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Wednesday, October 05, 2005

Amy Tan's Bastard Child

I'm going to preface this post by saying that I have not read The Dim Sum of All Things. I have not read Buddha Baby. I do not plan to. I hate Kim Wong Keltner. I hate the covers of her books, with their exotic-looking chopsticks, red lanterns and stylized hanzi. I hate the storylines of these books with her accidentally Chinese heroine, who's just like every other white girl on the planet. I hate the heroine's "embarassingly Chinese" family who is concentrated Joy Luck Club but nowhere near as heartwarming. And most of all, I hate the puns. It was bad enough when I found The Dim Sum of All Things in Borders a year or two ago. Amazon has the back cover that made me feel almost nauseous. Here it is in all it's disgusting glory:

Have You Ever Wondered: Why Asians love "Hello Kitty"? What the tattooed Chinese characters really say? How to achieve feng shui for optimum make-out sessions? Where Asian cuties meet the white guys who love them? Then you'll laugh, you'll cry, you'll realize this book is better than a Broadyway production of Cats when you read scenes that include: Twenty-something Lindsey Owyang mastering the intricacies of office voicemail and fax dialing. An authentic Chinese banquet where Number One Son shows off his language skills by speaking "Chinglish". Dating disasters with grandsons of grandma's mahjong partners. The discovery that the real China looks nothing like the pavilion at Disney World. Karaoke. And all the while Lindsey is falling in lust with the "white devil" in her politically correct office. But will Grandma's stinky Chinese ointments send him running? Or will Lindsey realize that the path to true love lies somewhere between the dim sum and the pepperoni pizza?

We all knew this was coming. When Better Luck Tomorrow was marketed as an Asian American movie that had to appeal to whites, we knew it. When Lucy Liu became just another Charlie's Angel (except with a genetic pre-disposition towards martial arts), we knew it. Now, Keltner is the first in what will probably be a long line of Asian Americans who use the exoticness of Asia to write a fluffy, sugar-coated fake-Asian experience to sell to fetishizing white audiences, but which has about as much authenticity as a fortune cookie. This book is half dumb ambassadorship (let's teach the know-nothing whitefolks about insider language like "ABC", without any real sense as to the struggles and identities behind such a term) and half pure minstreslsy. As a real ABC, I can tell you that being Asian isn't about being white with a twist (as heroine Lindsey Owyang is basically described in both books), and our issues are a little more relevant than tiger balm and dating advice. I know I'm going to be told that I'm not being clear about why this book offends me so much, therefore, I'm going to lay it all out: I am insulted by people who try to sell commercialized, bastardized versions of who I am to people who don't, won't, and can't understand. I am insulted by the people who think this is authentic Asian Americana, and I am insulted by the idea that anyone would buy this crap and use it to characterize, if even in their own minds, who I am and what I experience. I am insulted by this exotic, foreign and unbelievably different description of Chinese culture, as if a thousand years of civilization is nothing more than tiger balm, mahjong and karaoke. Sure, Keltner pays lip service to real issues in the Asian American experience, and it's nice to have someone writing about what it's like to be Asian in America, but Keltner glosses over the racism, the institutional oppression, and hawks her wares based on the stereotype that all Asian American women are hypersexualized, shallow, white-washed sluts. And, dammit, why does every pop culture book about Asian Americans have to be about a poor, second-generation girl who suffers through the dating advice of her bizarre, immigrant family? Beyond the racial insult of this book, it's just a boring, beaten-to-death premise. Let's see a book that talks about our history (our prides, our downfalls), about the struggles we face as invisible minorities. Let's talk about the mental illness, the alcoholism, the domestic abuse, the suicide rate and everything in the middle. Let's talk about the Perpetual Foreigner, the model minority, the culture clash and cultural assimilation. Let's talk about our own desperate ignorance of all these things, and about the struggle to find a voice. Let's talk about our pride, our triumphs, and our celebrations of ourselves. Let's talk about men. Let's talk about women. Let's talk about sex. Let's talk about all queer Asians, poor Asians, uneducated Asians, brown Asians and all those people who aren't rich, middle-class and Chinese. Let's talk about ABCs as more than white people with a sweet, sticky caramel shell. And most of all, let's talk about ourselves for ourselves. Ms. Keltner, please stop selling Asian Americana piecemeal to people who are attracted to bookjackets with puns on "double happiness" and "chow fun". These books wouldn't be so bad (... okay, maybe it would be...) if there weren't such a disparity of books that got me right. And don't even get me started on the disgustingness of the "chick lit" genre in general. The same executives who think women want nothing more than to buy magazines that can tell us how to be pretty and please our men in bed, watched Sex and the City and decided that we could use some pulp fiction crap to tell us exactly how we should care about nothing more than finding the right guy and get married (between shopping sprees for Manolo Blahnnik shoes, and you know how much that describes me considering I can't even spell it). All this leads me to conclude that I miss Amy Tan. I do. At least when she was around, she was the only one selling out.

7 Comments:

Blogger xian said...

I love this piece. I totally feel you on it. I don't believe that we have some special cultural property inaccesible to whites, but I do know that watering it down and packaging it in demeaning ways to sell to pathological white people is not helping to educate.

The world has a need for empathetic literature that helps people outside of our community understand our community. But does white America hate us soooo much that they can't handle books that are really about us--instead of media that markets fetishized versions of us to support their stereotypes?

And as you point out, can't publishing companies acknowledge that we buy and read books and it's ok to let through a book by Asian Americans for Asian Americans once in a little while?

10/05/2005 11:49:00 PM  
Blogger Gar said...

Awesome post... you really articulate a lot of my feelings about "pop" Asian American/Canadian books. I saw "The Dim Sum of All Things" at a recent trip to the bookstore and I thought I was the only one put-off by both the cover and backcover description...

-G.

10/06/2005 03:43:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

thank you for pointing out one of the many problems with 'chick lit' in general. I loved this post. I hope you discuss it more.

winnie

10/06/2005 06:52:00 AM  
Anonymous Alicia said...

The Abercrombie and Fitch wearing Asian American women who thought Joy Luck Club was too deep and too much of a downer will love this and white women will think this book is too deep and a downer. I mean, conflict of culture and "hoarders"? What are they? Learning about other cultures is so cool and challenging!

Hoarders? Say "Asiaphiles", Kim Wong Kelter, "Asiaphiles".

Never mind, she's in this for the money.

"Let's see a book that talks about our history (our prides, our downfalls), about the struggles we face as invisible minorities. Let's talk about the mental illness, the alcoholism, the domestic abuse, the suicide rate and everything in the middle. Let's talk about the Perpetual Foreigner, the model minority, the culture clash and cultural assimilation. Let's talk about our own desperate ignorance of all these things, and about the struggle to find a voice. Let's talk about our pride, our triumphs, and our celebrations of ourselves. Let's talk about men. Let's talk about women. Let's talk about sex. Let's talk about all queer Asians, poor Asians, uneducated Asians, brown Asians and all those people who aren't rich, middle-class and Chinese. Let's talk about ABCs as more than white people with a sweet, sticky caramel shell."

Amen, well put.

10/06/2005 04:28:00 PM  
Blogger Miss Education said...

Forgive me for asking, but what does "ABC" mean?

10/06/2005 06:39:00 PM  
Blogger Jenn said...

thank you so much, everyone for the words of agreement. i thought i was the only one and am so happy to hear you guys chime in -- i was so bummed when i googled "the dim sum of all things" and got all these positive reviews.

ugh.

10/06/2005 06:40:00 PM  
Blogger Jenn said...

miss education, "ABC" refers to american-born chinese, but this is inside terminology. it's bad practice to start running around calling people this because in some circles it can be considered disrespectful. kind of like the word "gay" vs. "queer" it's best to ask asian americans if they prefer any one term over another.

10/06/2005 06:42:00 PM  

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