20 May 1996
Objective: To shed new light on defining the American and revise the Melting Pot theory through a survey of Asian American literature.
What is the American?* This is a harder question to answer than defining many other nationalities. All nations are made up of diverse individuals, but in America there is an even greater diversity. The optimistic premise of the New World was to be a land of religious and economic freedom and opportunity. Settlers poured over to America and brought with them their unique and distinct cultures. It is this coming together of ethnic groups, this melting pot that is America. And it is this view of the American melting pot that is so often glorified in literature.
Perhaps a melting pot is not the best description. Then what is? Perhaps America is a patchwork quilt, made up of many different pieces that do not combine one homogenous melting, but keep their entities separate and beautiful; a multitude of pieces that look like they should clash, but instead complement each other. Or America may be a musical medley of many different songs played by many different instruments; a symphony that sounds simple and wonderful when played by solo strings, but fuller and richer when brass, percussion, and woodwinds are added; each instrument can be heard distinctly, but together they produce miraculous sounds. America could also be a thick stew, a cultural bouillabaisse, a callaloo, or it could be a mosaic of many small stones, each with its own past, that come together to complete a picture.
None of these views of America is entirely true, however. America is no utopia; in many ways it is a melting pot that has not fully melted and has no intentions of doing so. It is a nation that does not live up to its ideal. America is a country that has greatly mistreated African-Americans, Native-Americans, Latino-Americans, and Asian-Americans.
So what is America? To explore that question, I will explore literature. American literature and history are very closely related. "[T]he sentiment of American nationalism was, to an extraordinary degree, a literary creation, and that the national memory was a literary and . . . memory."
[L]iterature . . . play[s] a role [in nationalism], but only when it was quarried from cultural foundations that went deep. . . . [The achievements of] the Founding Fathers of American literary nationalism [were] scarcely less remarkable than that of the Founding Fathers of political nationalism.
Consider Emma Lazarus' famous 1883 sonnet, "The New Colossus":
"Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore, Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost, to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"
These lines appear on the base of the Statue of Liberty, welcoming immigrants to a new world where they can strive to fulfill their dreams.
For immigrants who were leaving the familiar for the unknown, arrival in America could be a second birth. Many immigrants have written about their re-awakenings upon reaching America and their subsequent disillusionment.
The American melting pot was first defined by Michel-Guillaume Jean de Crevecoeur (1735-1813) in his Letters from an American Farmer. In Crevecoeur's America many cultures are brought together by grateful immigrants. He proposed the question "What then is the American, this new man?", and answered:
In this great American asylum, the poor of Europe have by some means met together and in consequence of various causes, to what purpose should they ask one another what countrymen are? . . . What then is the American, this new man? . . . He is an American, who, leaving behind him all his ancient prejudices and manners received new ones from the new mode of life he has embraced . . . . The American ought therefore to love this country much better than that wherein either he or his forefathers were born.
America is a place of refuge, and the American glorified for going to a new country. "The American is a new man, who acts upon new principles; he must therefore entertain new ideas, and form new opinions." The American has taken on new characteristics, distinct from those of Europe.
It did not take long for some to express concern about the rapid immigration and the malleability of this new American culture. "[The Germans are depending on] their language and manners to the extent of the exclusion of ours [and are resisting assimilation] . . . threatening to [make America] a country of aliens . . . they will Germanize us [instead of] us Anglicizing them."
This anti-alien quotation was voiced during the same time as Crevecoeur's Letters by none other than Ben Franklin (1751).
The American newcomer, as he told us over and over again, was under both moral and practical compulsions to achieve acceptance for himself and for his children by becoming completely American as rapidly and as thoroughly as possible. Crevecoeur, who saw so much, saw this, and so too the magisterial Tocqueville, but it is a lesson that has had to be relearned in every generation.
That it was possible for newcomers to become American overnight was the second circumstance.
Crevecoeur's view of America as distinct from the rest of the world (Europe) has influenced much American literature. Twain and James helped define the American in contrast to the European in such works as Innocents Abroad, Daisy Miller, The American, and The Portrait of a Lady, where they explore the possibilities for Americans in Europe and Europeans in America. In general, Americans are characterized as less refined; this can be partially attributed to the expansion of the West. Americans are unwilling to learn; they don't understand the importance of the cultural world of Europe. On the other hand, Europeans are too old-fashioned to understand the youthful ways of Americans. Europeans are experienced, and Americans are therefore innocent -- or are they?
Nearly two centuries after Crevecoeur propounded his notorious question, Native American Vine Deloria Jr., thinks otherwise: "No one really knows at the present time what America really is. . . . [But n]o people who systematically enslaved black men and killed red men could be innocent." No matter what Twain or James may have thought, Americans are not innocent. Americans have mistreated Native Americans, African Americans, Latino Americans, and Asian Americans. The same America that we are so proud of can be viewed cynically (or realistically) as a hypocritical and xenophobic nation. It is up to literature to shape our image of America.
It is important to read works that idealize America, yet it is just as important not to forget some of the less ideal aspects of America. We should not be ignorant nor innocent of our history. This grimmer side of America is also portrayed in much American literature. The American is as much defined by Amy Tan and Garrett Hongo as it is by Emerson, Whitman, Twain, Henry, and Fitzgerald. It is just that their works are more often overlooked.
American is defined by many immigrant groups, including many waves of European "ethnic" immigrants: The Irish, Germans, Italians, Poles, Jews, etc.Latino Americans (excluding those who have been in the U.S. since it was Spanish America) are a relatively recent immigrant group. Many migrant workers have come over from Mexico to look for jobs in the last hundred years, and recently immigration has soared from Latin American countries. The Latino American subculture has developed in very different ways than Asian Americans and African Americans. Hinojosa's The Valley is described as "a rich documentary of fleeting scenes . . . which fuse to create mosaic of South Texas life." Other Mexican American literary contributors include Rudolfo A. Anaya, Ron Arias, Rolando Hinojosa, Miguel Mendez, Pat Mora, and Angela de Hoyos. Although Latino Americans had vastly different experiences in America, there are many commonalities between Latino Americans and other minorities. One similarity can be seen by comparing works such as Richard Rodriguez's Hunger of Memory to Richard Wright's American Hunger. Like Richard Wright, Rodriguez wrote of his goal to read, which he felt was "crucial for . . . academic success." America has left many immigrants and minorities with a hunger that may never be filled.
Today, Latino Americans make up a large percentage of the population. For example, in Florida, Dade County's population of 2,000,000 includes 669,000 Cubans, 110,000 Haitians, 74,000 Nicaraguans, 54,000 Colombians, 23,000 Mexicans, 23,000 Dominicans, 18,000 Hondurans, and 16,000 Peruvians; non-Latino whites are the minority. Many South Americans and Mexicans find work in migrant camps much like those described by Steinbeck in his The Grapes of Wrath. Today 24% of recent immigrants have a college degree; 20% of natives do. The new immigration is a part of America.
As Latino Americans are the new immigrant group, African Americans can be considered the earliest immigrant group (except for the fact that they were brought to the U.S. enslaved, rather than willing immigrants). As soon as European Americans were seeking opportunity in the New World, African Americans were being brought over as slaves. Forced to America, those who survived the voyage faced hard work and no rights. Even after the Civil War and sadly, still today, African Americans did not have the same rights enjoyed by many other Americans. African Americans have produced multitudes of literature too large to encompass in the scope of this paper. The slave narrative, including the autobiographical works of Equiano, Douglass, and Washington, was the first important genre. An important time for African American literature was the Harlem Renaissance.
The works of Douglass, Dunbar, Hughes, Wright, and many other authors deserve to be mentioned. The thoughts of these writers and Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. DuBois show a disenchanted view of America, much like that of the Asian American authors on whose views I will focus.
Although I had planned not to devote much of this paper to the African American identity, and to focus mainly on the Asian American, after listening to Maya Angelou speak of how we have all paid our way here, how the past has paid for us, and how we have come from all over: Ireland, Germany, Eastern Europe, China, and Africa to arrive at Ellis Island, I decided to at least discuss one poem.
I have chosen her poem "America" because it bears many similarities to the writings of Chin and Qui Duc, which will be mentioned later in this paper.
The gold of her promise has never been mined Her borders of justice not clearly defined Her crops of abundance the fruit and the grain Have not fed the hungry nor erased that deep pain Her proud declarations are leaves on the wind Her southern exposure black death did befriend Discover this country dead centuries cry Erect noble tablets where none can decry "She kills her bright future and rapes for a sou Then entraps her children with legends untrue" I beg you Discover this country.
The poem conveys the disappointment that Angelou, like many other writers, have experienced in America. "The gold of her promise" can never be mined because it is not there or has not yet been discovered. African Americans, Latino Americans, and Asian Americans have all been left hungry. We have all been left with a hunger, with a desire to "discover this country".
When Europeans "discovered" America, they found the land already populated. Our description of the American must then include the "real" Americans (those "aboriginals" who date their lineage to long before 1927). Native Americans, in addition to helping early European settlers, produced a rich culture that has flourished despite American attempts to subjugate the Indians, force assimilation, and take over their lands. Perhaps the greatest outrage is not how the U.S. government has treated new immigrants, but how it treated Native Americans.
One such tragedies was the Trail of Tears, in which thousands of Native Americans were forced off of their lands. As Americans moved further west to explore, the Native Americans were pushed further west, onto smaller plots of land and finally reservations. It was not enough that we hunted their buffalo (bison), gave them diseases, tried to assimilate them into Christian culture, and provided little welfare and relief; the U.S. government had to top it off with an exodus in the name of "manifest destiny". The same Indians (Native Americans) who befriended the first settlers and later accompanied Lewis and Clark on their exploration were being stabbed in the back by the U.S. government, the President and the Supreme Court. Only recently did Native Americans receive any reparations for the loss of their lands, reparations that had long been promised and awaited. In this one instance alone, America is truly a land of immigrants and a land for immigrants, for it cannot be said to be a land of the natives.
In his "The Man from Washington" James Welch, a Blackfoot from Montana, wrote in 1940 of his bitterness and few expectations from the American government and its big promises. For him and other Native Americans, America became "a world in which [they] had no part." Vine Deloria, Jr., a Standing Rock from Sioux, South Dakota, wrote "This Country was a Lot Better off when the Indians were Running It" in 1933. In his works he notes, like Welch, the lack of concern felt for Native Americans by the U.S. government. While the numbers of Native Americans are dwindling, their culture is still very much alive. There are many American Indian authors worth reading, including Charles A. Eastman, Alonzo Lopez, Emerson Blackhorse, Patty Hayo, Sirjowin Mitle, Durango Mondoza, and Greg Cohoe, but because their situation differs substantially from that of immigrants, I will leave their literature largely unexplored.
Pearl S. Buck, known primarily for her works about the Chinese, was born in the United States and wrote several less well-known books concerning other Chinese-Americans. This Asian Henry James published five books under the pseudonym John Sedges: The Townsman (1945), The Angry Wife (1947), The Long Love (1949), Bright Procession (1952), and Voices in the House (1953). In a preface in 1958 she stressed that ethnicity is not a criterion for merit: "People are people whether in Asia or America, as everybody knows or ought to know, and for me the scene is merely the background for human antics."
Although she usually keeps her American and Chinese characters separate (to the extent of feeling that she needs another name to write about America), her novel Kinfolk deals with both China and America. When Dr. Liang moves from China to New York his children find themselves placed in the situation of being Chinese-Americans who are unsure of their identities. Three children return to China and their ancestral roots where James begins a medical practice and Mary teaches reading and writing. Upon his return to China, Peter becomes disillusioned and takes part in an anti-government student revolution. Buck points out the separation of the peasants and the intellectuals in China. Dr. Liang's daughter Louise, on the other hand, marries an American husband and remains in the U.S. Ironically, Mary and Louise are contrasted in one final way: whereas Mary, James, and Peter try to make China become more American, Louise plays the traditional role of the submissive wife. Louise is the Chinese woman in America; Mary is the American woman in China.
A Chinese American poet, Li-Young Lee is a member of a prominent Chinese family who were exiled to Indonesia. In his poems and essays, he relates his heritage and the experiences of his family. Unlike many other Asian Americans who consider themselves to be predominantly Asian, Lee feels stronger American ties.
[When people ask where I'm from,] I say Chicago, then I tell them I was born in Indonesia, but I'm adamant about insisting that, although I was born in Indonesia, I'm Chinese. I don't want them to think that I'm Indonesian -- my people were persecuted by the Indonesians.
In more pessimistic moods, however, Lee feels that he's "going to be disconnected forever, that [he]'ll never have any place that [he] can call home." He feels that his story and the story of all refugees is really a universal story, that his experience "may be no more than an outward manifestation of homelessness that people in general feel." In short, no one really belongs; we are all seeking a home where we can find security and comfort. "Exile seems both a blessing and a curse" for him as a writer, giving him material from which to draw. In many ways he feels lucky that there are so many places which he can almost call home, yet he wouldn't wish this "luck" on anyone else. He is not trying to return to China or Indonesia; instead, his "longing for home becomes a longing for heaven -- instead of casting [him]self backwards "he take[s] the impulse and cast[s] it ahead."
In his essay "The Winged Seed" he discusses his relationship with his father who was imprisoned and exiled. The title of the essay comes from his view of immigrants; they are seed that have been blown from their homeland and are looking for a new place to form roots and grow. He relates to others in his situation, to "fellow immigrant[s], as lost in America as we were."
Like Pearl Buck and Amy Tan, Lee discusses the generational impact of immigration. Second generation Asian Americans are often more confused then their parents because they feel no real ties to their Asian "homeland" yet they recognize that they're different than many other Americans. The struggle between preserving tradition and assimilating, which Marilyn Chin discusses, is even more profound for these Americans by birth. Speaking of his children, Lee said:
". . . [T]hey're . . . headed for doom because they're crazily dislocated. They're growing up in a household where both Chinese and English are spoken. . . . The older one said, "I'm Chinese, right?" I said, "Yes, you're half Chinese." He said, "And I'm half regular?" So there's Chinese and regular -- he's already crazy with this stuff.
Another Asian-American poet, Marilyn Chin, has written many poems on exile, assimilation, and loss. Born in Hong Kong, raised in Oregon, and currently in California, Chin claims the Pacific Rim and her own poetry as her real home, although she believes she can claim them all as part of her identity, that "identities are forever changing." Because of this view of her identity, her poetry addresses her feelings on assimilation -- "about fearing it and loathing it but also celebrating the wonderful magic of it."
In her poem "Prelude" which she dedicated to her mother, she writes:
To love your country is to know its beginnings . . . here within you. . . . Although the country is lost rivers and mountains remain.
Chin needs to remember her Asian heritage; China is the lost country.
My identity as a Chinese American poet is not monolithic. I don't think in monolithic terms. Many of my Chinese American friends don't write about assimilation, but I'm thoroughly bi-cultural and bi-lingual, and I see myself as a Pacific Rim person. I have family in China, in Hong Kong, in Hawaii, and all over the West Coast. So assimilation is a particularly important issue for me.
I am afraid of losing my Chinese, losing my language, which would be like losing a part of myself, losing part of my soul. Poetry seems a way to recapture that, but of course the truth is we can't recapture the past."
In "How I Got That Name," she describes the process in which her name was changed from Mei Ling to Marilyn.
There's a doubleness to nearly all my work . . . My family's past is irretrievable, but assimilation must happen. There's no way I can force my children to speak Chinese. . . . but assimilation is inescapable. I live in . . . a very multicultural world. We are beyond being yellow, white, black. We're a wonderful swirl of shades of a brown. . . . it's also impossible to keep whiteness pure. I think everything must merge, and I'm willing to have it merge within me, in my poetry.
Like Rodriguez and Wright, Marilyn Chin writes of hunger.
". . . food is an Asian American trope. . . . In ethnic American literature you'll often find food as a major motif [because w]e're trying to preserve our past through food, and food also asserts our difference. Food is celebratory, but its flip side is hunger and deprivation. Spiritual deprivation and hunger in the new country are important motifs of ethnic American literature.
Hunger in the "gold" country, in the land of plenty is almost obscene, so there's always that doubleness in my work when I write about food.
One of her poems that deals with hunger is "Turtle Soup." For Chin, the soup is not only symbolic of hunger, but also with the heritage that an Americanized child wants to preserve. As a poet she feels the need to preserve her culture. "I need to work in both Eastern and Western paradigm; I need to know both traditions."
The turtle is such a revered Chinese mythological symbol -- it's a symbol of longevity and patience and grandeur and antiquity -- but the irony of this turtle is that it ends up in a swirl, in a soup, in Pasadena, California. I see these creatures in my poems as self-portraits.
In a fourth poem, "The Disorder", Chin writes of the emptiness and hunger that cannot be filled by the promised land:
as you attempt to fill an emptiness not filled by the sun, as you wait for your inevitable fall, a small child within you remembers: so, these, these were the "golden mountains"!
The promised land, but of course it's said with irony -- the promise never fulfilled. . . . America in no longer a monolithic, European-derived culture . . . That's to say that those of us who have an urgent message or who have polyphonic voices or who have colorful backgrounds and interesting lives and past have a lot to say, and it's now our turn to say it. . . . this is the voice of America. My voice is one of the many voices of America.
Maxine Hong Kingston, best known for Woman Warrior, has also written many short stories, including "Twisters and Shouters", in which she discussions the racial identification which almost instinctively brings two Chinese Americans together on a bus, and their struggle to ignore their commonalities to become part of America's "wonderful swirl".
One hugely popular recent figure in Chinese American literature is Amy Tan, author of The Joy Luck Club, The Kitchen God's Wife, and The Moonlady. In her novels and essays Tan addresses the Chinese American identity. In her essay "Mother Tongue," she writes about the different (but not broken) Englishes spoken by Chinese Americans and how her mother was not taken seriously because of her unconventional English. The novel The Joy Luck Club was written with her mother in mind for a reader.
The Joy Luck Club became a best-seller in part because it is so easy to read and because the characters (four mothers and daughters) are so well developed, but also because the subject dealt with has universal appeal. Asian American literature is American literature.
She discussed the duality of the Asian American identity. "[I felt that] my mother and I spoke two different languages, which we did. I talked to her in English, she answered back in Chinese." Tan stresses the importance of language in noting that Jing-Mei Woo speaks a different language than the mah jong players of her mother's generation in the beginning of the novel. She also explores the contrasts between Chinese and the American at the end of the novel in a rather poetic discussion between Waverly and Lindo Jong. "I think about our two faces. I think about my intentions. Which one is American? Which one is Chinese? Which one is better? If you show one, you must always sacrifice the other." The Chinese-American is not Chinese nor (Euro-)American; the combination of the two cultures has created a new, rich, and unique culture.
Other cultural distinctions are noted throughout the novel. At a dinner with her parents, suddenly Waverly Jong realizes how little her future husband Rich knows about Chinese culture. He drinks too much wine, pronounces her parents' names wrong, doesn't take seconds, and insults the food, all without knowing that he had done anything wrong. It is in instances like this when Waverly sees things from her Chinese perspective, not the American perspective that usually separates her from her mother.
Like other Asian Americans she is disturbed that many Americans view Asia as being homogeneous. Asian culture is not only just as varied as American culture, but there really is no "Asian culture"; Asia is a continent of many distinct countries, a patchwork of separate squares that happen to be sewn together, rather than a melting pot. The sanctimony of many Americans is revealed in a conversation between Rose Hsu Jordan and her mother-in-law who says she has no prejudices and nothing at all against Asians, but that her son will be judged by people who do have prejudices against the Vietnamese since the war. She, like many Americans, believes herself to be more tolerant than she is.
A history of America's wrongs would be incomplete without including the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II. 120,000 Japanese Americans, 80,000 of whom were U.S. citizens, were placed in internment camps, in the name of defending America from attack from the enemy within. Although Asian Americans had previously encountered much hatred and prejudice, this era, which for Japanese Americans "will live in infamy," is the epitome of America's hypocrisy.
By 1910 the population of Japanese in the United States was 70,000. Much propaganda was directed against Japanese Americans, with headlines such as "Brown Artisans Steal Brains of Whites / The Yellow Peril -- How Japanese Crowd Out the White Race" common in the San Francisco Chronicle. In October 1906 the San Francisco Board of Education voted to segregate its schools. Many diplomatic crises arose between the U.S., and Japan consented to the "gentlemen's agreement" -- voluntarily stopping immigration of Japanese men. After the bombing of Pearl Harbor, most Japanese pledged their support and loyalty to the United States. Many were prepared to enter the war with the U.S. California Congressman Leland Ford said, "These people are American-born. This is their country." Attorney General Francis Biddle agreed, "At no time will the government engage in wholesale condemnation of any alien group."
But American officials did not feel that the Japanese could be trusted. Lieutenant General John L. DeWitt said, "I have little confidence that the Japanese enemy aliens [Issei] are loyal. I have no confidence in the loyalty of the Nisei whatsoever." John Hughes, a radio commentator, warned, "Ninety percent or more of American-born Japanese are primarily loyal to Japan." Henry McLemore wrote, "I am for immediate removal of every Japanese on the West Coast. . . . Herd 'em up, pack 'em off. Let 'em be pinched, hurt and hungry!" Swayed by propaganda that was entirely untrue (in fact most of the Japanese Americans had never been to Japan and one-third were American citizens) and outrageous rumors, the Anti-Japanese feelings spread.
By February 1942 the entire coastline of California was designated Restricted Area Number One and Japanese living there were asked to "voluntarily" move inland. Earl Warren said, "There is more potential danger among the Japanese who are born in this country than from the alien Japanese who were born in Japan." DeWitt and many others believed that the proof of Japanese American sabotage lay in the fact that no proof had been found. Although America was at war with Germany and Italy and there were 52,923 Italian aliens and 19,422 German aliens in California, more than all the Japanese aliens in the U.S., only a few were interned.
Japanese internship was based solely on prejudices like DeWitt's "A Jap's a Jap, and it makes no difference if he is an American citizen. . . . The Japanese race is an enemy race." Roosevelt signed Executive Order No. 9066 on February 19, 1942, which without mentioning the Japanese by name, was understood to be directed at removing any persons suspected of disloyalty.
Life at Manzanar and other camps was uncomfortable, hot, crowded, impersonal, and dusty. The story of a few individuals is outlined in Stanley's book.
Ironically, when Nisei were offered the chance to fight, they formed the 442nd Regiment and gained the recognition of having the highest casualty rate and became the most decorated unit. After the war Japanese Americans had to pledge their loyalty again. In February 1943, Roosevelt declared, "No loyal citizen of the United States should be denied the democratic right to exercise the rights of citizenship, regardless of ancestry. . . . Americanism is not, and never was, a matter of race or ancestry." Milton Eisenhower of the War Relocation Authority said, "I feel most deeply that when the war is over we as Americans are going to regret the avoidable injustices that have been done." Still, not all Americans were apologetic or felt that they had done any wrongs. After leaving the camps there was much resentment among Japanese American who had lost their property, dignity, and dreams.
One internee, Shi Nomura cautions:
It's easy to think that this is just a part of Japanese history. But it is really a part of American history, because this is what America is all about: tolerating different cultures, accepting people who look different. America is a nation of immigrants from all over the world, and they have made America the greatest country in the world. When anyone sees a person of Japanese ancestry living in the United States, they should first think "American" and only afterward "Japanese." That is the American way.
The internment of the Japanese Americans is one of the saddest events in recent U.S. history. At a time when the U.S. was priding itself with saving the world from Hitler (albeit, after a few years of purposely overlooking the Holocaust), the events taking place at home bore a striking resemblance to those taking place abroad. Earl Warren, who later became Supreme Court Chief Justice, and many other high-powered government officials were shown to be hypocrites. The Court acted unconstitutional, ignoring the rights of Asian Americans, much as it had done to the Native Americans. The encampment changed lives tremendously and the prejudice and hatred encountered by Asian Americans will never be forgotten.
Hongo writes about racial tensions and how he was kept in silence about the internment and later silenced himself. For Hongo poetry is a way to "explore and connect with the history that was repressed." "There [is] an integrity to [poetry] and also an incredible willingness to face difficult issues about both the failure of the society outside and the loss of the human potential within."
In his introduction he explains why he chose to edit an anthology of Asian American essays. He denounces silence, saying that these issues must be addressed. He recalls an experience from junior high school.
What about this? How come we're studying World War II [but there is nothing] about when they put 120,000 Japanese Americans into prison? . . . " My school was [very integrated]. I was marched to the back of the room and told that we would talk about this later, that I shouldn't bring it up. I asked my schoolmates [about it]. Since I'd grown up in Hawai'i, I didn't know that you couldn't talk about it. One of the guys in my group punched me in the stomach and said, "Don't talk about it. We're not supposed to talk about it. Our parents said not to."
Yet Hongo has always felt the need to talk. "I share with so many Japanese Americans . . . a feeling that we have a story to tell [and] a responsiblity. . ." For his anthology, Under Western Eyes, Hongo choose essays "written against social silencing [and cultural conformism,] but emerging from deep personal silences."
In his introduction he points out many conflicts among Asian Americans, especially pertaining to the purpose of literature. Just as it is impossible to generalize about all Americans or all Asian Americans, it is also impossible to make generalizations about even such a relatively small group as Japanese authors. Every individual is unique, and their culture is only a portion of that uniqueness. When asked by a reporter to comment on the publication of Robert Olen Butler's A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain (stories about Vietnamese Americans by a non-Vietnamese author), his answer stressed that Asia, like America, is made up of many cultures. "I felt uncomfortable being asked to speak 'as an Asian American,' knowing that we are an extremely diverse group . . . I knew he was operating as if Asians in America were one vast, homogeneous category . . ."
In his essay he recalls his grandfather being questioned after Pearl Harbor and relates that the internment was never spoken of by friends and relatives, except for by his grandfather who was then labeled as senile.
But there was a strange silence around all of this. There was a hush, as if one were invoking the ill powers of the dead when one brought it up. . . . I was given the facts, told sternly and pointedly that . . . "nothing could be done." Shikata ga nai is the phrase in Japanese, a kind of resolute and determinist pronouncement on how to deal with inexplicable tragedy. [I was not to dwell on it. We were trying to forget.] It was as if we had no history for four years and the relocation was something unspeakable.
Garrett Hongo is hopeful for the future of America. "Maybe society's not talking to me, but I'm talking to it. . . . I do feel that I'm an American. . . . and I want to reach American people." From his childhood background "living in a cultural whirlwind" in Hawai'i where he was taught to accept people to a neighborhood in Los Angeles where he met other Japanese Americans, Hispanics, and African Americans, he contends that "those cities are America's hope."
. . . America is not the melting pot, but a meeting place, and that inspires me. I can believe in Walt Whitman again when I go back to downtown L.A. and I hear all those sounds -- Spanish, disco, rap, buses, squeaking, barbers shouting, people arguing, knife fights breakings out -- that is America to me.
Debra Kang Dean, who was born in Hawai'i, writes in her essay "Telling Differences" of how many people have trouble identifying her because of her mixed ancestry: half-Korean and half-Okinawan. Like many other Asian American authors, she is unsure of what home is. For her it is not Japan, but Hawai'i, as that is where her ancestors are buried. She shares Hongo's views of silencing and feels that she has been silenced to long. Yet she feels that for her relatives this silencing was the "fatalism that made life possible."
Still, I am often tempted to be silent and to pay the price of silence. . . . I am tempted not to try to find the words adequate to my feelings because writing has become [a] painful process of coming face to face with what I'd rather ignore, a process of recovering and rediscovering what I once knew but had long ago chosen to forget.
Despite her realization that silence is easier, she continues to write, hoping that her writing will help herself and others learn to face the past, regardless of how unpleasant it may be.
One recent novel dealing with Japanese Americans is David Guterson's Snow Falling on Cedars. Although the main plot does not depend entirely on the characters' heritage, there are references to the internment, inferences that Kabuo Miyamoto is charged with murder because he is Japanese (p. 343 etc.), and references to a failed intercultural relationship. In a conversation between Hatsue and her mother Fujiko she tries to deny her Japanese ancestry.
". . . I don't feel I'm a part of them. . . I'm a part of here . . . I'm from this place."
"Yes, you were born here, that's so," said Fujiko. "But your blood -- you are still Japanese."
"I don't want to be!" said Hatsue. "I don't want anything to do with them! Do you hear me? I don't want to be Japanese!"
. . . "These are difficult times, . . . [n]obody knows who they are now. Everything is cloudy and unclear. You should not say what is in your heart -- or what is only in your heart for a moment. . . . silence is better."
Another writer (he refuses to be called an Asian American or a Japanese American poet saying "'I don't want to be in a literary ghetto!'") David Mura, relates a different experience. As an Asian American in Chicago, his father was accepted by both the blacks and the whites, causing him to be even further confused about his identity.
. . . and, in 1942, stepped on a bus to find white riders motioning, '"Sit here, son," and, in the rows beyond, a half dozen black faces, waving him back, "Us colored folks got to stick together." How did he know where to sit?
In many of his other poems and essays he addresses the problems of growing up as a Japanese-American, especially after the internment. Interestingly, he married into an old WASP family, where he encountered more prejudice. In his poem "Open & Shut" he draws an eloquent comparison between history and a rose.
Here is the rose of history. Pull the petals apart. A faint murmuring starts, then shouting, shrieking, an interminable roar. So you close the rose, call it simple, a rose without history, innocent eternal.
The true history is often ignored, covered-up, and purposely forgotten, because it is not always pleasant or innocent. It is "often brutal and unjust, and also filled with stories and lives which go neglected and unrecorded. . . . [It is] permeated by a darkness that people don't want to look at. . . ." The perfume of history is an odorous stench that cannot fully be covered. History by any other name would not smell as sweet; not if history were called hatred, oppression, prejudice, or hypocrisy. It may look deceptively beautiful from the outside, but there are thorns that cannot be overlooked. And like Pandora's box, once it is opened, it is hard to close, forget, and forgive. Once a rose is picked, it will die and its beauty is gone forever. But a rose will die eventually irregardlessly. History is calling to be remembered in its entirety; it should be remembered, no matter how unpleasant. History is more beautiful for a few moments when plucked, smelled, and closely examined, because from learning history stems an understanding of the past, present, and future.
The internment of Japanese Americans during World War II and other unpleasant aspects and tragedies of history need to be remembered. Like Hongo, Mura is cautioning against social silencing, and encouraging others to share their experiences, but despite all the hatred he has encountered, he still has some hope for America.
I have faith on some level in the promise of America, but I want to hold America and all of us to that promise. I believe it's important to have that ideal out there -- it's one of the terrific things about this country -- but at the same time, the only way we're going to reach that ideal is by seeing the ways in which we failed in the past because the past explains what's here now. . . . I think we [poets] are creating a fuller and more complete picture of what America always was so that history can help us recognize what is happening in America today.
Another Japanese American who has felt the need to speak out is Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston, who was interned during World War II. After being asked by her nephew in 1971 to recount her experiences during the internment, she realized that the internment was truly "a skeleton in the closet." Even she was not addressing the real issue of what it was like "being locked up like that." Because Houston saw the need to tell her story, she and her husband wrote Farewell to Manzanar.
In her short fictional story "After the War", which is heavily based on her own life, Reiko learns that she can be friends with people who look and sound different. Mirroring Houston's experiences, Reiko is used to people being surprised that she speaks English, "but she hadn't learned yet how to explain to others that she too had been born in America and knew no other language than English."
In another memoir, "Colors," Houston colorfully relates her memories of a few important events in her life: the yellow of internment, the blue of visiting Hawai'i, and the orange of being re-integrated with other cultures after Manzanar.
What a different world! From a racially homogeneous one-mile-square community, I entered a multiracial and multicultural matrix . . . . It was my first experience living among African Americans and Latinos. In Ocean Park, we lived in a Caucasian neighborhood, mostly Jewish and Italian. At Cabrillo Homes, I met for the first time, Americans of Polish, Cuban, and Mexican descent. I heard, for the first time, the twangs and drawls of the language of Oklahoma, Missouri, Texas, Georgia -- even the clipped whine of Boston.
Ah! Cabrillo Homes! Crossroads for America's hopefuls -- halfway house for America's economical and political refugees.
Geeta Kothari, whose parents are from India, addresses the dreaded question she if often asked in her essay which names the question, "Where are you from?" Depending on who asks and what she believes is there purpose for asking, she will answer either "New York, I am an American citizen, born and raised" or "India, my culture is as important as yours." She sees America as a club to which she doesn't belong because "Americans are blond and white." She lacks a strong feeling of Indian identity as well, because the only Indians she knew were her parents.
Who I am is a difficult question. If identity is formed in reaction to societal institutions, to community, then my identity is in flux. I'd like to fit in, to be the same as other Americans, but the people asking me where I'm from don't let me. . . . I see myself as American, but not the American they're looking for. . .
If I am angry about anything it is about the years I lost in this uncertainty, in this going back and forth between two cultures, accepting myself in neither. I am angry about the way people labeled me. . .
Like it or not, home is here: the United States. . .
Robert Olen Butler's A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain captures the cultures of both North and South Vietnam. His stories present a series of characters who have left Vietnam for New Orleans after the Vietnam War. In "An American Couple" an American veteran meets a Vietnamese American couple. When asked where they are from, they answer America, as Li-Young Lee does. Although they certainly are American, the Vietnamese-Americans have their own culture which separates them from the predominant culture.
In the story "Crickets," the differences between the cultures of Ted and his son Bill are very apparent. For Ted, like Amy Tan's characters, language is important to one's identity.
My son is beginning to speak like the others here in Louisiana. . . . when he leaves us in the morning to walk to the Catholic school, he says, "Have a good day, y'all" Sometimes I say good-bye to him in Vietnamese and he wrinkles his nose at me and says, "Aw, Pop," like I'd just cracked a corny joke. He doesn't speak Vietnamese at all and my wife says not to worry about that. He is an American.
Like other authors who write about Asian Americans, Butler points out the generational differences between the immigrants and the first generation Americans. While Ted must make an effort to feel at home in America, Bill fits in. America is the only world that he knows, and he is not interested in learning about Vietnam. Ted tries to interest his son in watching crickets fight, as he had done in his youth, but Bill is not interested. He is more concerned that his Reeboks have a grass stain. Ted's disappointment is two-fold: he cannot find the prized fire crickets in America nor a son who will be proud of his Vietnamese heritage.
In "Snow" the change in climate is a significant difference between Vietnam and America. Miss Giu, who works in a Chinese restaurant, meets Mr. Cohen and is surprised to find that she is not the only minority.
"'I thought all Americans celebrated Christmas,' . . . It felt a little strange to see this very American man who was not celebrating the holiday." After he describes his experiences of immigration, she realizes that there are other people who have dual identities. "I was thinking how he was a foreigner, too. Not an American, really. But all the talk about the snow made this little chill behind my thoughts." She does not realize that others have difficulties fitting into Western culture and that she and Mr. Cohen are as American as everyone else; they are (or should be) part of what defines the American.
Another Vietnamese American, Nguyen Qui Duc, wrote Where the Ashes: The Odyssey of a Vietnamese Family. In his essay "A Taste of Home," he writes of his identity as a Vietnamese American in an essay about returning to what he considers his real homeland. America was not the land of opportunity for which he had hoped.
Home. Twenty years in America has not been enough for me to call it home. I know I should appreciate the open doors I found when I first came to America at the end of the war, but I have trouble loving America: the images of American soldiers charging through Vietnamese villages are lodged too deeply in my mind. . . . I simply don't feel I belong in America. Underneath the initial mat of welcome America gave an exile, I keep finding things that bother me about life in the West. . . . [T]here is something admirable about the American spirit of moving on in search of wider horizons, of facing the challenges of a new world. But making yourself anew in America also means abandoning friends and family: I miss the sense of community, the traditional bonds that get thrown away in the pursuit of the American Dream.
Like the other Asian American writers discussed, his nationality is often mistaken, as he shows with an anecdote about a cab driver who thinks he is Korean. But he has at least one important similarity with Koreans, Cambodians, Indians, Vietnamese, Chinese, Japanese, and other Asian Americans: for them, America has been filled with dreams . . . and disappointments.
In An Extravagance of Laughter, Ralph Ellison sees the choice of where to sit on a bus as a symbol for the free will which many African Americans never had. He chooses to sit in the front of a bus upon arriving in the north because he is free to do so; ironically, he concludes that the seats in the back are actually better.
. . . what was more important -- my own individual comfort, or the exercise of the democratic right to be squeezed and jostled by strangers? The highly questionable privilege of being touched by anonymous whites -- not to mention reds, browns, blacks, and yellows -- [or sitting where I wanted to sit? This is analogous to whether one lives in an area by choice or not.] I preferred to live where people spoke my own version of the American language . . .
America will probably never be completely homogeneous. There will always be ghettos where one culture is dominant. People find security in a community where they find commonalities with each other. It will only be when people can find commonalities beyond skin color and religious beliefs that these barriers can be broken and all people can live comfortably together, forgetting their prejudices.
In his essay "America: the Multinational Society," Ishmael Reed describes the blending of cultures, referring to mosques he had seen while hearing Spanish spoken in Texas. Robert Thompson, a professor at Yale, considers America to be a "cultural bouillabaisse," a thick stew with distinct vegetables and meats that go together, but have not blended.
Reed sees that American history is often related as if viewed by a person with blinders on; the Puritans are glorified and their religious intolerance is overlooked, as are episodes such as the internment of the Japanese and the lynchings of African Americans.
In his essay he responds to being told that the world is just arriving in America.
. . . Such blurring of cultural styles occurs in everyday life in the United States . . . [The invasion of foreigners] has already begun because the world is here. The world has been arriving at these shores for the last ten thousand years from Europe, Africa, and Asia.
He also questions the expectations and future of America.
. . . Is that the kind of world we desire? A humdrum homogenous world of all brains and no heart, no fiction, no poetry; a world of robots with human attendants bereft of imagination, or culture? Or does North America deserve a more exciting destiny? To become a place where the cultures of the world crisscross. This is possible because the United States is unique in the world: The world is here.
So who is the American? There is no one American; the American is many different people. America is a great country and all of us Americans should be proud of it, but America is not as wonderful as many of us may think, nor will it ever be.
For America remains an experiment. The outcome is by no means certain. Only at our peril can we forget the possibility that the republic will end like Gatsby in Scott Fitzgerald's emblematic fable -- Gatsby who had come so long a way and whose "dream must have seemed so close that he could hardly fail to grasp it. . . .
For now America remains only a dream that cannot be attained. Or perhaps it has been achieved, and that dream is part nightmare.
[*] At many times in this paper I will refer to "the American". Yet there really is no one American identity. At times I will refer to "American" as opposed to "Asian American" or "African American" to refer to those inhabitants that have no encountered the same types of racial discrimination. Also, "American" will be used to mean "United States", and will not include South or Central America, the Caribbean, Canada, Mexico, or Greenland.