Shortcuts to Identity: How We Tell Asian American Stories

Simon Han on What We Talk About When We Talk About Amy Tan

Say I begin this essay by bashing bubble tea. Brown sugar boba, strawberry horchata boba, protein shake boba, boba cocktails, and in some supermarkets, boba in a can: isn’t it all a bit too much? The tapioca balls are fun to chew but not to eat. The milk dilutes the tea until it’s watery. The first sips are pleasant, but the novelty wears off. Is this worthy of the pedestal that many Asian Americans put it on—not just as a drink, but a lifestyle?

Say instead of boba, I start by defending Amy Tan. Why do so many Asian American writers (particularly East Asian American writers) distance themselves from her work? In a New York Times profile of Steven Yeun that otherwise spoke to me, the writer Jay Caspian Kang calls her books “minstrelsy.” Kang pokes fun at his own “hard-edged” thinking as a writer growing up in the 90s, but if there was one thing he knew for sure, it was that he would never want to write The Joy Luck Club. Tan has become an easy target, an example of “ethnic” work written for the white gaze, yet I find many of these critiques simplistic, even lazy—as if taking a cleanly oppositional stance against Tan’s work really moves us away from the white gaze. Do we care more about Amy Tan or about what white people think about Amy Tan?

When it comes to bubble tea and Amy Tan, I’ve taken different stances, but the two have much in common. They’ve both become shorthands of some vaguely “Asian American thing.” To begin an essay with one or the other is to invite a range of reactions from hypothetical readers, swinging from passionate identification to dismissal to simple apathy. How we feel about them may hinge on not just who, but where and when we are.

In the early 2000s, for example, I’d go to a café in my Dallas suburb that served boba, a space that, unlike my school cafeteria, made the fact that nearly all my friends were Asian feel kind of cool. Living in Nashville and Tulsa, I craved boba, perhaps because the non-Asians around me (i.e. most people I knew) showed no interest in it, and ordering a drink from that one Vietnamese-owned hole in the wall felt in a tiny way like I was doing something “Asian” for once. Then I moved back to the Dallas suburbs in the midst of the pandemic, where some areas have more boba shops than coffee shops, and that craving vanished.

So it is with Amy Tan. I understand the resistance to being lumped in with her; I feel it, too. But when I recently re-read The Joy Luck Club, I could not help but to be moved by the stories of mothers and daughters, how they accumulate layers and imbue domestic life with the power it has always had: to travel through time and space, to contain rooms beyond literal rooms, where imperfect people intersect in messy ways. Yes, there are broad statements of culture in the book, and elements of the “dignity porn” made for white people that Kang slams, but I wonder how much of that reading considers the context within the stories.

Unlike today’s hyper-aware readers, The Joy Luck Club’s characters play mah jong and speak Chinese without first questioning whether they’re encouraging some stranger’s corny interpretation of the “immigrant experience.” Rather, the characters encounter shorthands like piano lessons and aphorisms on a personal level, sometimes grappling with how much these shorthands are part of them at all. Even the example of “tossed-off Oriental wisdom” Kang takes from the book—“Isn’t hate merely the result of wounded love?”—is followed by the narrator wondering if maybe she can “dismiss all of this as ridiculous.”

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Shorthands have a practical use. They’re a tool, as Erving Goffman states in The Presentation of Self, with which the “full range of diversity” can be “cut at a few crucial points.” Such shorthands can help in telling the stories of ourselves by “providing a less complicated system of identifications and treatments” for an impossible-to-categorize whole. A biology teacher. A stay-at-home dad. A union member. A pro-choice activist. An open and affirming church. A believer of QAnon. Introductions would be exhausting without them.

On the other hand, Goffman states, shorthands elide or conceal “activities, facts, and motives which are incompatible with an idealized version” of the self. They’re used not only for aesthetic purposes or for noble aims of self-acceptance and community-building, but also to accrue cultural and financial capital. We saw this last summer, when the shorthand of Black Lives Matter became prevalent on social media profiles, front lawn signs, and diversity statements. While the larger public’s tepid acceptance of the BLM movement may point toward a good thing in light of its previous demonization, the limits became apparent when the front-stage performance of the shorthand contradicted with the backstage. This was evidenced in the land of bubble tea with the popular Boba Guys chain, when former employees responded to the company’s good-for-business public support of Black Lives Matter by alleging that behind the scenes, management was denigrating their Black employees.

A question that keeps coming back to me as an Asian American (which is itself a shorthand), is how to take our “Asian-ness” outside of our private lives and into the public sphere. This is a kind of performance, too, even if we aren’t actively thinking of ourselves as performers. In the backstage of our front-stage presentation is another question I don’t hear often, though it seems we often orbit it: when is it convenient or not to be Asian?

In the backstage of our front stage presentation is another question I don’t hear often, though it seems we often orbit it: when is it convenient or not to be Asian?

In the early days of the pandemic in the United States, to wear a mask while appearing East or Southeast Asian was to open oneself up to other people’s xenophobic assumptions, and incidents of anti-Asian discrimination and violence have ballooned since the pandemic. Meanwhile, the increased visibility of these acts may have also widened a space, however marginally, in which Asian American storytellers like myself could find an angle to “sell” our stories—which in turn could help our careers. Policies enacted to address inequities in institutions, such as affirmative action in universities, have driven a wedge among Asian Americans, often among class lines, with detractors arguing that the policy discriminates against Asians and should be eliminated rather than improved. Yet these same detractors stay quiet as those same universities, reckoning with the whiteness of their faculty, commit to diversity in their hiring practices in ways that may benefit Asian American scholars on the job market.

When I first started writing fiction, I also used shorthands to satisfy some arbitrary notion of the market. Even unconsciously, I probably assumed that a detail about how my characters take off their shoes in the house, or bring food to school that their classmates find stinky, would create a level of relatability to an Asian American reader who experienced these things, and a level of novelty or authenticity to a non-Asian reader who didn’t. This is the same strategy that seems to guide what I’ve seen of the TV show Fresh Off the Boat.

These days, I’m allergic to these shorthands. I deleted many instances of them from drafts of my novel, and I still feel weird about the ones that remain. Before my book came out, I worried about the jacket text, how mentions of the “American Dream” and “model immigrants” would be perceived by readers, who’d either be enticed or repelled by the shorthands and unable to grasp that I wrote the book without any thought of them at all. Stepping back, it’s clear my book does tackle these broad themes. Or maybe it tackles the failure of these themes to tell the full story of everyday people who happen to be Chinese immigrants.

So what does it mean, when I read about my characters, say, flying to America for the first time, and a part of me wants to cringe? I might relegate such narratives to an “immigrant experience” shorthand, but my mother and I did just that. I was too young to remember, but I have her stories: how the food was so good she was sure there was a kitchen at the back of the plane; how she’d tied me with a leash to make sure I couldn’t get away; how I’d cried the whole way to Japan because she’d inadvertently choked me in layers, unaware that the plane would have heating. There’s a power to her stories that moves me, that feels familiar and strange at the same time. What does it mean when the shorthands are just our lives?

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My wife, an immigrant from South Korea, recently received confirmation that the conditions were removed from her green card, concluding a four-year-long process of gathering evidence and participating in interviews that spanned the term of Trump’s presidency. We had gotten married in 2016, in a 15-minute ceremony at the end of Sunday service at the church where she’d interned as a grad school student. Our parents and Nashville friends were there. They set up a table for us with cake and frothy drinks. We took a bunch of photos which we later submitted to USCIS. Marriage ceremonies are already performative, but this one had so many layers, one might overlook a basic fact: we wanted to be married.

In having to prove our relationship to strangers, I also thought of a line from Eric Ekstrand’s “Two Love Poems,” in which two men applying for a visa with their caseworker “began to act in love / even though they were.” I wonder if this is the enduring condition of the performance of identity: that we must put on an act of who we already are. Performances of this nature are not dishonest, but they are motivated by an agenda, tied to an assumed audience, and privileges shorthands available only to some—for us, the ability to submit photographs of a cisgender woman and man exchanging vows in a Christian church.

It’s not enough to simply be who you are. You must be perceived to be who you are. 

Such performances also seep into mundane, everyday life. In Here, There, and Elsewhere: The Making of Immigrant Identities in a Globalized World, Tahseen Shams writes about South Asian Muslim Americans compelled to adjust how they present themselves in public, often in response to events that occur outside of the borders of their home and host countries—for example, in the Middle East. To not be able to choose your audience, to be forced to field assumptions of “good Muslims” versus “bad Muslims,” means that you might put up an American flag outside your home, explain to others that you’re a “moderate” Muslim and stay out of politics, or fill a cup with soda at a party to avoid having to explain your religion at all. It’s not enough to simply be who you are. You must be perceived to be who you are.

I don’t know how we break free from our performances. In some cases, it may not even be preferable to do so. Rooted in organizing principles, the term “Asian American” offered a banner under which Asian ethnic groups could build power not only among each other, but across racial and class lines—a coalition that often took on the public performance of protest. Elections are a historically inconvenient time to be Asian, but in Georgia, volunteers with the Asian American Advocacy Fund, Asian Americans Advancing Justice, and They See Blue used their “Asian-ness” to connect with first-time Asian voters during door-knocking campaigns, and sought out Asian-language newspapers, campaign signs, and applications like KakaoTalk to create new shorthands that centered non-native English speakers.

Whether in daily life, politics, or literature, storytelling contains artifice, a framework in which we can play, experiment, work out how we think and feel, or in some cases lean more deeply into mystery. In Not-Knowing, Donald Barthelme writes, “Art is always a meditation upon external reality rather than a representation of external reality or jackleg attempt to ‘be’ external reality.” A quiet immigrant isn’t just a cog in the system, a person who’s accepted their place. A loud immigrant isn’t just irreverent, a disrupter of peace. Who we are and how we situate ourselves as characters in a story is harder to know. As Charles Yu writes in Interior Chinatown, “We’ve lost track of where reality starts and the performance begins.”

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In dissing bubble tea and defending Amy Tan, I was performing, too. I was writing about some “Asian American thing” in response to other people’s overwhelming support, or lack thereof, of that thing. My impulse to write this essay came as a result of other people writing something before me. This isn’t so much a revelation as a reminder to myself: where the contours of my stories begin and end is an impossible question to answer.

But when we are so quick to reject Asian American shorthands, when we erase them from our stories because they carry too much baggage, when the focus of the conversation fixates on what Asian American stories shouldn’t be, I wonder why we insist on such answers. Why in our refusal to be limited by our Asian-ness, we put up other boundaries. Maybe as a consequence, we’re stuck telling stories the way I do here: not so much about people living their lives, but about our own unrelenting self-awareness—or self-consciousness.

“Behind many masks and many characters,” Goffman states, “each performer tends to wear a single look, a naked unsocialized look, a look of concentration, a look of one who is privately engaged in a difficult, treacherous task.” Performance is work, and the performance of always being aware of our performance is work. All of this work, as Steven Yeun states, is largely invisible: “Sometimes I wonder if the Asian-American experience is what it’s like when you’re thinking about everyone else, but nobody else is thinking about you.”

So maybe another question is where to direct that work. I want the freedom to think about who we aren’t, sure, but also the freedom to think about who we are—and who we have the possibility to be. In one of my favorite scenes in The Joy Luck Club, Jing-Mei Woo, whose mother has recently died, learns that she has two long-lost sisters. When her sisters were babies during Japanese occupation in China, her mother had been forced to abandon them on the side of the road. Decades later, around a mah jong table in San Francisco, Jing-Mei’s mother’s friends stress the importance of telling her sisters about their mother. One auntie says to tell them about her mother’s success. Another says to tell them about her kindness. Another says her intelligence. The way she cared for her family. Her hopes. Her cooking. Jing-Mei looks at these aunties, who each carry stories of their own, and considers.

She says, “I will tell them everything.”

Simon Han
Simon Han is the author of Nights When Nothing Happened (Riverhead, 2020). His stories and essays have appeared in The Atlantic, Virginia Quarterly Review, Texas Observer, Guernica, Electric Literature, and The Paris Review's The Daily. He was born in Tianjin, China, and raised in several cities in Texas.





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