Asian, whatever that means
On November 9th, at the UBC Creative Writing program faculty reading, writer and post-doctoral faculty member Ray Hsu took the stage, a beer bottle in hand, and asked if anyone had heard of the phrase “Asian flush.” After a stunned silence the audience murmured. Three hands went up. What followed was a question and answer period on the term “Asian flush,” and the definition of “white balance” in film. Laughter and nervous shouts could be heard as he read out the Wikipedia and Urban Dictionary definitions, including examples of usage. Meanwhile, he slugged back a beer, and turned red before our eyes.
In the last few moments he switched gears. “I teach the Asian Canadian Writing class, and the most common question I get asked is 'So, is everyone in the class Asian?' And I say 'No. Whatever that means.' And then they say, 'Is everyone in the class Canadian?' And I say 'No. Whatever that means.' Then they say, 'So, is everyone in the class a writer?' And I say no.'” The audience chimed in with him: “Whatever that means.”
The next day, the Maclean's article “Too Asian?” hit the internet. People from the class began to send him the link. “The latest media shitstorm,” one of his students wrote. It was almost as though his performance was a response, before the article had even come out.
I ask Ray about his thoughts on the article, as an artist, poet, a teacher of Asian Canadian Writing, and a board member of the Asian Canadian Writing Workshop.
It's been a couple weeks and many people have responded to the Maclean's article. What are your thoughts about it?
It's strange. Not just because what's inside it, which is what it says and how it says it – how the piece is organized and the fact that a huge chunk of the beginning is devoted to subjective claims of white people about so-called asianness of universities. But also it was strange how it was marketed. When you attempted to share it on social networking, it automatically pulled up the title “Too Asian” and the byline “some frosh don't want to study at an 'Asian' university.” That byline shows how Maclean's wanted it to circulate. They wanted it to circulate as a provocation.
Within that the only thing that's highlighted is “white” perception. Which is more telling. It's sort of like the journalistic inverted pyramid. If you were to take that and impose it and impose that on the article, we would know that the stuff at the beginning is supposed to be most important and the stuff we get at the end is least important. It's a strange article because Maclean's seems to have wanted to forward something, to make a name for itself and make something viral, so-called, on the backs of what is really a fiery jab.
It's also timed with a lot of fear mongering around China, and that's one of the reasons it's being circulated this way is that it focuses on the idea of “Asian” domination. It has come out around the same time as this American political ad that has been circulating in China as it has been airing on American television.
What is it about the idea of “Asian” domination that has teeth right now?
It's the idea of the threat that China poses to US dominance of the global financial system. China has recently become the world's second largest economy second to the US.
Did the circulation of this article complicate your experiences as a UBC faculty member?
Being a member of UBC faculty but also of my network of friends means that my network of friends students and colleagues sent it to me and said “Hey have you seen this?” They were curious to hear what I think about it as someone who is partly an agent of the academy, of the university, and therefore I'm positioned to comment, to a lot of people. The thing that I find most valuable is that I'm having this conversation with people close to me, people around me, friends and colleagues. People are excited to talk about it in the first place, because people are trying to orient themselves relative to this article They're trying to figure out how they feel about it and what it means.
Also, one of the things that's interesting to me is that the “Asian flush” performance almost seemed to be a response to the article even though it happened to be the night before. My colleague Tetsuro Shigematsu said part of what the performance piece addresses is how “Asians” are characterized as only doing science and math and engineering and playing the violin.
Just by virtue of the position I embody as a faculty member in UBC Creative Writing, it is particularly strange to see the article. And having the “Asian Canadian Writing?” class and having the kind of energy that's within it, it's strange to read the article that attempts to diagnose how “Asians” and “Asian Canadians” supposedly are. But instead it actually ends up normativizing, or producing what it claims to diagnose.
Do you think it could be said that Maclean's did something good by provoking this dialogue?
No. It's not the article's emphasis. It provoked resistance. It provoked friction.
What effect does it have, if any, on the course you're teaching as a potential site for, as you say in your syllabus, exploring or exploding the category of “Asian Canadian writing”?
I think a lot of people inherit uncritically an essentialized notion of what the category of “Asian Canadian” might mean. And that's the thing that I fight against in and around the class. There's a whole set of questions that people ask me, and many people don't realize that they ask a similar set of the same questions in the same order.
And that's an inheritance of the blunt instrument that is Canadian multicultural policy. In attempting to recognize and respect everyone's happy compartment, under Canadian multicultural policy, it's like hey, it's the time of the year we can break out this festival in which everyone can wear their ethnic clothes and eat their ethnic food.
Let's say “white” folks understand Asianness as something that's essential, sacred, and cannot be touched, when in fact that's wrong. It flattens so-called asians into cartoon characters, as if we're all the same and as if we share some sort of essential experience.
We're all different. We're as varied as any other artificial group, like “white” people. “White” people are very varied, partly because it's an artificial category. It's a convenient category. We could theorize it further and say the category of “Asian” makes sense because it's in resistance to the category that lumped together various groups worth discriminating against under immigration law.
This is not to say the category should then be tossed out. Tetsuro and I are very different from each other. I'm “Chinese” so to speak. He's “Japanese” so to speak. What we do share is that somewhere down the road, people we were related to were treated differently under immigration law. It's a social construct, but it is something we share. What we share is differential treatment by the state. That's not meaningless . It's not as if we share an essential experience like food or costumes or whatever – it's the fact that this social category continues to have effects on us. We can turn that around and use it as a rallying point.
The other point being the question that everyone always asks: “Is everyone in the class Asian Canadian?” And it's almost exclusively “white” people who ask me that. It seems that to a lot of “white” people, what it means to be Asian Canadian is perfectly clear. It has to do with a phenotype. Is it that easy to tell? People could be biracial. There is such thing as “passing.” What's more, because because no one stops to question the category of asian, no one stops to question the fact that not even everyone in the class is Canadian.
Because everyone is so obsessed with the phenotypical questions about what it means to be “asian”, they don't ask questions about what it means to be Canadian, about citizenship itself, or writing as a practice.
In fact, the name of the class is – in quotation marks, with a question mark - “Asian Canadian Writing?” – and it's for people who have investments in any part of that category.
That's the same thing Maclean's did. They put their title “Too Asian?” in quotation marks, with a question mark.
What's interesting with the question mark and the quotation marks is, how did our employment of the same tools create differences and similarities in people's responses? We both used the same punctuation for different reasons. Maclean's were trying to protect themselves with punctuation sleight of hand, to have their cake and eat it too. With the quotation marks and the question mark they can distance themselves. They can plant the idea in people's heads while protecting themselves from claiming responsibility for forwarding those questions.
The questions that people ask about the class are a form of control. For one man I spoke to, it was an interrogation, and when I came out with an explanation for the class that he was satisfied with, he let me off the hook. He assumed I was coming from an essentialist position. And he's a “white” man who teaches in Asian studies. Which makes it all the more astonishing.
The reason why the class is so rich, but for a reason people from outside can't understand, is that the class is a bundle of desires, and outside the class it's a bundle of desires. People outside the class don't want to seem dumb. It's like, “Of course I know what all of this is about.” It's the feeling of “Oh yeah yeah, I'm not an outsider,” or at least, “I'm an outsider who's in the know about you insiders,” when really, the thing is that the people who are apparently insiders, like the people in my class, are just as unsure.
The only thing that would really help is for the people who have to pretend that they're in the know to understand that people who appear to be insiders are just as unsure about the categories. Because brown people are just as unsure about their relationship to the category, it'll lead to things like when we go to Word On The Street, a local writing festival, and a so-called asian person who has written a vast body of work about all sorts of things will self select work that is “asian” with “asian themes” to justify their place on the panel.
It's like what the poet Harriet Mullen experienced. Editors of an anthology decided to pick something straight forward from her work for their ethnic anthology, as if people of colour can't write anything avant garde. This imits the range of affects we see in their writing, and makes it appear that avant garde work is the arena of “white” people.
In class I asked, “Why did you all pick the themes you chose to read about today?” And that's because people who are brown are just as worried about fitting. You feel as though you have to play a role that's been prescribed to you, playing towards people's sense of essentialized experience. Someone who is so called asian might think, I can't just bring something that's avant garde -- I have to bring something about food that that my family made, what we talked about at the dinner table. If so called asian people are just as nervous about how they relate to the category, they're not insiders. So if a “white” person feels that she or he needs to say “I'm hip. I get it,” – nobody gets it. Nobody's an insider. If you have some humility, you'd see that there is no secret. There is no club.
I heard second hand that someone, in order to make their story “fit” the class, changed the wife in the story to someone “Asian.”
The Maclean's article also lumps together people who are “Asian” and “Asian Canadian.” Danielle Thien and I went to the Chinese Canadian Literature conference sponsored by the Chinese Embassy at York, and the scholars from China didn't perceive us as fitting in at all. There is not only a gulf between “Asians” and “Asian Canadians”, which can be seen from this conference, but there's a gulf between Asian Canadians in terms of what they want out of the category. They might fight between each other because there's a difference of political goals.
In terms of the article, what sort of response do you think is appropriate?
The final lever I want to pull is very much a questioning of the entire category of “Asian” and “Asian Canadian.” That's what I want out of my class, and right now I wonder if the people who are going to respond to the article might be fighting to protect an approach to the category that I don't believe in.
Should folks boycott Maclean's?
What does boycotting Maclean's mean? Not reading it? You and I don't read it anyway. Maybe what we should be doing is reading Maclean's. Just to reflect on Bruce Robbins, a literary critic who teaches at Columbia and who led a workshop I took at the School of Criticism and Theory – one of the things that he does is that he reads a lot of stuff he disagrees with. He read Thomas Friedman's The World is Flat, which is about globalization and putting everyone on a level playing field. On one hand Bruce Robbins might disagree, but he will read Friedman and pull something out of it that Friedman hadn't intended.
Bruce Robbins will read Naomi Klein and read contradictions into what she says, contradictions that self-congratulatory leftists would want to gloss over. He'll read Noam Chomsky and find contradictions in that. He's doing exactly the opposite of what a leftist might want to do, which is vilify and demonize Friedman and put Chomsky and Klein on a pedestal as though they're beyond criticism. For Bruce, none of this is beyond criticism. If I were to take his example, maybe we should all be reading Maclean's. Maybe we should all be watching Fox news.
But then also, Maclean's might be doing something interesting despite itself. It would be almost too easy for Robbins to go read Thomas Friedman and say look at this bag of tricks that Friedman is using. In that sense he would be a good leftist, but he doesn't do that. He reads Friedman against the grain. It would be the equivalent of reading the Maclean's article and saying, “Wait a minute. Is it possible that in spite of itself, it's saying something other than it meant to say?”
It intrigues me, this way of doing things. Because what does boycotting it even mean if you don't even read it in the first place?
Would you agree with the blogger who described the article as raising the bar for journalistic racism?
It seems to be after something specific. And I think a lot of it does have to do with connecting up to a current climate of fear to do with economic shifts between the US economy and China, as evidenced when we juxtapose the American scare-mongering video with this article.
To say that it's simply racist and end the conversation there is to maybe stunt a question of “why?” Why are particular buttons being pushed? Why is the fear anchored in higher education at this point?
It's because higher education is seen as job training and the taking of jobs as already present or just around the corner. The way in which higher education is supposed to be training for future jobs points to future takeover. The reason the article is important is because it's saying “There's going to be a big change soon.” And that coincides neatly with fears that the US will soon lose out to China. It's the idea of the thing just around the corner. It's talking about universities, and that's because it's got an eye towards the future economy.
Speaking of “insiderness,” how do you think this article might effect the reputation of “insiderness” that Maclean's has enjoyed in regard to evaluating Canadian universities?
How are rankings related to race? How are we going to look at the rankings differently now? In The World is Flat, Thomas Friedman tells and anecdote to his kids. He says, “If you don't work hard, the jobs that you were going to have are going to be off-shored to China.” It's hard not to see what Maclean's is saying in the article, when it cites a parent going up to an “asian” student and saying “You stole the spot of my kid.” And the student says, “I worked hard for it.”
In a sense Maclean's is saying, “It's a meritocracy and you should work hard, because there's this group that works harder than you and you will lose out to these people.” It's a xenophobic angle that's pointing to a kind of a crisis: “white” folks are worried that they're resting on their laurels and being too decadent, having too much fun. And at least, this is what this tone is speaking to, perhaps a “white” anxiety-- Are we having too much fun? Are we working hard enough?
The fear mongering ad shows a professor in the future, at a university, talking about the past, how Chinese students took over economically, but addressing Chinese students who are to reproduce that dominance in the future.
There are articles out on how there's cut throat capitalism in China between different internet companies, and it underscores this sense that, wow, the Chinese can do capitalism better than we can.
The idea is, capitalism is supposed to be down and dirty, and they're really down and dirty. They've learned from us how to play the game better than we've been playing it. It's the idea of looking at a person who's kind of evil and saying, well, they're just willing to go places that we aren't. So in a sense the idea is that we've been practicing a weak, more principled, more noble capitalism. We haven't been willing to go more down and dirty and that's why we're being taken over. Which is like the moral element of studying all the time vs. also having some fun and being a good well rounded human being; the fear that by being a good, well rounded human being you are somehow losing out. It's a morality fable. It's an eat your veggies sort of thing.
One wonders if it's a morality fable about capitalism and people who are single minded in their pursuit. The idea that there is a choice between studying all the time and being a full human being and having fun. It's a “Are you willing to pay the price for success?” sort of thing, because there's supposedly a group of people who are paying that price, “Are you willing to make that bargain too?”
And in this morality fable, it makes success sort of a product of choice. “You can either go study all the time and be successful, guaranteed, or you can party and slack off and watch the Chinese dominate. Your choice.” Indeterminacy here is not an issue, because it's a morality fable. As though your success is the product of good choices.
Part if the dynamics of this article is self-flagellation for “white” people. “If you let Asians take over it's because you made a poor choice. And if Asians work hard and you don't, they should take your job.” – the underlying premise is that it's about choices, and what hangs in the balance is the future economy-- “China, and Asian Canada are pretty much in cahoots about this. Who will lose out is you white people.”
Like what Friedman said in the morality tale for his kids: “You should work hard, but the counter balance is, the jobs should go to people who work hardest.” There's a story being told about capitalism.
How would you describe your students' collective response?
They were expecially interested in a collective response and more than that, they were interested in a collective creative response.
The collective response is a video covering We Are the World. Youtube is the fourth largest search engine, but there are no mentions of the “Too Asian?” article on Youtube, so it can be addressed there.
As for the content, it's because it's hilarious. And there are already responses that are in the register of letters to the editor. This is a response in a different register. And it's also because this form allows for a different type of collectivity and participation.
The students see this as an intervention in the usual division between art and politics. They might not articulate the fact that they're interested in an intervention into that border, but many of them pass around Youtube videos and links for fun, so they see that this is the sphere in which a different type of response could be made interesting and circulable.
They're interested in bringing together thing from one realm to another, which is to say, a social and political response, and on the other hand the viral-dimension of certain cultural objects.