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  • Economic Citizens: A Narrative of Asian American Visibility
  • Morris Young
Christine So . 2007. Economic Citizens: A Narrative of Asian American Visibility. Philadelphia: Temple University Press. $45.00

Much of the critical work on Asian American literature has centered on issues of identity, belonging, and challenges to the racist discourses that have constructed Asians and Asian Americans. However, in recent work we have seen moves toward using "Asian American" as a political and analytic category, toward rethinking "Asian American" to reflect diasporic models of identity and transnational movement, and toward understanding Asian Americans as situated and functioning within broader social and political structures. Christine So continues this move in Economic Citizens: A Narrative of Asian American Visibility, examining Asian American narratives as a means of belonging in light of those flows of capital and people that continue to shape and transform Asian America. So considers how the narratives and logic of economic exchange have written Asians and Asian Americans into the social and cultural landscape of America, even when at times various U.S. policies and laws may have excluded them from participation as full citizens. However, unlike previous critical work that explicitly challenged racist discourses by asserting identity, So carefully maps out the economic concerns and practices that inform both the themes and actions of literary narratives, and the production, circulation, and consumption of Asian American writing. As So argues, "it is actually narratives of economic circulation that make the paradoxical nature of those other processes [alienation, assimilation, ethnic and gendered identities] fully visible" (3).

So begins her examination by considering how "Chinatown ethnographies" reflect "The Promise of Exchange," the belief that the exchange of various forms of capital will facilitate the movement toward citizenship. The four "ethnographies" she examines—Fifth Chinese Daughter by Jade Snow Wong, Father and Glorious Descendent by Pardee Lowe, The Flower Drum Song by C.Y. Lee, and The House that Tai-Ming Built by Virginia Lee—have often been characterized as "Chinatown tours," creating and reinscribing orientalist representations of an exotic, foreign land within the US that is easily visited and consumed. While So discusses briefly how these texts have been received and critiqued, she soon turns to the way questions of money structure these narratives. For example, in discussing Wong's Fifth Chinese [End Page 225] Daughter, So traces the different stages and sites of labor performed by the narrator, Jade Snow, that creates a developmental narrative linking types of labor with the development of voice: within the family and Chinatown her labor reinforces silence; in interactions with outsiders and beyond Chinatown, her labor results in a full voice. So's reading of Lee's The Flower Drum Song challenges the Rogers and Hammerstein musical which relies on conflicts between Chinese tradition and Western modernity and belief in the American Dream. Rather, So argues that Lee's text is a complex narrative that illustrates how money structures social relations at both micro and macro levels, whether in terms of relationships between individual characters based on desire of various sorts, or in terms of relationships between individuals and institutions such as banks, businesses, or the government.

So does similar work in chapter two, "The Universality of Exchange," where she reads Japanese American travel narratives as a mode of creating global citizenship. Here she turns her attention to Lydia Minatoya's Talking to High Monks in the Snow and David Mura's Turning Japanese, two memoirs that recount a "return" by each author to Japan. So argues that this "return" to Japan actually facilitates exchange, that Japan becomes a site "on which exchange (economic, cultural, symbolic) is made possible" (74), which runs counter to the alienation and sense of not belonging that each has experienced as Asian Americans in the U.S. However, rather than working as a linear narrative of transaction, where movement from one place (America) to another (Japan) has resulted in a resolution, these narratives, as So argues, are about circulation and movement that are transformative exchanges of value, allowing Minatoya and Mura to reexamine their lives after returning to their homeland, America.

In the third and fourth chapters, So moves to examine how Asian American narratives are located within...


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