“Forget it, Jake. It’s Chinatown.”
Debate continues about this line from the 1974 noir movie Chinatown. Interpretations include: You are in over your head. Things don’t make sense. You can’t win. In Chinatown.
How should Chinese people consider this comment? Are we different? Charles Yu explores the question of being Asian in America in his National Book Award-winning novel Interior Chinatown. “Interior,” in this case, is a stage direction. Of course, “interior” also refers to one’s feelings.
The book starts with the stage direction INTERIOR – GOLDEN PALACE. The Golden Palace is a Chinatown restaurant where a TV cop show takes place. The show is called “Black and White.”
Above the restaurant are cramped apartments called the Chinatown SRO. Willis Wu, the central character of the novel, but definitely NOT of the cop show, lives there, as do his parents and friends. Is this just a movie set, or a real place or a metaphor? Yes and yes and yes.
The show “Black and White,” refers to the races of the stars. “WHITE LADY COP … pretty but tough but emphasis on the pretty.” And “BLACK DUDE COP … Tall and built … Distractingly handsome.” The lighting perfectly highlights their gorgeousness.
Though based in Chinatown, the Chinese only play bit parts. As the omnipotent voice-over declares: “There’s just something about Asians that makes reality a little too real, overcomplicates the clarity, the duality, the clean elegance of BLACK and WHITE.” Exclusion as a production decision.
The people in the story mix up their lives and their acting roles, to hilarious and serious effect. They define themselves in TV production terms. Their personal histories become backstories. Life situations become montages. Thoughts become internal monologues.
But really, isn’t that what everyone does? We all use shortcuts, tropes, stereotypes to tell the stories of our lives. It’s the only way to give coherence to random things that happen. Every scene in Interior Chinatown reminds me that I am taking mental shortcuts when I define myself as a mom or a doctor or a wife or a Chinese woman.
But this book is not just for Asian-Americans. The TV show format underscores the roles we unconsciously take on. The particulars focus on the Chinese, but we all do it.
Willis frames his parents’ trajectories in TV-show speak.
Mom: “aged out of Asian Seductress, no longer Girl with the Almond Eyes, now Old Asian Woman.”
Dad: reduced to “taking the work he could get. Gangster, cook, inscrutable, mystical, nonsensical Oriental.”
Willis himself works his way up from Generic Asian Man #1(Bystander) to Generic Asian Man #2 (Dead Man) to Generic Asian Man #3 (Delivery Man) to Guest Star to Recurring Guest Star. He dreams of being Kung Fu Guy.
On the way, he marries Karen. They meet when she is playing “Ethnically Ambiguous Woman Number One.” Or, as Karen deadpans, “I can be objectified by men of all races.” In her fantasy, she plays a cop who is ex-CIA/supermodel/mother of four. Karen and Willis have a daughter, Phoebe.
Some depictions of Chinese-American life ring home to me, such as food (siu mai, har gow, “a bowl of fried rice with an egg and a few pickles”) and nicknames (Nice Guy Huang, Old Chan, Young Fong, Fatty Choy, and Skinny Lee). I was aghast at the non-PC nicknames my parents called their friends in China: Cueball, Gimpy, Twisty Mouth, Squinty. My favorite was Cueball’s wife, Mrs. Cueball.
Other aspects of Chinese culture are so ingrained that I take them for granted. Yu writes, “Open a window … and you can hear at least five dialects being spoken.” Our family spoke Shanghai, but you could have heard Mandarin, Sichuan, Hunan and Cantonese dialects at our house.
Another Chinese trope is Older Brother, Everybody’s Older Brother. Older Brother is smarter than you, more handsome, and more popular. He (or she) is the “model minority” stereotype. Turns out, I am Older Brother. When you go to Med School, you get to be Older Brother. Even now, watching Nathan Chen ice-skating to the Gold, I hear my late mother’s voice, “His parents must be proud.”
Willis spells out another implicit Chinese dynamic. “[F]amily should never have to say sorry, or please or thank you … these things being the invisible fabric of what a family is.” In our first decades together, I found husband Bill’s Southern habit of saying “Thank you” for the teeniest things, like getting the mail, superfluous at best and insincere at worst. Family members don’t tell each other that they love them, either. There aren’t words for that.
Willis and I share a regret. We both feel that we could have been closer to our dads had we spoken better Chinese.
In the past, Asian-American oppression was explicit, with laws keeping Chinese from owning property, from entering the United States, from marrying with other “races,” from citizenship. And Japanese internment.
Discrimination these days is more subtle. Yet, an Asian face still looks out of place. “To be yellow in America [is to be] … forever the guest.” Older Brother says, “We’ve been here for two hundred years … Why doesn’t this face register as American?”
Willis and Older Brother acknowledge that we Asians also sabotage ourselves. We are always “Figuring out the show, finding our place in it, which was the background, as scenery, as nonspeaking players . . . Above all, trying to never, ever offend.”
I reflect on my own squirminess with Andrew Yang’s presidential bid. Every time he was on TV, I cringed, praying, “Andrew, please don’t do anything that would embarrass me!”
I can attest to the White/Black duality of our society. Some years ago, when a white cop gave me a speeding ticket, he put me down as White. I protested this. He looked me over and said, “You sure aren’t Black.”
Most recently, Whoopi Goldberg’s White/Black lens led her to declare that Nazi atrocities against Jews weren’t racial. She quickly recanted.
We Asians buy into the White/Black division in a warped way. Despite the history of unfair laws, lynchings, and economic and social ostracization, we feel we shouldn’t complain because we weren’t slaves. Our “[o]ppression is second class.”
Our racial suffering and our cultural expectations bind like a mental straitjacket. But the way out is unexpectedly easy. As his young daughter plays, she shows Willis by example: “How to feel, how to be yourself. Not how to perform or act. How to be.”
Phoebe’s world, which is kind and fair, exists in her castle. Phoebe tells her dad, “The thing about building a castle in the air is it’s easy. You build up. It’s like a little ladder, then you start building a castle in the air. Then, you destroy the ladder. Then your castle is floating…
“You can’t just build in the air. . . It’s not connected to anything. So, you build a bridge to the air, then you can break that bridge. But nothing falls down.”
Here’s my take. Your floating castle is the way you want to live your life. The bridge is your historical, intellectual and emotional limitations: your interior Chinatown. You can break that bridge, but it takes courage to trust that nothing will fall down.
It seems a small thing now, but it took me weeks to work up to telling my parents, “I love you.”
Chinese families don’t say these things out loud. But guess what? Nothing fell down! They reciprocated – in English!
Tell me: What do you think when you see an Asian face?