Asians Americans: The New Jews?

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It’s 1968. The North Vietnamese army launches the Tet offensive, injecting 70,000 troops into the weary war. Incumbent president Lyndon B. Johnson declares that he will not run for a second term in office. Andy Warhol is shot (and lives). Robert Kennedy is shot (and dies). The Prague Spring challenges Soviet Communism in Czechoslovakia. Richard Nixon declares his intention to enter the presidential race. NASA launches Apollo 7 and Apollo 8. And in fictional Scarshill, New York, Mona Chang is coming of age.

Mona Chang might better be known as Mona Change. The daughter of Chinese immigrants, Mona converts to Judaism and is subsequently (and fondly) dubbed Changowitz by her classmates. Surrounded by diverse friends and acquaintances, Mona’s bildungsroman unfolds as she navigates tough questions of how various ethnic minorities are perceived, and how these perceptions shape the opportunities available to them in the “promised land.” In reviews by The New York TimesKirkus Reviews, and Publisher’s WeeklyMona in the Promised Land is described with words such as “droll,” “rebellious,” and “melting pot.” Unfortunately, other than these few scattered book reviews, there’s a near-silence in Internet chatter regarding Mona in the Promised Land, and the few commentaries I read were riddled with errors regarding the plot. This quiet is part of the reason I’m writing my thesis project on one of Gish Jen’s other novels, The Love Wife. In both novels, Jen’s manipulation of postmodern convention is masterful, and her storytelling is an entertaining vehicle for her ability to unpack the endless complexity of race in America.

Jen has a knack for nailing a wide range of ethnic voices, and Mona in the Promised Land showcases this talent. There’s Mona’s best friend Barbara Gugelstein, whose mother dupes her into a nose job financed by her father’s Wall Street salary. There’s Alfred, an African American cook at the Changs’ pancake house who is at the center of a so-called mod squad espousing Black Power rhetoric. There’s Mona’s parents, Ralph and Helen, who live by the Chinese mantra of “make sure.” There’s Naomi, Mona’s sister’s African American roommate, who teaches Mona and her sister “how to be Chinese.” There’s Seth Mandel, Mona’s pseudo-intellectual Jewish boyfriend (and later common law husband) who lives in a teepee in his backyard (lest Native Americans be excluded from this complex look at minorities in America). Finally, there’s the enigmatic Sherman Matsumoto, a Japanese ex-pat who uses Judo to flip Mona in the garden after their first kiss and later decides to become Hawaiian – or so it seems, until this later iteration of Sherman is revealed to be a hoax conducted by Seth and a boy named Andy Kaplan. Though Sherman’s reappearances are sporadic, they serve as a measure of Mona’s belief in one’s ability to “switch,” which evolves as her idealism is gradually molded by experience.

As all of these characters meet and mingle, they exchange pieces of their performances, adopting mannerisms and opinions that push them in new directions. The permutations of race, class, gender, and ethnicity are seemingly limitless, but the wall this kaleidoscopic postmodern reverie repeated bumps up against is the inevitable question: But what will you do? As much as Jen’s characters talk, her larger point is that while laudable, open-minded idealism cannot make up for the sometimes sad, sometimes practical reality that circumstantial actions form the core of race relations.

The novel opens as the Changs search for a new house in Scarshill, New York. Their white relator shows them a predominantly Jewish neighborhood:

“Moneyed! Many delis!” In other words, rich and Jewish, she! for one! would rather live elsewhere!

This is such a nice thing to say, even the Changs know to be offended, they think, on behalf of all three Jewish people they know, even if one of them they’re not sure about. Still, someone has sent the parents a list of the top ten schools nationwide, and so many-deli or not, they settle into a Dutch colonial on the Bronx River Parkway. For they’re the New Jews, after all, a model minority and Great American Success. They know they belong in the promised land.

Having grown up in northern Virginia, where the booming population of Hispanic immigrants tend to be described as “Mexican” in a tone that transforms national identity into a shorthand slur for “unassimilated,” I realize now that I have internalized a compulsion to resist racial labels, even ones that are accurate to the demographic in question. I was startled by Jen’s freedom, even playfulness, in drawing parallels between the stereotypes applied Jewish and Asian Americans alike. To explore her comparison further, I turned to the Pew Research Center, where statisticians attempt to illuminate characterizations of anything from race to age through national phone surveys.

In 2013, the Pew Research Center released an updated edition of their study of Asian Americans. Though I plan to reread the study as my research develops, my first reading uncovered several details that resonate with Mona in the Promised Land. For example, Jen’s decision to set Mona’s story in the 1960s makes a lot more sense given that U.S. lifted a quota that limited the number of eligible Asian immigrants in 1965, after which the percentage of Asian Americans jumped from 1% to today’s roughly 6%. Mona also fits within a larger pattern of interracial/-ethnic marriage; the study reports that Asian Americans “are the most likely of any major racial or ethnic group in America to live in mixed neighborhoods and to marry across racial lines,” citing Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg’s recent marriage to Priscilla Chan as a high-profile example of the “37% of all recent Asian- American brides who wed a non-Asian groom.”

In a similar study of Jewish Americans, the Pew Research Center found that American Jews are increasingly identifying with Judaism on the basis of religion rather than on the basis of ethnicity, while the population of Jews who regularly observe religious rituals is in decline. Mona’s conversion to Judaism includes her observance of rituals which her ethnically Jewish partner, Seth, ironically ignores.

Additionally, this disclaimer in the study on Asian Americans grabbed my attention: “Unless otherwise noted, whites include only non-Hispanic whites. Blacks include only non- Hispanic blacks. Hispanics are of any race. Asians can also be Hispanic.”

What? I had to reread this several times, and I’m still not certain that I grasp what they’re saying. The point I took away from this is that ethnic heredity is rarely pure, groups overlap, and broad labels can mask significant historical distinctions between groups. Take, for example, the friction between Japanese and Chinese Americans, both of whom are contained within the broad “Asian American” label:

“Atomic bomb dropped on only one people,” Sherman says. “The Japanese do not forget.” On the back of an old mimeograph sheet, he draws another Japanese flag, a bigger one, which he puts on the icebox door with daisy magnets. “In school, in ceremony, we dis way,” he explains, and bows to the picture.

When Helen [Mona’s mother] comes in, her face is so red that with the white wall behind her, she looks a bit like the Japanese flag herself. Yet Mona gets the feeling she’d better not say so. First her mother doesn’t move. Then she snatches the flag off the icebox, so fast the daisy magnets go flying. Two of them land on the stove. She crumples up the paper. She hisses at Sherman, “This is the U.S. of A., do you hear me!

This scene captures three distinct experiences of assimilation. Unlike American-born Mona, Helen and Sherman have experienced life both within and outside of America, and both characters bring a non-Western perspective on history that has not been planted within Mona. The tensions in this scene are interethnic, intergenerational, and international, combining to offer a glimpse of the difficult terrain Mona must navigate in the process of claiming her own identity. Unable to fully relate to her parents or even other Asian Americans, Mona’s conversion to Judaism helps her to stake a claim to an identity that is uniquely her own. In life and in Jen’s novel, distinctions between religious and ethnic groups only become blurrier and more fraught with complexity under closer examination.

One blogger who read Mona commented that “an awful lot was tackled in this book, maybe more than the premise could comfortably contain, and there were times when I felt like I was reading more of a fable or a satire than a novel. The race conversations came on strong and many and were a little hard for me to read.” While I agree that the novel embraces complications (perhaps to an excessive degree), I do think that it’s important to keep in mind that Jen writes in a postmodern style that’s what I think of as “highly fictional realism.” Her characters possess an impossible range of cultural references and viewpoints, and the novel contains many moments that have the distinct feel of a thought exercise, albeit a hilariously funny one. (For example, Mona quotes James Joyce during the act of losing her virginity: “Yes,” says Mona. “Yes I said yes. Yes.” “Shut up,” says Seth.) In a paper from National Sun Yat-sen University in Taiwan, Fu-Jen Chen concisely explains that “postmodern theories of subjectivity highlight a subject’s inability to remain either stabilized or unified, thereby featuring a liberating proliferation of multiple forms of subjectivity.” Jen allows Mona and her friends to exemplify the reality that identity is a performative act by writing them in a heightened style that’s supersaturated with detail. So, if this is your beach read, just be sure not to take Jen too literally.

This week, I’ll be switching from Jen’s tongue-in-cheek scrutiny of our American melting pot to John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, a novel described on its own back cover as “perhaps the most American of American classics.” Without any ill-feeling toward Steinbeck, I challenge the publisher’s notion – after all, is a white man writing in 1939 more quintessentially American than the story of a Chinese American woman growing up in a Jewish suburb during the 1960s? Who gets to decide what is “quintessentially American”? I suspect that the phrase has an expiration date that’s quickly approaching if it hasn’t already passed. In the postmodern age, the only quality that seems to be “quintessentially American” is hybridity.

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2 Comments

  1. You’ve convinced me to add another book to my infinitely-long reading list.

    The title caught my eye because I grew up in a neighborhood that was probably 30% Asian and 30% Jewish. It was a running gag in my group of friends that we, the Asians and Jews, dominated the upper echelons of the academic hierarchy. We joked among ourselves that Jews and Asians got along so well because we all loved loud, boisterous parties where everyone boasted about their children who were doctors and ate endless amounts of cultural food, probably perpetuating harmful stereotypes.

    Even within a close-knit group of girlfriends (2.5 Asian, 3 Jewish), we each struggled with our identities re: assimilation versus identification. One of my friends is becoming a rabbi. Another went to MIT and almost cracked. Another rejected her parents’ pressure and is a sort of wandering nomad. I am now the militant Atheist who balks at mentioning her heritage, despite feeling connected with my ancestry. Other people grapple with the conundrum of categorizing me as “white” or… something else? (This occurred at a work function.) Even if I am willing to brush off a comment like that in good humor, I insist on being identified as an American everywhere I go. Curious? Or telling?

    Great post. Very well-written.

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    • Lauren, thanks so much for your thoughtful comment. From what I’ve read about Gish Jen, it sounds like you grew up in communities with a similar ethnic mix – Jen grew up in Scarsdale, NY, so Mona in the Promised Land is likely somewhat autobiographical. Your comment about your friends’ decisions to pursue theology and MIT really resonates with the novel – Jen digs into the quandary of how to prove that you’re progressive when your intuition tells you to follow tradition or fulfill stereotypes. This is the really interesting thing about deconstruction to me – at the end of the day, we are all products of our environments to some extent, and that inheritance is such a mix of good, bad, and extraneous information that under close examination, all points of reference disappear. Jen’s characters are full of very real contradictions, and like I said, she’s very funny – let me know if you end up reading the book!

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