Between Homes: The Multiracial Asian-American Experience
By Paul Cunningham
The struggle for solidarity always persists between humans, and people always seek other people to whom they can relate and with whom they may share memories. The mixed race experience consists of the constant, fluid crossing of different boundaries and solidarities; There is always a conflict when resolving inconsistencies in past experiences and allegiances. The collection of memoirs from mixed ethnicity Asian-Americans in Intersecting Circles demonstrates how mixed race individuals pass through boundaries, how they repress their identity through this crossing, and how they establish a sense of rootedness through complex negotiations of different cultural traditions.
Culture has commonly been understood in terms of places of residence that define static cultural structures. James Clifford's account of culture in terms of travel as well as residence gives a convenient frame of reference for the perpetual travel that mixed race individuals experience. His work, Routes, brings into view the processes by which discrete cultural centers and territories are sustained through contacts, disciplining and appropriating the movements of people and things in an increasingly connected world (Clifford 3). Communities determined by nationalisms are not absolute; rather, they are zones of intersection and flows of travel which are continually emerging.
In his essay "What is a nation?" Ernest Renan defines a nation as a necessary spiritual principle which binds men together. These men have the will to live together to perpetuate their heritage and their ability to live free and happy lives. A nation involves a large-scale solidarity of shared memories, past glories, and achievements, as well as a programme for the future (Renan 19). However, Renan notes that the hegemonic quality of a nation is defined by individual wills and, hence, never fully articulates the needs of its inhabitants. Nations, then, appear to guarantee liberty. However, this liberty is not eternal and will eventually disintegrate in lieu of the common work of humanity (Renan 20). In other words, the "imagined communities called 'nations' require constant, often violent, maintenance"(Clifford 10), especially with complications such as migration. Hence, nation-states, as imagined solidarities, are necessary in order for a community to achieve a sense of homogeneity and hegemony. However, for Multiracial individuals who settle themselves among these hegemonies through travel, no single community or nation reflects the complexity of their multiple allegiances. Hence, they often repress other parts of their identity that are not included in a specific nationalism.
Ideologies and the body are always dynamically connected. Among other cultural manifestations in body, people from multiple racial backgrounds appear different from people with a single ethnicity, possessing bodies that are highly deterritorialized depending on the context. What this means from an individual point of view is that they can be associated with different ethnicities or types depending on the ideological position of the perceiver. That is, their bodies inhabit multiple territories, mapped out by those various ideologies which associate the individual with certain demographics. In a certain sense, the body of someone who is half Vietnamese and half Caucasian often inhabits both the nation-states of Vietnam, America, and perhaps Europe, at the same time. The way someone appears ethnically is in a large part how her or his ethnic identity is constituted, however inaccurate that may be. The ability to pass as a member of multiple cultural traditions is one ability that mixed-race individuals have. However, this chameleon-like ability to cross into cultures is not without difficulties because it causes repression of other ethnic identities.
In "War Doll Hotel" by Kiana Houghtailing Davenport, the protagonist is unsure of her ethnic identity from the very start. One of the things that prompts this is the fact that her body does not appear Hawaiian. She tells her mother, "I don’t know what I am, Hawaiian or Caucasian. Both, she says. What am I first?… Hawaiian. but I don’t look Hawaiian. You will, she promises. It works its way out from the blood"(Davenport 280). Even though she doesn't look Hawaiian, her mother assures her that that is her primary allegiance. However, the narrator notices that this is not clear cut because she must hold back various parts of herself in order to fit into different communities. She mentions that within her multiracial community, she holds back her white side in order to be able to better identify with a minority culture, and her Hawaiian side to better fit into white culture(Davenport 284). It is obvious from the very start that Davenport's narrator occupies a fluid space, in this case between the Caucasian community and a displaced multiracial community.
The narrator is able to mingle among Caucasians, but not without problems. The protagonist reflects, "I have his [her father’s] pale eyes. In other words, I ‘pass’"(Davenport 281). Because she looks Caucasian, she is able to pass for being white and therefore merge into the Caucasian community. However, this passing is not without difficulties. She manages to find roommates who are "robust, raquet swinging blondes"(Davenport 284) and marries a Caucasian man. This enables her to live in a higher economic bracket. However, in trying to blend in with white culture, she represses a part of her identity and her history. The experience "sealed me off from any genuine human contact, because those assumptions were false...I was beginning to learn about secrets, the ones we move fast to keep ahead of"(Davenport 284).
Interestingly, the narrator/protagonist in "On Being Multiracial" does not feel repressed in a single dominant "white" culture but in a variety of established "minority" cultures. Ai's protagonist is told by her mother, "’You look like Papa’…who was half Choctaw Indian and half white" (Ai 275). However, Ai reflects self-consciously on herself: "Yet I was shorter than my relatives, and none had eyes like mine"(Ai 275). From the very start of the story, the narrator's ambiguous body serves as one of the markers that gives her ethnic identity a fluidity and allows her entrance into different communities. She takes turns identifying herself and being identified Indian, African American, and Japanese. The makeup of her body gives her the ability to pass for members of different groups.
However, this ability to pass is always incomplete. Within a group of African American friends, she is taunted, as an "older group of black girls would call me nigger-jap"(Ai 276). She is also harassed by white school children who throw gravel at her at recess "but not at the black children"(Ai 276). Unlike Davenport's narrator, the narrator of "On Being Multiracial" is picked on as a child because she is an outsider in every static, racially determined social group. She is not able to "pass" as well as Davenport's narrator because her body is more ambiguous. Parts of her identity obtrude because she "sticks out" from every homogeneous group she encounters, and those parts are occluded to some degree when she identifies herself with that group.
"What Are You?" by Anne Xuan Clark contains a heavy focus on the narrator's body and its fluid status. The work starts off with the recollection, "When I was little, I sued to open my eyes as wide as possible to erase the traces of my mother's ancestry. I would up with an expression of surprise and my eyebrows began to ache. I would turn my face from side to side, looking at it from a variety of angles, sucking in my cheeks to look like women from all the fashion magazines/ You look kinda oriental"(Clark 27). The above quote highlights the author's racial insecurity regarding her appearance, and her efforts to minimize the effect of looking "kinda oriental"(Clark 27). This marks her body's fluid status because she is within the boundary between white and Asian as well as the hegemony that Caucasian culture holds over her assimilation. In this case, she attempts to repress the Asian part of herself to better identify with the white community. She reflects that "If I didn't tell them[Her friends that she was Asian] maybe they would think I was white, maybe I could pass"(Clark 28). It is clear that the narrator wants to pass into the white community, using her chameleon-like ability.
The narrator's body is in always two "territories" at once, despite her wish to be aligned with one or the other. She states: "when I wanted to be white, I lightened and permed my hair. Last year, I dyed my hair black. Did I really think it would make me look more Asian? Was I overcompensating for my whiteness?"(Clark 29). Through make-up, the narrator is able to augment her body with cultural meaning. This gives her body even more range of fluidity between two cultures. However, the transition is never complete and it seems to give the narrator a sense of confusion rather than a sense of freedom.
The perpetual movement and displacement of the multiracial individuals in Intersecting Circles could be characterized as diasporic. Following from his theory of travel, in his definition of "diaspora" communities, Clifford maintains that "whether the national narrative is one of common origins or of gathered populations, it cannot assimilate groups that maintain important allegiances and practical connections to a home-land or a dispersed community located elsewhere. Peoples whose sense of identity is centrally defined by collective histories of displacement and violent loss cannot be "cured" by merging into a new national community"(Clifford 250). Diasporas are ways of maintaining connections with more than one community while practicing forms of citizenship that are not absolute (Clifford 9). It seems that multiracial individuals are a prime example of this, because they contain multiple ethnicities with which they can establish ties. However, these ties are shifting and often the making and remaking of their identities involves the negotiation of these ties to establish the optimal degree of freedom.
Michael Fischer articulates notions of diasporic ties, relating them to processes involving national memory, which has been mentioned earlier in reference to Renan's essay. According to Fischer, memory is one method by which people reclaim repressed parts of their identity. Through introspection, one is able to 'remember' historical cultural experiences to find a voice and vision for the future against the imposition of a cultural hegemony. Repressed parts of oneself can find a place in the expression of oneself through the process of memory (Fischer 194). Autobiography in general and in this case is "predicated on a moral vision, on a vibrant relation between a sense of self and a community, on a retrospective or prophetic appeal to a sense of self and a community, on a retrospective or prophetic appear to a community of spirit, be it religious or social"(Fischer 197). This begs the question: Which cultural traditions does a multiracial individual draw from through memory in order to create a vision for the future? Once again, it seems as though the answer would have to lie in the complex negotiation of those disparate traditions and shifting alignments and modes of travel which constitutes a constant state of individual diaspora, that differs from someone of a single racial makeup.
In Intersecting Circles, the spiritual or psychological grounding given to memory and nationalism is particularly important because of the questioning that goes on in the mind of the multiracial individuals regarding their status of truly belonging to any group at all. Clark's narrator is told "when I first began to acknowledge and embrace my Vietnamese heritage, she told me I was clinging onto something false"(Clark 28), even though her heritage is used against her through racial slurs such as "You fucking egg roll?"(Clark 28) and "Moonface"(Clark 28). Even though the tie to her heritage might be imagined, it is imposed on her externally and remains out of her control. It is clear that ethnicity is an issue, and while race and ethnicity are not prisons, it is impossible to escape from the societal structures that make up culture. Simply ignoring the issue is not possible for someone with an ambiguous ethnic status.
In her story, Davenport portrays different mental snapshots from the two sides of her heritage, juxtaposing each of them through the negotiation of memory. She describes positive, nostalgia-filled memories of her "full-blooded Hawaiian mother, dark, stately, beckoning to her"(Davenport 279), juxtaposed with negative images of her father, "wearing a white robe, and a funny cone-shaped hat"(Davenport 279). It is evident from the start of the narrative that the narrator/protagonist views the paternal side of her ancestry as part of her oppression, since her father's relatives were part of the Klu Klux Klan. The next paragraph mentions the bombing of Hiroshima, another recollection containing associations of violence of one culture over another. The next memory mentioned is her mother's rejection by her father's family. All of the memories mentioned evoke instances where a Caucasian culture rejects Hawaiian culture, and it is clear from the very beginning that the narrator is using memory in an attempt to counter the perceived hegemony of a dominant culture by bringing these facts to light.
The repressed parts of the narrator's identity come back to haunt her, and she begins "to see that at a certain age life this back, that the things we desert come after us"(Davenport 287). She uses her writing as a means of introspection to develop her selfhood: "writing seemed to approximate the actions of someone jiggling a key in a lock, which would open a door that led me out of my condition"(Davenport 285). She calls back an old memory, "an old snapshot...men in white robes and cone-shaped hoods"(Davenport 286). This memory continues to haunt her until she realizes that "a writer's voice is the sound of her convictions... I hadn't scrutinized myself, still couldn't define who I was"(Davenport 287). As a consequence, she goes back to her family, who are "all mixed marriage offspring: Hawaiian, Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Portuguese, Filipino"(Davenport 281). She establishes a diasporic tie with her multiracial family, and the repressed part of herself which she has ignored in her travels come to the foreground in her life and her writing. She notes now that "not to be blond and WASP is a bearable affliction"(Davenport 290). It is evident that the tie that she forms through the process of memory allows her to practice a nonabsolutist form of citizenship and to resist assimilation.
Ai's narrator experiences a similar process of introspection that leads to an expression of what she feels is her full, unrepressed self. The phrase she uses, having "had to step back into my own heart's cathedral and bow down before I could rise up"(Ai 277), resonates with the process of self-examination that constitutes memory. Interesting, she finally feels the most kinship with with Japanese culture, possibly the most repressed part of her identity because her Japanese father was present during her upbringing, and she was not even aware of his existence or ethnic status until she was older. Her awareness of Japanese culture comes last in her quest for selfhood, even though Japanese holds the majority of her genetic makeup, and perhaps has been repressed for the longest. As Fischer observes in the case of an Armenian American, "by attempting to spare children knowledge of painful past experiences, parents often create an obsessive void in the child that must be explored and filled in"(Fischer 204). She also establishes a religious diasporic tie to the "compassionate Buddha, Avalokitesvara"(Ai 277), which gives her a religious anchor or home to which she can turn.
However, she does not completely fit the mold of being aesthetically Japanese and is still defined by others through different terms. The fact that she has dark skin confuses this. There are whites who say "your people(meaning blacks)"(Ai 277), deterritorializing her body. She admits that there "is no identity for me 'out there'"(Ai 277). Her constantly shifting alignments that continue from childhood acknowledges that she is in a constant state of diaspora wherever she locates herself in society and she is forced to maintain herself through a complex disparate set of ties rooted primarily in Japanese culture.
In "Notes from a Fragmented Daughter" Elena Tajima Creef asserts her diasporic tie to her mother and her Japanese heritage. Hence, a subheading in her essay states: "Deconstructing My Mother as the Other"(Creef 298). This could be read interrelatedly as her deconstructing her mother's status as "Other" to Caucasian culture and to herself, since she is alienated from her mother partly because of her ties to white culture. She gives an account of her mother as a "war bride"(Creef 298) and the implied assimilation issues related to her marrying a "white North Carolinian hillbilly(sic)"(Creef 299). In an attempt to further the connection with her past, she asserts her name as "Elena June", the surname of her mother, giving a genealogical account of her relation to her mother, Chiyoshi's line, the "only surviving daughter of Iso"(Creef 299), and so on. She gives herself a sense of totality by bringing back her mother who was repressed because of her psychological and social distance from her.
Many of the Hapa women in Intersecting Circles voice the necessity of embracing one’s status as a multiracial individual rather than identifying with a single ethnicity, although doing the latter can be a common and acceptable route for some depending on the circumstances. Davenport's narrator's friend Sindiwa remarks, "In my country when whites stare at me, there's no ambiguity, it's pure hate. I always know who I am. You are different. Mixed blood, mixed cultures. You have to improvise, hide, take sides"(Davenport 289). It is clear that her situation is different from people whose ethnic situations are more black and white. Davenport's narrator goes back to her multiracial community in Hawaii to help her understand this situation. Her "aunties and uncles 'talk story'"(Davenport 289) and retell their family history. In the end, she defines herself and her chosen community as "wondrous hybrid flowers"(Davenport 291), empowering her multiracial status.
The "War Doll Hotel" resonates quite conveniently with Clifford's characterization of culture as "hotel" or "motel", a site of continual movement and exchange (Clifford 34). Davenport's narrator stays in a hotel in New York with a group of multiracial women from all around the world seeking work. The hotel signifies a veritable travel lounge where women "came from everywhere..they came bringing the perfumes of the Orient, and The Caribbean, and the Veldt"(Davenport 282). While the hotel is a place of dwelling it is a paradoxical one because it is a point of passage where, as Clifford puts it, the residents are "dwelling-in-travel"(Clifford 34). Not to be confused with a tribal, nomadic community, which travels but remains a located entity, the frame that is the "War Doll Hotel" offers a shift of perspective, where the lens is not focused on various elements and their relations to one another within a field of view, but is aware of relations that exceed the edges of the field and the relations between elements as provisional and historical. Of course, unlike traditional inhabitants of a hotel, the occupants are unlike people who are economically and cultural privileged. Their "mobility is coerced, organized within regimes of dependent, highly disciplined labor"(Clifford 34). They are not vacationers visiting and sampling a foreign community, but a multiracial community immersed in the economic and social environment they are in. However, the multiracial community provides Davenport's narrator with a space to serve as a base of operations where she will be accepted.
Ai's narrator also chooses to align herself as a multiracial individual. In "On Being Multiracial" Ai states: "I was forced to be loyal to myself as a multiracial person or be immersed in the black struggle for identity with which I had little in common. Except a desire to be accepted as I was"(Ai 276). She asserts that "people whose concept of themselves is largely dependent on their racial identity and superiority feel threatened by a multiracial person. The insistence that one must align oneself with this or that race is basically racist and the notion that without a racial identity a person can't have any identity perpetuates racism"(Ai 277). Ai's narrator asserts her choice and necessity of allowing herself to be multiracial, because she experiences racism within stratified racial structures. In both "War Doll Hotel" and "On Being Multiracial" the narrators find that identifying with a specific mono-racial minority is limiting and inadequate. Aligning themselves fluidly and selectively after trying on different identities, they locate themselves within the category of multiracialism, a form which they find to allow them more freedom and authenticity in terms of allowing them to construct diasporic ties which allow them to be the most true to themselves.
This mixed race problematic is a growing concern. Cynthia Nakashima, a mixed race scholar of Mixed Race studies, argues that "many scholars in the field of Asian American studies have established that the discipline has historically given primacy to certain versions of the Asian American experience – specifically an adult male, heterosexual, American-born, Chinese or Japanese, West Coast perspective. I would argue that we can add to this list an assumption of "mono-raciality" or "racial"/ethnic 'purity'"(Nakashima 112). According to her, "integrating a mixed race worldview can and, in my opinion should alter the entire Asian American studies discourse by disrupting the very concept of "Asian American" itself"(Nakashima 114). Indeed, racial and ethnic categories themselves have shifted over time and may be deconstructed and re-established over time(Nakashima 114). She also cites the increased instances of people of mixed blood in the United States(Nakashima 115). It is evident that the mixed race problematic is a growing one and deserves due attention.
If it is true that national formations are provisional necessities, then the importance of the disarticulation of categories based on nationalities in discourse is tantamount. Those categories divide as well as unite. What holds together people is a common humanity which exists beyond invented nation-states. Beyond national memory, the memory of the human struggle goes back to our origins as a species. Utilizing the process of memory, it is best to look to this as our programme for our future.