Saturday, April 9, 2016

The Poem

Not long ago I said, "Instead of writing about race I'm going to work on my novel," because that's what white people do while the rest of us defend ourselves from yet another racist event, so I'm really annoyed that I felt compelled to write about race, again.

The reason I am writing this post is because my friend, Elisa Gabbert, wrote: "I feel like racism against Asian Americans is "the other racism" and not taken very seriously." She also very generously included me in a list of writers whose voices she appreciates on this issue.

I am mixed race-- Irish and Taiwanese American to be exact. I used to identify as Asian American but I don't do that anymore because I am not mono-racial. I do have an affinity for my Asian-ness, however, so I identify as a mixed Asian American. I believe your racial affinity lies on a spectrum depending on your interests and your environment. I once spoke Mandarin and Taiwanese, but my sister didn't. I was a Chinese Studies/English Literature double major, while my sister studied film and took Latino Studies classes. Her racial affinity probably lies somewhere else on the spectrum and there's nothing wrong with that.

Because I don't know what it's like to be mono-racial I try to question myself when I am not offended by something Asian Americans are offended by. Maybe in those instances my whiteness protects me.

Calvin Trillin wrote a poem about Chinese food. I've read his other writing with some pleasure, but so what? We're talking about this particular piece of writing, so it doesn't matter if he wrote well before. He didn't this time, and that's what we're taking into account. I believe he's capable of writing something good again. I don't promise to read it, or to enjoy it, but I'm pretty busy. Nothing personal, Mr. Trillin!

My main take on it wasn't offense per se, but world weary head shaking at his corniness. It's like when a white grandpa with mixed Asian grandchildren said to me, "Mixed race Asians are beautiful--like you." I said,"Eh, I've seen ugly ones."

I'd wanted to say that for a long time because I've had people say stuff like that to me my whole life and I want people to see how absurd that way of thinking is. No one chooses who their parents are, so don't place a value judgment on my ethnic makeup; placing a positive value judgement on my ethnic makeup implies there is a wrong combination of ethnicities to be. That kind of "compliment" is one of those supposedly good things that doesn't feel good.

This morning as I curled my hair I looked at myself in the mirror and laughed, remembering an earlier racist event involving poet, Sarah Howe. She is part Chinese, like I am, and apparently some men in England were upset that she won a prestigious poetry prize. This prompted an article in the Guardian titled

TS Eliot prize row: is winner too young, beautiful - and Chinese?

As I looked at myself I remembered the headline and how absurd it was. Do they know how ridiculous they are? How racist? I smiled at myself and wanted to be TOO BEAUTIFUL/TOO CHINESE out of spite. I wished I were more beautiful, and more Chinese. I wanted to be so Chinese and SO BEAUTIFUL I killed anyone who objected to Chinese-ness and Beauty by just looking at them.

I didn't think Trillin's poem was the worst example of racist writing, but I understand why people were upset because the New Yorker supposedly has high standards for publication. How did this make the cut?  I find David Sedaris's essay about a trip to China to be much uglier in its racism. He doesn't even like Chinese food! At least Trilling LOVES Chinese food. Sedaris does this thing where he pits two Asian countries against one another. Japan is clean and civilized while China is dirty and uncivilized. The white man gets to decide!

But let's talk about satire, or self parody. I believe Trillin believes he was parodying his class of bourgeois food-obsessed aesthetes, but those little cuts he made at his own expense don't cut as deep as the daily cuts Asian Americans feel from experienced racism. Asian Americans are always made to feel foreign no matter how deep their American roots are. You can't talk about Chinese immigration today without thinking about The Chinese Exclusion Act. This country was so afraid of Chinese people they enacted legislation to EXCLUDE them. Don't tell us we're being too sensitive when we object to satiric suggestion that there are too many Chinese provinces. We remember how Americans felt about us (and some still do). If you want to talk about Chinese food, let me tell you about my student who goes to school and then works late at her parent's Chinese take out restaurant because they need the money. How about my other student who dropped out of school to work at a Chinese restaurant because her mother became too ill to work. Their lives are tough, and then they have to be the punchline to a white man's attempt at satire? Trillin's satire will never cut him that deeply.

Those who benefit from defending old white men, and whiteness in general, tell us to lighten up, to give racist writing the benefit of the doubt. But they don't give our offense the benefit of the doubt. And if we don't lighten up they say we're angry (always seen as a negative trait) and they call our criticism "attacks".  They belittle the platforms of our criticism. Dismissing our criticism as Twitter storms, or FB rants, or whatever else they deem is an illegitimate forum for airing our grievances. And if we take to the pages of the New York Times to give our side of the story, then they lament that the PC Police are worse than racism or sexism. They see criticism as a loss of their freedom of speech, instead of what it really is: being called to account for your writing and beliefs. Freedom of speech doesn't mean freedom from criticism.

So, even though my initial reaction was to roll my eyes at how CORNY it was, I'm happy other people are pissed, and I support them. We're in an uncomfortable moment on lots of fronts--gender, sexuality, race, class--but that's a good thing. It makes me think things are changing.

I recently told my mother, "Every time I eat a dumpling I'm proud to be part Chinese." (See--I am not above corniness.) She said, "Do you ever wish you were completely white?" I felt so sad when she asked me that. "Never," I said. And it's true. I've never wished I wasn't part Chinese. That would be like wishing I didn't have a mother.

No comments:

Post a Comment