The Search for Identity
A STRANGER’S JOURNEY
If writing is a search for language, it is also a search for identity. We write to articulate who we are, to describe our sense of the world.
For me, the requirements of this task were not readily apparent. As a young writer, I did not think of myself as a Japanese American or an Asian American or as a writer of color. The concepts and language for such an excavation were not available either in the literature I was taught or in the culture around me. Beyond this, my teachers encouraged me both actively and covertly to eschew the “ethnic route.”
In this situation of silencing, I was not alone. For most Asian Americans, American culture provides two unsatisfactory identities: The first is that we are perpetually foreign, “strangers from a distant shore.” True, some of us may have come here only last year, but even if our families arrived 150 years ago, we are still considered aliens. People still ask us, “Where do you come from?” and may assume English is not our native language. In other words, our difference from the white mainstream is, in certain ways, permanent and marks us forever as outsiders, unable to belong to this society (as my parents’ internment during World War II and calls in 2016 for measures echoing that internment, such as the Muslim ban, demonstrate).
Our second identity is that we Asian Americans are honorary whites—sometimes the “model minority”—and in these appellations, our seeming closeness to “white” norms and standards of behavior is noted and praised. Here our differences are erased, and this erasure is seen as a necessary passport to our becoming accepted members of society. Growing up in a white Chicago suburb, raised by parents who, as a reaction to their internment, wanted to assimilate, I fervently believed this. In high school, I felt complimented when a white friend would say to me, “I think of you, David, just like a white person.” When I first began writing, I embraced the writerly form of this identity—I insisted, à la Amy Tan, that I was simply “a writer” and not an Asian American writer.
Later, through other Asian American writers and writers of color, as well as through my own work, I came to realize that there is a third identity, one less often given voice to in the education system. There are two aspects to this identity. One is cultural. As an Asian American, a person or his parents or his grandparents or perhaps someone even much further back arrived in America from Asia, and part of his cultural identity involves mixing or integrating or jostling Asian cultural values with American cultural values and history. The larger culture sometimes acknowledges this “bicultural” identity, whether in popular works such as the musical Flower Drum Song or various portrayals of Asian Americans in literature such as The Joy Luck Club.
A second aspect of Asian American identity, much less acknowledged, examines our experience of race, which involves what it is like to look like me—that is, someone with Asian physical features—and live in America. In other words, it entails the discordant and troubling process of being “raced”—that is, categorized and treated by others through the various ways race is played out in our society. Sometimes this stems from encounters with stereotypes and prejudice and from the ways Asian Americans are portrayed in the culture and treated by other Americans. But at other times the effects are subtler and more complicated. For the racial aspect of our experience involves not only how others looks at us but also how we look at ourselves, particularly in terms of internalized racism; thus it also includes the various ways we try to hide or deny the differences in our experiences both from ourselves and from those of the mainstream white society.
In this third definition of our identity, which includes both ethnicity and race, we Asian Americans begin to understand that our experiences are far more complicated than white Americans understand and, indeed, than even we ourselves may understand. Often there are layers of feelings and thoughts and experiences that we have not yet examined or articulated—or that we even actively deny. Indeed, much of my writing has emerged out of this gap. But it emerged only through my acknowledging that the tools the culture had given me to express my identity and experience were inadequate, that they carried with them limitations imposed by history, politics, and culture.
The situation of Asian American writers concerning their identity possesses parallels with other writers of color and other marginalized writers. Take W. E. B. Du Bois’s question in The Souls of Black Folk, what does it mean to be a problem? Or his articulation of double consciousness: the awareness of blacks that the ways they think about themselves differ from the ways whites view them; in order to survive, blacks have historically had to be aware not just of their own consciousness but of white consciousness and how it is constructed.
When, as a younger Asian American writer, I encountered Du Bois’s double consciousness, it made absolute sense to me; it helped me understand my own identity and the construction of my own consciousness. Similarly, when I read Frantz Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks and its dissection of racial self-hatred, I immediately recognized myself in his analysis. In one particular passage, Fanon looks at the French colonial education system in the West Indies and how black school children read about their ancestors the Gauls and how the European hunters and explorers went into Africa to civilize the savages there. Fanon then asks: What are these black children learning? When I read his answer—self-hatred, self-alienation, and identification with their colonial rulers—I thought, “Oh shit, that’s what I’ve been doing.”
Thus, when I was younger, it was through black writers that I first began to acquire a vocabulary and framework to understand my Japanese American identity. There I found authors and critics who provided me with a language to explore and write about race, a language present in none of the white writers I read in my English undergraduate or PhD program.
The other tool I used stemmed in part from Marxist theorists and writers influenced by Marxist thought.
Certain writers, and this includes most writers of color, find an investigation into the political nature of their enterprise absolutely crucial to their growth as writers—or even to their simply being able to declare themselves writers. When a person comes from a family or a group that has been marginalized, when she is one of the “subalterns,” the silence such a person confronts about herself and her experiences within the greater culture is a political condition. In such cases, the very act of writing about herself and her experiences becomes a political act.
When confronted with the proverb, “Know thyself,” the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci thought less about questions of morality or character than more traditional thinkers might. Instead, Gramsci viewed self-examination as a call to understand the historical forces that have shaped a person; a person must understand that she and the world she lives in are neither natural nor something that appeared full blown out of nothing: “The starting-point of critical elaboration is the consciousness of what one really is, and is ‘knowing thyself’ as a product of the historical process to date, which has deposited in you an infinity of traces, without leaving an inventory. . . . Therefore it is imperative at the outset to compile such an inventory.” The English Marxist critic Terry Eagleton implies that such an inventory means that writers must also look at the materials they have been given to work with and their historical lineage: “The author does not make the materials with which he works: forms, values, myths, symbols, ideologies come to him already worked-upon, as the worker in a car-assembly plant fashions his product from already-processed materials.”
Looked at this way, the search to express the self becomes a very complex and multivoiced enterprise and involves many areas of investigation. Where the society might deem a person or her experiences as self-evident, the person discovers that this is far from the case. In the process, she ends up questioning more and more of the world around her, the accepted or received views of the culture. As Bertolt Brecht writes in his treatise Brecht on Theatre:
It is taken for granted that a poet, if not an ordinary man, must be able without further instruction to discover the motives that lead a man to commit murder; he must be able to give a picture of a murderer’s mental state “from within himself.” It is taken for granted that one only has to look inside oneself in such a case; and then there’s always one’s imagination. . . . There are various reasons why I can no longer surrender to this agreeable hope of getting a result quite so simply. I can no longer find in myself all those motives which the press or scientific reports show to have been observed in people. Like the average judge when pronouncing sentence, I cannot without further ado conjure up an adequate picture of a murderer’s mental state. Modern psychology, from psychoanalysis to behaviourism, acquaints me with facts that lead me to judge the case quite differently, especially if I bear in mind the findings of sociology and do not overlook economics and history. You will say: but that’s getting complicated. I have to answer that it is complicated.
Brecht tried to develop a theater that reflected and critiqued these complications, that broke up the apparently seamless portrait of the world provided by his society; by doing so, he challenged the aesthetics of standard realism. He wanted to show the cracks in the scenery, to illuminate the ways that apparently seamless portraits on stage had been constructed. His stagecraft broke through the fourth wall in the ways he instructed his actors to perform and in direct addresses to the audience; he readily included other art forms and media: the use of slides with comments and settings and instructions, painting, film clips, song, and music. He did not want the audience to forget that just as history has been determined by the actions of human beings and not by natural causes, so too art is created by humans. At the same time, he wanted to present theater that made use of contemporary technology and whose multiplicity did justice to the complications of the modern world. He privileged hybridity over purity, questioning over acceptance, history over forgetting, the tales of the defeated over the tales of the victors. All this is why, when I was developing as a young writer, Brecht inspired me and aided me in my search for my own makeshift stagecraft, for the tools to convey my own glimpses of the world, my own inventory and tale.
The exploration of identity is, I believe, a central theme of this age.
When I think of this shift, that bland Disney World slogan comes to mind: “It’s a small world after all.” This interconnectedness is present everywhere—from AIDS to terrorism; from oil prices to trade imbalances; from nuclear proliferation to the threat of global warming; from immigration laws to so-called wars of preemption and their inevitable refugees and migrations; from the internet to satellite technology; from the movement from postcolonial to multicultural to global lit. In short, it’s clear the world is becoming increasingly connected. We live in an era when strangers are encountering strangers daily, making each of us stranger to ourselves. And as James Baldwin has instructed us, we must confront a changing reality that calls us to question and transform our identities.
In our global village, the exploration of shattered and shifting identities leads us to the exploration of cultural and linguistic shifts, the crossing of borders by people and tongues; this exploration in turn leads us to the creation of forms that attempt to reflect and encompass our polyglot world. In the twentieth century, the Russian critic M. M. Bakhtin described the process this way:
The new cultural and creative consciousness lives in an actively polyglot world. The world becomes polyglot, once and for all and irreversibly. The period of national languages, coexisting but closed and deaf to each other, comes to an end. Languages throw light on each other: one language can, after all, see itself only in the light of another language. The naive and stubborn coexistence of “languages” within a given national language also comes to an end—that is, there is no more peaceful co-existence [sic] between territorial dialects, social and professional dialects and jargons, literary language, generic languages within literary language, epochs in language and so forth.
Not surprisingly, what Bakhtin describes is a multiethnic, multiracial world with porous borders, a global village. In a telling dialectic, this means that those writers whose histories and selves are polyglot, who seem to possess no one place to call home, who are placed in numerous ways at the margins of cultures, who live in various forms of exile, who have traveled difficult journeys to get here are central to the world and the moment we are living in. The margins have come to the center, and the center is at the borders; as a result, while many of the powerful live in culs-de-sac—that is, sealed off in dead ends—the dispossessed live right smack at the crossroads.
I often tell students to think about where the tale of a journey receives its power. If the journey is over familiar, long-traveled terrain; if no forces threaten or thwart the traveler; if everything, as on a guided tour, goes according to plan, there is no story. The journey bears telling only when we hear of the difficulties and obstacles the traveler had to overcome, the unusual and unexpected occurrences along the way, the encounters with the unknown. We want to hear about the journey only when we know that the teller has been transformed because of her journey.
But there is more than one way to take a journey. Once a stranger has entered our village, wherever our village may be, however small or large that village may be, we all must become strangers to ourselves and must consider and configure ourselves anew. We all must begin reinvestigating who we are and where we come from and what our relationship to that stranger might tell us, not just about that stranger but also about ourselves. We all must then travel to someplace new. Whether we want to or not, we all must envision the position of the stranger, entering a village we have never entered before.
At other times, we are the strangers walking into a new village, and in that entrance, we begin to see ourselves in a different light even as the villagers must see themselves differently because of our presence. So much of my own writing these days explores my experiences making such entrances, being the first stranger or one of the first strangers who has walked into a previously unknown village.
As old Bert Brecht might say, Yes, it is complicated. Marvelously complicated.