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已有 1211 次阅读2022-12-1 05:55 |个人分类:NewYorker|系统分类:转帖-知识

The Anxious, Unfinished Story of Chinese-American Assimilation

n June 23, 1982, Vincent Chin, a twenty-seven-year-old working as an industrial draftsman at an engineering firm, was out with his friends at the Fancy Pants strip club in Highland Park, a suburb just outside Detroit. Chin was a regular there, but this night was different: it was his bachelor party, and he had promised his mother that this would be his last visit. (Fat chance, she thought.) At some point, a scuffle broke out between Chin and two white men, Ronald Ebens and Michael Nitz, who allegedly blamed the region’s declining auto industry on “you little motherfuckers”—i.e., Japanese auto workers, though Chin was Chinese-American. All of them were kicked out. They eventually went their separate ways, but Ebens and Nitz weren’t done fighting. They spent a half hour driving around Highland Park, looking for Chin, at one point paying someone twenty bucks to help them track him down. They found him at a nearby McDonald’s. As Nitz held Chin steady, Ebens beat his skull open with a baseball bat. Chin remained in a coma until he died, four days later, on what was supposed to be his wedding day.

Chin’s murder was a hate crime—and it would become a galvanizing moment for many across the country who understood themselves to be Asian-American but weren’t entirely sure what this broad category meant. The ensuing national campaign for justice brought into clear focus some of the common threads of that experience, from the confusion of one nationality for another to the easy scapegoating of immigrants during economic downturns. And, when Ebens and Nitz got off with little more than probation, it was a reminder of how easily that voice, even at its most unified, could be ignored.

This night gets retold in meticulous detail, from the perspective of one of Chin’s friends, in “The Fortunes,” an intense and dreamlike new novel, by Peter Ho Davies. The book consists of four stories, which together track a rough history of Chinese people in America. It begins in the mid-eighteen-hundreds, with Ah Ling, a migrant worker in California who becomes the manservant and personal laundryman for a railroad baron. Decades later, we encounter the real-life Chinese-American actress Anna May Wong, a pioneering star of nineteen-twenties and thirties Hollywood, who struggles with the fact that she will never be as famous as her white peers. Then there’s Chin’s straitlaced friend, with his realization that Vincent is now a martyr for a movement toward which he might have felt some ambivalence. And, in the present day, John Ling Smith, a moderately successful, neurotic writer, who was born to a white father and a Chinese mother and teaches at a big American university, finds himself adrift in China, the land of “capitalism misspelled,” where he and his wife have come to adopt a child.

After a couple of acclaimed story collections, Davies published his début novel, “The Welsh Girl,” in 2007. Set in North Wales during the Second World War, the book, which was longlisted for the Booker Prize, carefully toggles between geopolitical conflict and the smaller-scale tensions, allegiances, and choices of everyday life. “The Fortunes” also draws on history, albeit one that is more obscure for many readers. The aim isn’t to teach those readers about the past so much as to explore a burgeoning consciousness, an evolving relationship that successive generations have had to notions of belonging or self. Ah Ling’s narration is stiff and halting as he begins to understand the nuances of American speech. At first, he prides himself on being part of his patron’s “collection” of Chinese things. He’s credited with accidentally introducing the slur “coolie” into the lexicon, when a railroad executive misunderstands something he says; he does not bother correcting him.

Ah Ling doesn’t understand when a Chinese elder warns him that he will never be “one of them,” despite shaving off the long braid he had been required to wear back in China and donning a Western suit. He can’t find the words to describe the strange thrill he feels when he’s confused for white while walking the streets late at night—nor can he explain his general sense of unease. Eventually, when a Chinese laborer says, “You’re a credit to your race,” he begins to feel the sting of sarcasm—of the inequity buried in pleasantries.

Davies’s four stories aren’t explicitly linked, but they’re filled with quiet resonances across time. Decades after Ah Ling has come and gone, Wong, a teen-ager, hears those same words from a director: “a credit to your race.” It is the beginning of her despair, as she realizes that she will never outrun her status as “exotic,” no matter how famous she becomes. Chin’s grieving mother, too, echoes Ah Ling’s time, when Davies describes her “washing rice as if panning for gold.” Once it becomes clear that they will never be able to return to China, one of Ah Ling’s friends opens a café for white customers that plays off Chinese stereotypes; sometimes you just have to “Chink it up,” she says. Closer to our present, the writer wonders about the same compromises, albeit with softer language. What does it mean to write authentically about China—and what does it mean to trade on an identity that feels unstable, constantly shifting, as the university’s diversity hire? The bluntness of institutionalized identity politics leaves him “feeling like a fraud, or worse—a minstrel show.” He casts about for a story to write, a surface upon which to project these anxieties. He toys with the idea of writing a novel about Wong and the early Hollywood practice of “yellowface.” Or maybe he will write about a Chinese railroad worker.

There’s a bit to quibble with here, particularly the fact that three of the stories are about men who walk the world wearing blinders, while women are largely present as archetypes of knowing virtue or seers of the light. (The chapter about Wong accesses her innermost thoughts only as a series of spare, mystifying fragments.) But “The Fortunes” is powerful as a chronicle of perpetual frustration, as each new generation grows aware of the arbitrary line between margin and mainstream. All four stories are about assimilation—but to what? These characters go from fumbling through English to mastering it to speaking for themselves, but anxieties remain. As Chin’s mother, on a daytime talk show, speaks of her son’s murder, Chin’s friend stares at the host, who is trying to decipher her accent. “Laugh and I’ll kill you,” he thinks.

Afew weeks ago, Michael Luo, an editor at the Times, was waiting with his family outside a restaurant on the Upper East Side. According to Luo, a “well-dressed” white woman, apparently incensed at the amount of space they were occupying on the sidewalk as she passed by, yelled at them to “go back to China.” He chased her down, and, after a brief confrontation, she suggested while walking away that he return to his “fucking country.” He was born here, he replied, but it is hard to shame the shameless.

Decades earlier, when such a thing happened, it would have remained a passing indignity. But Luo took to Twitter, where the outpouring of sympathy eventually resulted in an article in the paper; a (http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2016/10/17/us/asian-american-confronting-racism.html), on the paper’s Web site, about Asian-American identity; and, when it was noted that Luo’s ad-hoc campaign seemed to focus almost solely on East Asians, a whole lot of debate about the parameters of Asian-Americanness. Luo’s sense of indignation seemed to reflect an implicit belief that achievement or birthright should insulate one from such clumsy expressions of racism, especially in a place like Manhattan. The incident took place during a busy spell for Asian-American online-media activism, from a Fox News “Watters’ World” segment lampooning Chinatown to murmurs of a reboot of Disney’s “Mulan” starring a white male love interest to the release of a trailer about a new Bruce Lee film told from the perspective of one of his white disciples.

Each of these incidents, which probably could have happened at any time in the past fifty years, might have been lost in a more vigorous news cycle. But, taken as a whole, they were a reminder of something essential, a kind of invisibility that has never gone away, and the persistent feeling of resignation that it will always be so. It’s a feeling that inspires many to shout, so as to avoid being misunderstood, when given the chance to speak aloud. Sometimes history is a burden for writers of color—opportunities to convey meaningful visions of the past are so rare that they must, it sometimes seems, be rendered carefully and comprehensively. As I read “The Fortunes,” I wondered what someone unfamiliar with this history would make of a novel that was so meticulously and steadfastly Chinese-American—whether other readers would appreciate the allusions and subtle jokes. Could anyone outside this community possibly care? But then I realized that worrying about such things was conceding defeat. What makes “The Fortunes” so hopeful, the type of novel that could have only been written now, is its willingness to take liberties with that past—to rearrange its details and indulge in speculation, in order to help us imagine a different way forward.

By the end of his chapter, Ah Ling has given up the cushy life of the manservant to work in the mountains with his countrymen. He finds a job collecting the bones of dead Chinese workers. While picking through one pile, he comes upon a tiny piece of gold amid a heap of bones. He recognizes that these are probably the remains of a laborer who had swallowed this precious nugget over and over, passing it through his body as a way of keeping it secret, protecting something precious and forbidden for himself. Ah Ling thinks about taking it with him. But he returns it to the skeleton, for it is not his to keep.

Hua Hsu is a staff writer at The New Yorker and the author, most recently, of the memoir “Stay True.”

“New Yorker”








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