Cover detail from No-No Boy by John Okada (1957).
This May, President Obama honored Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month by acknowledging “the many contributions our AAPI brothers and sisters have made to the American mosaic.” I would like to take the opportunity to instead celebrate those less-than-perfect figures who, in their own way, sought to resist assimilation. They’re plucked from books that were not on my Asian American Lit syllabus (although that’s primarily because they came out after my undergrad years). Of course, I am forever indebted to Professor Parikh for introducing me to all the wonderfully tragic anti-heroes from John Okada’s No-No Boy to David Henry Hwang’s M. Butterfly. Here, I present a handful of troublemakers and rebels from recent and recently recovered stories, or what Angry Asian Man might simply tag as “Asians behaving badly.”
Actor and author H.T. Tsiang appears in an episode of the 1960s TV Western, Cheyenne.
1) Mr. Nut
Nut dashed forward and grabbed the old man’s hand. He dropped the pie on the ground.
“You bastard! You take the food from an old man’s mouth! You damned hero!”
“Now look here. This pie, with that white powder on, is poison! It can put your stomach and lungs out of commission. It will kill you!”
“Is that so?” said the disappointed old man. “Now you, young fellow, you have spoiled my opportunity. I’m sick. I’m tired. I’m a coward and can’t kill myself. I’ve prayed that some day I will die just in the way you tell me, and so get rid of my misery. Now you have delayed my voyage to Heaven.”
Nut was hungry.
Nut had to move.
— H.T. Tsiang, The Hanging on Union Square
According to Hua Hsu in the introduction of Kaya Press’ 2013 reprinting of The Hanging on Union Square, H.T. Tsiang initially received multiple rejections from various editors. A tongue and cheek quotation from “H.T.,” which opens this new edition, defends that decision to self-publish the manuscript in 1935. Whether “stubbornly or nuttily,” Tsiang stands by his story about the gradual radicalization of a character with no specified origin or race as he wanders from block to block in Depression-era New York City. The existence of such a delightfully bizarre tale is perhaps one of the first acts of defiance in the history of Asian American literature.
Cover detail from Mia Alvar’s debut collection (2015).
2) Characters from Mia Alvar’s short stories
“In another time, another country, villagers would have stoned you to death.”
— Mia Alvar, In the Country
Told in second-person, the short story “Esmeralda” centers around a protagonist wrestling with a moral dilemma. The same could easily describe many of Mia Alvar’s characters, whether it’s an American pharmacist smuggling opiates to his dying father or expat wives coming to terms with their philandering husbands’ “shadow families.” They often find themselves at odds with the strict codes dictated by religious conservatism and patriarchal culture. From Manila to Bahrain to Boston, the struggle to find one’s place in society and with adopted homelands cuts to the very heart of what’s at stake for diasporic communities.
Hudson Yang stars as young Eddie Huang in the ABC comedy series, Fresh Off the Boat, adapted from the real-life Huang’s 2013 memoir.
3) Eddie Huang
That’s how we resisted assimilation. Every time people tried to feed us soma, we freaked it out. It was around that time that I stopped feeling helpless, became less nihilistic, and realized that if I didn’t want it their way it didn’t have to be, but that I’d really have to work. It’s harder to resist, but there’s honor in it.
— Eddie Huang, Fresh Off the Boat: A Memoir
A divisive figure who has been publicly criticized for his “arrogance, misogyny and racial condescension,” Eddie Huang is certainly not a perfect Asian American role model. He even refers to himself as a “rotten banana” for refusing to be that kind of Chinese son. As a point of comparison, Huang describes meeting his cousin’s boyfriend: “Tom was the first Uncle Chan I ever met. He was so proud about starting the Asian frat at his school, being pre-med, and basically everything that Asian parents wanted us to be.” And while his grappling with race can sometimes hit you over the head (“Apologies to Frank Sinatra, but I’ve been called a ‘ch!gg@r,’ a puppet, a pauper, a pirate, a pawn, and a chink; that’s life.”), that obsession “with what it means to be Chinese” is also undeniably relevant for many first generation Americans, including me.
Cover detail from the Italian edition of Family Life (first published 2014).
4) Ajay Mishra
We were all a little embarrassed about the lives we lived at home. At home we didn’t eat the food that the white kids ate. At home our mothers and some of our fathers dressed in odd clothes. Our holidays were not the same as white people’s. Our parents worshipped gods who rode on mice. To attack someone based on his or her family brought up so much of our own shame that we didn’t have the heart to be mean.
— Akhil Sharma, Family Life
Turning to a quieter brand of dissention, Akhil Sharma’s autobiographically inspired novel examines the fallout after one family experiences life-altering tragedy. Thusly, the Mishras’ American Dream transforms into a living nightmare. For the younger son Ajay, who comes of age under the pall of his parents’ grief, learning to confront his growing resentment presents maybe the biggest hurdle.
Cover detail of On Such a Full Sea (2014).
Fan, with Hilton still in tow, approached Quig and Loreen, who had slumped down to a half crouch, propped by only the pole and each other. Their eyes were open but not fixing on her, and when she hugged and even kissed each of them, the only thing Loreen could muster was a whisper of little New China bitch. Quig said nothing. Fan and Hilton then stepped aside into the weeds and Mr. Nickelman told her it was time now to go inside. This was something she should not see, at least until the next time. But Fan shook her head, which surprised but deeply delighted them all, the blood rising in their necks. The machete-armed boys trooped forward, their blades gray and iridescent.
But then Hilton screamed, holding the side of her face. When she examined her hand it was smeared with blood from a cut running down her cheek. Fan had slashed her with the point of a fence spike. When the armed boys moved toward her, she garroted the girl with the crook of her arm and pressed the point of the spike against her throat.
— Chang-rae Lee, On Such a Full Sea
While the spy Henry Park or his mark, the corrupt politician John Kwang, from Chang-rae Lee’s Native Speaker might have been equally appropriate examples of anti-assimilation, I have a particular soft spot for the heroine from Lee’s dystopian novel, On Such a Full Sea. Call her the Asian-American answer to Katniss Everdeen, Fan becomes famous for escaping a worker’s settlement known as B-Mor. Her journey into the crime-ridden No Man’s Land and subsequent infiltration of a gated community reserved for only the wealthiest becomes a kind of mythology. Further amplified by a first-person plural chorus, Fan’s story truly becomes the story of this New America.