[The following is an unpublished epilogue to Johnny C’s Asian America in 2013 series. He was originally planning to leave 8asians on a high note after finishing the series, but we persuaded him to stay a little while longer. Some of us thought it would be a better send-off.]
We forfeit three-fourths of ourselves in order to be like other people. – Arthur Schopenhauer
Growing up overseas, America and what it was in my mind came from the go-getters, the exiles, the warriors, the seekers, and the disenchanted; those who embodied enough differences to be at each other’s throats at the pub, but shared one thing in common: a rugged, self-determined, independent spirit of “Can do!” that has been around as Americans looked west towards The Frontier to make new opportunities if they didn’t feel that it was was there Back East. It was an exciting time to be with the Americans in Hong Kong and Manila, because they were the most self-sufficient, confident, and honorable men who uprooted and made a new and prosperous life for themselves, just like everyone seeking gold or finding a way to make their time golden when Out West.
The emotions of man are stirred more quickly than man’s intelligence; it is much more easy to have sympathy with suffering than it is to have sympathy with thought. Accordingly, with admirable, though misdirected intentions, they very seriously and very sentimentally set themselves to the task of remedying the evils that they see. But their remedies do not cure the disease: they merely prolong it. Indeed, their remedies are part of the disease. – Oscar Wilde
Imagine my surprise when I returned to find that, Asian-American or not, the American Spirit (as I understood it to be) was not as prevalent in people as I believed it would be, which was what made me look to America with excitement as I prepared for my days in UCLA during those dreaded International Baccalaureate exams. Instead, I saw people who were focused on “being accepted and represented” or “equality” which both mean different things to different people. For a long time, I thought there was something wrong with me since I never aligned emotionally or intellectually with the people, a foreigner in what I believed was a home I had finally returned to. It was a perpetual “us versus them” mentality no matter where I went: Liberal versus Conservative, Democrat versus Republican, White versus Other, Native versus Immigrant–there was not a lot of room for thinking outside of that dichotomy, and thinking outside of the allegorical box was what I thought was part of the American character. I recall a passage from Kerouac’s The Dharma Bums where Jack enjoyed (his dubious misunderstanding of) Eastern Thought because it encouraged him to embrace an outlook that took a step back and away from the perspective of “us against them” that limited self-growth. He also got that from traveling, since he was able to look beyond the ideas of one community or country.
If your daily life seems poor, do not blame it; blame yourself, tell yourself that you are not poet enough to call forth its riches; for to the creator there is no poverty and no poor indifferent place. – Rainer Maria Rilke
Success, I have seen, is a lot like a plant being uprooted and replanted elsewhere. Sometimes, the environment and conditions aren’t conducive to its growth, and the first reaction is that it’s a bad plant. But place it in a different environment around other people, and suddenly, it becomes something beautiful, like the bonsai or ikebana arrangements you can see from Japanese artists. The American Spirit was one that was constantly in motion, moving away from Britain and Continental Europe and unifying people under a set of ideals set forth in our Declaration of Independence, and it continued as people ventured west. Now, with the conveniences of modern life and technology, the search for better opportunities elsewhere has retarded into a cry for making it easier and equal for everyone. In a country as large as America, with fifty states and multiple languages and cultures even within the same state, varied histories, and attitudes, it’s almost impossible to find that unity without a tangible goal. If it’s not race, it’s gender, if it’s not either of them, a hundred more reasons can come up to try and explain some sort of injustice that needs to be fixed for a fairer society so that everyone can succeed.
In this distribution of functions, the scholar is the delegated intellect. In the right state, he is, Man Thinking. In the degenerate state, when the victim of society, he tends to become a mere thinker, or, still worse, the parrot of other men’s thinking. – Ralph Waldo Emerson
I argue otherwise: if that attitude was what people had when going to The Frontier, nobody would survive, let alone decide to go out into the wild unknown. Life isn’t fair, and we are constantly tested by the elements (human, structural, and natural amongst others). Only the most determined survived, and they are the ones who built America. Most people I’ve helped working in Third World development would trade their problems for the ones that are constantly parroted in Asian America, about being accepted as normal and represented positively. Other than that, we are pretty damned privileged for what we have compared to the rest of the world.
Yes, there are problems with America and we have come a long way, from women’s suffrage to civil rights, but I’m the type of person who rebels from within by letting out that primal howl at the moon in a very Ginsberg-like fashion rather than shouting for attention. Art, as I’ve said before, is one of the keys to pushing forward, and by nature, art is what challenges conventions as opposed to being a reflection of popular attitudes. But what is most of what you see in film festivals and YouTube when much of it is exclusionary and self-gratifying rather than expansive, whilst trying to make a happy, idealized picture of the world?
“To renew” applies when we are fighting with the enemy, and an entangled spirit arises where there is no possible resolution. We must abandon our efforts, think of the situation in a fresh spirit then win in the new rhythm. To renew, when we are deadlocked with the enemy, means that without changing our circumstance we change our spirit and win through a different technique. – Miyamoto Musashi
I don’t see anything inherently wrong with celebrating heritage or Asian-American courses in college, but I have a problem when it’s used to encourage more “otherness” instead of unity. I don’t like being called chink, flip, jap, or gook as much as anyone else does, but I also don’t think that political correctness fixes the problem if the attitude remains and continues to silently endure. At the same time, I laugh because usually, the people oppressed and oppressing aren’t individuals I would normally be around, for I typically don’t need or want anything from them, let alone their approval and acceptance. So my solution is to do what every American had done since the birth of the nation: “Go West, young man” because a fair and equal society is an ideal, but as all utopian and dystopian literature has taught us, it’s exactly that: an ideal. Whether in heaven or hell, amongst the illiterate or the intellectuals, to be American, traditionally, was to seek opportunities, and if none, make your own, for the literal and metaphorical journey west was only the beginning of the struggle.
Your first appearance is the gauge by which you will be measured; try to manage that you may go beyond yourself later, but beware of ever doing less. – Rousseau
Some of the best advice I heard when I was downtrodden once and confided to a dear friend, lamenting that I had a lot of problems and had no ability to move forward and succeed, about how life was unfair. His first response: “Are you dying or in danger of getting killed?” and I answered no, and he then said “Then you don’t have a problem; you’ll figure something out or you’ll be forced to work with or work around those challenges life has placed before you.”
I’m not saying that none of the issues that are prevalent in Asian-American dialogues exist; what I am saying is that we are limiting our options and approaches by making excuses and creating self-divisions, not making tangible goals, creating a forced, arbitrary and meaningless relationship strictly based on race, and worst of all, Asian-Americans and non-Asian-Americans alike have forgotten the American Spirit, which in turn, prevents us from achieving the American Dream. So if society is unfair and your efforts aren’t improving it, change your approach or Go West, young man, and bring those ideals where they will thrive.
photo credit: Joybot via photopin cc