The Ambiguous and the Mundane: Racial Performance and Asian Americans

Posted in Anthropology, Articles, Asian Diaspora, Book/Video Reviews, Communications/Media Studies, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive, United States on 2016-09-25 02:23Z by Steven

The Ambiguous and the Mundane: Racial Performance and Asian Americans

Contemporary Literature
Volume 57, Number 2, Summer 2016
pages 292-300

Josephine D. Lee, Professor of English and Asian American
University of Minnesota

Jennifer Ann Ho, Racial Ambiguity in Asian American Culture. New Brunswick, NJ, and London: Rutgers University Press, 2015. xi + 215 pp. $90.00 cloth; $31.95 paper.

Ju Yon Kim, The Racial Mundane: Asian American Performance and the Embodied Everyday. New York: New York University Press, 2015. x + 286 pp. $90.00 cloth; $28.00 paper.

Asian American studies scholars such as Karen Shimakawa (National Abjection: The Asian American Body Onstage), Leslie Bow (Betrayal and Other Acts of Subversion: Feminism, Sexual Politics, Asian American Women’s Literature), Tina Chen (Double Agency: Acts of Impersonation in Asian American Literature and Culture), Joshua Chambers-Letson (A Race So Different: Performance and Law in Asian America), and myself have drawn attention to the theatrical nature of Asian American racialization—the assumed incompatibility between Asian bodies and American loyalties that undergirds racial stereotypes such as the perpetual foreigner or the wartime enemy. The Asian American is imagined as a potential traitor or an economic threat whose essential nature is inherently at odds with American identity and whose apparently successful cultural assimilation is inherently untrustworthy. Throughout their long history, Asian Americans have been subject to the material and psychological consequences of this endgame, whether in the World War II incarceration of Japanese Americans or in outlandish expectations for the “model minority.”

Two recent books—Ju Yon Kim’s The Racial Mundane: Asian American Performance and the Embodied Everyday and Jennifer Ann Ho’s Racial Ambiguity in Asian American Culture—also envision Asian American racialization as a shifting and dynamic social performance, unpacking what “Asian American” does, rather than just assuming what it is. Both directly challenge fixed notions of racial epistemology as well as provide insightful, original commentary on historical and contemporary Asian American literature and culture.

Grounded in the theories of theatrical phenomenology and Asian American studies, Kim’s Racial Mundane specifically looks at the juxtaposition of Asian American culture (especially Asian American theater) and “everyday” life. Theater is often considered the realm of imaginative pretense as contrasted with the authentic world offstage. But as Kim points out, both theater and life are mainly constituted by repetitive habits and behaviors that define self and action. What Kim calls “the mundane” is the “fusion of the corporeal and the quotidian,” or as she eloquently puts it, “the slice of the everyday carried—and carried out—by the body” (3). For Asian Americans, these ordinary bodily practices are charged with racial significance. Asian exclusion and marginalization was founded on the premise that Asian immigrants and their descendants would never fully assimilate. Kim takes up different instances of this perceived gap between Asian body and American behavior; for instance, she reads the myth of the “model minority” in Justin Lin’s 2002 film Better Luck Tomorrow and Lauren Yee’s biting 2014 satire Ching Chong Chinaman as demonstrative of this racial slippage, whereby Asian American achievement is interpreted both as proof of a successful transition into Americanness and as accentuating a racial difference that belies assimilation.

Though Kim’s examples are largely contemporary, she opens with an analysis of a play that premiered in 1912. Now mostly forgotten, Harry Benrimo and George C. Hazelton Jr.’s The Yellow Jacket was praised in touring productions as well as Broadway revivals, drawing attention for its novel adaptation of the stage devices of Chinese opera as well as Chinese settings and characters. Kim juxtaposes the success of this play’s version of Chineseness with the uncertainty and suspicion with which Chinese immigrants were treated. If the “heathen Chinee” (as Bret Harte called the Chinese immigrant in his popular 1870 poem) was so reviled in early twentieth-century America, how do we explain the popularity of the Chinese characters (played by white actors) in The Yellow Jacket? Key to this contradiction was Benrimo and Hazelton’s inclusion of a “Property Man,” a character who manages the stage set and props while doing ordinary things such as eating, smoking, and reading a newspaper. This novel stage device may well have influenced Thornton Wilder’s creation of the Stage Manager for his…

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Racial Ambiguity in Asian American Culture by Jennifer Ann Ho (review)

Posted in Articles, Asian Diaspora, Book/Video Reviews, Media Archive, United States on 2016-07-04 18:13Z by Steven

Racial Ambiguity in Asian American Culture by Jennifer Ann Ho (review)

American Studies
Volume 55, Number 1, 2016
pages 165-166
DOI: 10.1353/ams.2016.006

Jeehyun Lim, Assistant Professor of English
Denison University, Granville, Ohio

Racial Ambiguity in Asian American Culture. By Jennifer Ann Ho. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press. 2015.

Jennifer Ho’s Racial Ambiguity in Asian American Culture raises timely questions about the category of Asian American at a time when reexaminations of identity categories are being actively carried out in what the feminist theorist Robyn Wiegman calls fields invested in identity knowledges. As Ho explains in her introduction, questioning the definition of Asian American in and of itself is not a new project. The category of Asian American, while rooted in grassroots social movements of the 1960s and meant to counter the demeaning signification of “Oriental,” has been scrutinized, if not solely then most forcefully, by poststructural critiques such as Kandice Chuh’s Imagine Otherwise. Yet Ho’s project differs from existing critiques in at least two regards. First, it consistently illuminates the concept of racial ambiguity—mostly through mixed-race identities and identifications but also through other norm-defying and transgressive identities and identifications emerging variously from transracial adoptees to the definitions of Asian American texts—as the method of exposing and critiquing the multiple exclusions that arise in the vexed project of Asian American self-determination. Secondly, as much as it is invested in bringing into high relief the impossibility of a rigid and exclusionary definition of Asian American, it is likewise equally invested in reestablishing the category as an important site of knowledge production and of social and cultural engagement…

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Racial Ambiguity in Asian American Culture

Posted in Asian Diaspora, Books, Communications/Media Studies, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive, Monographs, United States on 2015-12-22 04:18Z by Steven

Racial Ambiguity in Asian American Culture

Rutgers University Press
256 pages
6 x 9
Cloth ISBN: 978-0-8135-7070-9
Paper ISBN: 978-0-8135-7069-3
Web PDF ISBN: 978-0-8135-7071-6
epub ISBN: 978-0-8135-7537-7

Jennifer Ann Ho, Associate Professor of English and Comparative Literature
University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill

The sheer diversity of the Asian American populace makes them an ambiguous racial category. Indeed, the 2010 U.S. Census lists twenty-four Asian-ethnic groups, lumping together under one heading people with dramatically different historical backgrounds and cultures. In Racial Ambiguity in Asian American Culture, Jennifer Ann Ho shines a light on the hybrid and indeterminate aspects of race, revealing ambiguity to be paramount to a more nuanced understanding both of race and of what it means to be Asian American.

Exploring a variety of subjects and cultural artifacts, Ho reveals how Asian American subjects evince a deep racial ambiguity that unmoors the concept of race from any fixed or finite understanding. For example, the book examines the racial ambiguity of Japanese American Nisei Yoshiko Nakamura deLeon, who during World War II underwent an abrupt transition from being an enemy alien to an assimilating American, via the Mixed Marriage Policy of 1942. It looks at the blogs of Korean, Taiwanese, and Vietnamese Americans who were adopted as children by white American families and have conflicted feelings about their “honorary white” status. And it discusses Tiger Woods, the most famous mixed-race Asian American, whose description of himself as “Cablinasian”—reflecting his background as Black, Asian, Caucasian, and Native American—perfectly captures the ambiguity of racial classifications.

Race is an abstraction that we treat as concrete, a construct that reflects only our desires, fears, and anxieties. Jennifer Ho demonstrates in Racial Ambiguity in Asian American Culture that seeing race as ambiguous puts us one step closer to a potential antidote to racism.

Table Of Contents

  • Acknowledgments
  • Introduction: Ambiguous Americans: Race and the State of Asian America
  • 1. From Enemy Alien to Assimilating American: Yoshiko deLeon and the Mixed-Marriage Policy of the Japanese American Incarceration
  • 2. Anti-Sentimental Loss: Stories of Transracial/Transnational Asian American Adult Adoptees in the Blogosphere
  • 3. Cablinasian Dreams, Amerasian Realities: Transcending Race in the Twenty-first Century and Other Myths Broken by Tiger Woods
  • 4. Ambiguous Movements and Mobile Subjectivity: Passing in between Autobiography and Fiction with Paisley Rekdal and Ruth Ozeki
  • 5. Transgressive Texts and Ambiguous Authors: Racial Ambiguity in Asian American Literature
  • Coda: Ending with Origins: My Own Racial Ambiguity
  • Notes
  • Bibliography
  • Index
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Partly Colored: Asian Americans and Racial Anomaly in the Segregated South (review)

Posted in Articles, Asian Diaspora, Book/Video Reviews, Media Archive, United States on 2012-06-25 21:39Z by Steven

Partly Colored: Asian Americans and Racial Anomaly in the Segregated South (review)

Journal of Asian American Studies
Volume 15, Number 2, June 2012
pages 225-227
DOI: 10.1353/jaas.2012.0017

Jennifer Ho, Associate Professor of English and Comparative Literature
University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill

In her acknowledgements, Leslie Bow admits that she began her research project in order to “explore an omission” (ix)—namely, the underreported stories and history of Asian Americans living in the Jim Crow South. Yet Partly Colored: Asian Americans and Racial Anomaly in the Segregated South is not merely an attempt to insert Asian Americans into a southern landscape nor is it a catalog of all the areas and arenas in which Asian Americans resided in a segregated south. Instead, Bow’s work articulates a more subtle but no less powerful argument: in thinking of the legacy of southern segregation, racial anomalies—those groups that are neither black nor white—represent a “productive site for understanding the investments that underlie a given system of relations; what is unaccommodated becomes a site of contested interpretation” (4). Partly Colored offers Bow’s interpretation of a selection of these contested sites, predominantly how Asian American subjects become objects of scrutiny and, in Bow’s words, “intermediacy,” but Bow also dedicates a chapter to the Lumbee Indians of North Carolina and their in-between status as neither black nor white. Whether Asian American or American Indian, these racial anomalies of the segregated south are produced through an awareness of their racial difference to both white and black communities. And it is their unique positioning—of being in a state of simultaneous acceptance and abjection—that Bow turns her attention to most forcefully, citing a methodological debt to Toni Morrison’s Playing in the Dark, since Bow is interested in how an Africanist presence “shadows the admittedly quirky archive of the minor” (Morrison qtd. in Bow 18)—the minor, in this case, being the narratives formed by and about Asian Americans and other racial anomalies in the segregated south.

Framed by an introduction and an afterword, the six substantive chapters of Partly Colored are divided into two parts: Chapters 1 through 3 focus on the ways in which Asian Americans, mestizos, and American Indians distance themselves from African Americans in order to promote their racial identities as more favored and hence less inferior than their black American neighbors. Chapters 4 through 6 look at specific Asian American narratives, created primarily after the contemporary civil rights movement in a post-segregation era, in order to investigate the means by which these Asian American subjects narrate and negotiate their in-between-ness or, in the words of Bow, their “interstitiality.” Indeed, like the term “intermediacy,” “interstitial” is another phrase that Bow uses to theorize her ideas about racial anomalies in segregated southern spaces. Both terms convey the sense of the ambiguous, and in some cases ambivalent, racialized subject—of one who is in-between supposedly fixed racial categories. The former term, “intermediacy,” connotes one who is a stepping-stone on the way to or from a more desired subject position. The latter term, “interstitial,” demonstrates a liminality and porousness that denotes instability and fluctuation. In this sense, both “intermediacy” and “interstitiality” are perfect words to encapsulate the indeterminacy of existing as Asian American amidst a set of racial codes predicated on white supremacy and black oppression; as Bow affirms: “Asian America is a site of multiple ambiguities against which, I would argue, the complexity of black/white relations—often conflated with ‘race relations’—stands out in heightened relief” (225).

In the first three chapters of her work, Bow deftly demonstrates how various communities living in the segregated south—the conjoined twins, Chang and Eng (subjects of Chapter 1), Lumbee Indians (subjects of Chapter 2), and Chinese Americans of the Mississippi Delta (subjects of Chapter 3)—negotiate as intermediate and interstitial bodies within the racially demarcated terrain of the segregated south. Here Bow’s training as a literary critic is in evidence through the skill with which she analyzes the various narratives that these subjects tell about their in-between condition and the ways in which their narratives, in turn, produce a counter-narrative, one that Bow rightly understands as a form of disavowal from African American abjection while…

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