Pssst. Hey, you. Come a little closer because I have a secret to tell you. I fucking hate Amy Tan. Shocking, I know, but I cannot stand the bitch. OK, OK, to be fair, that’s not exactly true. I don’t hate Amy Tan herself (partly because I don’t even know her), but I hate the trend that she has spawned. Do you remember back in the day when The Joy Luck Club (the novel) was released and became a sensation? It was released in 1989, and the movie was made in 1993. The book became a smash and everyone was reading it. I read it after I discovered I was Asian American and a woman to boot (you remember the drill of how I was was a blonde skinny bitch wannabe early in my misbegotten youth) simply because I had read so few Asian American women before, and I was thrilled to find that we did exist in the literary mainstream. I found it easy enough to read, but I was disappointed by how the characters weren’t fleshed out and how all the women were long-suffering at the hands of evil men. It seemed like if the women weren’t suffering, then they weren’t really living. I didn’t like the book very much, and I put it aside. I was done with it, or so I thought. Unfortunately, America’s obsession with Amy Tan wouldn’t let me be done with the damn book. I remember one woman gushing to me about how, after reading the book, she knew what it was like to be a Chinese woman in America. I didn’t say anything, but I was thinking, “I don’t even know what it’s like to be a Chinese woman in America (I’m Taiwanese), so how the fuck can you?” I dismissed her as a typical guilty liberal, and I moved on with my life. Yeah, whatever. Amy Tan. She would have her flash-in-the-pan moment and then disappear into the night. Oh, how young and stupid I was.
Little did I know that The Joy Luck Club would kick off the genre I like to refer to as the heavily-oprressed, intergenerational Asian women genre. I would throw Maxine Hong Kingston’s Warrior Woman into the mix as well, but that didn’t reach nearly the lofty heights that The Joy Luck Club did. In this genre, the characters were Fresh off the Boat (FOB) Asian. They spoke with thick accents, lived in Chinatown or equivalent neighborhoods, stuck to their own, and worked long hours in a laundry or restaurant. For many years after The Joy Luck Club hit its peak, any female Asian American author had to follow the standard boilerplate of working class FOB Asian women who got oppressed or beaten or abused by the men in their life. I don’t blame the women who wrote these books; I blame America’s insistence in putting the ‘other’ in a palatable box.
My background is quite different. My parents both came to the states (separately, they met in Tennessee) for educational purposes. They both were in MA programs, met, fell in love, married, and moved to Minnesota so my dad could get his Ph.D. in economics. My mom went to work fulltime as a court psychologist. They both speak three languages fluently (Taiwanese, Chinese, English), and they were both involved in the general society. It’s true that they had their group of Taiwanese friends, but they also interacted with general society on a regular basis through school, thorough work, and through daily living–we lived in a suburb of Minneapolis that was predominately white. In other words, my world was far apart from Amy Tan’s world, and I resented the fact that she was considered the sole representation of the Asian American female experience.
It all came to a head when I lived in the Bay Area in 2000-2002. I haunted the local used bookstores with a disturbing regularity, and I always checked out the Asian American fiction section. I kept seeing stories of Asians immigrants grateful to America for all the opportunities they couldn’t find in their home countries as well as the now-ubiquitous tales of intergenerational suffering of Asian women. I was getting more and more pissed off when I picked up a book about–what else–three generations of Asian women (grandmother, mother, and daughter) who suffer horribly throughout their lives. I slammed the book down and exclaimed at the top of my lungs, “If I ever see another goddamn book about three generations of suffering Asian women, I’m going to fucking punch someone!” My friend tried to hush me up, but I had had enough. By that time, Asian American women were flavor of the month, not to mention exotic and trendy, and I was fucking sick of it. I had been dumped countless times for not being subservient enough–by the way, for your information, most Asian American women I know are most definitely NOT shy, demure, and subservient. Deal with it–and I was beginning to get gun-shy about dating white guys. As I am fond of saying, I was born and raised in MN, so I am about as exotic as lutefisk.
I fucking hated it. Up until that point, I read every Asian/Asian American female author I could get my hands on out of a misguided sense of loyalty. After that, I was done. If the story was about FOB, I wouldn’t read it. If the bulk of the story focused on the abuse of women or a woman in general, I wouldn’t read it. Broken English–nope, not for me. I was sick of the shit, and I wanted something more from my Asian American literature, thank you very much. Look, I wasn’t pissed off that these stories were being told. No, I was pissed off that they were the ONLY Asian American stories being told. It’s part of the romanticization of Asians, indeliably reinforcing our otherness while underscoring the pathos. Think of the persisting image of Asian people–FOB, computer geeks, inscrutable, shy, demure (or, conversely, dragon lady scary), subservient, good at math, industrious, smart, violin virtuosos, etc. Many people think of Asians (of the East persuasion) as the model minority, which sounds like it would be a good thing, but it’s still a fucking stereotype that doesn’t allow us to be real human beings.
One of the reasons I make the main characters of my stories Asian American besides being incredibly narcissistic is because I want to show the many different faces of East Asian America. I think it’s about damn time.
P.S. I have much to say concerning the roles available for Asian/Asian American women in television and film, but that will be another post for another day.
P.P.S. I posted a shorter version of this entry over at Yellow Menace. Go check it out.