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BOOK REVIEW / ASIAN AMERICAN LITERATURE : It's a Large World, After All--One Both Foreign and Familiar : GROWING UP ASIAN-AMERICAN: An Anthology, edited by Maria Hong (William Morrow, $22, 416 pages) : CHARLIE CHAN IS DEAD: An Anthology of Contemporary Asian-American Fiction, edited by Jessica Hagedorn (Penguin, $14, 569 pages)

January 04, 1994|VERONICA CHAMBERS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

It is all too easy to lump minority writers together. For Asian American writers, it's been no different. Gish Jen jokingly refers to the "Gang of Four" approach: She is often compared to Gus Lee, David Wong Louie and Amy Tan.

What then is the purpose of not one, but two anthologies of Asian American writing? Plenty. Above all, to show the individuality of the Asian American experience and the breadth of human stories these writers have to tell.

Jen, represented in both anthologies, has a story in "Growing Up Asian-American" that is the perfect example of how grouping all Asian Americans together can be a big mistake.

In "What Means Switch," Jen introduces us to Mona Chang, a Chinese American girl who, as the new kid at a Scarsdale junior high school, uses her Asian heritage to impress her classmates. She tells her new friends that she knows karate, offering to chop a girl's arm. (The girl declines.) Mona shows off the little Chinese she knows, "Be-yeh, fa-foon. Shee-veh. Ji nu," meaning, "Stop acting crazy. Rice gruel. Soy sauce." As she explains: "Pretty soon I'm getting popular for a new girl."

That is, until she tries out her Chinese on what she thinks is a new Chinese student--Sherman Matsumoto. She learns that he is Japanese, of another country and another world. But at Scarsdale junior high, as the only two Asian kids, their differences become meaningless in a sea of white faces.

The anthologies include excerpts from beloved contemporary novels, such as Amy Tan's "The Joy Luck Club" and David Mura's "Turning Japanese: Memoirs of a Sansei," but there are also lesser-known works.

Maria Hong brings us a rare gem in "Pat and Pint," a story by Edith Eaton, a turn-of-the century Chinese American writer who wrote under the pseudonym Sui Sin Far ("Water Lily" in Cantonese).

As Hong writes in her introduction, "During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Americans of Asian descent faced prejudice from individuals as well as widely institutionalized, systematic forms of racism. The Chinese Exclusion Acts of 1880 and 1882 severely restricted immigration from China compared with immigration from European nations. Similarly, the California Alien Land Act of 1913 prohibited Asian-American farm owners from owning land.

"Given this context, Edith Eaton's embracing of her Chinese heritage, as expressed in her writings, suggests a uniquely courageous and formidable spirit."

But it was in the 1920s, Jessica Hagedorn reminds us, that Asian Americans were saddled with their most persistent stereotype: Charlie Chan.

"Charlie Chan is our most famous fake 'Asian' pop icon," she writes, "known for his obsequious manner, fractured English and dainty walk. Absurdly cryptic, pseudo-Confucian sayings rolled off his tongue:

"Observe."

"Boy Scout knife, like ladies' hairpin. Have many uses."

"Best place for skeleton is in family closet."

"Chinese people interested in all things psychic."

The Charlie Chan character was created in 1925 by a white man named Earl Derr Biggers. His Chinese fantasy, Hagedorn points out, "is as much a part of the demeaning legacy of stereotypes that includes Fu Manchu, Stepin Fetchit, Sambo, Aunt Jemima, Amos N' Andy, Speedy Gonzales, Tonto and Little Brown Brother."

Such images became cultural bogymen for Hagedorn as she was growing up.

"I grew up in the Philippines," she writes, "watching Hollywood movies featuring yellow-face, blackface and redface actors giving me their versions of myself. It was so easy to succumb to the seductive, insidious power of these skewed, wide-screen images. Better than books, movies were immediate and reached more people--both literate and illiterate. Movies were instantly gratifying. Bigger than life. I was a child. The movies were God. And therefore, true."

Questions of race and culture are especially hard for children to discern. Take, for example, "They Like You Because You Eat Dog, So What Are You Going to Do About It?"--eight vignettes by 24-year-old Filipino writer R. Zamora Linmark that appear in "Charlie Chan Is Dead."

While Gish Jen's character exploits her classmates' ignorance, for the kids in Linmark's story, it isn't so easy: "A lot of my classmates think that Florante and I are stupid because we speak English with accents heavier than Mai-Lan Phan's. 'You talk like you're always boiling something in your mouth,' Robert Johnson always says."

Also asserting their Asian heritage in these anthologies are two Indian writers. Award-winning author Bharati Mukherjee contributes an excerpt from her novel "Darkness" to "Charlie Chan Is Dead." Indira Ganesa is represented in "Growing Up Asian-American" by an excerpt from her novel, "The Journey." Both pieces enhance and expand the definition of being Asian and Asian American.

It is too easy to forget that Asia is a continent, not a neighborhood or any one group of people that we can fully know or understand by reading a book or two or even three. The beauty of these anthologies is that no one writer or tale purports to tell the Asian American experience. The pleasure in owning these books is in being able to come to them again and again, each time entering a world that is, at once, foreign and familiar.

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