- Where I Have Never Been: Migration, Melancholia, and Memory in Asian American Narratives of Return by Patricia P. Chu
For my dad's sixtieth birthday, I took him "home": I bought him and myself tickets to Ireland. I had visited the republic one year prior for the first time; he had never been before. Nonetheless, he had a love for Ireland and a detest for England's imperialists that colored our home. We grew up with a copy of the 1916 Easter Proclamation hanging on the wall. My dad has a shamrock tattooed on his wrist. He's always been one to say that England should just "give us our six counties back," despite not having Irish citizenship. Ireland was the "home" in which he had never set foot. Coincidentally, our visit in 2011 coincided with another person's first step into the country: Queen Elizabeth II. Her unprecedented visit marked the first time an English monarch had set foot in the republic in nearly a century. Now, when I visited Dublin in 2010, I got to tour Trinity College, see the Book of Kells, and most importantly, pour my own pint at the Guinness Storehouse. However, as preventative actions due to fear of a potential IRA resurgence, all of these locations were closed and guarded during the monarch's visit. My dad got to do other things—we saw the Cliffs of Moher, we sat on the Spanish Steps in Galway, we had pints of Guinness at pubs across the country. But the Queen's visit ended up being the best part of my dad's visit home: she ruined his vacation and gave him a personal reason to hate her and what she represents.
Patricia Chu tells her own "going home" story and examines these kinds of sentiments in Where I Have Never Been: Migration, Melancholia, and Memory [End Page 190] in Asian American Narratives of Return (2019), an expertly prepared and beautifully nuanced set of critical readings that bring canonical Asian North American texts into a new light. Engaging with and forwarding the theoretical works of Kuan-Hsing Chen, Paul Gilroy, Marianne Hirsch, George Lipsitz, and many others, Chu advances a novel way of understanding various types of narrative returns, particularly when those returns are to China. Chu recognizes that China's historical and cultural particularities, including the lives of people under Qing and Republican rule, require that narratives functioning as both memoir and "trauma therapy" (p. 40) be read with conscious contextualization. Specifically, the hardships experienced by Chinese expatriates, the history of gender oppression in China, the allure of opportunities available abroad, and the desire among returning elites to reform and modernize China, presage Chu's readings of these Chinese narratives of return. Chu concludes that, because of these factors, it is unlikely to find a modern Chinese American text that displays such proud and nostalgic feelings toward the Qing and Republican eras of Chinese history (p. 215).
Chu offers readers very useful critical keywords for Asian American studies and Asian studies in Asia. To begin, Chu defines seven kinds of returns: three provisional (diasporic visits, transnational commutes, and adoptee return visits), and four permanent (postimperial returns, postcolonial returns, expatriate returns, and permanent returns) (p. 34). Each of these definitions is accompanied by a concise historical contextualization and a quick reading of texts outside of the body of Chu's manuscript for further consideration. Throughout the book, Chu provides a handful of definitions for "narratives of return," my favorite of which embraces stories in which "Asian North American (and Asian diasporic) writers return to their ancestral homelands to seek greater understanding of their familial and cultural roots" (p. 146). As for the term "racial melancholia," if it means something akin to "thwarted assimilation and minority feeling, as expressed in texts by and about second- and latter-generation Asian Americans," then Chu divergently describes "diasporic melancholia" as...