Monday, August 9, 2010

What Means Switch: The Blackness of the Asian in Contemporary Literature

The story of Mona Chang, a young Chinese American girl, is one informed by the complexity of topics correlated with Mona’s ethnicity and her position as a second generation Chinese living and acculturating to the United States. Throughout the story we see how living in an all white environment shapes Mona’s experience as it is one characterized by her racialization, partly because of the differences between her and her white peers. In the story were are presented with another character, a young Japanese boy by the name of Sherman Matsumoto, who is most different from the rest of the students, including Mona, because he is an immigrant and doesn’t speak “Americanized” English. Through his interactions with Mona various cultural boundaries shape their relationship, resulting from their belonging amongst diverse Asian ethnic groups (Chinese and Japanese) and the historical tensions between both groups. Simultaneously, we see the more obvious cultural confines existent between Sherman and the white students. Taking aside the differences present between Mona (because she was a Chinese American) and Sherman (because he was Japanese), when both students are put into the context of the entire school (all white)  the experiences of both are not entirely unique. In this sense, their culture and identity navigate in not so different patterns amongst what is the normal: White middle-class society.

Although born in the United States with an impeccable fluency in the English tongue, better than Chinese which she can’t hardly pronounce, Mona’s friends look to her as an "other" because her way of living out Americanism is not quite like theirs. She’s recognized as American, but not fully, due to her connection to a culture that is other than Caucasian. She becomes a sort of coon whom the rest of the kids come to hear “unbelievable” stories about. Her teachings in Karate, how her mother cooks dishes that are not in the cookbooks, and has to explain to them what Tofu is. Through her circle of friends Mona becomes racialized for being Chinese. When describing her enthusiasm with her neighborhood (Scarsdale, NY) Mona says, “Scarsdale is a liberal town, not like Yonkers, where the Whitman Road Gang used to throw crabapple mash at my sister Callie and me and tell us it would make our eyes stick shut.”(1) Moving into a neighborhood of higher economic strata changed the experience of racialization, but did not stop it. In Yonkers, the experience of difference is expressed through violence, as its most common in poverty stricken areas. Not welcoming to new groups of immigrants, refugees, settlers, gangs (formed a means to protection) usually attack those groups within the area. Whereas in Scarsdale, it is manifested through cultural variance.

The racialization of the Chinese(2) and their experiences as an oppressed minority group has a historical context, which has been documented by Gary Okihiro who wrote “Is Yellow Black or White?” Yellow certainly seems to be a fluctuation between both, leaning towards the Black side of the spectrum. Okihiro provides a historical analysis in the many different ways that Chinese, alongside Filipinos, as well as other Asians have come to the United States and have been groups traditionally oppressed alongside African Americans. The Chinese were brought to the United States, after the slave trade, as part of the coolie trade. They were brought with contracts as a form of cheap labor by labor agents from places like Cuba, California, and China (3). The coolies were brought to the United States in similar conditions as the African slaves, on ships where more than the capacity of people were carried under the deck. Many died of suffocation and other causes (4). Once brought here they were put to work in replication of the African slaves. This relates to the one of the lessons memorized and learned by a person getting Knowledge of Themselves in the Nation of God and Earth, called English Lesson No. C-1, the 1-36. The 28th degree says, “Yes, a trader made an interorientation that they would receive gold for their labor, which was more than they were earning in their own countries.” In the movie Once Upon in a Time in China, starring legendary Martial Arts Master Jet Li, at 45 minutes, 27 seconds of the movie, we are presented with the trader who fools the people. In this scene the trader tells the people interested in finding better work, “In America, people have to walk carefully because they trip on Gold. Wash your face in the river and you’ll find Gold. One visit is worth a lifetime of work in China. Have some leaflets, one for everyone. People there wear dark glasses day and night. The shining Gold will hurt your eyes. You can’t pick up Gold if you’re blind.” This is the blatant fooling of a people by a trader promoting American interests by gathering up a group of people who would be used as cattle when transported to the United States. Clearly, that scene shows the “interorientation.”

The racialization of the Chinese was furthered reinforced after the decision in “Plessy v. Ferguson", which set forth the "‘separate but equal’ doctrine, affirming the state Supreme Court’s ruling that Chinese were non-white and hence ‘colored’ and thus could be barred from schools reserved for whites (5)." This Supreme Court case established the identity of Asians as a non-white group. The categorizing of Asians as an Ethnic group within the U.S., regardless of class, is seen throughout the story of Mona. The constant subtle racialization of Mona in the story is seen again when a friend says, “You should be glad…that you have something people value. It’s like having a special talent, like being good at ice-skating, or opera-singing…you could probably make a career out of it.” The friend is referring to Mona’s culture and way of life. She’s referring to the karate, homemade Chinese food, her language. And the irony, which Gish Jen points out, is that she does make a career out if. She made a career as a writer and writes about her experience as she is made “the other” by her friends and their families. In this case, the Asian becomes one that can never be like whites, she/he moves within mainstream space as a person much different than what is defined as American. Thus, the story of the Asian is not too much different than that of the African-American or Latino.

Another reading that focuses on the issue of racialization is the poem by Willie Perdomo “Nigger-Reecan Blues” and the writing by Santiago “Black and Latino.” In this poem Willie portrays the harsh realities of being a Puerto Rican, but on top of that being a black Puerto Rican. People are not sure what he is. Is he black? Is he Puerto Rican? Is he a black man with an accent? In this poem one sees how this man becomes racialized. He has to reaffirm his Puerto Ricaness because people confuse him for being black. But then again, he is black right? But to him, he feels, that he “ain’t even Black and here I am sufferin’ from the young Black man’s plight/a Black man/I am not/Boricua I am (7).” In this way, the man is racialized as being black although he is a ‘spic,’ a Puerto Rican. Within this example, we see that in this country you are forced into categories that must go in either ends of a spectrum. You are either Black or White. For Puerto Ricans, it was like a schizophrenic choice to make. Why? Because they were all Blacks who spoke a different language. The same idea is expressed by Santiago when he says that although he’s not black he can always expect the white people to treat him like he is. Thus, when Santiago says he’s not Black, he’s meaning not African American, but the whites do not understand his background of blackness. To them, he is colored regardless. In School, Mona, although an American, is treated in a “special” way. She’s reminded everyday of her life when she has to talk about karate and food not allowing her to express who she is freely, without having to conform so that she seems more American.

Besides the issues of racialization, the story also portrayed issues of cultural boundaries. Mona’s experience living in an all white (Jewish) neighborhood is varies greatly from the rest because of her traditional culture; her Chinese Culture. Simultaneously, Mona was as American as her friends in school were because mentality she was being reared into their ways and forms of thinking, talking and behaving. One can see that she is neither fully Chinese nor fully American. Her inability to fully immerse herself in either space, won’t allow her to fully incorporate herself into neither of her cultures (Chinese and American). This is living in the borderlands, as Gloria Anzaldua describes. It is like not being able to be fully Black because the society dictates that living well and peacefully requires a full level of assimilation into white mainstream society. Indeed, Mona lives within these cultural boundaries. This relates to the article, “What is Indian About You?” by Monisha Das Gupta, where she argues that by constructing the identity of immigrants within the U.S. context it doesn’t take into account the continuous relations of those immigrants to their countries and how that also shapes their identity within the United States. She also argues that by looking at the issue through a feminist perspective it shows the racial and gender differences, which are not shown because of the Eurocentric language used by writers when they argue about Ethnicity in terms of assimilation and pluralism (8). Women have a much different experience, but the experiences of women do differ from each other as well. In the story, when Sherman is drawing what he identifies as being Japanese, the people he draws are all males. He connects being Japanese with men figures. There’s also a sense of nationalism that is being portrayed by him. When he draws the Japanese flags it shows how proud he is of his nation and that he hasn’t become influenced by American culture, like Mona. With Sherman, we see more of a connection to his immediate history and culture of Blackness. He is not conflicted with who he is, nor desires to become conflicted by exploring white mainstream society. He is a step closer to realizing who he is as a Japanese man. In our lessons, the 1st degree in the Student Enrollment 1-10, it says "Who is the Original Man? The Original Man is the Asiatic Blackman, the maker, the owner, the cream of the planet Earth, father of civilization and God of the Universe." Sherman, might not understand the deep sciences of who he is as an original man of Japanese descent. However, his sort of rejection for Americanism allows him to express what he has known to be original as learned in his homeland.

By interviewing four South Asian women, Das Gupta was able to analyze how these women reinvented their identity by going back and forth between the American and Indian cultures. The dominant culture, which racialized them because they were Indian and the traditional culture, which only tried to prohibit any harm from the culture that saw them as being the Other. Some of the women interviewed by Das Gupta were controlled by their parents and some even planned out their whole lives. This same type of dynamic is seen in “What Means Switch” when Mona tells her mother she wants to move to Chinatown. Her mom asks her whether it has to do with school and then she proceeds to say that Mona doesn’t have to go to school everyday because it’s “no good for a girl to be too smart anyway (9).” A cultural clash occurs that is a product of the legacy of the grafted man’s ideological infusion into the original mentality. As Mona becomes fluid in navigating through the spaces of freedom provided by white women, it clashes with her cultural legacy classified as one of submission and obedience. The mentality of the white man as a natural hater of the woman, has made white women fight for their own societal freedom and equality. A freedom based under the same characteristics of savagery and devilishment of her root: the white man. This gained equality of the white woman is one where assimilated original women have been able to “prosper” from. However, it is in contradiction to the gender norms of their own societies. These norms have been adapted precisely from the same root: the white man. His dominations, for more than thousands of years, have led to an internalized behavior and thought by the original man about the original woman. Indeed, a mental grafting about building inequality with the woman. Inevitably, it is an idea that also becomes accepted and internalized by the original woman in their countries. This is what we see with Mona and her mother. It is two opposing cultural norms developed by the same root: the white man.

The conflict in levels of cultural infusion is seen when Mona tells her mother she likes Sherman and her mother gives her an explanation about the historical tensions between both Japanese and Chinese as an incentive for Mona to loose interest in Sherman. This long lived history of acts of domination and colonization was a behavior mimicked from the grafted man, which affected their own internal policies as well. In Japan, the Samurai, a respected and high ranking class of warriors immersed within the teachings of the self, Zen Buddhism, become eradicated as the government seeks to integrate Europeanized ways of governing. Inevitably, it complicated the relationships between the Chinese and Japanese. It became more complex when the element of acculturation into white mainstream society was added. The different levels of Black dilution both kids were at, varied based on their immersion into "Americanism." Being Chinese and American for Mona was very different from being Japanese. Because of their cultural differences throughout the story one can see the many times when both characters (Mona and Sherman) clashed. In one of their conversations Mona tells Sherman that whoever is born in the United States is American therefore making her American. She also told him that he could become an American through assimilation: “You could become American…sure you could…you only have to learn some rules and speeches (10).” Here one can see the disconnection there exists between Mona and her Chinese culture. She has been easily led in the wrong direction by following what other original people do to be less connected to their branch of blackness. Mona was becoming less black. To her being an American meant assimilating to the language and accent. A component she was not aware of is that her mentality was also changing as well and becoming American grafted. Sherman refused to assimilate and reaffirmed his ethnicity and culture by telling Mona that he was nothing more but Japanese. Japanese, in our context of knowledge of self, meaning Black. Eventually, Mona brings up the concept of switching. She switches from being American to being Chinese whenever any of the two was what she felt she needed to be/use. Clearly, there was a cultural boundary between Mona and Sherman. Sherman lives out his Japanese culture while Mona lived within the borders of two. It is like Gloria Anzaldua described in her poem “To Live in the Borderlands mean You,” where she stated, “In the Borderlands you are at home, a stranger (11).”  As presented by Mona code-switching is when we are able to live within our own cultural norms, but change to the adapted culture whenever necessary. This is the reality of the most 85% who are of different branches of Blackness. This demand to belong into the society of white has divided the behavior of our original people. Oftentimes, they go from being themselves, to being other than themselves. It is precisely why our people have been led to believe they are different from one another. The more we conform to white mainstream, the more distanced we become from our true selves and the unity we all share as the one Asiatic tribe.

When looking at Mona and Sherman through the eyes of their white peers and through the larger mainstream system where anything other than white, is different, other, and Black, one can see the interrelations between  their cultures and ethnic identities. This is because groups that are non-white and whose cultures are different will experience similar situations because they become the "other." Eventually, original cultures can eventually trace back their branches to the same source of originality. On a contemporary level, this certainly occurred with Mona and Sherman. While Mona was known for her karate and Chinese people eating monkeys, Sherman became popular because he knew Mister Judo, the reason for this being that Sherman would show the rest of the kids how to flip people (a fighting method used in Judo). In this way Sherman becomes racialized as well. When Sherman first arrived at the school everyone assumed that he was also Chinese because the person they assigned for acclimation around the school was Mona. She herself thought he was Chinese, until she saw his name. Racial slurs such as “cuz you black, nigger” are also present in the story when Barbara who learns about the ‘relationship’ between Sherman and Mona, tells Mona “first comes love, then comes marriage, and then come chappies in a baby carriage (12).” This racial slur that combines Japanese and Chinese physical traits is racist. One can see that under one racial slur two ethnic groups are being spoken about in a negative connotation. When Sherman first got to the school, Mona stopped from being the center of attention. She no longer had to speak, for example, of ancient Chinese eating habits. Now she had to speak of Sherman and her connection to him. As if there had to be a connection because they were both Asian. The issue of how culture and racial identities relate can be seen here. The culture and racial identities of Mona and Sherman (although a bit different) are connected by the larger society, white mainstream society, and somehow it turns out their cultures are similar. This is the way in which cultures and racial identities were related throughout the story.

The story truly shows how there is not much of a difference between groups of original peoples. Asian, African American, and Latino/as alike go through similar historical processes of migration resulting from white domination, as shown through the 1-36. The issue of having to navigate through two different cultural realities because they are indeed Black people, surfaced throughout the story. The law of unalike attract and alike repel is very real as we see Mona’s character living it. She immerses herself within white mainstream society, but no matter what she is still seen as Black.


(1) Jen, Gish. “What Means Switch” from Growing Up Asian American. Pg.237
(2) Although, in the story it’s not something that’s done as blatantly racist, but rather as “interesting” and “different” it is still racializing Mona. The reason why her friends don’t blatantly racialize her (although they did blatantly racialize during her stay in Yonkers) may have to do with class. They say upper-middle class Asians are more educated and assimilated, but at the same time they are still “interesting” because their Ethnic background.
(3)Okihiro, Gary. “Is Yellow Black or White?” pg. 47
(4)It is true, that Chinese were admitted into the United States as coolies, but this doesn’t include the later Asian immigrants that came after 1965, when immigration law lifted the ban on Asians entering the United States, which turned out to be the rich Asians. Also, the original Chinese that came as coolies, after facing a lot of racism, slowly entered into the middle class.
(5)Okihiro, 53.
(6)Jen, 239.
(7)Perdomo, Willie. “Nigger-Reecan Blues.”
(8)Das Gupta, Monisha. “What Is Indian About You?: A Gendered, Transnational Approach to Ethnicity” from Gender and Society. Volume 1, No.5, 1997. pg. 573
(9)Jen, 252.
(10)Jen, 245.
(11)Anzaldua, Gloria. “To live in the Borderlands means You.”
(12) Okihiro, 242.

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