You Are What You Read

By Adrienne Su

Since my parents always made room for more books in our Atlanta home, I thought I knew what I was doing when, at six, I decided to be a writer. I wrote my first “poem” soon afterwards, in 1974, and never went back on the decision, producing stories, poems, and attempts at novels. Yet not until college did I write from the perspective of an Asian American speaker. One reason for the delay is surely that children’s books with Asian characters, never mind Asian American characters, were vanishingly scarce. A 2016 study by Angela Christine Moffett, “Exploring Racial Diversity in Caldecott Medal-Winning and Honor Books,” found that of the 332 Caldecott books published between 1939 and 2016, thirteen, or 1%, had Asian or Asian American primary characters. My brother and I recall from our childhood only two picture books with Asian main characters: The Five Chinese Brothers, by Claire Huchet Bishop and illustrated by Kurt Wiese (1938), and Tikki Tikki Tembo by Arlene Mosel and illustrated by Blair Lent (1968) both of which are still in print.

The Five Chinese Brothers, in which the titular characters use superpowers to evade a death sentence, has been criticized for racially caricatured illustrations and the unexplained identicalness of the brothers. Defenders argue that the book evokes nostalgia for many, the art represents a different time, and it’s based on a Chinese folktale.

I understand the nostalgia, having enjoyed the book in childhood. I had never been to China, so for all I knew it was accurate: men wearing queues, justice by beheading, identical (non-quintuplet) siblings, secret superpowers. But nostalgia doesn’t preclude adult awareness of a book’s shortcomings and young children’s inability to apply historical perspective. My own children, now in high school and college, didn’t encounter The Five Chinese Brothers until this year. They were appalled, in part because they are capable, as they were not as three-year-olds, of recognizing racial stereotypes, in part because the books they read as young children, while generally lacking in characters of Asian descent, had more than the books of my generation and included Asian American characters. On our shelves were Into My Mother’s Arms by Sharon Jennings and illustrated by Ruth Ohi, Yoko by Rosemary Wells, and Lon Po Po by Ed Young (although the anti-wolf angle in that one didn’t sit well). The board book More More More, Said the Baby by Vera B. Williams includes an Asian baby. Though we didn’t have Amy Tan’s Sagwa books, we had the DVDs. These all represented an improvement over my era in more than number. While Sagwa is set in a China of flowing robes and sleeve-dwelling toy dogs, its characters have the normal flaws that make for good storytelling. Yoko, using animal characters, features a Japanese American girl who is mocked for bringing sushi to school, a literary scene that would have made a difference for me at picture-book age. In the Jennings and Williams books, being of Asian descent is an inherent part of life and not a subject of commentary or caricature.

On the whole, however, my kids’ early reading, three decades after mine, was dominated by white characters. Well-worn books in our house included Laura Numeroff’s If You Give a Mouse a Cookie series, Susan Meddaugh’s Martha Speaks, Mark Teague’s Dear Mrs. LaRue, and many picture books by Jan Brett. Others were hand-me-downs (perhaps a cousin of nostalgia picks) or simply canonized: Make Way for Ducklings by Robert McCloskey, Madeline by Ludwig Bemelmans, Curious George, and much of Dr. Seuss. Still, my kids could see some things clearly that I couldn’t.

While it could be based on a Chinese folktale, the narration of The Five Chinese Brothers does not reflect a Chinese perspective. The story is set in China, yet the brothers are always referred to as “the first Chinese brother,” “the second Chinese brother,” and so on; while other characters are “the little boy,” “the judge,” “the executioner.” That is, the adjective distinguishing characters with superpowers from normal ones is not “Wonder” or “Super” but the redundant “Chinese.” The brothers’ imperviousness to decapitation, drowning, fire, and suffocation also encourages the notion that a “Chinese” person does not feel pain.

As a child reading it, I was too young to realize that neighbors, using the same libraries I did, might perceive my family through the lens of the book. Asians were so few in Atlanta that if I went somewhere with an Asian American friend, people assumed we were related. On occasion we made it a joke and spoke gibberish to each other to make them think we were speaking Chinese (or Japanese or Korean—whatever they thought we were). One class in high school held a spontaneous discussion of how to tell the two East Asian girls in the class apart, commenting on the few physical features they thought might be used to do so, while the two of us sat in mortified silence. That our classmates may have had only The Five Chinese Brothers as an early depiction of Asianness didn’t help, since the brothers “all looked exactly alike.” Asian kids—mainly of Chinese descent in my schools—were also regarded as academic achievers, the “model minority.” Like superpowers, this distinction looks positive on its surface, but the effect of the label was to prevent Asian-Black solidarity. It was also misleading. Most of the Chinese American kids I knew had highly educated parents who had arrived before the Immigration and Nationality Act (1965) inadvertently relaxed longstanding U.S. restrictions on immigration from Asia. The reason so many of our fathers had Ph.D.s in engineering and the sciences, and so many of our mothers were college-educated, some with advanced degrees as well, was not a genetic predisposition but U.S. immigration policy. A Cold War effort to keep technical expertise in the U.S. rather than exporting it to communist China resulted in certain exceptions to the official cap of 105 Chinese immigrants per year. Students rendered stateless by the 1949 communist takeover of Mainland China were allowed to stay in the U.S., and many people from Hong Kong and Taiwan with expertise in science and engineering were invited here as well.

While Claire Huchet Bishop probably meant only to bring an enjoyable Chinese tale to American children in the 1930s, English-language authors retelling Chinese legends (and others stocking library shelves or compiling reading lists) need to consider context: What in China would be one among hundreds of stories risks becoming the dominant “Chinese” narrative in U.S. children’s literature in 1938, even 1970, by which time authors and publishers should have been aware of the existence of Asian Americans. One pernicious assumption may be that the percentage of literary characters of a race need only match the percentage of the population to be sufficient. But that ignores the consequences of having only a handful of narratives for each underrepresented group. Not only does it harm the members of the group by creating what Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, in her famous TED talk, calls “the danger of a single story,” it also promotes narrowness of thinking among the general population. Some politicians may consider narrow thinking desirable for pragmatic reasons, but it’s probably not the goal of teachers and librarians.

Tikki Tikki Tembo, in which a family learns not to favor one child over another, is less exoticizing than Brothers but also presents difficulties. The art shows “Chinese” people whose garb resembles Japanese geta and kimonos. The favored child’s long name is nonsense, his brother’s short name, Chang, mis- translated. Children’s book author Grace Lin, on her blog, debunks the book’s claims that Chinese families used to give favored sons long names and that the story is a Chinese folktale; more likely, it’s an adaptation of a Japanese one. Acknowledging the affection many parents and teachers have for the tale, Lin suggests telling the story without the book, situating it in an unnamed land, and changing Chang’s name so as not to point to China—or presenting the book alongside a discussion of truth vs. fiction, along with other books that accurately depict China.

I was given no such context, so the book’s conflations were lost on me. I loved the moral satisfaction of the ending and recited the name “Tikki tikki tembo-no sa rembo-chari bari ruchi-pip peri pembo” for fun but now realize that it fed the “ching-chong” taunts all Asian Americans endure. When an Asian American friend and I spoke gibberish on purpose in public, we were unwittingly feeding those taunts. In addition, I was too young to perceive that, in a landscape lacking in counternarratives, Tikki Tikki Tembo encouraged the image of Chinese people as holders of ancient wisdom—another stereotype that appears positive but in isolation reinforces the notion that Asian Americans are not normal Americans. As a child, I never encountered in a book an Asian American kid who had ordinary experiences, such as friendship trouble or a neighborhood mystery to be solved. It would have been life-changing, when I was a little older, for one of Nancy Drew’s friends to be Asian American. (Tellingly, even today, my vision of a retroactively improved young people’s literature assigns Asian descent not to the main character but to one of her sidekicks.) The handful of Asian characters I did meet were foreign. They were also mythical, embedded in a distant past, or both: in a word, exotic.

I recall two other early “Asian” literary encounters. One would be lost if the Dr. Seuss estate hadn’t reminded me: the offending pages in If I Ran the Zoo (1950), which I was too young to critique. The other occurred a few years later. I loved the Holidays and Customs volume of the Childcraft encyclopedia until I opened it to a photo of an Asian child eating, under the headline “Eating with Sticks?”

As a child who admired encyclopedias as though they were books to the tenth power, I felt punched. Chopsticks as tools of crude stabbing? By then I could picture the author picturing the reader: And that default reader has never seen chopsticks.

I knew that most kids at school didn’t know how to use chopsticks, but those who came to my house and opted for a fork knew what chopsticks were—and our silverware drawer had everything at the ready: forks, knives, Western-style spoons, Chinese-style spoons, and chopsticks. To my family, there was nothing alien about eating with a fork and knife; there were simply some tasks for which chopsticks were better (including safely extracting a stuck piece of toast from the toaster). What the Childcraft headline did was create for me the possibility that most of our neighbors, even those who came over and were too polite to express it, might be secretly aghast at the savagery of our utensils. “Eating with Sticks?” caused me to imagine them imagining us, which became a source of long-term fascination, as well as Frost’s “lump in the throat”: a provocation to write poems.

In retrospect, I see plenty of examples of China imagined by the West in my early surroundings. Sometimes it functioned as an immigrant tool of survival. Chinese restaurants, needing to attract a clientele that knew little of Chinese cooking, offered accessible Oriental adventure: animal-zodiac placemats, bright-red booths, enormous dragons, fortune cookies (not of Chinese origin), and dramatic presentation (sizzling rice soup with its crackling rice, the pu pu platter with flames leaping out of a miniature grill). One of my aunts ran an “Oriental gift shop” in New Jersey. I loved visiting her store and helping to arrange the trinkets, often wanting to buy them (she usually gave them to me; I was probably not much of a helper). Since this was long before everyone could cheaply and easily order Chinese products, the store did well, surely bolstered by popular notions of the mysterious East. In elementary school, I did a social-studies project on silk, mainly because my mother had swatches on hand. Whether she had them because we were Chinese or because she was an excellent seamstress, I had no idea, but presenting them on the trifold board gave my project a look of authority—dare I say authenticity?—that made me think I must be Chinese, because everyone around me thought I was.

One refreshing moment of contrast was the 1970s TV commercial for the water softener Calgon, in which a Chinese American laundry owner, talking to a white customer, claims an “ancient Chinese secret” to getting clothes clean; his wife, also Chinese American, scoffs and reveals the true secret, Calgon. In an era when Asian Americans almost never appeared on TV, the ad is surprising in its willingness to poke fun at stereotypes and show Chinese Americans doing that all-American thing: running a small business, even if that business is a laundry, which was never a Chinese specialty but one of the few forms of work available to Chinese men in Gold Rush California. (Chinese women were largely barred from immigrating.) White resentment had driven Chinese men out of the mines, and the over- all scarcity of women in the region had created demand for feminized labor, which is also how Chinese restaurants took hold in the American landscape: most men with other options refused to cook or wash clothes for a living. Opening a laundry, though physically taxing at the time, also enabled Chinese men, who faced overt racial discrimination in the labor market, to be self-employed. One hundred and thirty years later, Calgon was their business secret as much as any exoticized wisdom was. And that commercial had real insight about perceptions of “authentic” Chinese Americans.

The word “authentic” would hound me as an adult, especially after I developed an interest in the literature of food. Along with “ethnic,” it has become a troubled word in the food world, linked to the pigeonholing of nonwhite chefs, who have long been judged on their ability to reproduce a rigid repertoire of “classic” dishes of their ancestral countries, even if they would prefer the freedom to innovate that is granted without question to their white counterparts. No individual book, for children or adults, is guilty of planting this double standard, but a paucity of early narratives primes the public mind to associate certain groups with idealized lands that tend toward the “far, far away” and “long, long ago,” a habit that, unquestioned, can last a lifetime and be handed down. Every person, like every cuisine, is equally possessed of ethnicity; ethnicity is simply less obvious in members of the dominant group in a given place. “Authenticity” in popular usage freezes cuisines the world over into fixed, arbitrary notions of a culture’s essence, when in fact the global exchange of ingredients and techniques has been happening for centuries; the potato’s journey from Peru to Ireland is one of many examples. (I love the badge on the back cover of Lucky Peach’s 2015 book 101 Easy Asian Recipes: “100% Inauthentic!”) In college I would find myself studying Chinese language, history, philosophy, and religion, all through texts written in English, which were further examples of the West imagining China. I would go to China as a foreign exchange student and discover how very Chinese I was not—that while my life certainly had Chinese dimensions, I too had been, all along, another Westerner imagining China.

All of that inquiry was still in the future. As the 1980s approached and Chinese restaurants in Atlanta grew more numerous, I heard the word “authentic” used to distinguish restaurants that appealed mainly to Chinese palates from those that catered to mainstream American tastes—the Chinese restaurants of my early childhood. I’m sure I used it that way, too, and many still do, with benign intentions. It has utility in contexts where “Chinese” is neatly separated from “American.” But in a nation that has had Chinese restaurants since the Gold Rush, that continued separation looks peculiar, especially when considering another immigrant food viewed as strange upon arrival, also in the mid- to late-19th century: pizza. As it is eaten in the U.S., pizza is so widely accepted that arguments about its authenticity are more likely to pit New York against Chicago than the U.S. against Italy. Its ubiquity has made it a standby at children’s birthday parties, while familiar Chinese American dishes such as Chicken and Broccoli continue to be viewed as watered-down versions of “the real thing” instead of as American foods.

That moment I opened the children’s encyclopedia to “Eating with Sticks?” stuck with me for decades. It generated a poem I published in Prairie Schooner in 1996, “Visions of Rice,” which shows that episode returning to haunt me some twenty years later. In the poem, I have left the suburban South and set up house in “New York City, where the sophisticated people know how to eat with sticks,” but I still have flashbacks to that day; even in adulthood, the same chill descends and the rice of my childhood turns alien, even grotesque, despite its central place on my grown-up table and broad acceptance by urban elites. The poem is in none of my books. Chronologically, it should be in the first, Middle Kingdom (1997). I probably cut it after the manuscript’s twentieth rejection. When Alice James Books accepted the collection on the condition that I replace the dull title, My House in the Suburbs, I was elated. That title had been my declaration of ordinariness, of lacking superpowers and nonsense names, and it’s the title of a poem that struggles with the word “authentic,” but I could see how its plainness might not sell books.

It took months to come up with “Middle Kingdom,” which even after publication I feared was under- and overstated. It depends on the absence of “The” to suggest suburbia and Asian America as middles. It screams China. But it does describe the book’s contents: American poems navigating the China-imagining that undergirds daily life for people perceived as East Asian in America, regard- less of who they are, even at picture-book age. Some of the poems imagine a faraway land, as I did when reading The Five Chinese Brothers, without critical commentary; others show collisions between notions of Chinese America; others show notions of Chineseness and Americanness blurring in a person; still others don’t mention race or nation at all but simply live their lives, like a child walking into a library, having no idea what adventures await, wanting only to embark.

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