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Why ‘Asian American’ and not ‘Cantonese Stocktonite’?

September 19, 2011

“If they are not to issue in renewed essentialisms, political demands on culture need to be accompanied by a recognition that terms such as Asian American, Chinese American or whatever, however important politically, are ultimately devoid of substantial cultural meaning and do not stand the test of empirical historical reality—except the transformative politics they enable.” (226)

a distinction needs to be drawn nevertheless between culture as a prison-house of origins, and culture as a living expression of populations engaged in the transformation of the public sphere. If they are not to issue in renewed essentialisms, political demands on culture need to be accompanied by a recognition that terms such as Asian American, Chinese American or whatever, however important politically, are ultimately devoid of substantial cultural meaning and do not stand the test of empirical historical reality—except the transformative politics they enable. They also confound social, political and cultural differences, as well as differences of temporality, displacing it all to a realm of culture in which national or civilizational boundaries are supreme. The recognition of Chinese differences necessitates a recognition not just of differences between Chinese in China and Chinese Overseas, but place-based differences within China and the United States. Why, for example, do we speak of Chinese Americans instead of Cantonese Stocktonites or Beijing New Yorkers? Or, to take it to an even more basic level, why not Taishanese-Tucsonese (referring to a friend of mine)? Why is the Taishan Guangzhou, Macao or Hong Kong passage any less significant, in cultural terms, than the passage to the United States, since it entails bridging the gap between the countryside and the city, which also includes overcoming language differences? And what happened to a Chinese who moved upon arrival from San Francisco to Salt Lake City? The point here is that cultural crossings entail many boundary crossings; and yet our language of analysis revolves mostly around national (Chinese-American) or civilizational (Chinese-Western) boundaries. The term “Chinese” is itself very complicated, as the last statement implies, as it encompasses references to territory, nation, culture, and race, which are often thrown together without further analysis.” (226)

He continues: “The differences are temporal as well. In what sense is a Chinese who migrated to the United States in the nineteenth century(when both societies were still in the process of national formation) the same as a Chinese who migrates to the United States in our day? The Chinese who arrived in the United States in the nineteenth century were subjects of the Manchu Qing Dynasty, which was subsequently repudiated by the rise of nationalism around the turn of the twentieth century, which was to change and complicate the political/cultural identity of the population. …” (226-227)

Reference: (blue, bold emphasis mine) Arif Dirlik (2002) ‘Literature/Identity: Transnationalism, Narrative and Representation’ The Review of Education, Pedagogy, and Cultural Studies 24: 209-234

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