- Naomi (Obasan)
Binaries are forever woven into our literature, whether in classical antiquity and mythological archetypes or contemporary fiction and the fairy tales of our childhood. As Hegel posits, this binary relationship is more than often “unequal and opposed… one is the independent consciousness… the other is the dependent consciousness whose essential nature is simply to live or to be for another” (544). This lord/bondsman (master/slave) relationship in turn mirrors the other significant binaries found in society – good/evil, white/black, man/woman, etc – in which one side is always favored above the other.
But what about West/East?
Post-colonial theory states that the East is a fabricated construct of the West, that is, what defines Asia, its inhabitants and culture is what the West believes or deems it to be. Following this line of argument, it is clear that the West holds considerable power and influence over the East. The West is the master, the East its slave. Edward Said argues in “Orientalism” that in addition to being a cultural hub, “the Oriental has helped to define Europe (or the West) as its contrasting image, idea, personality, experience… The Oriental is an integral part of European material civilization and culture” (1866). Even more importantly, Said argues that by “setting [European culture] against the Orient as a sort of surrogate and even underground self,” it grabbed the reins of control and authority (1868). The combination of European colonizing much of the Asian continent/Pacific islands and viewing the native people as something uncivilized and in dire need of cultural edification allowed the White Man to tip the scale of balance between the two parts of the world. Classic literature is filled with stories of power struggles and the fear of the “Other” – for example, Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, or even Shelley’s Frankenstein.
(Larger version found here )
This semester, I took Asian American Fiction with Professor Turnmeyer. I signed up for the class for my last general education credits, not really expecting much self-discovery. I guess I figured that since I was Asian American, the class would be “easy” – or at the least, interesting and relevant to me. Part of what I had to come to terms with – aside from considerations about my own identity as half Japanese/half white and confronting the horrible reality of my grandparent’s internment during WWII – is that the East really is modeled and controlled by the West. At least, that’s what I got from the fiction we read. So instead of applying the theory to a single text, I’m going to show how it appears in works by several Asian American authors.
Throughout three works of fiction that we read in class – Don Lee’s Yellow, Joy Kogawa’s Obasan and Jessica Hagedorn’s Dogeaters – there was the overwhelming sense that most of the characters were struggling to define themselves against the stereotypes and assumptions that surround the distinction of “Asian” and more importantly, “Asian American.” Coming from backgrounds of Korean, Japanese, and the Pilipino ethnicities – respectively – the stories address the schism between being one race and having another nationality (for example, being Japanese by genetics but American by place of birth). Lee and Hagedorn were born in Asia and subsequently moved the United States later in their lives. Kogawa is an exception, as she was born in Vancouver, Canada, but perhaps her story is much harder to stomach: the internment of Japanese-Canadians during WWII saw Canadian citizens stripped of their nationality simply because of their Japanese ancestry.
Characters in Lee’s short stories (Yellow) often note times and places when they have heard or been confronted with Asian stereotypes. In the story “Yellow”, the character Danny Kim notes that a woman he used to date had the peculiar habit of mocking people, and “eventually her stereotypes about Asians became a source for her romantic repartee… ‘Your manhood,’ she said slyly, glancing down at his cock. ‘If I could find it.’” (Lee 197). Two woman poets – one Korean, the other Chinese – in “The Price of Eggs in China” are deemed the “Oriental Hair Poets, The Braids of the East and the New Asian Poe-tresses” by literary critics who “couldn’t resist reviewing them together” (Lee 20) as if those of Asian descent are interchangeable and not viewed as individuals. Obasan’s narrator Naomi describes a game called The Yellow Peril, ironically made in China, in which “to be yellow in the Yellow Peril game is to be weak and small. Yellow is to be chicken… When the yellow chicks grow up they turn white” (Kogawa 181).
However, of the fictional works we read, Hagedorn’s Dogeaters is the most critical look at the effects of post-colonialism found in a disjointed, un-linear and fragmented account of the citizens of Manila. In fact, the chaotic and uneven description can also be prescribed to all the characters, from The President and The First Lady (obvious caricatures of real-life corrupt Philippine president Ferdinand Marcos and his wife Imelda) to Joey, a gay, drug-addicted prostitute, to Rio, the young narrator – the citizens of Manila are touched in some way by the idea of Western cultural supremacy. The book opens in 1956 with young Rio and her cousin Pucha coming out of an air-conditioned theater after seeing the film All That Heaven Allows. The first page itself makes direct references to Technicolor, Rock Hudson and other film stars, Hollywood, Christmas, “perfect picture-book American tableau,” and the fact that the theater shows “English Movies Only!” (Hagedorn 3). It’s not until the second page where code-switching (switching between languages) appears, a reference to drinking “TruCola” is made and the fact arises that the girls are accompanied by a servant that the reader begins to get the idea that this story isn’t set in the United States. As such, throughout the rest of the book are references to other “Americanized” consumer products like SPORTEX, a sort of Pilipino Wal-Mart, where Rio’s mother buys Miracle Whip and Kraft Mayonnaise along with “local items [like] patis, kalamansi and shrimp bagoong” (Hagedorn 234). There is also a beauty contest in “a nation betrayed and then united only by our hungry for glamour and our Hollywood dreams” (Hagedorn 101).
If Said is correct in saying that “the relationship between the Occident and Orient is a relationship of power, of domination, of varying degrees of a complex hegemony” (1870) then it is obvious that the power and domination lies in the hands of the West. Unable to escape the cultural expectation that “West is best,” all three authors are forced to forgo their cultural identities to align themselves with what or who’s in power. Lee’s characters in Yellow battle cultural stereotypes by acting “white” - most of his Asian male characters don’t speak another language other than English and participate in “white” sports like surfing and golf, instead of something “Asian” like karate or Tai-Chi – while Obasan’s narrator Naomi chooses to remain silent about her feelings on her family’s internment during the war in contrast with her Aunt Emily’s more vocal insurgence. And at the close of Dogeaters, the reader finds out that Rio moves to the United States – just like the author Hagedorn did – shortly after the events that unfold over the course of the story. When she returns to Manila, Rio finds herself “anxious and restless, at home only in airports” (Hagedorn 247). This fragmented, incoherent existence perfectly sums up the experience of being Asian American, of having to embody and satisfy two separate identities and somehow make them one. However, this struggle may be in vain, for in a binary relationship, one side must tip the scale and hold the power.
Hagedorn, Jessica. Dogeaters. New York: Penguin Group, 1990. Print.
Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich. “Phenomenology of Spirit” The Norton Anthology of Theory & Criticism, 2nd. Ed. Vincent B. Leitch. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2010. 544. Print.
Kogawa, Joy. Obasan. New York: Anchor Books, a Division of Random House, Inc., 1994. Print.
Lee, Don. Yellow: Stories. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2001. Print.
Said, Edward. “Orientalism.” The Norton Anthology of Theory & Criticism, 2nd. Ed. Vincent B. Leitch. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2010.1866-1888. Print.