Annotation: Y-Dang Troeung’s “‘A Gift or a Theft Depends on Who is Holding the Pen'” (2010)

This annotation was written in reference to my paper: “Monique Truong’s The Book of Salt: Unsanctioned (Hi)stories of Love Caught in the Circuits of Global Capitalism.” See my abstract here.

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Troeung, Y-Dang. “‘A Gift or a Theft Depends on Who is Holding the Pen’: Postcolonial Collaborative Autobiography and Monique Truong’s The Book of Salt.” MFS Modern Fiction Studies. 56.1 (2010): 113-135. Print.

In her essay, Troeung argues that Monique Truong’s The Book of Salt challenges the conventional parameters of Asian American studies, pushing theoretical discussions beyond the strict geographic borders of the US nation-state and compelling postcolonial interpretations in a broader global(ized) context. She asserts that Truong evokes in her novel, the controversial debates surrounding the authorship of The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas as grounds to discuss the even more vexed and problematic practice of writing “postcolonial collaborative autobiographies” (117). Troeung cites Lorraine York’s study of The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, a work that was certainly produced through the “implicit collaboration” of both lesbian women, but where the power differentials in their relationship has led Stein to be popularly regarded as the principal, if not sole, author (115). In this respect, Troeung suggests that The Book of Salt powerfully recuperates Toklas’ forgotten labors, her genius as a cook and the tedious hours she spent typing up Stein’s manuscripts as important activities that enabled such a work to come to fruition.

Troeung notes that “Toklas’s labor is told to us by Bhin,” drawing a significant parallel between the two of them, emphasizing that such a history can only be revealed by a similarly marginalized domestic (laborer). She goes on to argue that these power differentials in collaborative authorship projects are characteristic of postcolonial collaborative autobiographies where “the white western co-writer is normally accredited as being the real writer/aesthetic genius while the racialized co-writer is either not credited as an author at all or is perceived as a secondary author who simply supplies the raw, authentic material for the autobiography” (117). But despite the similarities she recognizes between Toklas and Binh, Troeung admits that the latter’s status as a poor Vietnamese “illegal” migrant laborer relegates him to an even more vulnerable position.

Another noteworthy argument Troeung makes in her essay is how Stein and Tolkas’ salon in Paris functions as an allegory for the US nation-state. The couple’s commodification and objectification of exotic “others” through writing, recipes and labor can be understood as a stringent critique of US fetishism and consumption of diversity. In keeping with this allegory, if Binh’s entrance into their household is symbolic of his entrance into America, then Truong reveals the hollowness of American ideals of democracy, equality, and liberty. Troeung further notes how Stein and Toklas’ Parisian home also functions as a metaphor for US imperialism abroad. Troeung’s essay has been illuminating on many levels as it inspires me to consider more deftly The Book of Salt’s commentary on the United States and Asian American identity within a more global, postcolonial context.

Annotation: Takeyuki (Gaku) Tsuda’s “When Minorities Migrate” (2007)

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Tsuda, Takeyuki (Gaku). “When Minorities Migrate: The Racialization of the Japanese Brazilians in Brazil and Japan.” Asian Diasporas: New Formations, New Conceptions. Eds. Rhacel S. Parreñas and Lok C. D. Siu. Stanford: Stanford UP, 2007. 225-251. Print.

In this essay Tsuda explores how the racialization of Japanese Brazilians changes with respect to different social and cultural contexts. He specifically focuses on their experience of race in Brazil and then through their “ethnic ‘return’ migration” to Japan (225). Tsuda asserts that while race is highly essentialized within a single national context as if resulting from some intrinsic biological or cultural difference, “the experience of race is de-essentialized through the migratory process” as migrants find themselves subjected to and even perpetuating different forms of racialization (225). Tsuda notes that his findings are based on “twenty months of intensive fieldwork and participant observation in the mid-1990s in both Japan and Brazil” (227). He spent nine months studying “two separate Japanese Brazilian communities in the cities of Porto Alegre…and Ribeirão Preto” in Brazil (227). Then he spent the remaining year in Japan, “conduct[ing] fieldwork in Kawasaki…and Oizumi/Ota cities…where [he]…worked for four intensive months as a participant observe in a large electrical appliance factory with Japanese Brazilian and Japanese workers” (227).

Tsuda notes that in Brazil, Japanese Brazilians have achieving significant socio-economic success, many attaining high education levels and middle class standards of living. Yet they “continue to be racialized as a Japanese ethnic minority because of their distinctive Asian appearance” (228). He emphasizes that the experience of Japanese Brazilians are distinct from those of Japanese Americans because unlike the United States, Brazil does not have many Asian minorities of “non-Japanese descent” (228). Tsuda relates his own jarring experience of being directly addressed as “japonês!” on a daily basis (228). But unlike Franz Fanon’s experience of being called “a Negro!” Tsuda accentuates that Japnese-ness does not have negative connotations in Brazil, at least in recent years, and the exclamation, “japonês!” is not an act of prejudice.” While Tsuda acknowledges that some Japanese Brazilians expressed frustration with the uncomfortable realization that no mater how successfully they assimilate to Brazilian culture and society, they will always be marginalized, many are proud of their Japanese ethnicity. Tsuda suggests that Japanese people and culture are largely associated with positive images and stereotypes because of “Japan’s prominent and respected position in the global order as an economic superpower” (233). He further notes that some Japanese Brazilians perpetuate this form of “positive racialization,” actively asserting their First World Japanese-ness to distinguish themselves from the undesirable negative connotations of Third World Brazilian-ness (238).

In his study of second and third generation Japanese Brazilians’ migration to Japan, however, Tsuda reveals that this group’s experience of race is entirely different. Because of their Japanese appearance, Japanese Brazilian are expected to exhibit a cultural homogeneity that matches their racial homogeneity in Japan. Tsuda notes, however, that second and third generation Japanese Brazilians have lost or never even gained linguistic fluency. Their lives in Brazil have also led them to become dissociated from Japanese customs and social codes of behavior. Tsuda asserts that as a result, any Japanese Brazilians decide overtly perform their Brazilian-ness in Japanese so as to “demonstrate to the Japanese that they are not Japanese despite their Japanese racial appearance and therefore cannot be held to Japanese cultural expectations” (240). In this way they challenge the essentializing racialization practices in Japan and additional demonstrate the flexibity of race as something that can be performed. Tsuda notes that Japanese Brazilians perform their Brazilian-ness in numerous ways, from dress, to language and distinctly Brazilian and non-Japanese social etiquette such as greetings in the form of public “embrac[es] or kissing” (242). He further suggests many choose to immediately introduce themselves as Japanese Brazilians as a kind of apology for lacking in Japanese linguistic or cultural proficiency. Tsuda also interestingly notes that Japanese Brazilians, in their attempt to replicate the Brazillian samba ritual and dance in Japan, something that they never really participated in Brazil and do not possess much knowledge about, they have created a new “spontaneous cultural form” (244).

Tsuda ultimately concludes his essay emphasizing that the racialization of Japanese Brazilians is not merely a “hegemonic process[s]” because these individuals are oftentimes complicit in racializing themselves so as to maintain an “ethnic distinctiveness” in varying locales (246).

Annotation: Pei-Chia Lan’s “Legal Servitude and Free Illegality” (2007)

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Lan, Pei-Chia. “Legal Servitude and Free Illegality: Migrant ‘Guest’ Workers in Taiwan.” Asian Diasporas: New Formations, New Conceptions. Eds. Rhacel S. Parreñas and Lok C. D. Siu. Stanford: Stanford UP, 2007. 253-277. Print.

In her essay Lan broadly explores the experience of migrant guest workers in Taiwan. She asserts that “transmigration within Asia” has greatly increased “in the last decade” as workers, generally from Southeast Asian countries, come to fill the demand for cheap labor in the rapidly industrializing East Asian states (254). Lan argues that migrants are heavily exploited within the guest worker contract system, emphasizing that many actually find more freedom, better working conditions and wages by running away from their employers and assuming a state of illegality. She accentuates that such realities challenge popular assumptions about “improved security within legal realms and prevalent vulnerability in irregular migration” (254). Lan further demonstrates that in spite of globalization, the nation-state still retain their incredible influence in the world economy by regulating international labor flows.

Lan defines “guest worker” as “migrant workers [who] are employed on temporary contracts and are prohibited from immigrating or becoming naturalized” (255). She suggests that this system can be somewhat paralleled to indentured servitude or the “‘coolie’ system” in the United States (255). Lan emphasizes that as “guest workers,” migrants are treated as merely “disposable labor,” and are only allowed residence within a country for a specified term (256). Forbidden from developing family or communal ties that will lead to any form of “permanent settlement,” their labor is merely exhausted for the defined period and then they are expected to return to their home country. Lan accentuates that the guest worker system in Asian countries is particularly distinct because of the incredible degree of direct government intervention and regulation. She reveals that “[s]everal Asian governments, for example those of the Philippines and Indonesia, have established special labor export agencies within their national bureaucracies to regulate flows, train potential migrants, and promote their workers to receiving countries” (256).

In her discussion of Taiwan, Lan suggests that in “October 1989” the government “authorized a special order that allowed foreigners to work for a national construction project,” which gradually extended to private sector work (257). She further notes how Taiwan’s “Council of Labor Affairs (CLA)” was established to levy quotas and manage the distribution of migrant workers in various industries. She accentuates that these guest worker policies are specifically aimed to “ensure that migrant workers are temporally transient and spatially fixed” (258). While these laborers are geographically within the nation-state they are barred from permanent residence. Lan interestingly notes, however, that these policies differ in terms of class. Whereas blue-collar workers are rigorously regulated by the quota system and “are not eligible for permanent residence or citizenship,” white-collar workers are not subjected to the same restrictions (258). Lan argues that one of the most disabling features of the guest worker contract is how it “depriv[es]…[migrants] of the right to circulate in the domestic labor market” as they can only work for their designated employer for their specified term in Taiwan (259). She suggests this is one frightening demonstrating of how the government manages it’s the international labor population and essentially “monito[r] the weareabouts of these ethnic others” (259).

She suggests that migrants also have to pay exorbitant placement fees in order to secure employment in Taiwan. Lan notes that this is probably due to the fact that Taiwan is a desirable place to work and offers relatively higher wages than other Asian countries. Probably the biggest reason, however, is that the competitive broker industry fighting for the business of a “limited number of employers possessing quotas” (260). Lan emphasizes that as these employers receive “kickback[s]” from broker, the financial burden is subsequently displaced to the migrant workers (260). She notes that within this system, quotas are more valued than the workers themselves, who are easily disposable.

Lan goes on to discuss how the “bondage of contract employment” essentially turns the guest worker system into a form of slavery as migrants lack real legal protection due to their alien status and are deprived of the right of mobility, the right to quit and change employers. Lan suggests that workers are often compelled to overlook their unfavorable working conditions and abuses so as to get their contracts renewed and pay off their accumulated debts. She reveals that in light of these harsh realities some migrants choose to runaway.

Lan emphasizes that with their new undocumented status many migrants find better working conditions, as they gain the freedom to choose whom to work for and can leave whenever they please. With their new employers they can also use the threat of quitting to negotiate better wages and hours. While Lan acknowledges that undocumented workers do face some risk such as deportation and “lack of legal protection and health insurance,” she claims that they surprisingly find more satisfaction with their “illegality.” She goes on to discuss how migrants have subverted the original regulative measures of the passport as form of national identification by creating and obtaining forgeries to (re)enter Taiwan and work outside of the terms granted in their guest worker contracts.

She ultimately concludes her essay by asserting that “[t]he ‘guest’worker policy in Asia has created a highly exploitative system of labor migration. Migrant workers not only lack political rights and civil liberties but also are deprived of the economic right of market mobility” (271). Lan also offers a final warning to countries such as the United States that are thinking about instituting a guest worker system to supplant more “irregular migration” flows (272). She accentuates that without proper regard to upholding the civil rights of migrant workers, the US may be sanctioning and indeed perpetuating a more insidious system of slavery.

Annotation: Tobias Hübinette’s “Asian Bodies Out of Control” (2007)

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Hübinette, Tobias. “Asian Bodies Out of Control: Examining the Adopted Korean Existence.” Asian Diasporas: New Formations, New Conceptions. Eds. Rhacel S. Parreñas and Lok C. D. Siu. Stanford: Stanford UP, 2007. 177-200. Print.

In his essay Hübinette asserts that the experiences of Koreans adopted by Western countries after the Korean War has been largely overlooked by scholars in academia. He argues that these adoptees can be understood in terms of Gayatri Spivak’s conception of the “subaltern” because “up until recently they could not speak for themselves, represented as they were as mute physical bonds by supplying and receiving governments and as grateful rescue objects by adoption agencies and adoptive parents” (178). The international adoption industry framed Koreans as the “model minority” adoptee success story, declaring that above all other groups, they were the most well-adjusted to their Western lifestyles. It was only by the 1990s that the Korean adoptees began to speak for themselves and break out of their subaltern status. In his essay Hübinette specifically examines autobiographical narratives “taken from journals and magazines, books and anthologies, or from Internet homepages and sites as the adopted Korean movement is very much a virtual community” (178).

He emphasizes that for the most part these Korean adoptees grew up in entirely white families and communities, eventually learning to identify as white and perform whiteness. Hübinette ultimately challenges the popularly celebrated postmodern conceptions of hybridity and cosmopolitanism, suggesting that these Korean adoptees experienced great “psychic violence and physical alienation” as a result of their mixed-race and fragmented identities. Hübinette points to “the high preponderance of suicide rates, mental illnesses, and social problems among international adoptees “ as evidence of some detrimental effects of hybridity (179).

Hübinette begins his essay with some helpful historical background, explaining that international adoption was first configured as a “rescue mission” to “transfer mixed-raced children, who were fathered by American and other U.N. soldiers” during the Korean war “to adoptive homes in [the] United States and Western Europe” (170). He reveals, however, that it was also a highly politicized movement on the part of the Korean government, which was interested in “cleansing the country of mixed-race children,” counteracting the domestic problem of overpopulation and improving the country’s foreign relations with Western nations Korea hoped to be allies with. International adoption eventually grew into a profitable economic enterprise as well. North Korea, however, remained staunchly opposed to the initiative, denouncing the South for “selling Korean children to Westerners” (180).

Hübinette notes that most of these children have been adopted by “middle- and upper-class white couples or singles and have accordingly grown up in white suburban, countryside, or small-town communities and neighborhoods” (182). He emphasizes that “adoption ideology” has long encouraged adoptees to develop a “white subjectivity” because it promotes “racial harmony” and helps them succeed in a world that largely celebrates and rewards whiteness (185). Hübinette argues, however, that this is an extremely destructive ideology because adoptees are driven to disown their Asian heritage and essentially become “strangers to their own bodies” (186). He claims that the adopted Korean experience is particularly distinct because they are more or less entirely severed from Asian peoples and culture. Their exposure to Asian-ness is often Orientalist representations in American popular culture and they unwittingly internalize these stereotypes because that is the only way they can know their Asian heritage.

Hübinette notes that in the early 1990s some Korean adoptees began to publish personal narratives about their adoptive experiences, but “it was not until the mid-1990s with the breakthrough of the Internet that adopted Koreans started to be more visible and make themselves more audible in the public space” (182). He suggests further that this once invisible, highly marginalized group is beginning to organize nationally as well as globally. But beyond the optimism of this emerging politically active and supportive diasporic community, Hübinette reveals that the personal narratives by Korean adoptees are often fraught with pain and confusion. He suggests that the contradiction between their internally white sense of self and their external Korean body reflected in the mirror becomes a source of great psychic violence. Hübinette asserts that Korean adoptees often feel need to “perform whiteness even more intensely and often in combination with an over-exaggerated middle- or upper classness with the hope of being taken for an Asian adoptive child to a white elite family and not mistaken as a working-class Asian immigrant” (191). They also deliberately choose to not associate with other Koreans and more generally, other Asians and people of color out fear of tainting their already unstable white identity.

Unable to find a place where they can truly belong or cultivate a sense of comfort within their own bodies, Hübinette suggests that many Korean adoptees resort to suicide as a means of overcoming their fragmented identities and the painful disjunction between psychic white self-identification and their physical Asian-ness. He concludes his essay, ultimately “regard[ing] this acquiring of a white self-identification by adopted Koreans as a complete subordination to white hegemonic power and as a magnificent symbol of the final triumph of the colonial project” (196).

Annotation: Rachel Salazar Parreñas and Loc C. D. Siu’s “Introduction: Asian Diasporas- New Conceptions, New Frameworks” (2007)

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Parreñas, Rachel Salazar and Loc C. D. Siu. “Introduction: Asian Diasporas—New Conceptions, New Frameworks.” Asian Diasporas: New Formations, New Conceptions. Eds. Rhacel S. Parreñas and Lok C. D. Siu. Stanford: Stanford UP, 2007. 1- 28. Print.

Parreñas and Siu begin their essay by offering a three-part definition of diaspora:

(1) displacement from the homeland under the nexus of an unequal global political and economic system; (2) the simultaneous experience of alienation and the maintenance of affiliation to both the country of residence and the homeland; and finally (3) the sense of collective consciousness and connectivity with other people displaced from the homeland across the diasporic terrain. (1-2)

They emphasize that this anthology attempts to shift away from theoretical discussions of diaspora to examine how individuals actually “experience, interpret, and give meaning to diaspora” (2). Parreñas and Siu particularly focus on those works that move beyond the borders of the US nation-state, insisting that these communities and spaces have been problematically overlooked by critics in Asian and Asian American studies. They emphasize that “Asian migration, after all, has always been global” and to simply focus on the United States or Asia in isolation of the rest of the world creates a critical aporia where the experiences of Vietnamese migrants who settle in France, for example, go unexamined. Parreñas and Siu emphasize the need to conduct comparative analyses that operate on two levels, “the place-specific/cross-ethnic” and “ethnic-specific/transnational” (3). They assert that the development of global communication technologies such as the Internet have made it increasingly possible to sustain diasporic communities making the study of diaspora all the more urgent.

At the same time, however, Parreñas and Siu recognize the potential dangers that may emerge as a result of this diasporic focus. They particularly site Sau-ling Wong’s concerns about the “‘denationalization’ of Asian American studies” (4). As a field that historically emerged from the civil rights movement, whose political project was to assert that Asian Americans belong in the US, the shift to diaspora essentially “challeng[s] the United States as the privileged site of analysis,” contradicting the fundamental goals of the movement and potentially endangering the fight for Asian American political rights in the nation-state (5). But Parreñas and Siu accentuate how the Asian American movement was always concerned with transnational politics, struggling to link the acts of racism and injustices within the United States to similar acts across the globe.

They also recognize the problematic label of “Asian” diasporas, which can be overly simplistic and reductive. Yet they assert the productivity of this nominal label because it “call[s] attention to the racializing-gendering process involved in diaspora making” as Asians, no matter where they move, are still classified as Asian (9). Parreñas and Siu further emphasize that Asian diasporas are distinct because Asian governments are actively invested in “producing and sustaining diasporic connections and identifications with their respective homelands,” making them a particularly important subject of study. Parreñas and Siu recognize that these multiple, heterogeneous diasporas operate on many different levels, making an explicit effort to “distinguis[h] those Asians who can move, especially to the West, from Asians who are left immobile by the forces of global capitalism and those who choose not to move because of their privileged access to global capitalism” (11).

In their “Introduction” they emphasize that to be “diasporic requires continual production of certain conditions and identifications” (12). They further note that the experience of diaspora can be incredibly liberating but also painful and marginalizing as diasporic subjects are characterized by their partial belonging in their state of residence and their homeland. Parreñas and Siu additionally assert the need to examine how Asians employ diaspora as a means of resistance to racism and xenophobia. They particularly isolate five major themes that connect the various essays in their anthology:

“the recognition of inter-Asian strife in past and present; the persistence of the nation state; the salience of race, ethnicity, gender, and sexuality; the forces of labor, colonialism and globalization that maintain relations of inequality within Asia as well as Asia in relation to the West; and the centrality of culture” (16).