this young stranger was talking about? I can't remember any of the particulars. I only remember being totally incredulous and overwhelmed. He was not alone; others were of the same opinion. In fact, by a unanimous vote, the English Department offered me a tenured position in their department and the directorship of a new program in Asian American Studies.

I have not changed, nor has my work, but by some mysterious alchemy, the world around me is now a more hospitable place. Suddenly, it seems many people are interested in exploring the trail I've blazed. I receive letters and phone calls from these people every day: publishers want to bring more multicultural materials into their texts; compilers of encyclopedias and reference books want articles on the writers I've discovered; directors of College Race and Gender Centers invite me to their campuses to speak; graduate students from various parts of the world want me to direct their dissertations, and most gratifyingly, a Chinese scholar has recently asked permission to translate my book into Chinese. Her translation will provide me a way of going "home" again.

I am grateful for all this flattering attention, but I am also alarmed by what seems to be a rising reactionary wave of attacks against multiculturalism, against the "politically correct" attitude by those who feel that something fundamentally "American" is being threatened by admitting the voices of the redyellowand browns. "Why don't you go back where you came from?" we're hearing again. When I recently asked some teenagers playing hockey on the public tennis court to allow my children, husband, and me to play tennis there, one muttered under his breath, "I thought we'd nuked them all." The conservative intellectual response is, "ethnic studies will lead to the lowering of standards," to the "disuniting of America" and the "Balkanization of the U.S." Lynne Cheney dismissed ethnic studies as "victim studies." Pat Buchanan had a frightening amount of time and cheers at the 1992 Republican Convention.

The fears that multiculturalism is "disuniting" America and "lowering standards" are voiced by those who have not read the multicultural texts that I know and love. The advice of the muse of Sir Philip Sidney's Astrophel four hundred years ago still holds true: "Look in thy heart and write." When we follow this advice, we will, of course, be speaking about the specificities of our own lives, but at the same time, paradoxically, we will be speaking for others. Sky Lee's Disappearing Moon Cafe is ostensibly about three generations of a Chinese Canadian family, but in telling the stories of the men and women whose lives were twisted and thwarted to uphold the convention of the "purity" of a patrilineal descent, Lee speaks to and for everyone about the relationship between sacrifice, "ideals," and conventions. She makes us think more deeply about these concepts and reconsider them in the special light she has cast on them. Joy Kogawa's beautiful novel, Obasan, tells of the quest of one Japanese Canadian woman for her mother, who disappeared when the protagonist was a young child, but the narrative is more fundamentally about the exploration of two different responses to pain: speaking out and remaining silent. Which response is more effective, which indicates greater strength? There are many such texts. Students have told me at the end of the semester that the books in my Asian American Women Writers course were the best they have read in four years as English majors.

Far from being an indicator of the demise of western civilization, multicultural literature is the affirmation of the most fundamental principle of a democracy: to give all people an equal voice. Why is it considered "normal" for me, a Chinese American female, to study Chaucer, Shakespeare and Milton, but a "political act," and a subversive one at that, for me to say that we would all benefit from reading Maxine Hong Kingston and Wesley Brown? If ours is a democracy, why are certain voices dominant and others ignored? Isn't everyone's story potentially equally engaging, equally informative, equally moving? The legacy of the Civil Rights and Women's Movements is simply the recognition that no single perspective can express the "Human Condition" or take the "Universal" stance, but that we each have our own particular histories, our individual perspectives, and that all of these, different as they may be, express the "human condition" in all its complexity. Each voice is valid and valuable. And the more open we are to listening to these diverse voices, the more enriched and enlarged our own lives will be. When we all learn to respect voices different from our own, then each of us can realize that "wherever we happen to be standing, why, that spot belongs to us as much as any other spot." (Kingston 107) And, at long last, we can all be at home in this global village called Earth.

 

WORKS CITED

Brown, Wesley and Amy Ling, eds. Imagining America: Multicultural Stories from the Promised Land. New York: Persea Books, 1991.

Brown, Wesley. Darktown Strutters. New York: Cane Hill Press, 1994.

Bulosan, Carlos. America is in the Heart. 1943. Seattle: U of Washington Press, 1981.

Ellison, Ralph. Invisible Man. 1947. New York: Signet, 1952.

Fogarty, Robert. "Collectors' Items." The Nation, November 16, 1992.

Hua, Chuang. Crossings. 1968. Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1986.

Hurston, Zora Neale. Their Eyes Were Watching God. 1937. Urbana: U of Illinois Press, 1978.

Kingston, Maxine Hong. The Woman Warrior. 1976. New York: Vintage International, 1989.

Kogawa, Joy. Obasan. 1982. New York: Anchor, 1993.

Lee, Sky. Disappearing Moon Cafe. Seattle: Seal Press, 1990.

Lin, Tai-yi. The Eavesdropper. Cleveland: World, 1959.

Ling, Amy. Between Worlds: Women Writers of Chinese Ancestry. (New York: Pergamon Press, 1990; now at Teachers College Press).

Okada, John. No-No Boy. 1957. Seattle: U of Washington Press, 1979.

Sze, Mai-mai. Echo of a Cry. A Story Which Began in China. New York: Harcourt Brace, 1945.

Sidney, Sir Philip. Astrophel and Stella, 1591, 1598.

Tasaki, Hanama. Long the Imperial Way. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1950.

Westfall, Suzanne R. "Ping Chong's Terra In/Cognita: Monsters on Stage." Shirley Lim and Amy Ling, eds. Reading the Literature of Asian America. Philadelphia: Temple UP, 1992.

 

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