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February 07, 2007

Ching Chong, Mutherfrakker!

It's a poignant story, many times told. Immigrant family arrives in America, begins lifelong tug of war between assimilation and cultural identity, struggles to find a foothold on the economic ladder, establishes a flow of information, cash and visa sponsorships (and/or arranged marriages) between those left behind in the old country and those busily becoming citizens of the new.

Kids come home from school speaking English; parents answer in Spanish or Farsi or Cantonese. Parents eat menudo or lavash or jook for breakfast; kids slurp milk pinkened by Fruity Pebbles. Kids grow taller and more cynical than their parents, refuse to attend church or mosque or temple, leave home, marry or intermarry, serve as translators between their parents and their own kids during bilingual holiday dinners, and cobble together a patchwork culture, an often-uneasy union of their customs of origin with new, Americanized traditions of their own.

Arrrrrrggggggggggggggghhhhhhhhh!!!!!!!!!!

Is there a book in the world I want to read less than this one that Salon.com describes above? Maybe the Newark, NJ phonebook? Naw, that'd have good names.

Sad thing is that this might actually be a good book ... no, wait, what am I saying? Even if it's well written, there's no possible way it could actually be good. How could you possibly retell a cliché to make it fresh?

So let's just amuse ourselves at the reviewer's expense:

In "The Eighth Promise: An American Son's Tribute to His Toisanese Mother," William Poy Lee lends his family's coming-to-America story a fresh twist by structuring the book in an unusual way. In alternating chapters, Lee lets his mother's story come through in her own voice; her memories, and perspectives, taped by the author during a series of interviews, are juxtaposed with his, rendering lush and surprising what might otherwise be a somewhat predictable tale. In the tradition of the blockbuster multigenerational epic -- "Roots," "'Tis" and "Cane River" come to mind -- "The Eighth Promise" describes William Poy Lee's upbringing in, rebellion against, and ultimate return to the bosom of his family, community and culture.

Does somebody else wanna say it? No? Okay, then, I'll say it again: read the mutherfuckin' Joy Luck Club, you philistine! Holy Mother of Quan Yin. Since when does alternating the "voices" of two different generations of Chinese Americans represent "a fresh twist"?

But maybe I shouldn't be so harsh. It is Salon.com, after all, the Soy Cluck Club. They don't phone it in, they email it in. They probably have an online intranet for contributors with vast files of review templates: cross-reference "Chinese immigrant" with "memoir" with "mother" and it'll come up with bookreview_unchallenging_diversity. Alternate phrasings will be listed at the bottom of the document where pullquotes would ordinarily be: "rendering lush and surprising," "richly drawn and evocative," "paints a picture of young green rice shoots waving in the PLACENAME breeze," "her pride in her heritage is palpable," etc.

Sadly for the author the book only seems to pick up on the second page of the review ... or maybe it's just that the reviewer, desperate and grabbing for straws, picked the only part of the book that interested her and ran with it ... for a whole page. Why not lead with the interesting stuff about the author's brother convicted for a Chinatown gangland murder? This is the meat! We've never read this stuff before!

This is how we do, this is how we are racist in our post-identity age: we refuse to call ethnic crap out, and we rehash the same tired, old tropes until the groove has worn through the floorboards. The reviewer herself says it early on, "a somewhat predictable tale." Only if "somewhat" synonymizes "screamingly" en Salonspeak. I bet this will be the only Asian American book reviewed between now and API Heritage Month --- that's in May, Salon, so you'd better start pitching those Jerry Yang and Yo Yo Ma profiles now. Hey, I heard that Maya Lin is giving interviews again! Better get on it before she changes her mind! And did you know that a buncha Japanese Americans fought in World War II? That would make an interesting, and potentially controversial, story!

(Cross-posted at Other Magazine Blog.)

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Comments

That book sounds deathly boring to me too. My grandparents were both immigrants and I love their stories but, yeah, do we really need to keep reading this shit forever? Do you think the predominance of boring culture clash stories in the mainstream press has to do with the hegemonic white native-born gaze? I mean the idea that a story about a Chinese person had better be about being Chinese for a non-Chinese American to appreciate it? Kind of the way books about women are so often characterized as being principally about Womanhood when, in fact, sometimes they're just about specific people who happen to be women?

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