- Interpreting Asian American Identity and Subjectivity
A department chair once advised me to highlight questions of identity in the posted course description for my Asian American Literature course as a way to attract greater student enrollment. This suggestion, canny as it was in its marketing strategy, illustrates a distinction that is often made between Asian American Studies and other fields of ethnic studies. While African American Studies, Chicano/a Studies, and Native American Studies courses are generally thought to focus on politics and history, the central concern of Asian American Studies courses is assumed to be identity. Specifically, Asian [End Page 867] American subjects are interpreted as the site of struggle and reconciliation between "Asian culture" and "American culture." Thirty-plus years after Ben R. Tong and the Aiiieeeee! editors made their critique of the notion of the Asian American "dual personality," the presumed opposition between Asian and American lives on. This pervasive paradigm of identity conflict is reminiscent of, even as it departs from, the figure of the tragic mulatto/a in the nineteenth century. An essay by Christopher Douglas in Zhou Xiaojing and Samina Najmi's Form and Transformation in Asian American Literature helps us understand the shift from mulatto/a to Asian American as figures of racial and national tension, from a biologistic notion of warfare between two blood strains, to a culturalist concept of assimilation into the modernity of the US nation. In his reading of Jade Snow Wong's Fifth Chinese Daughter, Douglas shows how twentieth-century social science discourse has largely replaced biological notions of race with ethnographic notions of culture. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, Asian and Asian American subjects were considered alien by virtue of biological race. The more common contemporary gesture is to consider Asian and Asian American subjects alien insofar as they adhere to Asian culture. Hence, American-born-and-raised Asian American subjects are assumed to embody an identity crisis, pulled between Asian cultural tradition and American cultural modernity.
The continual engagement with questions of identity in Asian American Studies is evident in three recent works of literary criticism. At first glance, it would seem that these three volumes tackle different topics. Tina Chen's Double Agency: Acts of Impersonation in Asian American Literature and Culture explicates a theory of impersonation; Jennifer Ann Ho's Consumption and Identity in Asian American Coming-of-Age Novels considers food and other tropes of consumption; and Zhou Xiaojing and Samina Najmi's edited volume Form and Transformation in Asian American Literature foregrounds the significance of genre. As it turns out, there is significant overlap among these three volumes. Analyzing six bildungsromans, Ho demonstrates in Consumption and Identity how these coming-of-age stories center on Asian American identity formation. Nine out of twelve essays in Form and Transformation discuss the bildungsroman, the autobiography, or some question of identity. Double Agency demonstrates how impersonation constitutes Asian American identity in history, drama, and fiction. In short, all three of these critical volumes of Asian American literary criticism are fundamentally concerned with identity and subjectivity. While Asian American literary studies has productively engaged in the last two decades with theories of capital, colonialism, language, culture, ideology, race, gender, nation, kinship, queerness, and the postmodern, a return to identity as a kind [End Page 868] of master trope seems inevitable. Identity is, of course, inseparable from the modes of inquiry that I've catalogued above. My intention is not to suggest any kind of distinction between identity and broader issues, but rather to observe the apparently irresistible gravitational pull of identity and subjectivity in Asian American literary studies.
Double Agency is the most theoretical work of the three volumes, and the most deconstructive in its questioning and undoing of oppositions. Postulating Asian American identities as performed, Chen argues that...