A Chinaman's Chance (15 page)

BOOK: A Chinaman's Chance
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I pledge to be an active American

To show up for others

To govern my self, to help govern my community

I recommit myself to my country's creed

To cherish liberty as a responsibility

I pledge to serve and to push my country:

When right, to be kept right; when wrong, to be set right.

Wherever my ancestors and I were born,

I claim America

And I pledge to live like a citizen

I asked the Sons and Daughters to stand and repeat each line after me. They did, tentatively at first. Not all of them would look me in the eye as we stood there facing each other. I kept a brave face and spoke loud and clear with a smile. By the end, as they realized there was nothing untoward or subversive about this ritual, their voices carried more conviction. Afterward, two of the Sons approached me, their faces serious. I was braced to justify myself or at least to humor these men in tricorn hats as they explained their discomfort with my contrived new tradition. Instead one of them took my hand and thanked me. “You've got to keep doing this,” he said in earnest. “All around the country.” The other, teary-eyed, simply nodded in assent, repeatedly, as if not to me but to a voice within.


As manners make laws, so manners likewise repeal them.

—Samuel Johnson

Writing about “The New German Question” in the
New York Review of Books
and whether that nation will be able or willing to be a true magnet for global talent, the historian Timothy Garton Ash once observed, “Germany lags behind France and Britain, let alone Canada and the United States, in emitting those vital, elusive social and cultural signals that enable people of migrant origins to identify with their new homeland.” Which raises the question: Just what are those vital, elusive signals?

They are social norms. They are found in the subtle way people look at each other. They are measured in the response that is evoked when people of migrant origins speak or stand in public view. They can be divined in what everyday conversation in small groups reveals to be acceptable or normal or at least tolerable. They are the little contagions of courtesy or discourtesy, regard or disregard, civility or incivility that bloom constantly across the contours of any community. Laws are in many ways merely the institutional deposit of the ebbing and flowing tide of such oft-unspoken attitudes. Yet if the current were to flow in only one direction, from custom to legislation, then racial segregation and the criminalization of homosexuality and Chinese exclusion might still stand. Laws decidedly change norms. Laws can and do emit vital signals.

The apology that Congresswoman Judy Chu drafted and championed is an exhibit of the interplay of law and norms. It is, in essence, a moral document. It names wrongdoing and apologizes for it. At the same time, the document has special force because it takes the form of law. It is not a press release. It is not a Facebook post. It is not a letter from members of Congress signed on gold-seal letterhead. Nor is it the Magnuson Act of 1943, the wartime exigent by which exclusion was summarily repealed. The whereases and thereforebeitresolveds of House Resolution 683 give it the shape of an official act of government—by our representatives, gathered in Congress—when it is in fact and effect ultimately a symbol. But symbols matter, powerfully. The House apology is designed to evoke the awe that law uniquely can evoke but not to be taken functionally as law. We are reminded of that by its Section 2, the incongruous disclaimer tacked on because some readers of the resolution who are not attuned to the history and the moral import of the symbolic act might otherwise take it as a basis for legal action. The disclaimer is the fine print appended to a contract of recognition and regret.

What the exclusion apology also highlights is the fluctuating distance between first- and second-class citizenship. Just as light is both particle and wave, citizenship is both law and norm. Chinese Americans throughout the history of the nation have—contrary to stereotypes of passive, stoic, silent victims—been active, assertive, and litigious in claiming and securing equality under law. And yet so many still feel the shadow of subordination and second-class treatment and the chill that the shadow casts. This is why, three decades on, the case of Vincent Chin retains such a hold on the imaginations of so many Chinese Americans. Chin was the Michigan man beaten to death with a baseball bat by a white autoworker and his son in 1982 who, blaming the travails of the auto industry on Japan, assumed Chin was Japanese. His killers, after a plea bargain and lenient sentencing, spent not one day in jail. This was a hate crime. But in 1982 there was no such category under law as a hate crime. There was only something timeless: injustice. Though killings like Chin's never became epidemic, his death was and remains totemic. It warned all Chinese Americans that they were still susceptible to fully lawful injustice.

What separates, then, the letter and the spirit of the law? Only convention. What is the difference between first class and second class? Only the difference we think of as normal. Only what we think of as
: who speaks for us, who advocates for us, who embodies us
Judy Chu is the first Chinese American woman to serve in Congress. She represents a district near Los Angeles that is roughly equal parts Asian, Hispanic, and white. She sits on the House Judiciary Committee and the House Small Business Committee. She spends most of her days helping constituents navigate federal bureaucracies, meeting with interest groups, showing up at town meetings, sitting in committee hearings on intellectual property or home foreclosures, proposing and sponsoring bills. Her nephew, Harry Lew, was a Marine in Afghanistan who fell asleep at his post, was hazed and punished relentlessly for three hours, and killed himself minutes later. Now she is fighting to curb the culture of military hazing, an endeavor she knows will depend as much on changing the norms of the armed services as much as the regulations.

Whereas: This is America.

Therefore, be it resolved.

The Iron Chink

One of these is true:

a. Bao-Li “Bobby” Chang was one of the first Chinese Americans to play professional baseball in America (and still one of the few ever to play). Though he never made it to the major leagues, the diminutive infielder established a record for durability, appearing in 983 consecutive games between 1922 and 1930. His achievement was overshadowed, of course, by the Yankee Lou Gehrig, the so-called Iron Horse. But Chang, among his farm club peers on the Peoria (Illinois) Chiefs, was affectionately called “The Iron Chink.”

b. Chinese immigrant fish-butchers worked the canneries of Alaska and the West Coast starting in the late nineteenth century. When a fish-butchering machine was created in 1905 to simulate the effectiveness of Chinese laborers and replace them, it was dubbed “The Iron Chink.”

c. In Locke, California, one of the last surviving towns established by turn-of-the-century Chinese immigrants, a thirty-two-year-old resident named Jen Cheong came up with an idea in 2010 to boost tourism. She started a triathlon to be run in the environs of Locke, along the Sacramento River. In a nod to the Ironman races, she gave it the name “The Iron Chink Triathlon.”


1. Roles

A note to Chinese American actors. Available parts today include:










Intoxicated nerd



Mother (Tiger)


Mogul (foreign)

Gangster (foreign or domestic)

Martial artist

Warrior (enemy, if contemporary)



Parts not available at this time (please check back next week/month/generation):

Romantic lead


Action hero


Loveable loser

Detestable loser


Sitcom dad

Team captain

Ship's captain

Talk radio shock jock





Is Charlie Chan really still the most well-known Chinese in America?

In the 1990s, activist Jessica Hagedorn published an anthology titled
Charlie Chan Is Dead
. This yellowface, pidgin-speaking Hollywood character embodied every kind of condescension, exoticization, and ventriloquism that self-determining Asian Americans were by then determined to throw off. But by 2010, author Yunte Huang, an immigrant from China and an English professor at UC Santa Barbara, had revived the icon in a best-selling history,
Charlie Chan
. In Huang's new take, the aphorism-spouting detective—based on a true-life, bullwhip-cracking Chinese American detective from Honolulu—was actually an admirable model of wisdom, tenacity, integrity, and effectiveness at a time when popular culture had either nothing or nothing nice to say about Chinese Americans. The “anti-Chan clan,” as he put it, hated the stereotype they thought Charlie represented but had not looked closely enough at the books and films to see that he was in fact much more complex.

I admit I enjoyed some of the “Charlie Chanisms” Huang collected in an appendix: “Action speak louder than French.” “Caution very good life insurance.” Or, “Mind, like parachute, only function when open.” But as the traditionalists, revisionists, and antirevisionists debated Huang's book and Charlie Chan's legacy, all I could really think was:
Who cares?
Charlie Chan, honorable or detestable, belongs to another century. I never read a Charlie Chan book, never watched a Charlie Chan movie, never was pricked by a malicious Charlie Chan reference. That his significance is now contested is perhaps a sign of enlightenment, but the contest itself is backward-facing. Who is the
icon? What is the new Chinese American character everyone in America will know, will imitate, admiringly or mockingly, about whom we can all have new arguments? Dead or alive, Charlie Chan is still too much with us.


We Americans absorb, half-consciously, an endless tide of image and narrative. Clips, sound bites, trailers, ads, hashtags, slogans, icons, poses—millions of microperformances, the raw material of myth and imagination. Sometimes stories come to us fully formed. Sometimes they are mere fragments, bits of narrative DNA floating through the primordial soup until by chance they bond with other fragments into lengths of code. These stories are all around us, the air we breathe and the water we drink, seeping into our psyches, telling us, reminding us,
us who we are. A conjured community. A nation.

One afternoon at the Missouri State Fair a rodeo clown can put on a rubber Barack Obama mask, and the rodeo announcer can bait the crowd into a frenzied call for the bull to gore the clown, for the thick rubbery lips of the clown's Barack Obama mask to get trampled. What scenes do the algorithms of our collective cultural memory call up? Klan rallies in midsummer. Billie Holliday singing “Strange Fruit.” But also: Borat, the reckless fool from Kazakhstan (played by Sacha Baron Cohen) in the eponymous mockumentary. Here is Borat, a special guest at an actual Virginia rodeo, improvising a version of the Kazakh national anthem to the tune of “The Star-Spangled Banner” that ridicules America as a country of “little girls.” The fearless Cohen never breaks character, not even when the crowd, unaware of the hoax, grows surly and starts raining boos down on him.

Now envision a different afternoon, just a few weeks after the Missouri State Fair, when the actual Barack Obama, wearing a somber mien, stands before the Lincoln Memorial facing a throng on the Mall for the fiftieth anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King's speech at the March on Washington. Multitudes contain multitudes. The scenes from our memories and the scene before us merge; one tableau black-and-white, another, in living color: it's mythic, epic.

It's like a really good commercial.

And what is my place in such tableaux? Every time I see an Asian face on TV, I make a note of it. I enter it into a mental ledger, silently entering each new instance in the credit or debit column. My daughter pokes fun of me for this unremitting tally. A scarcity mentality, I suppose, is always a little funny, a touch foreign, to those who've grown up in relative plenty. There are certainly many more Asian faces on TV now than there were when I was her age: a Best Buy sales associate helping Amy Poehler buy gadgets, a couple test-driving a Honda, a young woman daydreaming about an LG phone. My daughter sees people like herself when she watches television—certainly more than I did when I was growing up. She sees other images that amuse and distract her—a smooth-talking African American centaur selling deodorant or proliferating clones of a nondescript white guy selling Dairy Queen ice cream or Buzz Lightyear whirling around in Spanish mode. She is imagining a community, a country, where someone Asian is simply part of the polychromatic mix.

That's the thing, though:
someone Asian
. It is a persistent social fact that to the average nondiscerning non-Asian, most East Asian nationalities, looking roughly alike, are interchangeable. A performer of Chinese or Japanese or Korean or Vietnamese descent can be asked to stand in for someone of any or all of those ethnicities. Or someone of a genericized pan-ethnic
category. Add that, then, to the list of allowable roles for Chinese Americans: Someone Asian.


Whiteness is the unspoken, invisible default setting of American life. We frame our conversations about race in terms of how white people see and what they think they see. We imagine that nonwhite Americans want to be more like white Americans. We imagine that to
American is to be white. When racial minorities complain about the
of a public figure like Paula Deen or a
like the TV station airing fake names of the pilots in the Asiana Airlines crash (Wi Tu Lo), they are often told by whites to stop being so sensitive or to take the context of
into account. The ability to dismiss and minimize people of color for being oversensitive is itself one of the privileges that whiteness confers. The broader privilege whites gain from occupying the omniscient vantage point in media and civic life usually goes unnamed.

After George Zimmerman was acquitted of the killing of Trayvon Martin, I wrote a column for
about white privilege. If there was one good thing to come out of that entire tragedy, I said, it was that more white people than ever were expressing solidarity with Martin without pretending that they “were” in any meaningful sense Trayvon Martin. In fact, what prompted my piece was the emergence of a Tumblr site where whites were declaring, “I Am
Trayvon Martin”—that is, they had come to recognize the simple privilege that being white afforded them, the privilege of being categorically exempt from the crime of walking with hoodie.

Many of the thousands of online comments and tweets that followed my piece were a vivid picture of early twenty-first-century white anxiety, if not grievance. The tenor of many was this:
Me, privileged?
I work hard/I'm struggling/I've earned everything I have.
That was an understandable set of reactions, if somewhat blinkered for not considering that one could be simultaneously a stand-up guy (or hard-luck case)
part of an in-group that pays no social tax on pigmentation.

More interesting were the variations on another theme:
A nonwhite guy who worked in the White House is saying that
people have privilege?
George Zimmerman was Hispanic, and you're Asian, so what the hell are you talking about?
Or, simply:
What right do you, a Chinese, have to talk about white privilege?
The theme here was who has standing. Who has standing to say that white people are privileged? Who has standing to speak and be heard at all on race (or on anything)?

So much of the fervid online debate was unbreakably binary. One was either “beyond race” or a “race baiter.” One was either defending white people or attacking them. Zimmerman was either a thug or a victim. Martin too. All of which led me to wonder: In an America where race is still so bifurcated, still so often reduced to black/nonblack, or white/nonwhite, how am I to be understood? As an honorary white? Honorary black? What about the actual honor of simply being seen?

2. Scripts

What makes a culture?


What makes a pattern?


What makes a habit?

Choice, repeated.


In 1989 literature professor E. D. Hirsch published a slim book called
Cultural Literacy
, which asserted that success in this society requires command of a prodigious amount of “background knowledge”—tens of thousands of concepts, legends, literary references, historical facts, sayings, scientific terms, social schema—asserting further that too many Americans were illiterate in this national culture. The book's appendix, which ended up drawing far more attention than the scholarly argument that preceded it, was a list of five thousand essential cultural references. The list, claiming to contain “what every American should know,” was instead seen as a kind of litmus test: If you don't know these things, you are not really American. Arguments ensued.

These were the years when the “culture wars” really got their name, when a great debate took place in America about whether the work of so-called Dead White Men should be recognized and taught as core to the country's history, literature, and identity. That debate is of course still with us. But in the intervening decades something has shifted: the culture.

Hirsch was called a neoconservative, a Eurocentrist, an elitist, even a racist. But he remained adamant that as much as multiculturalism was to be admired, there needed first to be a firm foundation in a single common culture. Hirsch, we can see now, was right in one important way and wrong in another. He was right to claim that background knowledge matters. Its civic-commercial-ideological vocabulary confers social, economic, and political advantage. It is power. One of the book's best passages quotes the radical Black Panther platform of 1972, filled with allusions to the Declaration of Independence and mimicking the structure of early American jeremiads. The point: conservative forms need not preclude radical content; indeed, radical content becomes far more potent when delivered in conservative forms.

Hirsch was wrong, though, to imply that multiculturalism and a single common culture were at odds. In America, what has happened in the last two decades is that we have come to see—we have chosen to see—that multiculturalism
our single common culture. Understanding why Muslims worship the way they do, how Chinese people think about elders, what threads of African custom made it into African American folkways: these are not anthropological curiosities for a white observer to consider. They are the vivid particulars that reveal what is universal about American life and culture—namely, its ability to synthesize cultures from around the world and generate strange, unwieldy, inelegant, beautiful combinations.

Of course, the soil here is very English—the language, traditions of law, social organization, and frames of intellectual and artistic reference that come from England. But then, the soil is also very African—the way the brutality of slavery and the resilience of slaves bent and annealed every fact of life here, from the wording of the Constitution to the cadence of our speech to the forms of our faith and anxiety of our moralism. And whatever else was originally in that soil, its fruit have transcended those origins. America grows stuff that never grew in England or Africa. We are what Albert Murray, who, like Ralph Ellison, played the blues in his music and his writing, called Omni-Americans.

Perhaps Hirsch came to realize this. Not long after his book came out, he published the first of several editions of a
Dictionary of Cultural Literacy
. What's striking about the most recent, from 2002, is how multicultural, how
, it is. Where the 1989 list had nothing to say about Islam, the 2002 dictionary goes on at length about Ramadan and other Muslim rituals. Where the 1989 list mentioned China but not Chinese Americans, the 2002 dictionary includes an entry on the Chinese Exclusion Act. It's striking, too, and fitting, that the 2002 dictionary is the last edition published. We've moved on. The tempo of meme creation and destruction has become too fast for one person to record. The age of Diderot and his encyclopedia or Hirsch and his dictionary yields to the age of us and our Wikis.

In the beautiful, chaotic, stream-of-consciousness sprawl of his Depression-era trilogy
, John dos Passos includes, over a span of 1,240 pages, two mentions of Chinese people. An unnamed “chinaman” (de-capitalized just so) who speaks with a British accent appears for a few pages as the chauffeur. And there's this, from one of the “Camera Eye” dream-like interstitials:

BOOK: A Chinaman's Chance
6.43Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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