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Journal of Asian American Studies 3.3 (2000) 378-382

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Book Review


The Barbarians Are Coming

Hunger. By Lan Samantha Chang. New York: Penguin Books, 1998.

The Barbarians Are Coming. By David Wong Louie. New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 2000.

Hunger and The Barbarians Are Coming are texts, which critically engage with what has come to be a common trope in Asian American literature( the disruption of Asian American families. Like many Asian American authors, such as Maxine Hong Kingston, Amy Tan, Hisaye Yamamoto, Fae Myenne Ng, and Joy Kogawa, generational and gendered conflicts within the family embody the tensions between inclusion and exclusion, between success and failure, and between citizen and foreigner in Hunger and The Barbarians Are Coming.

While these stories can be analyzed in terms of intergenerational familial conflicts, gendered tensions, and/or assimilation anxieties, this review considers these texts' contestation to and contextualization of the "model minority myth" in relation to the "forever foreign" stereotype, an especially important intervention for Asian American studies. Hunger and The Barbarians Are Coming both expose how structural and ideological barriers discipline Asian Americans to comply with culturally racist dominant narratives of Asians in order to achieve socioeconomic "success." Through this lens, intergenerational and gendered conflicts within the family come to be interpreted not so much as a tension between parents' cultural attachments and children's assimilationist desires, but rather as displaced frustration, anger, and confusion. In both texts, the authors characterize familial tensions as displacement, exposing that Asian American inclusion to and exclusion from both the privileges of symbolic national citizenship and material socioeconomic success depend upon Asian American compliance with culturally racist narratives about Asians in America. [End Page 378]

Chang's novella "Hunger" exposes the "price" of success most clearly although her four short stories ("Water Names," "San," "The Unforgetting," "The Eve of the Spirit Festival," and "Pipa's Story") also touch upon this issue. In "Hunger," Tian Sung immigrates to America with only his violin and his dream of becoming a famous violinist. But, all his practice and sacrifice never even amounts to a secure job teaching in a university.

Although Tian realizes that his own "failure" was not predicated upon his lack of hard work, but rather was a "punishment . . . because [he] asked for more than [he] was meant to have," (48-49) he refuses his talented daughter, Ruth, entrance to a prestigious music school. Trying to protect her from the exploitation he faced as well as using her to protect his damaged ego, Chang explains that Tian "would not allow them to claim they had discovered her [Ruth]. They only wanted to exploit her. She would be home-coached, her career managed carefully, by him." (71) The pronoun "they" refers to (white) American gatekeepers of Asian American success. In the narrative only one person, Dr. Spaeth, offers Ruth the opportunity to study the violin, yet Chang connects Dr. Spaeth to those who have exploited Tian. What Tian refuses is to let his daughter choose the path he followed because his own experiences led to exploitation and failure. Yet, there is also an ulterior motive, which is to use Ruth to live out his dreams of success. Her success needed to be tied to his success, if not as a violinist, then as her discoverer, her coach, and her manager. Tian's anger at white American gatekeepers is displaced. His frustrations and anger re-embody themselves into a new dream of success for himself and his daughter, but this new dream requires taking on the role of a gatekeeper himself.

Chang's Chinese American family falls apart once Tian tries to take control of Ruth's life. Because Ruth's entrance to the music school (her inclusion) was dependent upon Tian's exclusion from her career, Chang constructs Ruth's opportunity for socioeconomic success as dependent upon a transfer of patriarchal authority from Tian to Dr. Spaeth. At this point in the novella, it is clear that Tian's authority had been undermined through his exploitation and eventual exclusion from the university...


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