A Chinaman's Chance (17 page)

BOOK: A Chinaman's Chance
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This parable, which is perhaps less Hollywood than his original story, doesn't require that Lin now become a superstar. He's not a headline-generating player anymore, although he doesn't exactly sit at the end of the bench either. That's all right. He is now showing others, with an open heart and an uncertain sense of where things will go next, how to transcend the limits of another game.


Character Game:

When I _________ , I am acting Chinese.

When I _________ , I am acting American.


Saul Bellow and Philip Roth chronicled the twentieth-century assimilation of Jews, and they did so in a way, with a Jewish sensibility and Jewish voice and Jewish humor, that in the end made
sensibility more Jewish. For their part, Chinese American artists today tell a different kind of story: not of assimilation but something else. “Assimilation” is a word from a passing age; it meant trying to fit in with the white people who dominated the territory. Today's challenge is claiming and renaming the territory. It's showing there are many more ways now to be Chinese American and therefore American.

One path is to be like Bill Cheng and just claim stuff people didn't think you could ever claim. Cheng is author of
Southern Cross the Dog
, a novel of the American South set in the Negro quarter of a small town in Mississippi after the 1927 flood. Cheng, a recent MFA from Hunter College, lives in Brooklyn and has never set foot in the South. He is young, and his soft face and fuzzy hair make him look not yet fully awake, or even fully formed. Yet his command of Delta cadence, his painterly eye, his feel for the structure of myth have dazzled some of the best novelists in America.

A few critics mistrusted the dazzle. Was this an audacious feat of imagination, they wondered, or a merely creditable act of impersonation? Was this an authentic voice, or was it ventriloquism? (When is a novel
an act of ventriloquism?) Cheng doesn't appear to care. He's just writing his passion, which is not Chinese in subject matter or style or implication. He's telling a great story about a time and place that captured his imagination. His path is to defy expectation of role/voice/slot/topic.

Another path is to be like Gish Jen and to happily write about being Chinese American, exploring the meaning and absurdity of acculturation and self-reinvention in acclaimed novels like
Mona in the Promised Land
Typical American
and in a recent set of essays about craft across East-West borderlines called
Tiger Writing
—works layered with wit and compassion for forgivable hypocrisies and the lies we tell ourselves. Jen is conscious of lineages, from her father's father's father on down to her children's imagined children. Her path is to map these lineages, to limn the meaning of Chinese American identity with unflinching eyes and an open heart.

Another path is to inject a very Chinese way into topics that seem to have nothing to do with Chineseness, as the director Ang Lee has done in each of his ambitiously divergent films.
Sense and Sensibility
Brokeback Mountain
The Life of Pi
. Their subjects, plots, and settings are widely varied; what they have in common is that they explore a preoccupation of this Taiwan-born artist, whose choice to make movies discomfited his parents well into
fifties: the conflict of obligation and desire; the malleability of self-story to fit what a culture wants or needs to hear and see; the illusion of individual control or autonomy. Lee has observed that this preoccupation is very Chinese but also that the Chineseness of his artistic obsession and method isn't intentional or even conscious. It's simply the irresistible consequence of
being him

Another path is to displace all the tension and contradiction of being Chinese American into directly allegorical form, as Charles Yu does in his novel
How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe.
This is a book about a time-travel engineer, named Charles Yu, who lives in a bubble out of time, avoiding conflict, halfheartedly searching for a father who disappeared but who bequeathed the very technology that makes time travel possible. Neither the character Charles Yu nor the author Charles Yu says much about being a son of immigrants. Neither one has to.

Another path is to embody in deed and word what happens when you take every model-minority stereotype and fearlessly invert, subvert, convert it into something awesome. This is Eddie Huang, the brash restaurateur and food-show host on Vice TV. His memoir
Fresh Off the Boat
chronicles how he grew up the son of Taiwanese immigrants living against type, playing football and smoking pot and idolizing Tupac. He tried being a lawyer. He tried being a stand-up comic. He tried every way of shadowboxing with expectation until, at age thirty, he came back home to what was always there: food and his love of taking Chinese cuisine and making remixes, with soul food or Caribbean food or French food or whatever else came into his kitchen. His famed restaurant, Baohaus in the East Village, was one result of this journey. His voice—profane, slangy, spicy, hip-hop, Chinese, casual, intense, throwing down,
winging it
—was the other.

Still another path, of course, is to see all these paths as the same path—all leading to a greater knowledge of self and a deeper knowledge that we have more in common than we think. This path assimilates paths into one another. Talk about a Chinese sensibility. (Talk about an American sensibility.)


Improvisation for the Theater
, by Viola Spolin:

Avoiding the How

It must be clear in everybody's mind from the very first workshop session that How a problem is solved must grow out of the stage relationships, as in a game. It must happen at the actual moment of stage life (Right now!) and not through any pre-planning. Pre-planning how to do something throws the players into “performance” and/or playwriting, making the development of improvisers impossible and preventing the player in the formal theater from spontaneous stage behavior.

In almost every case a student new in the theater workshops thinks performance is expected.

Jazz Cliché Capers
, by Eddie Harris:

After about twelve years of copying the top twenty guys on your particular instrument, you should be able to construct your own ideas of a constructive solo. A musician who solos who has not copied from recordings of other artists may find himself soloing just like a certain recording artist without knowing it. The funny thing about it is the copier thinks he's the original player of this style.

I think you should copy the solos from each record—note for note; by this I mean the “so-called mistakes” also. The “so-called mistakes” the artist made on the record are things I think you should also do—reason being that many times a soloist meant to do something that you thought might have been a mistake.

When I was in high school, having played the violin since fourth grade, I discovered two ways to branch out from the cliché of the excellent Chinese classical violinist. First, my friend Rob Gutowski and I would go to the band room after school and jam. Rob played piano. We'd listened to a ton of Keith Jarrett. Inspired by the epic live improvised concerts Jarrett and his band recorded in the 1970s, we made up mélanges of tonal and atonal, free jazz and modern classical. We had no idea where our “pieces” were going. We just listened intently to each other. Occasionally we had an audience, but mostly it was the two of us in almost a trance state. Those sessions shaped me deeply. They were a respite from all the little ways that, as a Chinese kid in a white school and town, I was always performing.

The other thing I did around that time was try my hand at writing music. I was an aficionado of the Baroque period. Vivaldi was by far my favorite, but I became familiar with the whole ecosystem of composers surrounding Vivaldi in time and in geography, from Corelli and Scarlatti and Geminiani to Telemann and Bach and Handel. I listened to the records, eagerly checking them out of the library or ordering them from Record World using the thick Schwann's catalog of recordings. Whenever I went to New York City, I went to Patelson's classical sheet-music store near Carnegie Hall and bought the complete scores of my favorite concertos. I internalized the patterns, knew who had influenced whom. It got to where all I needed to hear was four or five seconds of a Baroque piece, and I could tell you who the composer was. I could whistle a phrase by one and make up my own ending to it in the style of another. Soon I started to compose short sonatas, then a concerto, eventually a full choral work. The pieces were a pastiche of other people's patterns, mainly Vivaldi and Bach. Because I hadn't learned formal music theory except what I had absorbed from all my score reading, the pieces were not that sophisticated. But they were mine. This was a time when my parents might have preferred I devote energy to mastering the sounds and lineages of Chinese. I had little interest in that. It was also a time, though, when I had a desire
to listen to Top 40 or '70s rock, as everyone else my age was doing. I carved out my own kind of assimilation: assimilating not to the pop culture of that moment but to the music of an era of my own choosing. I lost myself in time and history. I began to make my self.

4. Performers

Susan Cain's book
, a “manifesto for introversion,” as she puts it, describes the moment when the extrovert became the preferred American personality type. It was the early twentieth century, when consumer capitalism was about to become the dominant form of interpersonal interaction in the United States, when Dale Carnegie transformed salesmanship from a skill to a way of being. Cain, citing the cultural historian Warren Susman, describes this as the transition from a “culture of character” in the nineteenth century to a “culture of personality.” In the culture of character, Americans cared about duty, citizenship, honor, manners, golden deeds. In the culture of personality, people want to be magnetic, forceful, energetic, fascinating. Everyone becomes a charmer. Everyone's in the marketplace all the time. Before long, leadership gurus are urging everyone to sell “The Brand of You.”

This selling, this narcissism, this constant impression-management has made our culture solipsistic to the point of a black-hole-like collapse. (And this was even before Facebook.) Such an environment doesn't reward people who, by upbringing or temperament or both, are more likely to downplay individual specialness and deflect individual credit. Which is perhaps why so many Chinese Americans (and other Asian Americans) feel they should sign up for assertiveness training in contemporary corporate America. But Cain's argument is that introversion is not a defect; it is a virtue—and that America's whole way of being is dramatically out of balance. She is right.

This moment, of a great economic reset and a recalibration of America's once unipolar power in the world, may be yielding a new yearning: to stop selling all the time. To release the illusion of control or mastery of our environment. To live a more purpose-driven and relationship-minded life. To swing back toward a culture of character. What will keep America from disintegrating into 317 million salespeople with no customers and no citizens is learning to appreciate quiet cultivation of virtue, to attend anew to manners and golden deeds, to act more with responsibilities and duties in mind, to move with more awareness of both inheritance and legacy.

In short, to become a little more Chinese.

Now, to be sure, there's plenty about Chinese culture that prioritizes facades over the real, and values extrinsic reward and prestige over intrinsic motivation and worth. Also, plenty about Chinese culture that is aggressive and decidedly not shy or reflective. Just walk through a street market in Shanghai or Flushing. What Chinese culture at its best can and should bring, however, is a cultivation of a notion of self that is not divorced from others—that is, in fact, defined by relationship with others. What Chinese culture at its best can bring to America is a better balance between being an individual and being in a community. A healthier hybrid.

Spend a day in Las Vegas with Tony Hsieh, and you can envision what such a hybrid could be like. The Zappos founder and CEO recently moved his online retail company to downtown Vegas, and he's invested massively in revitalizing this civic desert. Here, all mashed up, is the electricity of a neighborhood-scale start-up, deep attention to cultivating community, obsession with metrics yet deference to the intangible magic of art and human relationships, and an earnest, even cultish devotion to the higher purpose of Delivering Happiness (the title of his memoir and slogan of his company). Hsieh embodies the hybrid: he's an American gambler with a Chinese long view; he is supremely confident yet mainly silent; he has so little of the American need to sell himself, so little extroversion, that he jokes even his friends aren't sure he likes them. The Tony Hsiehs of our time, CEOs or not, have something uniquely compelling to offer: an example.

Is America ready to receive this offering? Is America ready to let Americans of Chinese ancestry be this way and succeed, rather than forcing them to mimic the performances of a Dale Carnegie or his imitators? The question is all wrong. There is no America that “lets” and “receives” anymore. There is only the America we decide to make. We are making it now, Americans Chinese and not Chinese. We are spreading new norms and styles, weaving new ways of succeeding, elevating the value of quiet. If this isn't exactly a manifesto for introversion, it's at least a call for a wiser way to show what this country can make of the world. Listen for it.


Hi, everybody. . . . So, I'm Irish.

BOOK: A Chinaman's Chance
7.63Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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