This Is Who We Are: Gish Jen and Peter Ho Davies on the Long History of Anti-Asian Racism in the US
In Conversation with V.V. Ganeshananthan and Whitney Terrell
In this week’s episode of Fiction/Non/Fiction, co-hosts Whitney Terrell and V.V. Ganeshananthan are joined by acclaimed writer Gish Jen and novelist Peter Ho Davies to reflect on recent and historic violence against Asian Americans. First, Jen reads her recent New York Times op-ed about the generational differences in how Asian Americans see anti-Asian racism. She also imagines a way forward, explaining that we need to elevate and recognize stories of trauma as well as strength in Asian American experiences. Then, Davies talks about Asian representation in literature and films, and reads from his novel The Fortunes, and its section about the tragic 1982 murder of Vincent Chin, which prompted major shifts in Asian American political organizing. Davies also discusses his latest book, A Lie Someone Told You About Yourself.
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With Gish Jen
V.V. Ganeshananthan: I thought [your New York Times op-ed “The Generational Split in How Asian-Americans See the Atlanta Shootings”] was such an interesting and fresh take on the shift in how we talk about this. From, “we must defend ourselves,” to “it’s the world’s turn to move forward and to change.” In the piece you asked if this will be a turning point. I look back at earlier turning points and I wonder what it would take to make this moment into that. What do you think?
Gish Jen: Well, of course, it’s hard to say. We all hope it will be a turning point. Yet, of course, with George Floyd that was not exactly the first incidence of anti-Black violence, right? It took one incident after another, for years, for anything to happen. Likewise, we Asian Americans have been working on this problem for a long, long time. It’s not like it just cropped up now. It goes back to the [Chinese massacre of 1871] in LA. Nineteen people were massacred in LA, Chinatown. That was 10 percent of the Chinese population in LA at the time. The people were so malicious. They not only shot these 19 people; they shot them and then hanged them. It wasn’t enough to shoot them. Of course, all the perpetrators got off. This is an old, old problem in America. I think that in terms of what we can do, at least one piece of the puzzle is kind of ours to handle. That’s to do something about the representation. What are the issues? What are we writing about? What are we bringing to the audience’s attention? Again, this is not an effort that started today. If we look at the problem with these Atlanta massage workers and the whole problem of them having been hyper-sexualized, there’s been a lot of ink spilled on the hyper-sexualizing of Asian women. The fact of the matter is that we had Miss Saigon and Madame Butterfly but we also had people writing against that for a long time. David Henry Hwang wrote M. Butterfly in 1988, which deconstructed the very stereotype that unfortunately is still with us. It just goes to show that we writers do have responsibility. I will say that people have been taking this responsibility for a long time but, obviously as we see with Black Americans, this is going to take a long time. They’ve had novels like Passing, Nella Larsen’s novel from 1930. Now, it’s being made into a Netflix series, finally. It is a century later.
Whitney Terrell: Speaking of representation, I was thinking about what my son gets taught in school, for instance. He gets a lot of information about the Black civil rights movement, but I don’t think he gets taught about any of the things that you’re talking about. I don’t think that the Asian experience in America, and particularly confronting racism, is memorialized or discussed in official quarters like schools in the same way that the civil rights experience was for Black Americans.
GJ: You’re absolutely right. Now to be fair, I will say that, unfortunately, the problem with African Americans can be dated to the very first moments of American history. But I am very concerned. When you see things like grannies being slammed on the street—they’re standing there and some guy feels he can just go over and hit this woman. It’s not okay. But it is true, from a historical point of view, that I don’t think that the problems with Asians are as foundational to America as the problems with African Americans. The numbers are much smaller. That said, I do think that much more attention needs to be paid to it. In some ways, the great gift of America is that we have social mobility. The downside of that is that we have social anxiety. We have tremendous status anxiety. Everyone is concerned about their status, all the time. Of course, historically, what people have done when they feel insecure, is they look for another group to be superior to. Certain people feel that they could always put down and safely be above African Americans, but another group has been the Asian Americans, especially Asian American women. Think about, who is an authority figure? Who could you readily accept as a boss? I can tell you that most people, meaning many white Americans, would be very disconcerted to have a five foot Asian American woman appear as their new boss. She’s going to face a million times more problems than a white male in the same situation. That has got to change.
In terms of how it’s going to change, we need representations of Asian Americans in the victimhood and all that people have put up with, [but] we need the strong figures, too. Since I wrote my op-ed, many, many people have written to me, but especially people who have actually been figures of authority. Their take is, crying victim will get you nowhere. I know why they say that. Sugi and I have a mutual friend, Eileen Pollack, who is a very good tennis player. I’m nowhere near the tennis player she is and I never will be. I did play on a tennis ladder very briefly, but long enough to understand that, in some ways, this is how America works. People are very anxious to move up the ladder. They don’t bother the people who are below them. But if they see somebody three rungs up who they think is vulnerable, they will challenge. I talked to somebody who was on a board of a million things, an Asian American woman, and she faces ten times more challenges than anybody else in the room. Challenge on every level. What’s that about? They think they can take her out. They think she’s wrong and they have something to gain by that. One of the things I worry about with the victimhood narrative, without counteracting narratives of strength, is that people will get the idea it will work because HR will be in there. You say you’re a victim, and they’ll go in there and protect you. But as soon as you rise to a certain level, you’re going to find that the victimhood narrative is actually going to backfire and basically put a target on your back. It’s going to make the situation actually worse. As writers, it’s our job to claim some territory, take up some space and, you’re right, get these stories into the schools. A mix of stories, not just microaggressions. I’m not saying that those things aren’t going on but without also projecting our strength, we will find ourselves with no progress forward.
WT: Your comments remind me of Senator Tammy Duckworth, who is a politician that I followed for a long time. I was interested in her because I wrote about the war in my last novel, and I was a reporter in Iraq. She’s someone who projects strength but has to go to such extremes. She loses both her legs, she’s a war veteran, and still, that’s what it takes for an Asian American politician to have authority. They have to wrap themselves in all of these American cliches, in a way, but also genuinely sacrifice for the country. Even then, she’s often questioned, I think.
GJ: Yeah, of course she’s questioned. The challenge is ten times larger than it is for a white man in that position, without any question. Yes, you have to show your heroism. You can never flinch and you can never show any weakness. In terms of what we can do, I think that one thing we can do is change the climate of expectation. That’s what I think we should be trying to do. Just yesterday, I interviewed Margaret Atwood, and she was talking about what it was like to be a woman at Harvard in the 60s. She took her oral exams, and they didn’t really test her because, basically, they didn’t really expect that she would ever go on to be anything. I would say my years at Radcliffe were exactly the opposite. The first time I went to the Radcliffe Institute, which was 1986, two decades later, the first time we went around the circle to introduce ourselves, someone said, “What are you?” I said I was a would-be writer. They said, “never say that again. You’re a writer.”
The first time I ever said I was a writer, I was in this climate of expectation where you weren’t supposed to be a writer. I didn’t know what I was doing. I couldn’t believe I got this fellowship. On Monday, I was in this climate of expectation. By Friday, I had written [the words] “it’s an American story,” and I thought, I’m going to write a novel. Typical American was born on Friday. The word “novel” had never crossed my mind. In this climate of expectation, suddenly there it was. And not only did I write a novel, I wrote a novel that claimed full Americanness for Asian Americans. The first line is: “It’s an American story.” I cannot tell you how much flak I got for that. “What do you mean, it’s American story?” “How could an Asian American call her novel Typical American?” I cannot tell you how much, but, on the other hand, I can tell you some things that have moved forward. I think we need to move forward and I think that we can. These are the things that are within the control of a writer: write the narrative and control the climate.
With Peter Ho Davies
V.V. Ganeshananthan: Back in the 80s, following the death of Vincent Chin, we saw the rise of Asian American civil rights organizations like American Civilians for Justice. And today we have senators like Tammy Duckworth and Mazie Hirono calling for deeper investigation into other Asian American hate crimes that might be left under reported, as well as calling for more diversity in the Biden administration, specifically cabinet appointments. So what are the chances that Atlanta and the other attacks going on around the country serve as a similar flashpoint for Asian American protest and organizing?
Peter Ho Davies: It’s a good question. I’m not sure. It’s hard to handicap those chances, of course. I do find myself feeling some cause for optimism. It took a year or so to reorganize American Citizens for Justice coming out of that space [after Vincent Chin was murdered]. And yet I feel like, at this particular moment, there are a number of Asian American lobbying and political groups that are already speaking powerfully to these spaces, and we have more representatives doing that work as well. Like Asian Americans Advancing Justice to stop AAPI hate groups who are thinking into these spaces. And that does seem encouraging to me. Within the writing communities, there are mobilized groups of Asian Americans not just thinking about politics, but also thinking about representation with Asian American writers workshops, like the Kundiman writing workshops. These things all seem encouraging to me, and yet, there are probably also some reasons for pessimism. I mean, we’re talking about gun violence again here and if the country can’t move on gun violence when the victims of it are school rooms of children, we wonder about how much they can move on an issue like this.
When I’m thinking into the history of [the Vincent Chin] case, in 1982, part of the pressures that surrounded the attack on Vincent was the economic pressure on the American car industry from Japanese imports. [Editor’s note: PHD explains earlier that Vincent Chin’s white attackers mistook Chin, who was Chinese American, for Japanese.] So this was in Detroit, the two men who attacked him were men who had worked in the car industry. The line that famously comes up from them is, “if it wasn’t for little motherfuckers like you, we would still be in jobs.” Although actually one of them was actually still working for Chrysler. One of the attackers was a foreman at Chrysler, the other had worked for Chrysler. Ten years after this attack in 1992, Lee Iacocca, who was the CEO of Chrysler, was still talking about Japanese imports. He used the language “the Japanese are beating our brains in an economic way.” It’s amazing to me to think about how that rhetoric can be distorted and perverted in 10 years after this attack, which Lee Iacocca must have been very well aware of in that period. So there are moments even when we think about the organization that came out of Vincent’s death, when it’s still possible to imagine great pessimism about the future along the way, as well.
We need to think about organizing for all that greater diversity and representation, for greater attention to legislation. There’s also a way in which it feels as though we’re trying to address a problem in this society, and most of that address is coming from the people who are on the receiving end of that problem, the victims of that problem. Those are symptoms; we might think about the cure. We might wonder why it is that people like the young man in Atlanta, and people like those who are abusing Asian Americans in the streets and attacking the, why they are—I would say so hateful, but actually, I’m going to suggest why they are so fearful; that feels like a problem for a larger part of the society to think into in various ways. And maybe it’s all of our problems in those regards.
Whitney Terrell: Well, I think leaders and media play a giant role in this, and I think it’s rhetoric. The Trump administration rhetoric on othering people and particular peoples and on immigration generally, is the cause, period, to me. We had a similar incident happen here in Olathe, which is a nearby city. There was an Indian citizen who was in a bar and this guy, Adam Purinton, got kicked out of the bar because he was abusing this guy and telling him to get out of his country. And he came back with a gun and shot the guy. Now, fortunately, this man has been sentenced to life in prison. And quite happily, it was by the Trump administration’s Justice Department. So I appreciate that. But the Justice Department’s not taking responsibility for the fact that I think that their president’s rhetoric—this happened in 2017—was causing that.
PHD: Yeah. And that’s one of the great echoes with the Vincent Chin case in 1982. The case feels now as though it’s a landmark case in the history of Asian American politics. But because of that landmarking it’s easy to think of it as just a particular, anomalous, grotesque moment. But of course, it also comes out of a space of—well, two spaces, actually, that resonate with our current moment. One is a space of economic anxiety. We might think of the current spate of attacks as being driven by some of the ways we think about the pandemic and some of the rhetoric associated with that. The pandemic itself, of course, has economic repercussions. And I would argue that the othering of China and the Chinese feels like it goes back further than that. It does come out of a deep economic anxiety. There’s a line of Donald Trump’s that he offered up in 2011 when he was flirting with a run initially. He was asked, I think, in Vegas about how he would deal with Chinese imports. And his language was to say, we’re going to slap a tariff on this. But the way he said it was, listen, you motherfuckers, we’re going to slap a tariff on this. That expletive is one that plays a significant part in the struggle and the fight that initiated Vincent’s assault and attack. And so that othering and the violence of that language feels like it does feed into these territories along the way.
WT: And it’s not just politicians. I remember that the anti-Japanese panic of the 80s and early 90s, when people in America thought that Japan was going to become economically superior to the United States, which seems now like a silly idea, because they had a terrible couple of decades. But it was real. And so everything that’s happening now looks exactly like that in regards to China. Now China has its own problems. I’m not saying it’s a perfect country. But the way that America is reacting to China right now is very similar to the way that America reacted to Japan’s rise and dominance in that period of time. Specifically, I went back and watched the movie Rising Sun from 1993 with Sean Connery and Wesley Snipes. It was the most insane, racist movie I’ve ever seen in my life. And I remember watching it at the time and thinking, what is going on here? I don’t know if you’re familiar with that film or not.
PHD: I think I saw it when it came out.
VVG: I was betting that you had seen this. I told Whit you had a large mental film vocabulary.
WT: I mean, it does every possible cliche you could possibly do. It starts with this gong. It has a Japanese guy singing karaoke to a white woman who gets mad and leaves. He yells at her, instructs her to get in the car, they drive off. Then they show a legend like Los Angeles, 6:43 a.m., whatever date, and you hear Japanese voices talking, and they pan to a building in the background, a skyscraper, and it’s these Japanese guys wanting to buy an American company. And they bugged the room and they’re listening to what the dumb Americans are saying and they have all this power. And then the next scene cuts to the naked white woman in her boudoir putting makeup on her neck and the Asian guy in a towel. It’s every most brutal cliche that you could possibly imagine. I can’t even believe the movie was made.
VVG: Did you end up rewatching this last night?
WT: I watched it last night. It is ridiculous. Sean Connery is in it, and he is in one other terrible anti-Asian James Bond movie. That’s also insane. He’s like redoing the role in his 60s. It was just a giant mess. But that was setting the tone for something that was happening at that time.
PHD: And that’s 1993, right? So that’s ten years or so after the Vincent Chin case. It’s around the same time that Lee Iacocca is offering that line about Japanese imports. But even in the build up to the attack on Vincent Chin, there are bumper stickers in Detroit saying Datsun, Toyota, Honda, Pearl Harbor—that sense of a rhetorical violence, that leads to a physical violence, was very much there in the culture. And yet, even after that attack, and the publicity of the attack, ten years later, the culture has not learned from that rhetoric, which seems to be the danger of that rhetoric, as the movie seems to represent.
VVG: “It’s ridiculous, you have to see it,” is a sentence that prefaces so much of my viewing, as Peter knows. My memories of the depictions of Asians from around this time are The Karate Kid and Short Round from Indiana Jones, who was so smart and charming, but also mildly threatening, able to slip into all of these different scenes. I’m younger than you all; I must have been watching these things as a little kid. I remember being so delighted, and my brother and I were so into Short Round. And now like looking back, I, of course, can’t even watch these movies without feeling nauseated and a horror at my own enjoyment… like, my desperation for representation was that I was so delighted by literally everything except for Temple of Doom.
PHD: Right, but that desperation for representation is worth thinking about it. We might be horrified about it in retrospect, but retrospect is always 20/20. It reminds me a little bit of the way I write about the Charlie Chan movies in an earlier section of The Fortunes. Charlie Chan is played by a Swedish actor called Warner Oland in yellowface. And yet, that character was beloved in China at that time, because there’s a hunger for that representation, and because the idea that he is the great detective who solves the crime and catches occasionally the white criminals, made the character important separate to who was representing the character. So our perceptions of what’s beneficial or what’s not beneficial do feel as though they’re very much shaped by the times we live through. And our desperation for representation in our youth makes perfect sense.
“The Generational Split in How Asian-Americans See the Atlanta Shootings,” New York Times • The Resisters • The Girl at The Baggage Claim • Tiger Writing • World and Town • The Love Wife • Who’s Irish? • Mona in the Promised Land • Typical American
Peter Ho Davies
“Covering the Atlanta massacre from inside the Korean community,” by Shinhee Kang, Columbia Journalism Review • “Jay Leno Apologizes for Years of Anti-Asian Jokes,” by Daniel Victor, New York Times • Media Action Network for Asian Americans • Miss Saigon by Claude-Michel Schönberg and Alain Boublil • Madame Butterfly by Puccini • M. Butterfly by David Henry Hwang • Passing by Nella Larsen • Terrific Mother by Lorrie Moore • Rising Sun, film by Philip Kaufman • The Karate Kid, film by Robert Mark Kamen • Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, film by Steven Spielberg • The Duke of Deception by Geoffrey Wolff • The Great Santini by Pat Conroy • “Adam Purinton Pleads Guilty In Olathe Bar Shooting, Still Faces Federal Hate Crime Charges,” by Andrea Tudhope, KCUR • Kundiman • Asian American Writers’ Workshop – The Margins
Transcribed by https://otter.ai. Condensed and edited by Andrea Tudhope, Megan Kipper, Katheryn Riley, Stacey Schell, Anna Stokes, Josh Moncure, Cydia White, Raine Briscoe and Olivia Legaspi. Photo of Gish Jen by Basso Cannarsa. Photo of Peter Ho Davies by Lynne Raughley.