Jinny Huh

University of Southern California

Copyright © 2000 by Jinny Huh, all rights reserved. This text may be used and shared in accordance with the fair-use provisions of U.S. Copyright law, and it may be archived and redistributed in electronic form, provided that the editors are notified and no fee is charged for access. Archiving, redistribution, or republication of this text on other terms, in any medium, requires the notification of the journal and consent of the author.

Review of:

David Palumbo-Liu, Asian/American: Historical Crossings of a Racial Frontier. Stanford: Stanford UP, 1999. 416pp.

  1. In this ambitious examination of Asian American subjectivity, David Palumbo-Liu argues that in order to understand Asian America, one must comprehend the "persistent reconfigurations and transgressions of the Asian/American split" (1). The solidus separating "Asian" and "American" here marks not only the inclusion/exclusion status of hyphenated Americans but the constant shifting and dynamic movement between the two categories as well. In other words, the term "Asian/America(n)" is a floating signifier entirely dependent upon specific historical and cultural moments. Furthermore, an understanding of "Asian/America" is not complete without a recognition of the unstable quality of "America" itself. How, for example, does the economic and political relationship between the United States and Asia determine our understanding of "America"? How does the presence of Asians in America affect a reconfiguration of "America"? These concerns introduce the three goals of this book: 1) to what, exactly, are Asian Americans being assimilated? 2) how does the history of Asian America demonstrate the centrality of Asia to the imagination of modern America? and 3) what have been the various historical incarnations and precise contents of the Asian/American dynamic? (1-2). Palumbo-Liu addresses these questions by "track[ing] the interplay" (6) of the Body, the Psyche, and Space throughout his study which includes a wide array of texts from literature, film, anthropology, sociology, medicine, history, geography, politics, law, and journalism.

  2. Before examining the interplay between Body, Psyche, and Space, Section One explores "Modernity, Asia, America." Palumbo-Liu marks the late 1930s as the moment of transition for Asian America. Previously defined as the Yellow Peril, Asians were at that point transformed into a much more complicated and serious entity due to an influx of immigration into the United States as well as modern America's fascination with expansion and "development" in the Pacific region. America's concern now was how to accommodate the Asians already in America after multiple exclusion laws (or what Palumbo-Liu calls introjection) as well as the projection of the western presence onto East Asia. What is exposed in this double movement is that America had to redefine itself in the modern age. In order to legitimize America's powers of exclusion, a rhetoric of the fear of American degeneration emerged: the onslaught of "inferior" races through increased immigration threatened American purity with infection. As a result, exclusion was not only justified but anti-miscegenation and forced sterilization were also promoted. Asians in particular were feared due to the rise of Japan's imperial powers, the threat of China's neverending population horde and resistance to disease, and the Filipino reputation as "breeders". Literary narratives also focused on the introjection/projection dilemma, inventing images of Asian America which both delineate and transgress its boundaries. For example, while Sax Rohmer's President Fu Manchu (1936) discloses anxieties of the Asiatic "genius" infiltrating America's political machinery, Frank Capra's 1933 adaptation of The Bitter Tea of General Yen curtails the international struggle over nationalism, capitalism, and imperialism by focusing the conflicts within the film as a "civil war." Furthermore, according to Palumbo-Liu,what is interesting in Capra's film is that the threat of miscegenation as well as the fusion of "Asian" with "American" is ultimately muted with death and silence.

  3. Section Two ("Bodies and Souls") explores the racialized and deracialized body whose somatic aesthetic shifts with historic moments of migration and assimilation. For instance, while both Franz Boas and Robert E. Park similarly agree that the immigrant undergoes a physical and psychical metamorphosis with prolonged assimilation, the Asian subject can never escape his/her body and, therefore, racism. The only solution to this "pathological psychic state of marginality" (89), according to E.V. Stonequist, is to dilute the outer sign of race through intermarriage. Another possible solution is plastic surgery. By changing the outer appearance, the internal or the psyche can also be transformed. But what this process of de-orientalizing ultimately reveals, however, is an underlying fear of hybridity which masks anxieties over national identity, uncontrolled immigration, and the disruption of "race-neutral" symmetry. This struggle between the body and the psyche is also scrutinized in literatures of acculturation. Both Younghill Kang's East Goes West (1937) and Toshio Mori's "Japanese Hamlet" (1939) demonstrate that universals can never be achieved when one is trapped within a racialized physicality.

  4. While Section Two looks at how Asians have physically and spiritually become Americanized, Section Three entitled "Modeling the Nation" focuses on how America instills a modeling function for Asians to fulfill an American psyche. The introjection of Asians into America has always occurred within a complicated multi-racial dynamic. Asians and Asian Americans have been used as the model minority not only to castigate other minorities but as a pedagogical tool for white America as well. Examples include Ross Hunter's 1961 model-of-assimilation film Flower Drum Song which promotes what Palumbo-Liu calls "pre-assimilation conditioning" and William Peterson's "Success Story, Japanese American Style" which pits hard working Asians against lazy blacks in America. What is interesting in this dialectic is that Peterson also justifies American racist ideology as that which enabled Japanese success. Segregation or "subnation" helped the model minority to achieve strength and purity; it is this lack of willingness to be separate which causes black failure. This black/Asian conflict is further used to construct a specific signifier of "Asian" as parallel to White in the public discourses surrounding the L.A. Riots. Represented as successful against all odds and unafraid to arm themselves against the black and Latino looters, the "vigilante Korean" became the buffer zone between the middle class white community and the ghetto. This act of self-Affirmative Action not only displaced the responsibility of injustice onto the oppressed but vindicated capitalism through the protection of private property.

  5. Section Four, "Placing Asian America," examines Asian America in the politics of space - how have Asians been located physically and psychically in "American" space (217)? By focusing on agricultural and rural areas as well as looking at how the wars of the twentieth century affected the formation of Asian America, Palumbo-Liu reveals that modern Asian America influenced the respatialization of the nation. For example, the 1942 Japanese Relocation Order euphemistically explains the dislocation of American citizens in terms of America's right to determine its own space as well as the need for socioeconomic order. Similarly, America's refugee policy also attempted to create dispersal and forced integration by breaking up ethnic communities (for quicker assimilation and prevention of violent reactions from the influx of refugee immigration). Urban and suburban space in the postwar years, especially with the emergence of a transnational economy, also created anxieties of "American" space. Questions of who belongs and/or controls "here" hovered over cities such as New York's Chinatown and Monterey Park, California.

  6. The final section of Palumbo-Liu's study, "Mind Readings," culminates with the claim that "Asians in America have participated in the shaping of modern America, both as active agents and as presences that called for a rethinking of America's ideological claims" (296). Using "schizophrenia" to analyze the dual personalities of hyphenated individuals, Palumbo-Liu argues that the Asian American schizophrenic pathology (the need to distance/rupture self from the traditional past) must be remembered within a context of "specific material histories and not the inherent mental pathologies of bicultural peoples" (310). Furthermore, schizophrenia must also be extended to whites as well in this age of transnational postmodernity (as vividly portrayed in Ridley Scott's Blade Runner). Finally, what is supposedly a borderless world of cyberspace is complicated by the fiction of William Gibson who reinstalls borders between "Asian" and "American."

  7. David Palumbo-Liu's historical investigation of Asian/America is a timely and necessary read for both new and experienced students of American and Asian American Studies. Aside from the astute connections and extensive research in the numerous fields mentioned previously, one of the most enjoyable and enlightening elements of this examination is the author's talents as a semiotician. From his analysis of the 1992 Newsweek photograph of the "vigilante Korean" (where he connects not only the economic and political hierarchy of the black-Asian presence but of the invisible white one as well) to the images in Chapter 3 (two covers from Time and Newsweek and an illustration from The New Republic), Palumbo-Liu demonstrates that both innocuous and blatantly racist "texts" reveal crucial clues to an understanding of culture, race, nation, and historicity. Perhaps it is this sensitivity to exploration which makes me raise the question of gender here, a concern not always evident in this study. How, for instance, would Palumbo-Liu's analysis of these images be complicated through a gendered as well as a racial, national lens? Both the Time cover (which depicts a technologically morphed image of the future hybrid face of America) and the orientalized Statue of Liberty (which is also the cover of this book) are female. As Palumbo-Liu explains, the hybrid image "is familiar enough to be not too unsettling, but not so familiar as to breed contempt. Rather, it fosters desire" (108). One may ask, desire for whom? Is the implied audience here a male, heterosexual one? Furthermore, is this constructed hybrid figure "not too unsettling" because she is female? Would a male hybrid be more "unsettling" or foster more "contempt"? Similarly, the orientalized Statue of Liberty is a "familiar image of the model minority" whose initial shock effect is recontained and reappropriated for the safety of America (114). But, would this shock be so easily pacified if the image portrayed an Asian male figure threatening to transform the face of America? Although Palumbo-Liu does not explore these questions, his study is nevertheless a riveting and significant contribution to American race studies today.

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