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The Mysterious West

In response to:

Ghosts from the February 3, 1977 issue

To the Editors:

How clever of Diane Johnson (“Ghosts,” NYR, February 3) to stumble on a second-generation Chinese-American writing English well in the unassimilated Chinese-American enclave where even “fourth- or fifth-generation American-born Chinese” speak no English, much less write. Johnson sheds about as much critical light on Kingston’s Woman Warrior as a Warner Oland revival flickering in the eyeball of a dead white missionary. Well, nearly dead, these moribund missionaries sustain the egotistical hallucination that their moral universe is after all universal. “Kingston reaches to the universal qualities of female condition and female anger that the bland generalities of social science and the merely factual history cannot describe.” It’s Pearl Buck shaping converts in the oriental orphanage of her imagination. Never mind history, Johnson has uncovered a feminist. Thus she can conveniently ignore what are key historical themes in Kingston’s book, themes that help shape that mongrel sensibility Johnson admires and incidentally touch on the major currents of Chinese-American literary development since Sui Sin Far published short stories about the Chinese-American communities in Seattle, San Francisco, and Los Angeles at the turn of the century. But I can’t expect Ms. Johnson to know much about Chinese-American literature since she knows nothing about Chinese-American society. But the utter stupidity, the button-popping arrogance of her own bland generalities leave me depressed at the state of university teaching faculties here in California. Ms. Johnson teaches at the University of California at Davis, a facility currently dismantling its Asian American Studies Program. I would hope she enrolls for a class. There’s still time. If she did, she might begin to understand what are statewide legendary facts of California and Chinese-American life.

The Chinese-Americans are a notably unassimilated culture. It is not unusual in San Francisco to find fourth- or fifth-generation American-born Chinese who speak no English. Generations have not eased their mistrust of American culture, and they will not tell Americans certain things about theirs.

In California, it is the law that children attend school. My second-generation parents attended public school. They spoke English to their classmates, to their teachers. My grandparents, like most Chinese-Americans in California, worked at jobs most Chinese-Americans were allowed to take in restaurants, laundries, barbershops, grocery stores requiring fairly aggressive verbal contact with English-speaking whites. It is more the case that Chinese-Americans in the second and third generation speak no Chinese. Common sense would inform Ms. Johnson that fourth-and fifth-generation American-born Chinese speak English.

Common sense would also inform Ms. Johnson that any society of immigrants separated from their home culture by two world wars, two social revolutions, plagues and famine only fear the threat of mass deportation. Mass deportation was a distinct possibility in the minds of my parents’ generation whose peers might reach back another three generations when mass deportation was a possibility. The Chinese in California effected illegal entries into the United States, maintained illegal property holdings; Chinese-Americans in California were unable to represent themselves in courts of law; a Chinese-American woman marrying a Chinese citizen lost her citizenship. What is it that Ms. Johnson would like to know about American culture? What would she like to know about Chinese-American culture? There are no secrets here, these are historical facts. There is an explicit sociology in the development of Chinese-American writings, and they can be gleaned from a cursory examination of public records, a matter of public law. A Chinese-American who mistrusts the society of whites has come to a just and proper conclusion about the nature of reality. A Chinese-American who feels uneasy about segregated schooling, real estate covenants protecting all-white neighborhoods, employers who hire Chinese-American women to fill two categories under affirmative action mandates, is assimilated and knowledgeable of American culture. Notably assimilated.

The fact that Kingston’s publisher (Knopf) published Woman Warrior as “memoirs,” as biography rather than fiction (which it obviously is) may have encouraged Ms. Johnson’s racist generalizations. A white reading public will rave over ethnic biography while ignoring a Chinese-American’s literary art. (It puts me in mind of the reviews granted Frank Chin’s Chickencoop Chinaman, a play produced by the American Place Theater in 1973. Nearly unanimous: “I never heard a Chinese talk English like that.”) Now why that is I am sure I do not know. But it makes me suspicious. Engenders the feeling that perhaps Chinese-Americans have no authority over the language and culture that expresses our sensibility best—at the same time, assuring my assimilation.

That The New York Review would publish a review by a writer who knows nothing of Chinese-American society, not unlike a white publishing house distributing an obvious fiction for fact, is a complexity only assimilation can solve. Kingston, for example, mistranslates the word “ghosts.” Chinese-Americans call whites bok gwai, white devils, as in demons, not ghosts. Ghosts of the dead are not gwai, though they could be. Gwai are inherently unfriendly. When Chinese-Americans call a white person bok gwai, it is an insult. If that person is liked, the term lo fan is applied. A lo fan is a foreigner. Kingston uses the word ghost in the popular white Christian sense of the word, not Chinese-American. The difference between lo fan and bok gwai is as obvious to any Chinese-American as the difference between “mister” and “asshole.” Of course, it would be difficult to subtitle “memoirs of a girlhood among assholes.”

Too, Kingston may mislead naïve white readers when she suggests that our generations go nameless in America. In fact, no Chinese-American parent would allow their children to believe any relative had no name. The thought is ridiculous. The Chinese-American custom of being an illegal entry, a paper descendant of Hom when you are really a Wong, was simple and commonplace. A son or daughter simply claimed an “American” name and a “Chinese” name, taking advantage of the white Christian missionary invention of the double name system to break down the hold of Chinese language and culture on converts. If Kingston did not know her father’s name as a child, her experience is unique. She has created a wonderful, an artful fiction drawn from a sensibility shaped by a white culture predisposed to fanciful caricatures of a Shangri-la four thousand years wise, but feudally binding.

I suspect a number of Chinese-Americans today may regard things Chinese as Kingston and Johnson suggest, a difference in the quality of assimilation without history. Such stereotypes are, however, chinoiserie, a furniture style adapted for the silver screen.

Jeffery Paul Chan

Chairperson

Asian American Studies Program

San Francisco State University

San Francisco, California

Diane Johnson replies:

I’m not sure whether Mr. Jeffery Chan’s chief complaint is directed to me or to Mrs. Kingston, for slyly writing a memoir, a form which he can neither dismiss as fiction nor quarrel with as fact. Mostly he just seems to wish that she had written differently, as when he criticizes her translation of “gwai” as “ghosts” (which is certainly given in the Chinese-English dictionary as one of the meanings of “gwai,”), because he would have preferred “white devils.” Mrs. Kingston is certainly entitled to decide which meanings she intends.

It is true that I, like most other admirers of The Woman Warrior, am a general reader, not a specialist in Asian studies, and that is one reason I was particularly interested to find out what it was like to have grown up a Chinese-American girl—an experience I cannot have had, and neither can Mr. Chan. He deplores her “mongrel” sensibility but admits that “a number of Chinese-Americans today may regard things Chinese as Kingston and Johnson suggest,” that is, that her view of things has validity for many others, if not for him. He could write his own memoir, of course—but would he believe that non-Chinese people could understand it? My own remarks, in any case, were not about Chinese-American culture but about themes in autobiographies by women. I quite understand that Mr. Chan would have preferred another perspective, but that is as it happens.

As to the matter of assimilation, Mr. Chan seems to imagine that I intended to denigrate where I was simply noting what I have never before heard disputed: that Chinese-Americans have retained considerable cultural solidarity, and, in particular, have remained a cohesive language group. That is the reason election ballots in California are provided in Chinese as well as in English and Spanish. By his account, Mr. Chan’s own family has come to this country recently enough to profit from, or suffer from—I am not sure of his point—accelerated processes of acculturation, but the descendants of the original nineteenth-century immigrants include people now in their eighties who, whether they can speak English or not, evidently prefer not to or refuse to, as doctors, hospitals, community workers, even the phone company all attest.

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