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"Whose America Is It?" by Amy Ling (1998)

Author: Amy Ling

"Whose America Is It?" Author(s): Amy Ling Source: Transformations: The Journal of Inclusive Scholarship and Pedagogy , Fall 1998, Vol. 9, No. 2, SPECIAL ISSUE: “How Could You Not Hear It?” Writings on Race · Color · Whiteness (Fall 1998), pp. 12-20 Published by: Penn State University Press Stable URL:

It was a gray November morning 1945 as the army troop transport U. S. S. General Stewart neared its destination, decks crowded with American soldiers and nurses and a handful of Chinese and Indian immigrants, mostly mothers and small children. From Calcutta, through the Suez Canal, the Mediterranean, across the wide rough gray-green Atlantic Ocean, it had been four long weeks at sea. My three-year-old brother and I, age 6, stood with our mother at the rail, caught up in the excitement. We were scrubbed and brushed. Mother had dressed my brother in woolen shorts and a navy blue jacket, and me with a big plaid hair ribbon and a red woolen dress that she had knitted. Mother wore a Chinese dress with a daisy trim. It was red, the color of celebration and joy. We stared in awe as the giant green lady with the torch and book slid past us, and the jagged skyline of New York City grew larger and larger, gradually looming over us.

“These are the tallest buildings in the world,” mother explained.

“Whose America is it? Theirs or ours?” my brother asked suddenly.

“Theirs,” mother answered.

Tears streamed down his chubby cheeks. “Then they’ll throw me into the ocean.”

Mother tried to reassure him that this wouldn’t happen. We had reached America: the land of the free; the country where everyone was treated equally; the land that belonged to Grandma Traub, her adopted mother, who would take care of us; the land where Daddy had been working for a year buying furniture and preparing an apartment for us. We were among the fortunate few who had connections. We were able to leave a war-torn China where food was scarce, bombs were dropping, people were dying. America was the Beautiful Country; that was its name. It was the land of wealth and opportunity. No need for tears. This was a time to celebrate.

With hindsight, I realize that my brother was wise beyond his years. How was he to anticipate how President Bush would greet the Haitians crossing the waters between their island and Florida in 1992, or how President Clinton received the Chinese passengers on the Golden Enterprise trying to land in July 1993? An August 1993 cover of Newsweek announced that 60% of the people in the United States believe that “immigration is bad for the country.” Recently such attitudes have led to formal legislation which denies legal immigrants certain rights.

Where do I stand on this complex issue? How can I say we must close the door to others like me who long to take part in the American Dream? How can I agree with Garrett Hardin’s cold and logical “lifeboat ethics?” On the other hand, now that I’m on this side of the “golden door,” wouldn’t I lose privilege if the door were open to everyone? The world has too many “tired” and “poor,” innumerable “masses yearning to breathe free.” We would no longer be a country of wealth, opportunity, and open spaces if everyone were to come in. But is it morally right for a few nations to hold so much of the world’s wealth? I must admit that I feel relieved and lucky (and guilty) to have been on the U. S. S. General Stewart in 1945 rather than on the Golden Enterprise in 1993.

What is my work in Asian American literature today but an effort to make a home, a comfortable place, for myself in this still too often hostile land? The educational policy in the United States when I was growing up was totally homogenizing and assimilationist. The prevailing national self-concept was Israel Zangwill’s metaphor of the large melting pot, where all the peoples of the world would be mixed together and would come out WASP, celebrating Columbus Day and Thanksgiving (from the Pilgrim’s point of view), Memorial and Veteran’s Day and the Fourth of July, waving the red, white and blue. I was not supposed to notice that in the first three decades of my life, the United States fought three wars in Asia against people who looked like me: in the 1940’s against the Japanese, in the 1950’s against Koreans and Communist Chinese, and in the 1960’s against Vietnamese, Cambodians, and Laotians. It’s extremely difficult and confusing to feel American and look like the enemy, to think myself at home and be asked where I come from, to be a professor of literature and be complimented on my good English. As Maxine Hong Kingston has written, “I learned to make my mind large, as the universe is large, so that there is room for paradoxes.” When people compliment Maxine on how good her English is, her response is a gentle but pointed, “Thanks. So’s yours.” I usually respond, “It should be. I teach it.”

As a child though, I did not take conscious note of the larger political scene or how I did or did not fit into it. On the other hand, I could not help but notice that in the land of the redwhiteandblue, the redyellowandbrown were generally relegated to inferior positions. No matter how enthusiastically we waved the flag, our skin color, eye shape, hair texture and facial teatures did not change. Nor did our positions in a hierarchy based on skin color and race. Being “yellow” was perhaps not as bad as being “brown” or “black,” but, without a doubt, it was not as good as being “white.” There was some acknowledgement of the venerable age of Chinese culture and the high level of artisanry and skilled craft-work and attention to detail in the objets d’art that came from that part of the world, but, as I detected from the general atmosphere and frequent remarks, Chinese people were so “funny looking.” Why didn’t they open their eyes more? How could they see out of such slits? Their noses were so flat; they couldn’t hold up eyeglasses. And they did everything in such an upside-down way: imagine having your last name come first, reading a book from the back to the front, writing up and down on a page instead of from side to side, having soup at the end of the meal! All these inversions could be explained only by the fact that these creatures came fro the underbelly of the globe.

When I was growing up, being any color but white – and from any culture but WASP – meant that you were of an inferior order with no right to enter certain places, like country clubs and Ivy League schools. For peoples of color to buy a house in certain neighborhoods in the 1950s was either impossible or dangerous. One Chines American family in New York had been stoned shortly before we purchased our house in Queens. We were all taught that white was right and beautiful, and, obviously, everything else was wrong and ugly. Being a good student, I believed what I was taught, even if it meant self-rejection and self-denial.

I grew up on a diet of Mother Goose nursery rhymes and European fairy tales, wishing I could be a blue-eyed princess with long blond hair. Since our first four year were spent in Allentown, Pennsylvania, and Mexico, Missouri – small towns where we were the only Chinese family – I never saw another Asian face apart from my own an those of my family. I became so self-estranged that I’d sometimes do a double-take when passing a mirror, wondering who that Chinese girl was that I had caught out of th corner of my eye. I couldn’t even say the word, “Chinese,” much less be one. The onl Old World connection I held on to was Chinese food, which I continued to enjoy and t eat with chopsticks. Otherwise, I was perversely pleased to be ignorant of things Chinese and was surprised and irritated when people wished me a Happy Chinese New Year. I never even knew when it was. How superficial to judge a book by its cover, I thought. Just because I have Chinese facial features doesn’t mean I know anything about China or Chinese customs. I’m American!

Moving from Andrew Lang’s rainbow collection of fairy tales, and from every dog and horse novel in the library, I discovered a kindred spirit in L. M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables. I savored all the volumes of Anne’s story, feeling great pangs of lo at coming to the end. Here was a home for me, even if it was on Prince Edward Isla in Canada. I enjoyed all of Louisa May Alcott’s work, never noticing, as Maxine Hong Kingston has observed, how Alcott put down the Chinese. (What did they have to do with me or I with them?) Having a nose for English classics – or was it because my mother had been an English major? – I came upon Jane Austen at about age twelve and was electrified. Through her novels I had experienced a luminous world of verbal wit and grace, of social complexities but ultimate harmony and happy endings. I pressed Pride and Prejudice on all my friends and was puzzled when their response was less than enthusiastic. I couldn’t understand why my ninth grade English teacher was impressed by my having read all of Jane Austen. What was extraordinary about that? But I was pleased, in my senior year, at age sixteen, to be informed that I had received the highest grade in my high school on the New York State Four-Year English Regents examination.

So it seemed natural that I would be an English major in college and go on to graduate school. After much soul-searching and some counseling, I disregarded my father’s warning that no one would ever hire a Chinese English teacher. I disobeyed his request that I train to be a kindergarten teacher because his kindergarten teacher had been the most influential person in his life. I didn’t think anything of being the only Asian person in my English classes; after all, there were only a handful of us in the entire college, and so one couldn’t expect to see Asian Americans in every discipline. Besides, the professors always knew my name long before everyone else’s.

I was awed by the vistas opened to me through the literature I was assigned. Beowulf presented a primitive, dark, ancient world that yet could speak to me; Chaucer’s Canterbury Pilgrims were delightful in their vitality; and Shakespeare was a brave new world to explore and marvel at. I thought of this great body of literature as the torch of classics and culture that I, the honored and proud torch-bearer/teacher would pass on to the next generation. For the Ph.D., I wanted to enlarge my reading beyond England, so I wrote a dissertation in Comparative Literature on the painter in the lives and works of William Thackeray, Emile Zola and Henry James. Poetry, literature, and the artistic sensibility were for me the Olympian heights. I could think of nothing nobler to which to devote my life and energies.

Then the Civil Rights and Women’s Liberation movements struck me like a bolt of lightning, rousing me from what I now realized had been a dormant state. Why indeed had blacks and women been denied equal status in this society? Of course black is beautiful, and so are yellow and brown and red. I looked at the torch I was bearing and began to wonder how I fit into the picture. Why wasn’t one writer of color part of the torch I carried? Was it possible, as my professors and colleagues argued, that nothing really worthwhile had ever been written by any person of color? If it had been, they argued, then, like cream, it would have risen to the top and we’d certainly all know about it.

Now I was learning that what had “risen to the top” was determined by who was doing the lifting. It made good sense. Books don’t rise like cream. Some are promoted; others are ignored. Investigating for myself, and taking advantage of the groundbreaking work being done by other scholars, I discovered powerful books written by women and people of color: Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, John Okada’s No-No Boy, Hanama Tasaki’s Long TheImperial Way, Carlos Bulosan’s America is in the Heart, to name only a few. The trouble was not that no one from an American racial minority had written any good books, but that no scholar, (being almost exclusively white and male), had valued what “those people” had written. Or perhaps, since these texts were written out of multicultural contexts, they were classified as “ethnography” or “anthropology” rather than as literature. Maxine Hong Kingston’s second book, China Men, was so classified by the Library of Congress. Imagining America, a collection of multicultural short stories co-edited by Wesley Brown and myself was reviewed in The Nation as “social reportage” and “anthropology.” The reviewer, Robert Fogarty, was surprised to discover that a few of the stories “are more textured and have all the style and complexity of a ‘best’ story” (593).

These concerns, forced a dilemma when I was presented with the task of writing a book to maintain my university teaching post. Should I rework my dissertation, as most people did, or start a new project altogether? The world already had shelves and shelves of books, many critical “loose, baggy monsters” on Thackeray, James, and Zola. What I had to say would add little to the hundred-year-old discussion among the experts. What was infinitely more attractive to me was the opportunity to explore a question I myself needed to have answered. What have Chinese American women l me written in English and published in the United States? Like Toni Morrison, I decided to write the book I wanted to read.

I began in 1980 with only the handful of writers that had been uncovered by Asian American literature anthologizers: Kai-yu Hsu, Frank Chin et al., and David Hsin-fu Wand. By the time I finished my project ten years later, I had collected nearly forty names, and that was only by limiting my list this list to women prose writers of just one Asian ancestry. As an undergraduate I had once toyed with the idea of being an archeologist but was discouraged by my anthropology professor, who asked if I really wanted to spend my life digging in the hot sun unlikely ever to uncover anything so exciting as Troy. Literary archaeology, I discovered, was less exhausting and equally exhilarating, for each writer uncovered was to me a delight.

Contrary to what I had been told, there were Chinese American women writers out there, writing in English. Despite the Chinese custom that left wives back in China to care for their husbands’ parents, despite U. S. immigration laws that tried to keep them out of this country, women writers of Chinese ancestry had managed to create a history one hundred years in length. That was a remarkably long period, since even Chinese men had been here for only 150 years. Each writer I uncovered affirmed me, made me less of an anomaly. Each seemed a gift. Not all of them turned out to be accomplished writers; but, in some cases, such as the Eaton sisters, stories they had lived were as fascinating as the stories they wrote. I found myself mirrored in Mai-mai Sze’s Echo of a Cry (1945), Chuang Hua’s Crossings (1968), and LinTai-yi’s The Eavesdropper (1959). Like me, these were cosmopolitan immigrants from China; like me, some were also painters who had lived in France; like me, they had all shuttled constantly, – physically and psychologically, between worlds – the western world of their present and the Asian world of their past. To discover these women’s writings, to research their lives, to organize this disparate and unwieldy group, to publicize and popularize their work – here was my real home, the intellectual and psychological place exactly suited to me.

When I began this project, the reaction of my colleagues at Rutgers University made me feel as if I had exiled myself far from the known civilized world. It seemed I had stepped off the face of the earth and into “terra incognita where dwelt monsters.” A friend told me I was a trailblazer, but blazing a trail to a place no one else wanted to go. A white male colleague doubted that I could be “objective” since I was doing research on writers who looked like me. (And what had he been doing all his life?) But I ignored the warnings and persisted in the path I had to take.

A few years later, in the academic winnowing process called tenure, I was told that I was chaff after twelve years of being wheat (or was it rice?) . One colleague tried to comfort me by telling me that our university did not need any Chinese experts because we had no Chinese students in the English department. (Decidedly rice.) I asked him how many sixteenth century Englishmen were enrolled? He responded that he didn’t wish to pursue that line of reasoning.

My poetry was lambasted by a professor who admitted that he did not know anything about “Chinese” poetry, but he didn’t think much of “this stuff.” (He hadn’t seemed to notice that I was writing in English, nor did he find any contradiction in his confession of ignorance and his readiness to pass a negative judgement nonetheless.) Most candidates had five outside letters evaluating their work; for me, the chair had solicited eight. All were favorable, but none were brought into the discussion. A colleague told me that the discussion centered on whether literary criticism could be done on texts that nobody knew anything about; the conclusion was no. My only contribution had been in literary history, and since I had merely uncovered some “third-rate” (read “third world”) writers, there was no value to my work. This was the departmental consensus by a three-to-one margin.

Those were the dark years when my emotional, mental and spiritual distress took the form of physical illness. I was hospitalized and operated on for an obstructed bowel; my intestines had literally become tied in knots. I was repeatedly afflicted with bronchitis, trying to cough up all the junk in my lungs. The night before the grievance hearings began, I went to bed tremendously anxious about the next day’s events. Having to face my chair and colleagues and accuse them of racial bias was a frightening prospect. Was I making a huge mistake? Would I be forever exiled from the profession now that I had begun to find my place? That night, I had a dream that I shall never forget.

I dreamt I was handed a sword and told to go on stage to perform with the other sword dancer. When I protested that I had not rehearsed and didn’t know what to do, I was given no choice, but pushed onto the stage. I had seen the Chinese sword dance performed several times, once by my own stepmother, and it was an exciting show of flashing swordplay. But to my horror, this was no choreographed display; these swords were heavy and sharp, and the other dancer was trying to decapitate me. Going into this ordeal with no training, no preparation, I knew I would certainly lose my head. Still, I fought my best. Having taken fencing in college, I parried and thrust and somehow, my sword was always in the right place at the right time. After what seemed an interminable period, the music and the attack came to an end. Scarcely believing that my head was still intact, I stepped down from the platform. But no sooner had I taken my seat than they brought me the sword again and required me to return to the stage for another bout. Aghast, I remounted the steps like the condemned going to the guillotine. But, once again, as if my sword had a life of its own and were wielded by some other force, I escaped unscathed.

I awoke feeling tremendously relieved and comforted. Someone had lifted a boulder from my chest and reassured me. Was it the spirit of Hua Muían, the Woman Warrior, whom I knew through Maxine’s book? Or was it the spirit of a woman warrior deep within me, a force in my own subconscious – my conviction that I had Right on my side and need not worry. I just had to be strong, to go through the ordeal without breaking down, and everything would be all right.

Needless to say, I won the grievance on “procedural matters,” not on bias. But since the entire process was the university’s way of policing itself, my victory consisted of another three-year contract and going through the same crucifixion, being evaluated by the same colleagues again, in three years. I returned to work a marked woman, snubbed by colleagues who glanced away uneasily or scowled when we crossed paths in the mailroom or the halls. Even my friends seemed uncomfortable to be seen with me.

Over the years, I had compiled a thick folder of rejection letters from publi who did “not see a place for my book in their lists,” or who told me to go to the audience” for such a text, presumably China or perhaps Chinatown. At a Nat Women’s Studies Association conference, however, I met Gloria Bowles, editor of the Athene Series at Pergamon Press, who asked to see my manuscript on Chinese American women writers and was enthusiastic about having it in her list under imprint of her Oxford-based press. Suddenly, the world took a dizzying 180° tu Since then, I’ve had the unusual and gratifying experience of finding myself re and feted as a pioneer. Before giving a lecture as part of the interview proce at the University of Wisconsin, I received the most glowing introduction I’d ever heard. I couldn’t believe my ears. Was it really me that this young stranger was talking about. I can’t remember any of the particulars. I only remember being totally incredul overwhelmed. He was not alone; others were of the same opinion. In fact, by unanimous vote, the English Department offered me a tenured position in their department and the directorship of a new program in Asian American Studies.

I have not changed, nor has my work. But by some mysterious alchemy, t around me is now a more hospitable place. Suddenly, it seems that many peo interested in exploring the trail I’ve blazed. I receive letters and phone calls f people: publishers want to bring more multicultural materials into their texts; c of encyclopedias and reference books want articles on the writers I’ve “discov directors of college Race and Gender Centers invite me to their campuses to graduate students from various parts of the world want me to direct their diss and, most gratifyingly, a Chinese scholar has recently asked permission to tr book into Chinese. Her translation will provide me a way of going “home” again.

I am grateful for all this flattering attention, but I am also alarmed by what be a rising reactionary wave of attacks against multiculturalism, against what the “politically correct” attitude, by those who feel that something fundamental “American” is being threatened by admitting the voices of the redyellowbrowns don’t you go back where you came from?” we’re hearing again. When I rece some teenagers playing hockey on the public tennis court near my home to a family and me to play tennis there, one muttered under his breath; “I thought nuked them all.” I am alarmed that Rodney Peairs of Baton Rouge in 1994 co in cold blood Yoshihiro Hattori (a Japanese exchange student looking for a H party), and that Peairs should subsequently be released scot free. In the acad conservative intellectual claim is that ethnic studies will lead to the “lowering o standards,” to the “disuniting of America,” and to the “Balkanization of the U.S Cheney, former director of the National Endowment for the Humanities, dismi ethnic studies as “victim studies” (Humanities).

The fears that multiculturalism is disuniting America and lowering standard being voiced by those who have not read the multicultural texts that I know an Sir Philip Sidney’s muse’s advice four hundred years ago still holds true: “Look in thy heart and write.” When we follow this advice, we will, of course, be speaking about the specificities of our own lives, but, at the same time, paradoxically, we will be speaking for others. Sky Lee’s Disappearing Moon Cafe (1990) is ostensibly about three generations of a Chinese Canadian family, but, in telling the stories of the men and women whose lives were twisted and thwarted to uphold the convention of the “purity” of a patrilineal descent, Lee speaks to and for everyone about the relationship between sacrifice, “ideals,” and conventions. She makes us think more deeply about these concepts and reconsider them in the special light which she has cast on them. Joy Kogawa’s beautiful novel, Obasan (1982) tells of the quest of one Japanese Canadian woman to find out what happened to her long missing mother, but the work is even more fundamentally the exploration of two different responses to pain; speaking out and remaining silent. Which response is more effective, which more noble? Bone by Fae Myenne Ng (1993) and Sara Suleri’s Meatless Days (1989) are incomparable texts. And there are so many more. One white student told me after a semester of reading Asian American women writers that the books in my course were the best she had read in four years as an English major.

Far from being an indicator of the demise of western civilization, multicultural literature is the affirmation of the most fundamental principle of a democracy: to give all people an equal voice. Why is it considered “normal” for me, a Chinese American female, to study Chaucer, Shakespeare, and Milton, but a political act, and a subversive one at that, for me to say that we would all benefit from reading Maxine Hong Kingston and Wesley Brown? If ours is a democracy, why are certain voices dominant and others ignored? Isn’t everyone’s story potentially equally engaging, equally informative, equally moving? The legacy of the Civil Rights and Women’s Movements is simply the recognition that no single perspective can express the “Human Condition” or monopolize the “Universal” stance, but that we each have our own particular histories, our individual perspectives and that all of these, different as they may be, express the human condition in all its complexity. Each voice is valid and valuable. And the more open we are to listening to these diverse voices, the more enriched and enlarged our own lives will be. When we all learn to respect voices different from our own, then each of us can realize that “wherever we happen to be standing, why, that spot belongs to us as much as any other spot” (Kingston, Woman Warrior 107). And, at long last, we can all be at home in this global village called Earth.


Brown, Wesley, and Amy Ling, eds. Imagining America: Multicultural Stories from the Promised Land. New York: Persea Books, 1991.

Brown, Wesley. Darktown Strutters. New York: Cane Hill, 1994.

Bulosan, Carolos. America is in the Heart. 1943. Seattle: University of Washington, 1981.

Chin, Frank, et al., eds. AIIIEEEEE!: An Anthology of Asian-American Writers. Washington: Howard University, 1974.

– . eds. The Big AIIIEEEEE!: An Anthology of Chinese American and Japanese American Writers. New York: Meridian, 1991.

Cheney, Lynn. Humanities. (November 1, 1989) 10.6, 4.

Ellison, Ralph. Invisible Man. 1947. New York: Signet, 1952.

Fogarty, Robert. “Collectors’ Items.” The Nation, November 16, 1992, 593.

Hua, Chuang. Crossings. 1968. Boston: Northeastern University, 1968.

Hsu, Kai-Yu and Helen Pabubinskas, eds. Asian-American Authors. Boston: Houghton, 1972.

Hurston, Zora Neale. Their Eyes Were Watching God. 1937. Urbana: University of Illinois, 1978.

Kingston, Maxine Hong. The Woman Warrior. 1976. New York: Vintage International, 1989.

– . China Men. New York: Vintage, 1980.

Kogawa, Joy. Obasan. 1982. New York: Anchor, 1993.

Lee, Sky. Disappearing Moon Cafe. Seattle: Seal, 1990.

Lin, Tai-yi. The Eavesdropper. Cleveland: World, 1959.

Ling, Amy. Between Worlds: Women Writers of Chinese Ancestry. New York:

Pergamon Press/Teachers College Press, 1990. Ng, Fae Myenne. Bone. New York: Harper, 1993.

Okada, John. No-No Boy. 1957. Seattle: University of Washington, 1979.

Sze, Mai-mai. Echo of a Cry: A Story Which Began in China. New York: Harcourt Brace, 1945.

Suleri, Sara. Meatless Days. Chicago: University of Chicago, 1989.

Tasaki, Hanama. Long the Imperial Way. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1950.

Wand, David Hsin-fu, ed. Asian American Heritage : An Anthology of Prose and Poetry. New York: Washington Square, 1974.

Zangwill, Israel. The Melting Pot: A Drama in Four Acts. New York: Macmillan, 1914.

Amy Ling is professor of English and director of the Asian American Studies program at the University of Wisconsin , Madison. She has published a cultural and literary history, Between Worlds: Women Writers of Chinese Ancestry, a chapbook of her paintings and poems, Chinamerican Reflections, and has co-edited numerous books, among them The Heath Anthology of American Literature, Imagining America, Visions of America, Reading the Literatures of Asian America, The Oxford Companion to Women’s Writing in the U.S. and Mrs. Spring Fragrance and other Writings by Sui Sin Far. Ling has published and lectured widely on Asian American literature both nationally and abroad.

DMU Timestamp: July 23, 2020 19:52

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