I’ve just finished reading a piece in the New Yorker titled, “No More Maybe” by Gish Jen. It’s a fiction piece written on a soon-to-be mother, who immigrated from China to the US with her husband. It starts off by immediately throwing you into a first person narrative, where the narrator details her experiences meeting her mother and father-in-law and a mistake that occurs during their stay. Although I found it difficult to say what really spoke to me about the writing, but something about the broken english sentences combined with themes of patriarch sovereignty hits home.
Themes of racism also play into the piece. Classes here at Berkeley have attempted to understand what processes perpetuate racism, but first-hand narratives like this piece are really one of the only ways I can describe racism to someone who has not grown up under this Asian-American meta-culture. I use the word meta here because although culture generally describes agreed-upon, collective social norms, I feel like culture by itself is inadequate to describe this overarching theme of Asian-American culture. To me, it feels that this stereotype does have its basis in some truth and I think it would be wrong not to acknowledge it.
In the relationship between child and parent, it’s especially difficult to recognize when racism is present and even more difficult to point out it’s presence. The underlying structure of the family in Asian-American culture makes it challenging to approach the issue, which is something that I think that individuals who don’t herald from Asian-American families or backgrounds find difficult to understand. This sense of patriarchy historically was absolute and although times are changing today, echoes of the past can be felt in Asian-American families today. However, although learning about other cultures is complex, trying to work through the process of understanding and ultimately changing one’s own culture is incredibly exciting.
Going back to “No More Maybe”, I found the piece homely and the ease with which I took the narrator’s place almost felt shockingly easy. I think that this speaks to the strength of fiction as a whole, that compelling writing can transport the reader to another place and dimension instantaneously. Last night, a friend I had a conversation with argued that the quote by Einstein, “Once you stop learning, you start dying” was wrong. He argued that there’s more to life than just studying, but I felt like the frame that we approached the problem from was entirely wrong. I think that learning entails experience, which comes in a form that may be hard to identify. For example, when I was going over a course syllabus that I wrote with friends, I learned that verbiage and wording are imperative because sentences like, “Hope you eat lots of turkey at Thanksgiving” could be misconstrued as culturally appropriative because not all students celebrate Thanksgiving. Some people might argue that these details are unnecessary and a waste of time, but I find that these issues worth exploring, for the simple fact that we cannot assume that all the people we meet will share our culture and worldview.
Here at Berkeley, I’ve felt lucky to be exposed to such issues of gender and race on a daily basis. I think that there are two different responses that students here take to the idea, one group tends to engage deeply and personally with issues of race and gender, while the other group tends to engage shallowly, if not at all. I have yet to meet individuals who are explicitly racist in their speech, but I chalk that up to the process of self-selecting friends that share similarities and interests and worldview. But, the question of whether an individual tends to care less about topics of gender and race has always led me to the question of whether or not said lack of engagement can be considered racism.
At least for me, I think that for all the excuses that are made about being overly busy without time to ponder this question, there should also be the question of whether or not not thinking about the subject will ever impact the way you live. I argue that it is impossible to ignore these practices, especially if your goal is to one day lead a group of individuals, and is worth the small amount of time you can give to it, to at least come up with a concrete answer as to WHY you don’t want to give time to think about gender and race and cultural normativity.
I want there to be no more maybes, no more offhand and tepid responses to these issues that will impact the way we work and engage others in society in the future. I think that understanding how racism gets perpetuated in cultures that we come from are important to building a more promising future. There are no guarantees that we will find an egalitarian solution, but pieces like “No More Maybe” are a step in the right direction. So do me a favor and read the piece – maybe you’ll learn something new!