Of Anger and Ambivalence

Most of the time I am angry. Pissed off about small things: stockings marked “nude” that are four shades too pale for my legs; strangers who congratulate me on my excellent command of the English language, never assuming I could be a native speaker. Pissed off about big things: that my beautiful half-Korean daughter gets called a “Chinese alien” by playground bullies; that Asian Americans are not running major American publishing companies and paying lip service to multiculturalism by taking on one or two White writers a year.

Anger fuels my work and drives me wildly through an imperfect life. It is, strangely, empowering, though it is grounded in impotence. It is valuable to me because without it I would be merely depressed. What am I angry about? What aren’t I angry about? But then I am ambivalent. Did I mention my ambivalence? When anger and ambivalence get together, you get the kind of psyche that stalls and starts like an old car, backfiring and stuttering, stuck in reverse, unable to locate neutral.

I am angry that no one would ever ask John Updike if there is an “authentic” White sensibility. Who would think to lump Rabbit, Run with John Gardner’s Grendel or John Irving’s The World According to Garp? Why is it that when you belong to the mainstream, to the “ground zero” of American experience, you are afforded your individuality—while ethnic writers are somehow pigeonholed, marginalized, lumped in all together, as though we weren’t all also as individual and varied in our experience with the world as to be—each one of us—separate beings?

But then I feel conflicted. Asian American writers do share similar territory. Sort of like writers from Baltimore. Certain landmarks will be recognizable, the streets might feel familiar. Presupposing that Asian American writers are writing about being Asian American, which they are wont to do, it stands to reason that they will be dealing with some of the same issues—issues of growing up in two cultures, of racism and self-hatred, of uneasiness and assimilation. Isn’t it only fair to see them as a natural group?

Yes and no. I think of the stunning musculature of Maxine Hong Kingston’s prose, the humor of Frank Chin, the storytelling of Amy Tan, and I find more there that is different, that is defining, than there is to compare. The fact that they are all Asian Americans and write from their own experiences as such is a “duh,” a given. What they do with it—and isn’t this true of all writers?—is everything.

When it comes to literature, I am pretty much blind to gender or ethnicity. I loved Woolf, Twain, Flaubert, and Dostoyevsky long before I discovered Louise Erdrich, James Baldwin, and Maxine Hong Kingston, and now I love them all. I admire Amy Tan but don’t like her prose; I was disappointed with Fae Myenne Ng’s Bone (1993) and Gish Jen’s Typical American (1991). I liked David Wong Louie’s Pangs of Love (1992) and Gus Lee’s China Boy (1991) . My favorite novel is, embarrassingly enough, The Great Gatsby. What can one possibly make of that? Except that I want open possibilities, free rein—to read what I like, to write what I like. I do not like the expectations put on me as an Asian American writer.  I want to feel free to write about Whites, Blacks, Jews, Icelanders.  Would anyone publish a book by Amy Tan that had no Chinese characters?  Is our only authority in our skin color, our ethnic origin?  If that is true, then we have a long way to go, indeed.

I even get angry about the label “Asian American.”  It’s absurd that the mainstream publishing world, priding themselves on “discovering” ethnic writing, thinks of us as a monolithic product to be peddled like an exotic novelty, some new cultural knickknack for a curious White audience.  I am Korean American.  Being Korean American is a little like being the fourth daughter in a traditional Asian family.  No one cares at that point. You’re sort of in the shadows, a smaller, lightly faded copy of an original design. “Oh, you’re Korean,” people say, usually disappointed that they cannot then share with me their passion for ikebana, their recent photographs of a trip to Beijing. “Do they speak Chinese over there? Wasn’t there a war?” At least people have heard of China and Japan! I look at the Chinese in this country with envy and wonder: they are visible, a power block, with huge communities and a largely intact culture. I look at the Japanese Americans and have to overcome prejudice instilled in me by stories I grew up listening to, told by my parents and other relatives, of the brutal colonization of Korea and other Asian countries. We are not a unified front. Why should we be? Who would link German, Irish, and French American writers? Because we share a race does not mean we share a sensibility.

Which isn’t to say Asian American writers should all have to fend for themselves in their separate soups. (See what I mean about ambivalence?) I am not grateful to be the “flavor of the month,” to have such a fuss made about multicultural literature and the result be a recommended daily allowance of diversity; or, Amy Tan and Oscar Hijuelos eked out of the mainstream presses like commemorative coins. But if it is true that the demographics are really changing, that multiculturalism is not a fad but the economic and political reality of the future, then I am sincerely glad to be alive and writing now, in among all the other voices that have not been listened to before, that were not heard. As resistant as I am to being pigeonholed, I am genuinely interested in what other Asian American artists are doing, what they make of their experience, how they have dealt with certain common issues.

I am uncomfortable, however, with insuIating ourselves inside cozy Asian American Studies programs and small specialty presses, taking all our marbles and going home, forming our own cliques, our own “old-boy networks.” Having been forced to assimilate into a predominantly White culture (growing up in suburban WASP neighborhoods in Virginia and upstate New York), I am uneasy in a majority. Hell, I’m uneasy in Korea, where my looks fit just right, but my whole cultural orientation, my ineptness with the language and general intolerance for traditional sexist and racist notions, keep getting me into trouble. My Americanness makes me a minority among my own tribe.

My brother, who is young and given to sweeping statements of utter certainty, accused me once of being co-opted by White society—by which he meant that I married a White man; that I live in New Hampshire, where ethnic diversity is as unthinkable as a snowless winter; that I simply expect to be the only non-White face in any given room or gathering; that in my surface life I dwell in a kind of Norman Rockwell ether. When I was a child, I wanted to be blond; as a young woman, I married one. And I see the self-hatred in that, the rejection of my own identity. But what did you expect, raised as I was on peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and The Brady Bunch, on Barbie dolls and Dick and Jane, tartan skirts with oversized safety pins, Shirley Temple and Marilyn Monroe?

My earliest embrace of the only culture I inhabited was all-encompassing; I invented fantasies for myself about literally shedding my own skin. Later, I grew to hate myself for all that fawning self-hatred, piling shame on top of shame, atoning by going to Asian student gatherings and playing with my food as others chattered happily in their native languages. But I was still attracted to sandy-haired boys in button-down oxfords and docksiders, boys who I met in abundance at Amherst College, who drove VW bugs and had summer houses on Nantucket.  After a while, I simply grew tired of chastising myself for the incongruities, the unease. The contradictions were who I was; they were my identity, my true heritage.

And this is the bottom line. I belong to neither place. I am not completely comfortable in the society I grew up in, nor the one with which I am linked by race and ancestry. I feel uneasy always, apart. And that is, perhaps, the defining characteristic of every writer’s consciousness—that feeling of being the outsider, the observer, the one for whom the world is watchable. This is the source, perhaps, of my feeling of constant conflict, of being able to see both sides.

I write, as most of us do, from the presumption of individuality, of unique vision. Being Asian American, like being Catholic or being a survivor of Auschwitz, is a circumstance, something someone happens to be. For an artist, it is a point of departure, not a destination, not the summing up. How we react to the accidents of our births and lives is the subject of our work. That is universal.

Anger and ambivalence are a hell of a combination. My husband says I get most angry about the things I cannot change—and he is right. My anger is the impotent rage of the small and powerless, and my ambivalence is a straddler’s stance, the constant self-questioning position of the hybrid.

Anger may drive me to write, give me subject matter, infuse me with purpose, but the act of writing moves me beyond anger, to a place where literature lives and breathes— a place that is truly color blind, meritocratic. There is no affirmative action here, no quotas or white-hooded gatekeepers. It is a place apart from the publishing world, unfortunately. But it exists. It is a place to grapple with what one makes of oneself and the universe, honorably and without restraint, where words are the only enemy and boon; where the only thing that can defeat you is the limits of your own vision, and the fact that it is not possible to say what is most deeply felt.