Coming Home: Asian American root journey narratives

This week in North Philly Notes, Patricia Chu, author of Where I Have Never Been, writes about developing her interest in narratives of return.

About sixteen years ago, I decided to go to Taiwan to give a paper on stories about Chinese Americans who visited China for the first time. At the time, I was in the same position as the heroine of an Amy Tan novel, for my mother had died just about a year earlier, and I had never seen mainland China or the relatives who lived there. A friend told me I needed to develop an international audience, and I was invited to attend a conference on history and memory in Taiwan. I hadn’t traveled much during my mother’s illness and my probationary, pre-tenure existence, so I threw together a proposal for a paper on Asian American roots journeys—narratives where Asian Americans returned to their parents’ homelands for the first time. Oddly, I felt at home in Taipei, which I had last visited as a child with my immigrant parents and American siblings. Despite my illiteracy in Mandarin and my failure to buy local currency before leaving the airport (not being used to traveling alone outside the U.S.), I felt happy, surrounded for the first time in years by Chinese people, and staying in a hotel that offered noodles and rice porridge for breakfast.

My conference paper began by describing a set of personal essays about the experience of coming to China for the first time. This was Cultural Curiosity: Thirteen Stories about the Search for Chinese Roots, edited by Josephine M. T. Khu. The writers of these essays belonged, as I did, to the generations born abroad by members of the Chinese diaspora.  Like the writers Amy Tan and Gish Jen, the designer and architect Maya Lin, and many others, the writers in this collection were children of emigrants; having grown up outside of China, they had visited China for the first time as adults after it was reopened to the west. In my paper, I talked about the cultural steps taken by these essayists, many of whom were estranged linguistically, culturally, or personally from their family origins. They studied Chinese; they learned about Chinese customs; and they arrived as foreigners in China, often meeting their relatives for the first time, and struggling to understand the complex family histories their relatives related. One contributor, Lily Wu, recounted how, as visiting student at Beijing University in the 1980s, she was welcomed by her Chinese relatives while studying in Beijing, but was embarrassed to see them, because no one had informed them of her mother’s mental illness. When she got to know her mother’s brother, he and his wife took her to see her mother’s favorite sister, who had cared for her mother when they were girls. Tragically, this beautiful aunt, who resembled her mother, had also become mentally ill and been placed in a mental hospital. When Lily met her aunt, she was stricken, not only by the dozens of stories she had heard by that time of her classmates’ trials during the Cultural Revolution; not only by the terrible waste she could see in her aunt’s desolate existence; but also by the realization of her own loss when her own loving mother, due to her mental illness, had psychologically withdrawn. As I recounted Lily’s tale of overwhelming sadness and tears, and her uncle’s kind response, to my scholarly audience, I also felt stricken with sadness and deeply moved by her story. Khu’s collection had confirmed for me the stakes of this literature of migration and return: loss, mourning, reconciliation, and the telling of stories before they vanished.

Where I Have Never Been_smDuring the next fifteen years, I reviewed over 100 Asian American stories in which the theme of return drove the narrative, opened or closed doors, or defined crucial moments in people’s lives. I considered films, plays, novels, some poetry, autobiographies, memoirs, and family histories, including a wider ethnic spectrum than I can describe here. I saw that my own wish to see my parents’ country was reflected in dozens of Asian American texts and is deeply American. Indeed, the trope of return to a parent’s homeland pops up in American texts from Presidential memoirs (President Obama’s Dreams of My Father) to Hollywood films about adoptees in search of their roots (Lion; Kung Fu Panda 2). Clearly, the search for origins theme had a universal aspect. But what elements of these stories were specific to Asian Americans?

In the case of Chinese Americans, I began by believing that the position of being cut off from the ancestral country during the Cold War, and the resulting alienation and sense of personal and cultural recovery, was in itself a story being examined by a generation of writers. I knew, also, that Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Filipino, Southeast Asian, and South Asian Americans were affected in various ways by the six decades of the Chinese Exclusion laws. Beginning in 1882, Chinese laborers were forbidden to enter the U.S., with exceptions made only for merchants, diplomats, students, those who had previously lived in the U.S. and could claim the right to reenter, and their children. The law excluded those of Chinese descent, whether they entered from China, Hong Kong, Canada, or Cuba. Those of Chinese descent were also barred from applying for U.S. citizenship. And in the decades after 1882, Congress and the courts had extended the exclusion laws to bar most other Asians from entry and citizenship. When I began reading return narratives, I saw how these laws had resulted in many other Asian Americans being separated from their families, even before the Cold War.

In many return narratives, the stories of earlier generations who had come to the U.S. and returned were rendered more vivid in the family histories of present-day authors who returned to Asia to understand, research, and imagine lives and stories that would otherwise be lost. I was fascinated by the stories of Lisa See’s great-grandparents, an immigrant merchant and a runaway American girl who founded an American family despite the laws against their marriage and built family businesses on both sides of the Pacific, and the story of Denise Chong’s grandmother, a young woman brought to Canada to be the concubine of a Cantonese worker; she supported both two families, one in Canada and one in Guangdong province, on the slender wages of a tea waitress. And I was touched by the story of the father-daughter team, Winberg and May-lee Chai, who described the lives of May-lee’s idealistic grandparents, Charles and Ruth Chai, brilliant scholars who studied in America and returned to rebuild China, only to find that all the seeds of the Republican government’s collapse were already in place by the time they returned in the early 1930s. In the course of my research, I had the chance to speak with Denise Chong about what it meant to break her grandparents’ silence and publish their long-held secrets. She responded that she had searched for a way to remember them and their world as they really were, before it was too late. She became my first model for the author who by writing, seeks to repair the past.

At the very beginning of the tradition of Asian American return narratives is the autobiography of Yung Wing, who came to America in the 19th century, graduated from Yale, became a U.S. citizen, returned to China in mid-century to found the first major educational exchange program between China and the U.S., married an American, and published his autobiography in 1909. As an immigrant who worked in both countries but raised his family in America, Yung not only exemplified and anticipated the transpacific travel patterns found in later stories; his book represented the first attempt by a Chinese American writer to present himself both as a global subject (the equal of European globetrotters who documented their encounters with racial others) and as a kindred spirit to the African American authors of slave narratives. At least, that’s how I see it.

Toward the very end of the tradition—the recent past—I turned to the novels of Lydia Minatoya and Ruth Ozeki to answer my own questions about how the task of representing World War Two and the attached historical controversies have been taken up by Japanese North American writers. For many decades, Japanese Canadian and Japanese American writers have written eloquently about the internment of Japanese North Americans, but have been more cautious about addressing questions of Japan’s World War Two history. However, since the resolutions of the redress movements in Canada and the U.S., Minatoya and Ozeki are among the handful of Japanese American authors who have ventured to consider issues of Japan’s wartime past, and public and private memory, while also telling engaging stories about Japanese women who come to America, then return to Japan.

Did I myself ever return to China and find my long lost relatives? Yes, but that is another story.

 

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The Joys and Challenges of Studying Contemporary Protests

This week in North Philly Notes, Ming-sho Ho, author of Challenging Beijing’s Mandate of Heavenwrites about tracing of the long afterlife of the Sunflower Movement and the Umbrella Movement, the subjects of his new book.

Like many book authors, I felt like a weary wayfarer approaching the journey’s destination when my Challenging Beijing’s Mandate of Heaven: Taiwan’s Sunflower Movement and Hong Kong’s Umbrella Movement was printed in January 2019. When receiving the package of author copies, it is not so much an occasion for triumphal celebration, but rather a moment of relief for ending the seemingly endless proofreading and copyediting of a manuscript one has grown tired of rereading.

My book investigates two consequential protests in Taiwan and Hong Kong. Both the Sunflower Movement and the Umbrella Movement took place in 2014, and challenged the growing China’s sharp power in these two societies. The pair of protests shared many similarities, such as student leadership, the participation of educated youth, the reliance on digital communication, and the tactic of nonviolence, which amounted to an inviting topic for comparativists. These two movements have garnered scholarly consideration, as witnessed by the mushrooming publication in the forms of journal special issues and edited volumes. To my knowledge, mine will be the first monograph that deals with both cases at the same time.

When I initiated the contact with Temple University Press editors, the book prospectus stated the goal as a “standard reference of the genesis, the process, and the outcome” of the two major movements. While the first two research targets were relatively straightforward, the tracing of the long afterlife of the Sunflower Movement and the Umbrella Movement after their occupy protesters were gone turned out to be more challenging and exciting than expected.

challenging beijings mandate of heaven_smWhen the book manuscript was submitted in spring 2018, there were already signs that the governments of Beijing and Hong Kong have already ratcheted up repression against Umbrella activists. Six newly elected pro-Umbrella legislative councilors were deprived of their membership due to a technical issue of swearing-in. There were more harsh reprisals that I did not have time to put in the book, such as the draconian sentencing of Fishball Revolution participants (up to seven years in prison), the de-facto banning of Joshua Wong’s Demosisto from electoral participation, the disbanding of independence-leaning Hong Kong National Party, and the criminalizing of disrespectful behaviors during national anthem singing. In spite of these political headwinds, younger generation of activists inspired by the Umbrella Movement continued to explore new zones of engagement to promote the unfinished project of democratization.

Post-Sunflower Taiwan did not witness such crackdown; in fact, the subsequent years have largely followed the aspiration of that movement: the pro-China ruling party was voted out of the office, the rise of a progressive party that emerged to be the third largest in the legislature, and the advance of same-sex marriage legalization. However, in the local election and national referendums held in November 2018, Taiwan’s conservatives mounted a successful comeback in the issues of nuclear energy and same-sex marriage. The pro-China opposition party scored a major victory and now poised to win back the national power in the 2020 presidential election. Such drastic reversal highlighted the perils of the low supporting rate that the current presidency chronically faced since taking the office. The silver lining was that more than twenty newly elected local councilors hailed from the Sunflower Movement. Spreading across a number of political parties, these new political faces were in their late twenties and early thirties, and they have the potentials to become Taiwan’s future political leaders for progressive causes.

Studying the contemporary protests incurs the risk of having one’s conclusions “upended” by the latest development. And by the time an academic book has passed the rigorous review and production process, what is painfully described and analyzed has become the history. The Egyptian Tahrir Revolution of 2011 has inspired numerous scholarly works. Yet, the mass euphoria of ending a strongman’s rule and his police state was all too brief; the current situation in Egypt was as repressive as before, and the knowledge that a “successful” revolution has achieved nothing increased the bitterness.

In 1972, China’s Premier Zhou Enlai purported to claim “it is still too early” to speak of the result of the French Revolution of 1789. Such humble acknowledgment of one’s limitation appears to be a necessary reminder for the students of current affairs. The appraisal of the movement results can be different depending on one’s time horizon. A takeaway here is that one should avoiding using the judgmental terms of “success” or “failure” in describing the end of a protest episode. In the case of Taiwan and Hong Kong, it is tempting to jump into this conclusion because the Sunflower Movement and the Umbrella Movement has such contrasting endings (a triumphal farewell party versus a mass arrest).

In addition to allowing more room for subsequent development, scholarly attention is also better devoted to those intermediating processes, rather than the final results. In the field of social movement study, the focus on “mechanism”, understood as a universal casual relationship and hence a building block for those “processes” commonly seen in protests, have gain acceptance among research practitioners. Implicit in this methodological reorientation is an understanding that social scientists better stay away from the risky business of predicting dependent variables (usually the results of social movements). It will be more productive to locate and unravel those multiple mechanisms taking place during social movements.

There are joys and challenges in studying the contemporary social movements; after all they are one of the contending forces that attempt to shape the world we are now living in. With the cautious avoidance on the movement result and more attention to the intermediating processes, I am hoping my new book can contribute to the intellectual project of making sense of current politics.

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