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  • The Racial Mundane: Asian American Performance and the Embodied Everyday by Ju Yon Kim
  • Jenna Gerdsen

Ju Yon Kim, associate professor of English at Harvard University and author of The Racial Mundane: Asian American Performance and the Embodied Everyday, discusses the relationship between quotidian behaviors and racialized, non-white bodies in social and performative contexts. She specifically discusses how the practice of certain ordinary behaviors have been perceived by non-Asians and how they have informed stereotypes of Asian Americans.

In the introduction Kim writes, “From inflections of speech and gesture to daily routines, the mundane is the slice of the everyday carried—and carried out—by the body. … The displacement of quotidian behaviors from anonymity into public scrutiny more broadly has played a crucial role in shaping Asian American racial formation” (p. 3). Kim frames her discussion on the significance of quotidian behaviors through Richard Schechner’s “twice behaved-behavior,” Judith Butler’s theory of performativity, and Pierre Bourdieu’s theory of the habitus. Her discussion on the public scrutiny that Asian Americans and many other ethnic minorities experience relies heavily on Richard Dyer’s book White: Essays on Race and Culture and Robert E. Park’s essay “Behind Our Masks.” The ongoing public scrutiny of Asian Americans has led to the creation and perpetuation of widely disparate but equally racist stereotypes like “yellow peril” and “the model minority.” Kim informs readers that Asian Americans’ behaviors and the dominant white majority’s perception of those behaviors have created and sustained these dual, contradictory identities. She writes, “The minutiae of daily life not only imbue these opposing [End Page 522] characterizations of Asian Americans with an illusory precision, but also play a vital role in managing their contradictions. As this book elaborates, the paradox of Asian American racial formation is sustained through the mundane’s ambiguous relationship to the body: it is enacted by the body, but may or may not be of the body” (p. 3). Simple behaviors such as eating rice or studying and excelling at classical music, math, and science have been employed to isolate Asian Americans from other ethnic groups in the United States. The dominant white majority has associated these behaviors with Asian Americans, and this connection between simple behaviors and the Asian American community has perpetuated prejudices and stereotypes.

Within her framework, Kim weaves historical moments such as Chinese immigration to the United States, the Chinese Exclusion Act, Japanese American and Japanese Canadian internment, Japanese “war brides,” the Los Angeles riots, and the Black-Korean conflict with various plays, novels, and films such as Harry Benrimo and George C. Hazelton Jr.’s The Yellow Jacket (1912), Thornton Wilder’s Our Town (1938), Velina Hasu Houston’s Tea (1984), Elizabeth Wong’s Kimchee and Chitlins (1990), Joy Kogawa’s novel Itsuka (1992), Anna Deavere-Smith’s Fires in the Mirror (1992), Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992 (1994), Justin Lin’s Better Luck Tomorrow (2003), and Lauren Yee’s Ching Chong Chinaman (2007). For each of these historical events Kim identifies a quotidian behavior that informs a profound understanding of both the events and the theatrical piece they engendered.

Kim’s discussion of Tea showcases the significance of Japanese women drinking tea. The way in which each of the women drink their tea is a clear indication of how shallowly or deeply they have assimilated into postwar white American culture. The play focuses on a group of Japanese “war brides” who come together and reflect upon their lives in the United States over tea after a fellow Japanese “war bride” in their neighborhood commits suicide. Kim concludes her discussion of Tea by writing:

Confronting the question of how to navigate between the sweeping claims of racial difference that justified the internments and the subsequent valorization of inconspicuous assimilation, the play posit[s] the ritualization of everyday activities as a means of performing community and defying pressures to disappear. … The community performed in [Tea] [is] continuously negotiating, on the one hand, racializations as treacherous “Japs” and on the other, demands that they quietly disappear...


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pp. 522-525
Launched on MUSE
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