This fall I decided to take advantage of the fact that I’m living in San Francisco and take an Asian American Studies class at San Francisco State University. Most universities and colleges don’t offer Asian Asian Studies courses or have such a department. My undergraduate institution did not. The schools where I’ve taught did not. In fact, SFSU is the birthplace of the academic discipline of AAS. Back in 1968, students demonstrated, occupied buildings on campus, and demanded new fields be introduced into the canon…including the inclusion of Asian Americans. Hence for the first time in the United States, a university offered classes about both the history and present-day concerns of Asian Americans in the fall of 1969 at SFSU. Naturally, I felt very excited to be able to take an AAS class at the very university where the field began.
So thanks to Professor Isabelle Pelaud, I was able to attend her amazing class on “Asian American Women Literature and Arts.” I don’t think I’ve ever been at a school that specifically looked at Asian American women artists before! I’ll blog more about the incredible artists I’ve now met because of this course, but today I wanted to look at the literature side of the equation. In addition to various critical works, we read three novels: Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior, which was published in 1975 and was the first real break-out hit for an Asian American writer; Fae Myenne Ng’s beautiful Bone, about a Chinese American family from Chinatown who are trying to cope with the suicide of the middle daughter; and lê thi diem thúy’s poetic novel The Gangster We Are All Looking For, which explores a Vietnamese refugee family’s sense of loss as they try to adapt to life in San Diego.
One of the questions that came up in class was whether these works (two of which are considered canonical in Asian American literature) are relevant to today’s Asian American students. Can young people today still relate to the struggles of a Chinese American daughter trying and failing to meet her mother’s expectations? Or to the travails of a very poor family in Chinatown? Or to the story of the so-called “boat people”? I know that there’s a feeling amongst some editors in the publishing industry that these kind of “ethnic” stories are harder to sell these days, that we’re living in a “post-racial” era and young people today just don’t relate to these issues and don’t need stories that specifically show anyone’s ethnic background or experiences. There’s certainly a feeling in Hollywood that generic sells better.
From my experience in class, I can say students today DO relate to these stories and they wonder why these vivid portraits don’t seem to penetrate into other areas of the media–like TV shows or movies! Yes, I wonder that, too.
In our last week of classes, I asked students if they’d be willing to state publicly on my blog why they related to any one of the books that we studied in class. Many of the students had great responses and I’m now going to post them below so everyone can read them, too.
“The sentiment that literature produced by Asian American women has never been or no longer is relevant speaks not only to an unfounded lie but also to a dangerous one. For a long time now, the voices of Asian American women have been silenced by a mainstream that refuses to acknowledge their presence in society. The justifications are largely racist, sexist, or both, but remain nonetheless accepted or infrequently questioned, such is the way we have been conditioned to viewing Asian Americans as ‘others’ and women as inferior. More than ever, there exists the need for that silence to be broken, that lie to be challenged, and that cycle of exclusion to end; to cast aside literature written by Asian American women is to deny the expression and perspectives of those who only enrich our sense of culture as a whole and allow us to see what is familiar to us in a new light.”—Christine Lee
“Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior was a controversial book during the 80’s, yet it is still important today. Children of immigrant parents and their experiences are still relevant. Expectations of what parents want and what children want for themselves are what I can relate to. Balancing two different generations and two nationalities are what young Asian Americans have to confront today as they did when this book was first published.”—Terry Nguyen
“I live in a paradox where my parents, especially my mother, think that I should act a certain way or do certain things. I feel like no matter what I accomplish, it will never be good enough for my mother. Similarly, I felt that sense while reading Woman Warrior as she felt like her life has been a disappointment to her mother because she hadn’t achieved the accomplishments that she [the mother] had, such as getting a medical degree. It was nice being able to read and relate to someone about this because although my Asian American friends are supportive we rarely talk about our feelings of inadequacy.” J. [name withheld by request]
“How do you know where your soul comes from if no one ever told you? In Maxine Hong Kingston’s Woman Warrior she brings to life part of your soul in her short stories. Even though her work was published generations before my time, the interpretation of her stories opened up my soul in acknowledging the meaning behind each story. Not only did I get a better understanding of myself, I also became aware of many struggles and explanations behind Asian American women stereotypes.” –Andrew Shotiveyaratana
“In The Woman Warrior I was stunned by how strongly the idea of silence was demonstrated throughout the book. Speaking as a male Asian American in the 21st century, [I find it] hard to imagine the struggles that many women (especially Asian) had to go through. Even today we continue to struggle for our voices to be heard especially as Asian Americans. I believe that the only way for us to break the silence altogether is if men and women join together for our voices to be heard.”—Jesson Ballesteros
“I can definitely relate to Maxine Hong Kingston’s book, The Woman Warrior. Also coming from an Asian family, the feelings of inadequacy and pressure that the narrator feels are applicable to my life growing up. I got good grades in school, constantly on the honor roll and extremely obedient. To other parents, I would seem like the ‘perfect daughter.’ But the truth is, whatever I did, my parents usually never saw the glass as half full with my excelling grades or my compliant behavior, but only half empty and constantly wanting more. I wanted to be an artist, and they would tell me, ‘Artists don’t make money, you should be a doctor.’ That’s confusing when you’re a young girl. It left me thinking whether I should do what I want or if I should listen to my parents and be what they want me to be, even if it’s what I don’t want for myself. Like the narrator in The Woman Warrior, her mother wanted her to be a doctor but she refuted and expressed that she desired to be a ‘lumberjack or a news reporter.’ Reading passages like this from the book made me feel sympathetic towards the main character, considering I fully knew how she felt. –Kris Bondoc
“In reading The Woman Warrior this semester, [students] could clearly relate their own life to the reading. Coming from an immigrant family myself, [I know that] adjusting to life in America is not always easy to accomplish. Although witnessing and having pain within herself and her family, a family’s bond can be able to withstand any obstacles that come forth. [That’s] something that is timeless and everyone could relate to.”—Luis Cruz
“As an Asian American, I’ve noticed that my Asian culture does not receive as much attention as it should. It wasn’t until after reading Maxine Kingston’s The Woman Warrior that I could find [something to relate to]. In Kingston’s novel, it was evident that storytelling was an important aspect in her life and I can also relate and say storytelling is important in my life as well….The Woman Warrior presented so many stories that it almost felt like reading a book of life lessons, one after another, and it is this format and presentation that really caught my eye, connecting the mind, body, and heart with my Asian American culture. If more novels like these were published and made accessible to the public, more audiences like myself would be able to receive the same experience.”—Lauren Lew
“After I read the book Bone, I knew something that I never knew before. It is very interesting. I think I would recommend it to someone who had never read it before. Also if we want to know more about Asian culture and stories, we should support Asian writers.”—Jianhui Zhou
“[In] the book named Bone, written by Fae Myenne Ng, the author describes the relationship between daughter and parents. I like the way of the [narrator], as the daughter cares about the family and has the responsibility of her family. I like this novel because she makes me feel that I have a similar situation, like being a good daughter and taking care of the family.” –Yen Trieu
“After reading Fae Myenne Ng’s Bone, I found that I could relate to the daughters. As an Asian American young woman, I come from a family of five. I have a younger brother and older sister, and my two parents. I am not so close to my older sister as Leila was not close to Nina. However through distance, when Nina moved to New York, they built a stronger bond. When my sister left for college two years ago, I felt that the distance strengthened our bond as well. Also as siblings I could relate to the [parents’ idea] that one sibling’s wrongdoings could be prevented by another sibling’s influence. When Ona ended her life through suicide, Leila couldn’t help but wonder ‘what if.’ What if she had spoken to her sister? Could her suicide have been prevented? With my family, my brother was failing pre-calculus. My father blamed me for not stepping up to prevent that earlier. I also couldn’t help but feel a little bit responsible. Fae Myenne Ng’s book, and Asian American literature in general, is important to me and to many others. I can definitely relate to most situations. Therefore, we must encourage more of these writings and publish more Asian American literature.” – Corinna Tsieh
“[I really related to] the book Bone by Fae Myenne Ng because I grew up in San Francisco’s Chinatown and her story was similar to mine. Leon the stepfather really reminded me of my father. The old man going to the park gambling with other old people and the relationship between her mother and Leon. Even though my parents weren’t separated sometimes I feel they shouldn’t live together because it was better off that way. No one has to yell and scream at each other. And how her mother sneaks money to Leon. Even though she says she doesn’t care about him, she really does, just like my parents. They would never say they love each other or they care for each other. Although it is the 21st century now and things might seem like [they’ve] changed, it is still very relevant to every 1.5 generation, 2nd generation, and 3rd generation and so on.”—Carol Wong
“As an Asian American woman, I grew up in a large household of 4 sisters and two brothers. My mom was a very strict and strong woman who sacrificed long hours and work shifts to live in America. My dad was an accountant who lived in the Philippines, but transferred money to my mom monthly. Since I’m the youngest out of my siblings, it was always hard for me to speak up and have my voice heard. As the youngest, I was always picked on, made fun of, and never really had a voice. I relate to the book The Woman Warrior as I am trying to find my identity of a strong Asian American woman and having a voice to speak up with my opinions. I think it is always important to say what you want or believe in because it defines who you are as an individual. Voice is a weapon and it’s used to help and individual with the choices and actions they make. Still today, I am learning and working on having my own opinions and saying what I want to say. Breaking the silence is taking a risk, having self-confidence, and courage to break the fears of Asian American women being [seen as] passive and not expressive.” –Fergie Sabado.
“I can still relate to this [The Woman Warrior]. Women are still being looked down upon. In the Vietnamese culture, I feel that if a woman was pregnant without being married or pregnant with someone else’s kid [not her husband’s], they are known to have shame. When I am around people, I can still hear gossip, mean comments about these pregnant women. … I can also related to the way Maxine Hong Kingston explains in her book, women are always expected to do certain things. Everything that I do, my mother always reminds me to think of the family and don’t do anything that would cause the family to look bad. This [book’s issues] still exist today. Asian women are still facing the same problems.” –Tina Truong
“In the book The Gangster We Are All Looking For by lê thi diem thúy is something that is still relevant. Domestic violence is a big problem everywhere in the world and there are still a lot of women dealing with this type of situation. We don’t often hear a lot of Asians when it comes to domestic violence because they don’t really speak about it to other people. One of the reasons is they don’t want their kids to have no father figure in the house or they just want their family to be complete. Being a divorced Asian woman is bad to their profile, it is something that Asians make a big deal about. So this book is still relevant because not a lot of Asian women speak up about the abuse that happened to them at home.”—Honely Hinaniban
“The books Ingratitude and The Gangster We Are All Looking For are books that are still very relevant to us young Asian American readers today. Having to read this for class helps the readers deal with the hardships that they are facing in their own lives. Not only can these books be relevant to Asian Americans but anyone from any race can relate to it too since not only Asian Americans go through what the characters go through in these books.” –Olivia Peshev
“The Gangster We Are All Looking For holds a certain meaning for me since the main character is Southeast Asian. As a person who is Southeast Asian I am able to relate. Oftentimes there isn’t much media representation for this group of people so it’s refreshing to read. More importantly reading this novel makes me realize that it’s okay to not fit certain images of Asian America that is perpetuated in the media.” –Mey Saechao
“The Gangster We Are All Looking For is an inspirational epic…that closely relates to my life. …The novel has allowed me to take a step into the lives of a dysfunctional gangster’s home through the eyes of a young daughter. The novel helps me understand why some of the friends I have may turn to this lifestyle. Whether they are male or female, the unstable household pushes the children away making them want to seek a new home where people will accept and care for them. Some children commit crimes to go to jail so there is a safe place to stay with food and water.”—Nicholas Lew
“I can relate myself to the main girl from the novel The Gangster We Are All Looking For. In the book, the girl is not able to express herself because she does not know English. When I first moved to America, I only knew a little bit of English. It was hard to make friends because I could not communicate with them very well. I understand how she feels when she cannot tell others what she thinks and how frustrating it is to not be able to fit into the community because of her poor English skills.”—Karina DeFazio