I think that those African-Americans who like to assume that I have white privileges, or the upper hand of lighter skin pigmentation, aren’t aware that some whites, especially in the academic arena I work in, view me as a fierce source of competition, fearing I’ll match the stereotypical Asian prodigy, or be the diligent hardworking immigrant. One white male writer once complained to me in a jealous tone, “I wish I had a cultural background like yours to draw upon!”
While I do consider myself hardworking, which stems from my family’s original blue collar Toisanese farming roots in China, my determination stems more from a desire to live the most involved writing and teaching life possible, for the sake of wanting to fully explore the life of the mind. So for me, being Asian in the New South means occupying a unique space, a territory of my own, neither black nor white …. And although some African-Americans believe I have advantages because my complexion is lighter, or supposedly more acceptable, and might also view me as a competitor vying for limited claims to minority status, they have not walked far enough in my shoes, and would certainly be surprised to know how much we have in common, as different as we are.
It’s easy for those of us in White America to see Asians as the “model minority,” and more or less forget about them when we have those Twitter fights about racism. Then a pandemic comes along and shows you what was just under the surface all along.
That has little to do with why I chose to read this book, however. Back at the end of January, I read a piece by Gee recalling his mentor James Alan McPherson in Pushcart 2020. I put both this book, and a volume of short stories by McPherson, on my list. As it happens, current events added to my interest.
As an English professor, a former basketball player, and skilled fisherman, Gee bucks a lot of stereotypes about Chinese American men. As his essays point out, he often has to deal with them anyway. He covers a wide spectrum from the very personal – family and dating – to the societal, to the universal experience of aging.
The first essay, “Profile,” is a harrowing account of an encounter with a Kansas State Trooper as he was traveling from his then-home in Houston to the midwest to Albany to see his parents. That’s followed by a more reflective look at the past in “Is It Safe There?”, which takes its title from a friend’s question about going to Chinatown. Gee, as it happens, spent his early childhood in New York’s Chinatown, where his family owned restaurants. He writes with fondness of his memories, and with sadness about how so much of the flavor is being lost to gentrification:
These days, I fondly recall accompanying my grandfather on his self-appointed rounds, but as more and more of the Chinatown I knew vanishes, I have the sense that more of my own history is disappearing, and so part of myself seems to be winnowing away , like I am slowly being erased. I’m left feeling less and less connected to where I once felt the most culturally anchored and secure and alive.
We are constantly told that change is inevitable in life, but what happens when we have almost nothing left to return to?
We then shift to a peculiar date he had with a woman I would describe as an Asiaphile/stalker. It’s almost comical; it’d make a great scene for a movie, but this was real life, with people looking on. But we’re back to serious business with “Fraught with Masculinity” as Gee, buying formula for his infant daughter at WalMart, finds himself about to walk into a showdown between two rival gangs. He took a detour into a McDonalds to avoid the situation, and in the essay uses the opportunity to look at images of masculinity in multicultural American:
What I intuited before the age of twelve was how American representations of Asians failed to correspond with who I was, and aside from the dearth of rolemodels throughout popular culture, Asian-American male stereotypes were already prevalent. …[W]hile emasculation is how Asian-American males are otherized, hypervirilization and being attributed with a menacing intent to elicit fear is how African American males are most often stereotyped. Neither minority group is allowed to be thought of as “normal” – that would deem them equal with whites.
I’ve never thought of Asian men (and I’m thinking of East Asian in particular; as Anthony Bourdain once said, Asia is a big place) as being less masculine, but I’m aware that’s a common trope. What particularly interested me wasn’t even in the piece itself, but came up as I was dictating the above quote using word-recognition software to save wear and tear on my disintegrating hands. Instead of “how Asian-American males are otherized”, the result was “how Asian-American males are authorized.” A perfectly understandable substitution based on pronunciation of a rarely-used word, but remarkably pertinent semantically as well: stereotypes, particularly those that weaken and dismiss the target, are ways of authorizing, both in terms of permission, and in terms of writing them as characters rather than allowing them to be who they are. While this author-izing of Asian men writes them as harmless and allows them to be ignored and dismissed, rewriting African American men as threatening justifies abusive treatment and assumption of wrongdoing.
One of the most contemplative pieces is “Silences” and outlines Gee’s relationships with the men in his family. One startling revelation is that his father didn’t know he’d been adopted until he was 45 years old. I’m a little confused as to how that’s possible, but I suppose birth certificates weren’t required in the past as much as they are now. While considering his father’s reluctance to give him advice throughout his life, Gee comes to embrace the habit of silence that is part of the family.
“Point Guard” is a fascinating essay both structurally and informationally, even for those of us who don’t basketball at all. Gee discusses his own basketball career, originally undertaken as way of fitting in as a teenager, in parallel with a second essay about Jeremy Lin and the reaction America had to a Chinese basketball star.
When you feel that you can affect or dictate the flow of the game by determining the pace – by scoring on your own and creating opportunities for teammates, or by shutting down an opponent or outplaying him or her – or when you are dominant because of your vision come up dribbling, and passing or shooting skills, and when you want the ball and everyone looks to you and wants to get you the ball so that you are the locus of play, like a conductor or floor general, or when you are the man, the woman or the one whose play determines whether your team wins or loses in “clutch” moments, only then do you know what it is to be a “true” point guard.
I have no idea what a point guard is, but that paragraph sure makes me wish I was one.
Somewhere in today’s feeds was a request that more white people write about their white privilege instead of about the problems faced by people of color. I will own my white privilege here: “Asians in the Library” was hilarious. It’s hilarious to me because I’m not the subject of the rant of the UCLA student who simply was fed up with so many Asians in the library – “they come to our school, which is fine” – committing atrocities like talking on cell phones (which is annoying, but is annoyingly cross-racial, trust me on this) and having family over on weekends. It’s funny in the way the current crop of freedom fighters are posting rants about refusing to wear masks in stores that require them. That is, not funny at all. Enter Jimmy Wong, who made his own song/video in reply, and it’s even funnier/sadder. It’s all available on Youtube, but no, I’m not going to provide links.
“The Real New South” gives us a sense of Gee’s experience living in Georgia as an English professor. It’s an interesting look at what it is to not fit into a binary society based on black and white. The experiences of aging take the stage in “Echocardiography” as an erratic heartbeat leads to the realization that the body does, eventually, betray us all. I could identify with the sense of shock as he found himself “buying a long plastic pillbox with letters for each day of the week on top of seven compartments.” Ah, yes. The first pill bar. It felt like giving up. I now have one with AM and PM compartments for each day. And an extra one for as-needed analgesics. You can get used to anything, turn anything into normal. Whether you should is another question.
A fishing trip provides the narrative for “By 2042” that somehow pivots to the question of minorities becoming the Ugly Americans when they become the majority. Just as he did with basketball, Gee took an activity in which I have no particular interest – deep-sea fishing – and made it fascinating. I had no idea so much was involved. Most of the people on the boat that day probably had no idea, either; it turned out to be that kind of tourist trip where someone else does most of the work but you get to pull on the rod at the right moment and claim your fish. My father, who’d never been fishing before, hung a sailfish on our living room wall after such a fishing trip. But the boat captain wasn’t prepared for someone at Gee’s level of expertise,and that led to a decision on how to handle disappointment when a silly mistake let the big one get away.
The book wraps up with a state-by-state travelogue relating various experiences or statistics related to Gee and/or to Chinese American history. Turns out his grandfather came to Maine in the 30s on vacation. And Gee wants to retire to Florida. I grew up in Florida. I couldn’t get out of there fast enough. But I hear there’s good fishing.
Some aspects of my life are directly contrary to Gee’s; on others, we share traits. My father held secrets. I never did find out exactly when he came here from Sweden. He was determinedly American. I learned a few words of Swedish and a couple of recipes from his older sister, but that’s about it. Our culture was supposed to be American, though I still have no idea what that’s supposed to mean. I didn’t find out my older sister was adopted until I was sixteen. I thought it was cool. To my parents, it was something to be hidden. I connect with him on the unlikeliest things: the pill box, the descriptions of fishing and basketball. From his Pushcart essay, I learned that he considered himself not very well-read at the time he became interested in literature. These reading projects I do are all aimed at fixing my similar lack of background.
And further considering how silence has pervaded our family, I know it is not simply something mysterious, shameful, confounding, and divisive; nor is silence something to be resented. It is a behavior that will forever be in the air, seeming as natural as the wind or the sun. For although I might wish otherwise, not only is silence a deeply ingrained part of our history, but I sense it’s deep in our bones, as if it’s a part of our destiny, and so in many forms, it will most likely continue.
I’m glad he let his voice, and through him his father’s and grandfather’s voices, be heard in this volume.