I just finished reading the wonderful American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang. The graphic novel opens with Monkey King attending a dinner party in heaven with the gods. Monkey King is a fictional character from the Chinese Classic novel Journey to the West written in the 1590s. The wildly imaginative fantasy story chronicles a monk’s journey to India to bring Buddhist scriptures back to China. The monk has recruited three disciples before his treacherous odyssey: a flamboyant monkey, a deferential fish, and a lascivious pig. These creatures, appearing in human form, all know their Kong Fu and have magic powers, for their task is to protect the monk from all sorts of monsters along the way, who want to eat the monk in order to gain eternal life. In Yang’s book, the story of how the handsome Monkey King, who once defied all the gods, succumbs to the Monk and becomes his faithful apostle is beautifully captured and succinctly adapted into the first of three interweaving tales. Without any prelude we are thrown into the world of Jing, an Asian American kid who goes to a predominantly white school and gets taunted a lot for being in the minority. But when Wei-Chen, a new immigrant from Taiwan, shows up in class, Jing confesses that “something made me want to beat him up”. In the third tale, Danny the all-American student meets his cousin Chin-Kee visiting from China. Danny is a popular basketball player at his high school, but when Chin-kee, a buck toothed, slant eyed, Chinese queued and Chinese costumed freak who mixes up Ls and Rs, follows his “cousin Da-Nee” to school and embarrasses him in front of everybody, Danny decides somethings has to be done. These three seemingly unrelated stories segment and intertwine with each other before merging into one modern fable of Asian American identity and self-acceptance.
Identity and self-acceptance. Two heavy words that can help us understand boat-racism.
In his book, Yang didn’t elaborate why Jing feels like beating Wei-Chen up. But I could imagine that’s how a lot of us felt when we first saw William Hung on TV. Many Asian Americans felt embarrassed, even humiliated. Many said he was giving Asians a bad name and called him a disgrace to the community. Had Hung been white, I doubt any white Americans would feel offended or disgraced. He would only be an individual, not representative of a whole race. But Hung is Asian. He’s the real life version of all the hideous Hollywood creations that the media has taught us to laugh at. Seeing Hung catching national attention on a medium that has otherwise been deliberately ignoring the presence of or misrepresenting Asian Americans, we are reminded of the hurt and rage when white America used to think we were just like that. Hell, too many in white America still do think we’re just like that. In our frustration we lashed out at Hung. Not just at his lack of talent, but also at his being Asian.
Of course not all of us are like that. But…some of us are. Some of us do have slant eyes. Some of us do have buck teeth. Some of us do play 5 musical instruments. Some of us are indeed exceptionally good at Math. Some of us have hairdos the media finds stupid. Some of us do things the media laughs at. We’re not stereotypes; this is how we are. We are everywhere, and we are not going away anytime soon. Judging the world through the lens of Hollywood, we forget that Hollywood is essentially deriding us for being different, in this case being Asian. Turning us into “the others” makes it easier for white America to make fun of us. This is where boat-racism in the Asian American community comes into play. The Media has been deciding what’s beautiful and what’s not, what’s cool and what’s not, what’s American and what’s not, and we’re buying all of that. When an African American plays 17 musical instruments, they’re talented, but when an Asian American does that, they’re just funny. In Asia, such as Japan, Korea, China or Taiwan, many Asians are blindly going through plastic surgeries to make them look more ”European”. In the US, many Asian Americans are unknowingly exercising boat-racism to feel more “American”. Some reject everything the white media has associated with “Asian” in order not to fulfill a so-called Asian stereotype. Some go further and join the white America to laugh at or bash new immigrants from Asia. By rejecting the supposed “Asianness” we seek acceptance in white America even if it means rejecting part of who we really are. By drawing a line between “them F.O.B.s” and “us real Americans” we establish a pecking order based on a perceived difference similar to the pecking order established by racists based on race. The need for an American identity is understandable, but why employ the definition designated by the racist media? The desire to be accepted is natural, but are we disowning our brothers and sisters just to join the American club? What if we are perpetrating the Asian “otherness” just so we can stand at the opposite pole of this “otherness” and congratulate ourselves of our “Americanness”? What if we are just secretly seeking approval of the white America or even a whiter identity?
Boat-racism is about constituting another “otherness” within an “otherness” white America has already created. It’s about victims of racism taking the role of their persecutor and further victimizing “the others”. It’s the blister of boat-racism that ulcerates and festers into the cancer of racism. A boat racist against one’s own race is a hidden racist against all races. And a Michelle Malkin is already one too many.