By PACYINZ LYFOUNG
Asian American Press
Part II of the series on Asian American workshops at AWP 2017, the annual conference of the Association of Writers and Writers’ Program that brought over 10,000 writers to the U.S. Capitol in January.
WASHINGTON, D.C. (Feb. 20, 2017) — For both Shamala Gallagher who grew up in San Jose, Calif., and Marci Calabretta Cancio-Bello who grew up in Upstate New York, moving to the Southeast United States has been a strange transition.
The process was especially complex as Shamala is not visibly of color. She is half South Indian and half Caucasian, and does not visibly look non-white. Marci expressed the same ambiguity as a Korean adoptee with an Italian American name and now being married to a Cuban American who looks like a Scandinavian.
Marci Calabretta Cancio-Bello first came to Miami, which is more south of South for graduate school in 2011, which she completed in 2014. However, she is now working there and got married there, so will call it home a while longer. Her impression of Miami as an outsider was that it was one of the least-caring cities — historically, looking like a party town.
Ching-In Chen is another newcomer who moved to Houston to teach in academia. Over there, she feels some anxiety but not more than in other places. She does note that she is the only queer teaching at her school. She feels great discomfort at being complicit when renting in gentrified neighborhood, but she appreciates being close to the still strong black communities.
To be a gentrifier in the neighborhood is to participate in the system where the owners are white, but the subsidized housing is rented by blacks. There she sees that some community projects are taking place, economic development too, and there is still an attachment to the land by deeply-rooted African American families.
Shamala echoed the same feeling of being some kind of intruder, as she now lives in some cottage that used to be a slave quarter. On the other hand, Wo Chan and Vidhu Aggarwal grew up in the South.
Wo Chan’s family story is the typical of coming here and making a living here. His parents owned a restaurant in a little town. They were the one Chinese family in that town. The Chinese community established routes of cheap buses to transport workers to major hubs with stops in the smaller towns.
Now tourists use those bus services but the bus companies tend to get shut down because of regulations. In each town where the buses stopped, there would be one Chinese family operating a Chinese restaurant for the travelers. Growing up in his parents’ restaurant, he saw a lot of people eating there, while his family tried to run the business.
Vidhu Aggarwal lived all over the South, because of her father’s job. Growing up, she had no sense of her Asian/South Asian identity. Her family was Hindu, but since there were no temples in the surroundings, they hung out with the Hari Krishnas.
Her opinion is that the South remains more of a racialized fantasy life. For example, for all the romanticism surrounding New Orleans, the city is very swampy and smells of stink and rot.
The group discussed the question of belonging as Asian Americans in the South.
Wo recalled that all his brothers worked at the restaurant. He is the only one to have left the business early. To do so, he had to learn proper English. He had to fight to go to the library. His brother told him he would never be like them, the non-Chinese; that he would always be like an immigrant. Looking back, Wo wonders what wisdom his brother had, the truth that he experienced to have that belief about not belonging.
As a younger child, Wo perceived things differently from the rest of his family. He had to resist the constant anti-blackness spewed by parents. Many Asian American youths in the South have to worry about being judged by the friends they keep. To get closer to whiteness was an important trait of Asian identity. It was very difficult to only have the idea of binary identity, white or black. That sense of not belonging inspired his decision to include self-portraits in his poetry book of what a queer looks like.
Marci argued that Miami is like Ellis Island but that Cuba is not as far away as Europe. The Haitians came after the Cubans were already established, she said, and racism divided them into their own communities, resulting in a situation where people don’t like to leave their zip codes — creating strange divisions within subdivisions of Miami.
Marci now teaches at an international university. For the past 25 years, she is the first Asian American poet at that institution. The idea of not belonging, whether in terms of Asian representation or Asians being only tourists is a daily struggle. They can’t just up and leave. However, in Miami, there are so many people jostling for attention. One can always be the wrong minority. Everything here is from somewhere else, almost not from here, and almost halfway gone.
Vidhu concluded that the South is particularly polarized around the binary of black and white. There is no consistent narrative for Asian Americans. There is no origin story in the South for Asian Americans. There is more of a “this is where we are now based on this,” so trying to fit into another narrative, more of an assimilation narrative. There is trying to be white or locate with all other others, foreigners within the South.
As a kid, Vidhu became a sort of Buddha, reading people’s palms, sewing her own clothes like Ghandi, as that’s what people expected of her Asian self. There is disconnection from being the guru of otherness, the ultimate mystical other, which is its own poison, but can get her some credentials when she is mystical. For example, what does it mean to do yoga?
At that point, Shamala jumped to the front to do a performance of tree pose as Vidhu read a poem. Like the fallacy that all Indians must know yoga, her tree pose kept laughingly sliding down. Having grown up in San Jose, where seventy percent of the kids in school were Asian, Shamala has a complicated relationship with the South.
In San Jose, there is an idea of what you did if you were Asian American, a mythology of where you came from. In the South, there is a part of the self that wishes to be fetishized to prove one is Asian American, such as at the yoga studio, where most teachers and students are white.
What does it mean to be Asian American in the South? All the panelists responded by addressing language.
Ching-In Chen started writing about the floods, when she was trapped in her house. She started taking her dad’s FB status, often rants about her mother being in a cult, so with lots of drama within the family, with her father being really upset, and she translated his FB from Chinese to English.
Similarly, the anxiety and discomfort about being Asian American in the South, is also pushing Marci to more closely examine her Asian roots, when previously as a Korean adoptee she never really thought about being Asian before, until she no longer was among Asians.
Wo has a distrustful relationship with English, his third language. He also feels frustrated about being expected to relate to his own life when there are no words.
The question is inverted: not how are you Asian American, invert it.
Ching-In has a weird relationship with language. As an English-speaking youth, she was always called upon to touch up on her family’s language, but she also knows there is so much history she is not privy to or taught. She had to teach herself, through poetry.
Shamala’s writing about being Asian American reflects her being mixed-race and queer, but not looking it, as she looks white and is married to a man.
Vidhu experienced that she was not expected to speak good English, so if her poems were experimental, she would receive editorial notes from publishers about grammatical problems. It highlights that fact that language is always policed, but having multiple or no origin, it is cool, like a cyborg identity.
Finally the panel discussed, “What are you perceived as?”
Wo noted that before no one cared about your pictures, before the digital age. He has a friend who is Korean and black, but is perceived as black. That’s how his poetry is perceived: you are representative. However, it is only one facet to catch the light.
What is important is that what you’re writing is Asian American, whether acts or resistance or rebellion but just being yourself.
Ching-In tries to be strategic. She was raised to be accommodating and is always fighting that.
Vidhu wants to run away from the South but always comes back, that’s where her family lives. Her family identities are coalitional. Her parents were from Bangladesh. Their children are neither here nor there, and must choose between many things. Punjab people can only hang out with people from there. She has been hanging out with African Americans. Having that model, she also understands that debt without being appropriative.
However, Wo recalled the 1927 Gong Lum education case that came before Brown, as an example of Asian American history and activism being silenced before, and the history of Asian Americans as being oppressed and oppressor. He projected that in the next 20 years, Asian American writers will create new ideas and reclaim images of what a black or Asian person looks like.