How to successfully make use of your cultural heritage

512KAEwC2zL._SL500_AA300_I first became aware of Huang when he was quoted in “Paper Tigers”—a New York Times Magazine article that has become something of a manifesto for angry Asian-Americans. In it, a succession of fairly successful second-generation Asian-Americans—lawyers, engineers, corporate executives—complained about a perceived “bamboo ceiling” that limited their ability to rise past the mid-level of American society. Huang is described as a lawyer who left his firm job and opened a restaurant after realizing that “food is one of the only places in America where we are the top dogs.”

In this memoir, he fleshes out that sketch. Hung grew up in the Orlando area as the son of a successful restaurateur—Huang implies that his father, the owner of several steakhouses, is a millionaire. And, as a child, Huang was expected to be the next link in the traditional Asian immigrant narrative: parents come to America, work hard, start a family business, and become comfortable; children get good grades, go to fine colleges, and become upper-class professionals.

But, from an early age, Huang’s experiences with racism—kids at a succession of private schools call him “chink,” make fun of his food, and assault him—put him on a different path: he starts fights, takes and deals drugs, gets arrested, and is thrown out of a number of schools.

He also adopts aspects of African-American culture; he becomes interested in basketball, sneakers, and rap music. Throughout the memoir, he yearns to be involved in the business of cultural production: he operates a t-shirt company, tries stand-up comedy, attempts to become a sportswriter, and dabbles in screenwriting.

But Asian-Americans occupy an uneasy space in the culture industry. As “Paper Tigers” described, we start at a native disadvantage. There’s something about America’s sense of aesthetics that doesn’t allow Asians—especially Asian men—to be cool: we don’t come culturally programmed to project the sense of insouciance that’s necessary to be visible in America.

But we do get one offsetting advantage: our culture.

Asian-Americans might not be cool, but Asia is cool. It’s been cool for centuries. Even back in the 19th century, artists and painters were imitating Japanese styles. In the 20s, the haiku caught on amongst influential poets like Ezra Pound and Richard Wright. Nowadays, Bollywood and K-Pop and anime and manga draw plenty of western eyes.

I’m not sure why, but it’s clear that many white Americans hunger for the sense of color that Asia provides. The cynical part of me thinks that developing an interest in further-away countries is a way for members of certain social classes to one-up peers who only choose to go as far as Europe or Latin America.

That would explain why Asian-Americans don’t really benefit from knowing about Asia. Tom seems wise because he’s read the Bhagavad Gita; but all that Ritesh gets from living his life according to the Gita is a bunch of friction with the Christian teachers at his high school. When Sally brings in a curry, she’s being adventurous; but when Aila does the same thing, she’s just stinking up the lunchroom. When white Americans exhibit Asian cultural markers, they seem sophisticated; when Asian Americans do it, we seem alien.

This double-standard gives us the kind of mixed feelings that Huang repeatedly displays. Huang has broken with the typical Asian American markers. He narrates large portions of the book in African-American slang—“Good food makes me want to hit a punching bag like, Dat’s right motherfucker. You done did it there.”—and talks about being called out as a ch*gg*r by other Asians. He doesn’t get good grades. He doesn’t care about toeing the line or obeying his elders or doing any of that other “model-minority” stuff.

For him, Asians who hew too closely to tradition are “herbs.” He particularly singles out Chinese school for scorn. Chinese schools—Sunday schools for inculcating Chinese language and culture into the children of immigrants—are associated with “small-minded, conservative Asians that couldn’t understand shit if it wasn’t in an SAT prep packet.”

But he also delights in putting down other Asian-Americans for being inauthentic. He writes: “Even if you wanted to roll with Chinese / Taiwanese kids, there were barely any around and ones that were around had lost their culture and identity. They barely spoke Chinese, resented Chinese food, and if we got picked on by white people at the basketball court, everyone just looked out for themselves” and “Even at Chinese school, there were always kids that brought hamburgers, shunned chopsticks, or didn’t get down with the funky shit. They were like faux-bootleg-Canal Street Chinamen.”

(This last sentence is even stranger in the context of the very next paragraph, where he decries competition based on authenticity: “One thing ABCs love to do is compete on ‘Chinese-ness’ i.e., who will eat the most chicken feet, pig intestines, and have the highest SAT scores.”)

But these schizophrenic attitudes make sense if one understands that Huang’s primary goal is to position himself between white America and Taiwanese culture.

If you want to enter the culture business, then you need to recognize that your audience is primarily white Americans. And the first step is to abandon immigrant culture, because immigrant culture is all about showing other immigrants that you haven’t let America assimilate you.

At the same time, losing all your cultural markers is a sucker’s game. Your appearance puts you at a perpetual disadvantage: it will always mark you out as being different from the whites around you.

But if you selectively retain just a few of your cultural markers—not enough of them to hinder your ability to interact with white people—then you can use them to both aid and hinder white attempts to profit off your culture. By repackaging your culture for white consumption, while simultaneously attacking white attempts to do the same, you make yourself useful to white people by turning yourself into a pawn in their status game.

Huang performs this maneuver like a pro. At several points, he departs from the narrative in order to attack white re-interpretations of Asian cuisine, saying, “If you like our food, great, but don’t come tell me you’re gonna clean it up, refine it, or elevate it, because it’s not necessary or possible.”

In rhapsodizing on the beauty of simple dishes prepared in traditional ways, he explains that his superior sense for his dishes comes from “thirty years of having eaten the same dishes hundreds of times”—an advantage that no white American could possibly match.

But even as he calls out white people, it’s clear that his restaurant is not geared towards a Taiwanese audience. He writes that as soon as he sees an “Asian chick” come in, he knows she’s gonna start complaining that the food is too expensive or that the restaurant is for hipsters. In contrast, he lavishes praise on whites who pay him his due, like the former ex-pat who later gives him a good review in the NYT. Huang tears down some white people for liking the wrong food, but allows others to gain status by liking his food.

Please don’t think that I’m blaming Huang for this tactic: I sometimes do the same thing, albeit with considerably less skill.

My feelings about cultural appropriation are really mixed. This tension comes from wanting to own my own culture and, at the same time, feeling like I’m not entitled to it. I don’t speak any Indian languages. I’m not a Hindu. I know more about India than most Americans, but all my knowledge is only Wikipedia-deep—I can tell you what some of the holidays mean…but I can’t tell you how people celebrate them. I can’t tell you what Indians think and feel. I can’t describe the pattern and tenor of their lives. If I wrote a novel set in India, it would be inaccurate at a very bone-deep level (and would be loudly called out as such, by a cadre of very literate Indian bloggers).

Thus, for the most part, I espouse a laid-back attitude about cultural appropriation. If some white person wants to play with Indian culture, then it’s none of my business: there are a 1.3 billion native Indians who can fight him off if they want to.

But, sometimes—when I sense a personal advantage—something in me feels compelled to lash out at white Indophiles.

Recently, I went to a party at a trendy San Francisco yoga school where a hundred white people (and a few East Asians) sang Indian songs and chanted and wore saffron and just generally had a ton of fun playing around with Indian traditions.

It made me ill. How dare they feel so comfortable with a birthright that makes me so uneasy?

For the next hour, I tried to needle the white people around me. I kept asking, “Am I the only Indian in this room?” (If there were others, I didn’t see them).

My jabs were pathetically ineffective. They shrugged and continued their chants. My blood gained me nothing. These students and teachers could sense that—despite my melanin count—they were on firmer ground than someone who’d never done a day of yoga in his life.

Huang wouldn’t have handled the situation so poorly. His genius is that he doesn’t just attack. He also redirects. He attacks white peoples’ usage of his culture, but then he also opens up a side-gate and allows them to come in and experience his culture in a way that has to be mediated by him.

With my ignorance of Indian cultural practice, I’ve largely given up the ability to win that game. Huang would probably deride me for that. But I have more respect for him. Even though there’s something about his rhetoric that feels a bit disingenuous, I admire his results: unlike most Asian-Americans, he’s found a way to profit off his culture.

Fun Books I’ve Read Recently

Fun doesn’t mean mindless, but it does mean a certain freedom from mental strain. It’s never an effort to keep reading a fun book. Sometimes I’m more prone to blog about the other books, the ones that do require an effort, just because I have so much more time to think while I read less-fun books, whereas fun books tend to leave me with a purged feeling that is almost more powerful than whatever specific emotion I derived from the book. Still, fun books deserve to be talked about too!

Kitchen Confidential by Anthony Bourdain – Bourdain is a chef who wrote a sort of tell-all about what goes on behind the kitchen doors of a restaurant. Apparently this book was a big hit like ten years ago and sold a bajillion copies. This is very understandable. Not only is Bourdain a colorful character (whose narrative persona seems to ingest drugs on an inhuman scale rivaling the personas of William Burroughs and Hunter S. Thompson), but he also paints a very colorful series of portraits (although the book is very poorly organized and can sometimes be slightly confusing). However, for me the book was most interesting on an anthropological level. If Bourdain is to be believed, all food–even very haute cuisine–is created by fairly uneducated, blue-collar people. Even chefs are portrayed as being very earthy and of fairly humble origins. Line cooks are usually undocumented workers from Mexico, El Salvador, or the Dominican Republic. Further, from his account, it seems like the differences between the kitchens of high class and lower class establishments are not as great as the difference in price and ambiance would seem to indicate. But despite all this, Bourdain and many of these chefs seem to have a love for food, and take a lot of pride–no matter where they work–in doing their jobs well and, often, artistically. Bourdain even devotes a substantial amount of time to discussing the aesthetics of food.

In popular culture, it seems like there are two aesthetics of restaurant food. There’s mass-produced food, which is like the food you get in, say, Chinese restaurants or steakhouses, that’s supposed to be the same everywhere and which requires no art or effort. And there’s haute cuisine that is lovingly prepared from the finest ingredients by culinary geniuses who have intense feeling for every dish. But in the world Bourdain portrays, these aesthetics are jumbled up, and restaurant cooking comes out seeming like the most curious mix of high and low art.

High Window by Raymond Chandler – I’ve only recently gotten back into Raymond Chandler. A few weeks ago, I read Farewell, My Lovely, but this is the book of his that I’ve liked the most. I guess I was most put off by the ways that Raymond Chandler is not like Dashiell Hammett (since I loved the latter so much). Chandler is very different. His stories are smaller and more claustrophobic. They end neatly, and seem to cause nary a ripple in the surface of the environment. But that’s also their beauty. The settings of Chandler stories are spectacular, especially these vast, empty LA suburbs where a lot of his client lives. The environments are larger than any character in his novels.

            The Imperfectionists by Tom Rachman – Ben Godby recommended this awhile ago and I decided to read it. The book was pretty good. It’s awhile since I’ve read a book that traded so heavily on that tone of murdered wistfulness that seems to be the primary effect which most contemporary literary fiction aims at. But there’s something very compelling about a simple story that is done well (in this case the interpersonal dramas of a bunch of workers at a newspaper in Rome). It reminds you of what a story can accomplish without gimmicks, with just simple elements, rearranged.

 

Darkness At Noon by Arthur Koestler – Read this after reading Orwell’s essay on Koestler. This book was a major influence on Nineteen Eighty-Four, which becomes especially evident at the end. It’s about a communist revolutionary who is imprisoned by his superiors for ideological differences (basically, he is about to be purged), and about how the revolutionary slowly justifies to himself the necessity of “confessing” to crimes he never committed. “Psychological thriller” is normally sort of a meaningless term, but in this case it is apt. All the interesting stuff happens inside the head of the main character, Rubakov. Even though, in my case, I knew how it was going to end (because of the Orwell essay), I was still curious about how it was going to get there.

Hard Living On Clay Street: Portraits Of Blue Collar Families by Joseph T. Howells – This is a participant observer study–an ethnography–of two working-class families in what is probably the town of Mount Rainier, Maryland (a DC suburb). This guy, Howells, basically followed them around for a year and documented their lives (it was part of some sort of larger study of urban life). What follows was captivating and absurd. Both of these families are alcoholic, seat of their pants type families, characterized by violence, illness, divorce…the whole range of drama and conflict. Personally, I’ve always wondered about the mechanics of the unstable lifestyles that one often reads about (and hears about in many a country music song), and it’s interesting to see how families get by when, for instance, the husband drinks all the time and only works a few days a month.

 

Reality Hunger by David Shield – It’s hard to understand how anyone could believe the core assertion of this book-length manifesto, which is that traditional fiction narratives (not just novels, but also movies, etc.) are dead, and will soon be replaced by new narrative forms like reality television, scripted reality (Borat), memoirs, fake memoirs, etc. Shields believes that the public is very hungry for more authenticity in their fiction and is turned off by stuff that is obviously made-up. He thinks that this is going to result in the public demanding larger and larger chunks of “reality” in their entertainment.

To me, that seems unlikely, just because I don’t really sense this “reality hunger”. It seems like people want authenticity, just like they always have…but they also want unreal things (like heroes and dragons and crap), just like they always have.

However, that did not hamper my enjoyment of the book, which was ridiculous and over the top, and is also largely composed of unattributed quotes by various writers (the citations are in an appendix in the end that Shields tells the reader not to read). It’s a very high-energy performance.