Can Asian Teen Narratives Get Beyond Tiger Parents and Rebellious Kids?

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Book cover for Paula Yoo's "Good Enough"

By Sayantani DasGupta

I recently finished Paula Yoo’s charming Good Enough, a novel about a Korean American teen violinist whose life of SAT prep tests, HarvardYalePrinceton applications, All-State violin rehearsals, and Korean church youth group is disrupted by the arrival of a Cute Trumpet Guy in her life. Written in an endearing, witty voice and filled with hilarious lists like “Top Ten Koreans and Korean American who could kick [somebody's] Butt” and “Top Ten Ways How Not to be a PKD (Perfect Korean Daughter)” as well as recipes for Korean Style Spam, the novel is smart, amusing, and ultimately endearing – speaking to an experience of immigrant daughter-hood not so dissimilar from my own Indian American upbringing.

Yet, I admit I was pretty leery when I picked up Yoo’s novel at first, worried that this would be yet another story about stereotypical Asian tiger parents a la Amy Chua’s controversial Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, which caused uproar (and yet, amazing book sales) in mainstream American and Asian American communities alike. This is not to say that the “Asian American child rebels against restrictive parents, finds ‘freedom’ through (forbidden) white love interest” isn’t a real narrative – but in some ways, it’s become the narrative expected of Asian American stories. Consider Sandra Oh’s film Double Happiness, in which her hard working Asian parents don’t understand their daughter’s wish to become an actress, or even the Asian male character Mike (known as ‘the other Asian’ hmmm) on Glee, whose “gift” of singing and dancing is being thwarted by his overbearing parents. Now, even if you can get beyond the all Asians are alike trope, isn’t anyone bored yet by bashing Asian immigrant parents for supposedly ‘anti-arts’ stances? Or *shriek*, recognizing that since Asian immigrants probably don’t have, say, trust funds, family businesses, or connections in the arts industry or other such leg-ups that non-immigrant families may give their children, perhaps they want to make sure their children have jobs with which to, say, pay their rent or buy groceries? And where did that Tina get off lecturing Mike’s dad so disrespectfully? Ok, I digress.

It is critical that there are spaces created to tell stories about immigrant communities – where we share our lives with one another and the world, and can finally see ourselves represented in literature, TV, and film. Yet, the problem of telling/publishing only one sort of narrative is that which Chimamanda Adichie has described – vis a vis African stories – as the danger of the singular story. About Asian American communities, our singular story has long been the ‘model minority myth’ represented by this TIME cover from the 80′s:

"Those Asian-American Whiz Kids" TIME, 1987

Good Enough is a lovely novel, which in many ways tells a familiar tale – of familial pressure and Asian immigrant expectations. But it also disrupts this singular cultural story in some lovely, subtle ways that I will leave you to read about yourself. As Paula Yoo herself says on her blog, regarding the above horrific photo (that I too remember from my teen years!):

I’m depressed that even in 2011, we are STILL experiencing this sort of ridiculous racial discrimination. The whole point of my novel GOOD ENOUGH was to poke fun at the Asian American “Model Minority Myth” … but also to use humor as a way of examining the more serious issues of discrimination. (Pictured above is an infamous TIME Magazine cover story on “Those Asian American Whiz Kids” that horrified me as a teenager back in the mid ’80s. Gah!)

All of which leave me to wonder – how do the stories ‘expected’ from Asian American storytellers influence the publishing industry?  How do we make sure that a diversity of stories get told?

Originally posted on Sayantani’s blog, Stories Are Good Medicine, on January 1, 2012. Crossposted with permission.

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Comments

  1. Thanks for your comment, April. I too have been thinking about this conflation of “Asian American” with “Asian” – and I think part of it, certainly is this refusal to recognize us Asian Americans as Americans. It’s what’s been called the “perpetual foreigner” syndrome, the idea that our citizenship is decidedly contingent. (we’ve all heard those “where are you from? No, where are you REALLY from questions). And certainly part of it is this desire to see Asian Americans as exotic, mysterious, passive, etc. – a stereotype which is decidedly gendered and also supports a colonial mentality I think…
    I was recently watching a spoof of those awful racist “Debbie Spend it Now” commercials from a few months ago. The spoof was brilliantly done by Kristina Wong, and as she’s filming the spoof, we hear the (presumably white, male) director off camera shouting things like “can you read that line more mysteriously? More Asian?” He at one point asks her to read it “like her mother” which she does. When the director is shocked that she’s speaking in an American accent, Wong replies “Yea, my mother was born in San Francisco!” here’s the link, enjoy: http://disgrasian.com/tag/debbie-spend-it-now/

  2. YES! I’m sick and tired of the caricature of Asian American academic over-achieving.

    Also, it’s hard to find literature that is NOT from the perspective of a first-generation American-born protagonist. I’m not hating; I just want to make the case that not all Asian Americans are 1st gen. My family has been in the U.S. since the early 1900s and I know many other Japanese Americans on the West coast that have been here for generations, too, but for some reason our stories don’t get much publication.

  3. Thanks so much for your comment, Paula! I look forward to any books promoting the stereotype of Asian American women crazy cat ladies (I’m currently considering writing a manuscript about Asian American superhero grandmas, so all sorts of new images to create!)!
    But in all seriousness, I so appreciated your witty, nuanced and smart, smart novel (and of course many Spam recipes), and your comments about Asian American authors telling the stories we need to tell.
    In all honestly, I might have been an Indian American sister of your protagonist – cousin, certainly…
    Cheers, and again, many thanks for your generous words – both in your novel and this comment!
    Sayantani :)

  4. Wow! Thank you for your very thoughtful and eloquent piece on the often troubling stereotype of Asian American “overachievers” in the mainstream media and in YA lit. I appreciate that you saw beyond the stereotype and realized that my novel explored the very unique and human story of a character saddled with this image problem. I do understand and appreciate, however, your concern of Asian American authors possibly being “forced” themselves to write about this issue when they should be able to write about ANY topic, period. That’s one reason why I didn’t write about my own life experience for a LONG time because I did not want to contribute to any stereotypes. But I ended up writing this novel because I realized – sure, maybe my teen life did reflect some of the stereotypes, but I myself am not a stereotype. I’m a unique individual human being. So I decided the most important thing was to write an honest story that reflected my character’s humanity, period. If I had a different life experience, I would have written about that as well. :) As writers of color, we should not have to be burdened by what we think we should or should not write or to worry about offending or promoting certain “tired” stereotypes. I think we just write the best story we can that is emotionally honest and authentic. Our goal is to make people laugh and/or cry and to think more deeply about the larger themes that we are exploring in our writing. Which is why I want my next book to be about a cat because I own three cats. LOL! OMG Am I now exploiting the stereotype of Asian American women who are crazy cat ladies? LOL! Kidding. :) Thanks again for a wonderful and thoughtful commentary on this issue. Sincerely, Paula Yoo :)

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  1. [...] two older ones. The first is the hackneyed model-minority myth, as exemplified by that Gawd-awful Time Magazine cover from the 1980’s on “Those Asian American Whiz Kids”–good at math, but noncreative, [...]