Wednesday, January 05, 2005

Asian vs. Asian-American Poetry

Sorry, folks, I'd drifted away a bit from the focus of this blog over the past couple days. More "strange and outlandish takes on Asian-American poetry" now.

Hey Asian-Americans, don't you just hate it when non-Asian-Americans persist on asking you "Where are you from?" when you have told them Philadelphia or Vermont or Baton Rouge, but they apparently don't believe you!?! It's like you have to say an Asian country just to make them happy, and you're left feeling like a foreigner in your country. You don't want to seem so petty as to get upset over such a minor issue, but at the same time, you ARE upset.

Well, I'm here to say that things are not that simple. Asian-Americans themselves have blurred the lines between Asian-Americans and Asians. I've wondered for the longest time why many in the Asian-American community have embraced Asians like Jet Li, Jackie Chan, Joan Chen, etc. as their own. Are they Asian-Americans now? Are they Asians now? Does it matter? You could argue that these Asian celebrities help give Asian-Americans greater publicity, but at the same time, they also reinforce stereotypes, but at the same time, they are sincere and they are who they are, but at the same time, they didn't grow up in the US and aren't part of America in quite the same way, but at the same time, it's also more than a tad arrogant for Asian-Americans to be defining Asian-American in an exclusionary way, but at the same time, the arrogance may be justified in the sense of helping eliminate stereotypes, etc., etc.

These issues carry over into Asian-American and Asian poetry. For the moment, let us assume that Asian-American poetry is "poetry written by Asian-Americans" and Asian poetry is "poetry written by Asians." Who is an Asian-American poet? Who is an Asian poet? I think that language won't work as a means to distinguish the two -- for example, Filipino-American poets write in Tagalog, while Chinese poets write in English.

I think it's interesting that Asian-American poets generally have Asian-American fans and readers, while Asian poets generally have non-Asian-American fans and readers. There are consequences. It carries over into scholarship. For example, there has been far more critical scholarship done on Chinese poets throughout history and into modern times than on Chinese-American poets. Much of the scholarship has been done by non-Asian-American professors in collaboration with Chinese scholars. Non-Asian-American (let's just say white, since I think it's still sociologically accurate in this context), or white, professors also have devoted much attention to translation of Chinese poetry into English but virtually zero attention to Chinese-American poetry.

But, you know, carrying out this example further, we should ask ourselves what makes, say, an Arthur Sze, Shirley Geok-lin Lim, Timothy Liu, or Adrienne Su different from a Bei Dao, Ha Jin, or any of the Misty School or classical Chinese poets? I think that the main difference is that the poets in the former category have lived in the United States much longer, tend to deal more with American culture in their poetry, and tend to wrestle with questions of racial/ethnic identity in at least some of their poems, while the poets in the latter category tend to either deal with material related to love, nature, etc. or the political state of China in their poetry. (Note: The poetry of Wang Ping poses an interesting challenge to this dichotomy, because Wang Ping did grow up in China but actively wrestles with the process of becoming an American, in both Chinese and English.)

Strong argument: I think that the political and geographical distance of the latter category of poets exotifies them to a certain extent that such Asian poetry attracts the interest of certain white professors and scholars of poetry, while it leads them to take less of an interest in the work of Asian-American poets who grew up in the United States, and wrestle with different, more Americanized questions of identity in their poetry.

But the problem is rendered more complex by the tenuous distinction between Asian and Asian-American poets/poetry. The categories blur, overlap, and intersect to an extent that I feel that the more ethical response to these white professors and scholars of poetry might not be to demonize them for racism or ethnocentrism but to empathize with them and ask them to engage in scholarship on the connections between Asian and Asian-American poetry. (Whew, that was one heck of a complex sentence and claim!) And I don't know if such white scholars and professors of poetry interested in "Asian poetry" would be willing to look at "Asian-American poetry," as I have defined it above.

Anyhow, I have more to say on this issue. There's a lot that I haven't explored yet. I just want to note that I think that the distinction between Asian and Asian-American poetry is an important topic for further contemplation.

4 Comments:

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Blogger Natalae said...

Hey,
I just stumbled onto your blog because I'm currently teaching Oral English in China and wanted to teach my students some Chinese American poetry. Your comments have gotten me to thinking what is Chinese American poetry exactly?

But more interestingly I related to your comments about "where are you from?" A large number of people in China think that I'm from Africa, or assume I'm from Africa, or repeatedly ask where I'm from after I've already told them as if they think they are going to catch me in a lie. But I'm American! I've never been to Africa. It was just quite interesting to experience what you currently experience, but from the other side.

I enjoyed your blog!

6:37 AM  
Blogger Zachary said...

Hello ... I am en English 101 Instructor working at the University of Arizona. I would like to find a good Chinese-American poem to share with my class. Any suggestions? If so, email me at applelinguist@gmail.com.

Thanks,

Zac

7:04 AM  

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