Friday, January 14, 2005

Where Does Asia Begin and End?

I haven't dealt much with ethnicities within the large, constructed category of Asian American poetry thus far. But I do feel that it is an important issue. You can break up "Asian American poets" in many different ways: by ethnicity (Filipino-American, Korean-American, etc.), by country of origin (India, Indonesia, etc.), by geographical region of origin (Asian Pacific, South Asian, Middle East), by race (no distinction - just Asian Americans), by quasi-race (two categories: Asian Pacific Americans and South Asian Americans).

One issue that intrigues me is where Asia begins and ends. I've been told that there are Russians that look Asian, and are Russians, Asian-Americans? Is Australia part of Asia? Is Afghanistan part of Asia? Do people from the Middle East count as Asian Americans? Who is/isn't an Asian or Asian-American?

I think that one can make a legitimate argument that all Asian American poetry anthologies do not sufficiently represent all of Asian America to the extent of including all "Asian" ethnicities. Indonesian Americans, Sri Lankan Americans, Pakistani Americans, Indian Americans (to a certain extent), Cambodian Americans, Thai Americans, Laotian Americans, Mongolian Americans, Nepalese Americans, etc. are often underrpresented or left out. You could even point to the relative lack of ethnic anthologies for these ethnicities. But you could counter that, just demographically, there are fewer of such inidividuals in the United States, as a result of American immigration policy, and hence fewer poets of such ethnicities. Still, that does not negate the fact that their experiences are not being represented in poetry.

For example, I've dealt with the issue of the ethics behind poets going to Sri Lanka or Indonesia to write about the ethics behind the devastation. But how many of us really thought about the lack of Sri Lankan American and Indonesian American poets writing poetry and/or being published before the tsunami, and how many of us have really considered that there may be such poets out there still who could write not only about the tsunami but about other matters related to the region? I'm guilty of the former, but I don't want to be guilty of the latter.

It is odd and eerie how such a disaster can make you appreciate how little you really understand about a region or a people. Ignorance of the poetry, of course, parallels a larger ignorance of the society there. I'm sure that I know more about France than Indonesia, for example, which begs the question whether I myself am guity of "othering," or at least, whether my education, with its emphasis on Europe and European history, has made me more prone to "othering." I'd like to read poetry about Indonesia or Sri Lanka, about Indonesian or Sri Lankan culture, or about Indonesian-Americans and Sri Lankan Americans. I don't know what's out there of such poetry, but I won't stop searching.


Blogger rysolag said...


interesting blog. this is my first time commenting on it. check this new blogging option out:

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i took as asian-american studies class in college. very interesting.

11:50 PM  
Blogger barbara jane said...

roger, really quickly -- so i was having lunch the other day with a woman from uc berkeley's center for southeast asian studies and one of the things that came up in conversation was how there is very little if any indonesian (or even indonesian american)lit in english. why? cuz they were colonized by the dutch and if you want to find post-colonial indonesian lit you'd more than likely find this written in the dutch language either in indonesia or in the netherlands - ie they/we migrate to the places which have colonized them/us and write in that colonizer's language. for example, south asians (indian, pakistani, bangladeshi etc) living and writing in britain. vietnamese who write in french (i've seen trinh minh ha read in french). also, there's a rich tradition of pilipinos who've written in (and some who continue to write in) spanish which (monolingual) english speakers cannot access ... just something your post made me think about. peace, barbara

10:12 AM  
Blogger Roger Pao said...

Hey Barbara, great point! Yes, I do believe that writing in a particular language is a "political" act akin to choosing a certain school of poetry. Of course, it's much more difficult to learn another language than to choose a school of poetry, so that analogy may be faulty. But, you know, for example, deciding which language(s) should be taught in elementary schools is a decision that is made through the execution of power.

2:41 AM  
Blogger barbara jane said...

hey roger, for clarification - i am saying these writers write in the language of their (former) colonizers not out of sheer choice but because those languages (and the cultures including literary traditions) have been imposed upon them by colonial educational systems set up in their countries. peace, barbara

9:32 AM  
Blogger Roger Pao said...

Yes, the first analogy of mine is faulty. The second one w/elementary schools is better -- some, primarily Latino groups though a few Asian groups as well, would argue that teaching English is akin to a form of cultural imperialism. Of course, the counter to that is that English is a means for economic success/social advancement in the US if not the world. It's an interesting debate, IMHO.

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