A Bridge to Whose Future?
Young Adult Literature and the Asian American Teenager
There are disturbingly few multicultural texts and even fewer Asian American texts written specifically to serve the young adult market. Forgive me for calling it a market; but, while we may expect publishers to see it as such, indeed, for many teachers, school districts, and text book selection committees, the terminology and concerns of the marketplace also play a guiding role in establishing what our students read. When bulk sales are a primary driving force for the cheap trade paperbacks - those retailing for between three and five dollars each when bought singly - that young adults buy or have bought for them and to which schools allocate precious and overwhelmingly insufficient resources for class sets of 30-40 copies, mass markets do much to determine who and what gets published. 1 Schools, then, are faced with the decision, keeping in mind perennially tight budgets, as to what texts to buy and what audience - or what market - to represent.
But let me come at this issue from several angles.
Moving to Georgia after more than ten years in California where almost half the freshman class at my university was Asian American, I was forced to learn the lesson represented by the assertion that the rest of the nation - sometimes jealously, sometimes proudly - often likes to make: "The rest of America is not like California, you know." 2 At the State University of West Georgia where I now teach, slightly less than one percent of students across all class levels claim Asian or Pacific Islander heritage - a total of seventy-four students during Winter 1997 (a typical quarter) out of about 9,000 students in all. 3 If these numbers represent the local graduating high school class, which to some extent they do, one can almost see the argument emerging why many local high schools feel they are justified when they do not specifically select class novels that feature Asian American adolescents. As additional evidence, I cite a panel I organized at the annual conference of the Georgia Council for Teachers of English in March 1997. The panel, advertised as discussing Asian American narratives for Georgia classrooms, or why multicultural narratives are necessary for monocultural classrooms (although, of course, no classroom is truly monocultural), was attended by no more than seven people (at least three of them students), while the large, captive conference audience flocked to other more useful sessions such as "The Teacher Cadet Program," or "...[NCTE] Standards for the English Language Arts." Those who did attend the session expressed the fact that their colleagues simply did not seem to see Asian American literature as an important concern with regard to their classrooms. Finally, I cite the anecdotal evidence of a friend, a young Japanese American pediatrician and Yale graduate in the next town, who barely bats an eyelid anymore when she overhears anxious parents of her patients ask the nurses, "Just how good is her English? Do you think she'll be able to understand me?"
Marie G. Lee's two young adult novels Finding My Voice and Saying Goodbye illustrate the demographic I am suggesting is the usual rather than the exceptional situation. 4 Lee's character, Ellen (Myong-Ok to her mother) Sung, the only Asian American student in her school, grows up in Arkin, a small mining town close to Hibbing, Minnesota, where Marie Lee herself grew up. The other two novels that I would like to discuss are set in cities where having an Asian face may still be an issue, although the idea of being the only Asian in town certainly does not apply: Lensey Namioka sets April and the Dragon Lady in Seattle, while Margaret Meacham's An-ying Chang in Call Me Cathy grows up close to New York City. 5 These are books that I choose to assign in my Young Adult Literature class (for soon-to-be as well as currently practicing teachers), not necessarily because they are novels that I think categorically ought to be part of any high school curriculum, but because they raise a series of interesting and important issues for teachers and learners, issues which I hope the students and teachers in my classes will begin to approach from a more critical perspective.
These novels, in many ways, are typical of many works of the genre, each attempting to explore the life of a young woman in the year or two before she gets accepted to college. The high school setting; the developing, maintaining, and questioning of close friendships; issues of drinking, drugs, falling in with the wrong crowd; arguments as to when, why, or if a girl should sleep with her boyfriend; assessments of who is even going to college and who is remaining home to work, marry, or take care of parents or relatives - these are all questions raised in many young adult novels marketed at a female adolescent audience. And, of course, beyond any other question, these are narratives that deal with the question of fitting in, the supreme question born of the existentialist angst of the high school years: who am I, and where do I belong in this crazy, helter-skelter, identity-conscious world of teen society?
Suddenly, these Asian American narratives don't seem so strange, so foreign, even to the teachers in my Georgia teacher education classes, who, in their journal responses, typically devote fully half their time to explaining why they believe these issues to be universal, almost archetypal. 6 And it does seem that narratives of identity crisis are more often than not read as socio-psychological experiences that all youngsters will pass through, hopefully successfully. Could it be, then, that the experience of the Asian American subject has finally fully been realized as an American experience? Or is it that these few Asian American texts which have survived in the mass publishing market have done so because, although less than three percent of the American population is Asian or Asian American, these stories can mean something personal to the majority of non-Asian teens: they can be ordered, served up, and read simply as Shirley Temples with an ethnic twist? 7
Since Asian American narratives are still seldom read, relatively speaking, allow me to quote a few short sections from the novels I am discussing, and let me pose the question as to how universal you see the sentiments and experiences they depict as being.
First from Marie Lee's Finding My Voice:
It's dinner time at the Sung household, and although she's absent, the presence of my sister still dominates.
"She was very disciplined," Father says as he begins slurping his Korean soup.
"Even when she was getting A's she still studied hard because she knew that being at the top of her class in a public school like Arkin wouldn't guarantee her getting into Harvard…." I look down at my lasagna. Its tomatoey garlicy smell mingles with the smell of seaweed from Father's soup. Since Mom has always cooked something Korean for Father and somehting "American" for her, Michelle, and me, the smells are always clashing, usually ending up in weird, cloying odors. (pp. 11-12)
"How did you do on your calculus test?" Father asks… My fork accidentally drops. I bend down to the floor to pick it up.
"All right," I say, carefully wiping it off.
"Did you get an A?"
"What did you get?" Father's voice rises.
"A B-plus," I say, crossing my fingers. "It was a hard test."
"B's aren't good enough." he says. "I think you'd better stay in and study until your grade gets back to an A - that means no gymnastics, either."
"No gymnastics?" I echo.
"No gymnastics." The tone of his voice makes me stop in my tracks.
"Yes, Father." What would he have done if I told him I'd gotten a D-plus? I must be the only kid in school whose parents are like this. (p. 87)
And from Lensey Namioka's April and the Dragon Lady:
[April has been waiting anxiously to receive notice of her acceptance to her first choice of colleges, the Colorado School of Mines. When it does not appear to have come, she calls the admissions office and learns that her acceptance letter went out weeks before. Trembling with rage, she confronts "the Dragon Lady" her grandmother]
"Did you throw away the letter, Grandma? Don't lie to me. It's beneath you."
"Then I won't lie," Grandma said calmly. "Yes, I threw it away."
"Hey, that's a pretty low thing to do!" Said Harry [her brother and Grandma's favorite, because he is the boy]. "I'm surprised at you, Grandma!"
"You keep out of this!" Grandma snapped at him.
At any other time, I would have been delighted to hear her snapping at him, but now I was too angry. "Why, Grandma?" I demanded. "Why did you throw away my letter?"
"A school of mines!" said Grandma contemptuously. "What kind of place is that for a girl? I don't want you mingling and mixing with Miners."
"The decision is for me to make!" I said.
"Furthermore, sending you out there would be expensive," added Grandma. "We'd have to pay for your room and board, besides the tuition."
"Dad makes the decision about whether or not he wants to pay my fees!" Indignation rose in me like a hot tide.
"In a proper Chinese family, the mother makes all the decisions about money," Grandma said crisply.
Suddenly, my anger poured out, breaking through the years of upbringing by my mother and grandmother. "There's been a revolution in China! So you don't even know what a proper Chinese family is!"
"Revolutions don't change the true Chinese character," declared Grandma.
"We're not living in China! I shouted. "We're living in America, in case you haven't noticed."
"You'll never be a real American, no matter how long you live here," said Grandma. "You're Chinese. You look Chinese. You can't change your skin, your hair, your eyes." (pp. 176-77)
And from Margaret Meacham's Call Me Cathy:
"So you disobeyed your mother and were late coming home today?"
"I wanted to be with my friends, Dad," I said.
"Speak in Chinese, please," he said. My father never speaks English, and most of the time he insists that we speak Chinese as well. He says it is out of respect for our native language, but I know it's because he doesn't speak English very well and doesn't want to bother to learn. He went on, "You are with your friends all day in school. After school, you should be here at home. Your mother also tells me you have been disrespectful lately."
In Chinese I said, "I'm seventeen, Dad. I'm not a little girl any more. I've got to be able to live my own life. Next year I'll be in college, probably I won't even be living here, and that's less than a year away."
"Who says you won't be living here? Where else would you live?"
"If I get the scholarship to Wharton, and Ms. Brady says she thinks I've got a great shot, then I'll be living there, in Philadelphia, in the dorm."
My father said nothing for a few minutes. He stared across the room at the opposite wall, his eyes fixed on the painting of the Yin River that hangs there, as if he were reading a message in it. After a while he nodded toward the painting. "You see that? The River Yin. My mother painted it. That was the view from our house when I was a small boy."
"Yes, I know, Dad," I said.
"Four generations of my family lived in that house. We all lived together, as families should.... In China a daughter lives with her family until she marries. To do otherwise would be shameful, an insult to your father and mother, and to your ancestors."
"But Dad, this is America. Not China. In America if a daughter wins a scholarship to a good college, her parents are proud. Only fools would turn it down.... Maybe in China girls live at home until they marry. maybe in China they never get to go out and have any fun with their friends, but this is America. Land of the free, remember? That includes women." (pp. 15-16)
Clearly, these narratives are not unrealistic. In fact each is explicitly said to be inspired by real circumstances of or personally known to its writer. And one would certainly not wish to deny the legitimacy of the struggles these young Chinese and Korean American woman go through in forging an independent identity. 8 But to leave it at that would be to take something of a simplistic approach to these narratives, narratives in which the emphasis is not so much on the ideas, "My parents push me too hard and see good grades in math and science as the only way to demonstrate one's worth," or "My grandmother does not understand the ways of the modern world and my father is too weak to stand up to her," or "My father is dooming me to a life that he chooses based on his own patriarchal values," but on the sense that "My Asian family, because of their culture, are racist, sexist, ethnocentric, and totally out of place in the America of my future."
When young adult readers see narratives such as these portraying a repressive parental ideology that is bent on imposing an essentially alien and repressive culture on young Americans, they are clearly subject to a statement which goes far beyond the broad articulation of the universal themes of adolescence. Those same actions and attitudes raised in "white" young adult literature (and I realize that that too is an over simplification of category, but there are examples a-plenty to support my thesis) and attributed simply to typical parental demeanor are seen much more deliberately in the texts I am discussing here as specifically, even necessarily, bound to race, culture and ethnicity. They are seen, in fact, in quite the opposite way to the way in which many other texts construct similar behavior: they are seen as a-typical American parental behavior.
The result of this ideology is that, in order to work through this period of adolescent growth and achieve a sense of independence and freedom in opposition to the supposedly cultural paradigm established in the novels by the parents, young Asian American teenagers must do more than merely break away from their parents, trade in their bubble gum, and cast off adolescence in favor of adulthood. In order to make this transition for themselves, it seems, they must distance themselves much more profoundly from culture, from family, and from history, a choice their white (or indeed their black) friends and counterparts are never called to make.
Is there, then, an ideological subtext to these works? I am certainly not suggesting that it is a deliberate strategy on the part of the particular writers I am citing here. Or if there is no such subtext, why is it that, in Marie Lee's metaphor, the smells of Korean (in her case) and American culture "are always clashing, usually ending up in weird, cloying odors"? Must cross-cultural relationships be fundamentally problematic in this way?
This is a discussion in which I have, like many, more questions to ask than answers to give - although, as a teacher, I see my position as one who causes such questions to be asked on a case by case basis more than one who dictates universal solutions. Like many, I applaud the shift in the young adult literature market that is creating a space, albeit as yet a small space, for multicultural texts and promoting them to the mainstream audience. I know that my students and teachers-to-be respond positively and energetically to these texts - and not just out of a sense of their novelty but out of a real concern to diversify the literary representation we offer to our students. But I do worry about the context in which this representation not infrequently appears to be framed, a context in which teenage fitting in becomes a stepping stone to a much more profound assimilationist ideology. And I raise these questions with my student-teachers as critical concerns, for they are questions that I believe will guide us as we imagine and create the cultures of our future as much as the futures of our culture.
1Professor Violet H. Harada of the School of Library Science and Information Studies, University of Hawaii at Manoa has prepared an extremely useful, although as yet unpublished, teacher resource guide "From Textbooks to Websites: The Treatment of Asian Americans in Resources for High School Students."
2In 1993, the year I gained my doctorate in California, 40 percent of Asian American college students in the U.S. were enrolled in California schools. The remaining students were almost entirely to be found in Hawaii, New York, and Illinois. Source: United States Department of Education. National Center for Education Statistics. Enrollment in Higher Education: Fall 1983 - Fall 1984. NCES 4844-15. Washington DC: GPO, 1995. 3B.
6Interestingly, while my student teachers try to read these narratives in this way, Marie Lee herself sees her writing quite differently: "I have been asked more than once when I am going to be through with the 'race thing' and go onto more 'universal themes.' I always answer with a 'probably never.'" ("How I Grew." The ALAN Review. Winter 1993.)
8Sara Bullard raises the important question of whether or not multicultural education is seen sometimes as a way of justifying rather than countering discrimination that seems to be based on particular "ethnic" traditions. "Sorting Through The Multicultural Rhetoric," Educational Leadership. December 1991/January 1992: 4-7.