A Million Different Ways to Be Asian

The Asian American Literature elective offers students the opportunity to read works that they can relate to, to have their play reenacted by professional actors,...

Reading Time: 11 minutes

What does it mean for something to be considered Asian American literature? What does it mean to be Asian American?

Open-ended questions like these are central themes in the Asian American Literature course, an elective for upperclassmen that juniors can take to replace a semester of core American Literature. English teacher Sophie Oberfield started teaching the class in the fall of 2012 in addition to core American literature. Before then, Asian American Literature had been exclusively a senior elective. “There were a lot of books in it that weren’t available for other classes, but no one was teaching it. I took ‘Woman Warrior’ and ‘Interpreter of Maladies,’ and I did them in a book club kind of way,” Oberfield explained.

The inspiration to start the elective came from taking a course called Asian American Literature Theory at Hunter College during Oberfield’s sabbatical in the spring of 2012. “I’m not Asian American, but that didn’t feel like a reason to not do it,” Oberfield said. “I’ve been interested in identity, race, and gender, and when you divide up literature by the ethnicity or race of the writer, you get all kinds of books. It felt like a broad field, as broad as American literature.” That same fall, Oberfield taught the elective for the first time.

The class is primarily composed of Asian students, many of whom entered with preconceived notions about the elective and the culture of Asian Americans itself. Shaped by what we see (e.g. the prominent population of East Asians in Stuyvesant, the memes in the Facebook group “subtle asian traits” that are familiar to mainly Chinese and Korean members), we associate the term “Asian” with a ready image of East Asians. In fact, because of the way we categorize and exclude certain groups of Asians, some students enter the class expecting the literature to be only about East Asians, troubled that South Asians will be unrepresented. The students find, though, that the class explores literature produced by more than just one, two, or three types of Asians. They learn that there are a million different ways to be Asian.

“I remember having pretty mixed feelings about the course when I saw it on my schedule since I had never signed up for it. However, any thoughts I had about transferring to another course flew out of my mind when I walked into class during ninth period,” senior Suity Bandyopadhyay said in an e-mail interview. “I was originally worried that because the term ‘Asian’ in our modern world does not take into account people from India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, etc., I would not feel comfortable in a class called Asian American Literature. However, the welcoming atmosphere Ms. Oberfield created and the goals she set for the course eased my worries. I quickly learned that we would be talking about the entirety of Asia and would be reading works written not only by people of East Asian, Pacific Islander, South Asian and Southeast Asian descent, but also from people who merely lived in those countries.”

Seniors Afia Anjum and Anna Yuan both took the elective during the fall term of their junior year. Their experiences, shared through e-mail, mirrored Bandyopadhyay’s. “I thought that Asian American Literature would only focus on the experiences of East Asians, and South Asians would be forgotten again, but Ms. Oberfield introduced me to many South Asian American authors and I follow some of them today,” Anjum said.

Where South Asian students discovered authors of their own cultures, East Asian students got the chance to learn about those cultures in the form of literature. “I expected most of the books to be written by East Asian authors but was actually exposed to more that were from South Asia, and it was an eye-opening experience,” Yuan said. “The books informed me of things that I [wasn't] aware of [in] other cultures and my own.”

The class also welcomes non-Asians. Senior Malcolm Hubbell said in an e-mail interview, “I decided to take the class simply because it sounded more interesting and different than the standard junior year English class. [...] [Ms. Oberfield] would always give students, especially Asian students, opportunities to share their personal experiences about the texts we read since she did not really have that perspective. The books, poems, and articles we read were very diverse, both in style and subject matter, giving us a chance to explore as much of Asian American literature as is possible in just a single semester.”

Oberfield aims to accomplish exactly all this. “I want them to feel like there’s a lot of work out there that they can see themselves in and that Asian American literature is for everyone and has every kind of experience,” she said. Students read contemporary novels, short stories, nonfiction, poetry, and drama written in English by Americans of East Asian, Pacific Islander, and South Asian descent. In the fall, they read “The Namesake” by Jhumpa Lahiri. In the spring, they read “Native Speaker” by Chang-rae Lee. Students read “The Woman Warrior” by Maxine Hong Kingston and “M. Butterfly” by David Henry Hwang in both semesters. The reading list includes other forms of literature, including poems, essays, and plays. The class explores themes and questions: How is identity produced? What does it mean to be Asian in America?. These questions encourage students to relate their own experiences to the stories they read.

Through presenting a variety of works, Oberfield challenges the misconception that literature written by Asian American authors is specialized or reserved for the Asian community whereas there is a notion that literature written by white authors is universal and neutral. “There are some theoretical issues around literature written by minority authors [that are] assumed to be [...] autobiographical in a way,” Oberfield explained.

Hubbell agreed and said, “There might be a misconception that Asian American literature is all the same/similar. By that, I mean that some people might believe that if a book is written by an Asian American person, it will automatically include narratives about adjusting to American culture or a story about immigration.”

“People come to the class sometimes with the misunderstanding that it’s going to be Asian text in translation or that it’s all going to be about the suffering of immigrants,” Oberfield added. “A lot of Asian American fiction centers on a protagonist living somewhere that’s not New York and [being] the only Asian kid in their class, and that’s not the experience of Stuyvesant students. Some people came here four years ago and some people are third-generation. I try to reflect as wide a variety of experiences as I can.”

As a result, her students have the opportunity to identify with the protagonists and the cultural elements. For example, in “The Woman Warrior,” Kingston translates names instead of transliterating them, which is to write a word using the closest corresponding letters of a different language or alphabet. “[There are] the kids in the class who know [and] can see things in there that other kids can’t. I love watching them have that experience, and they see more in it than I can,” Oberfield said.

And the sense of forming esoteric connections to a book exists not only within character names, but also in the details that are accurately portrayed by the author’s own experiences. Anjum and Bandyopadhyay both chose “The Namesake” as their favorite novel. Written by Lahiri, who is of South Asian descent, it incorporates elements that are reminiscent of home. Junior Aria Zaman described, “My favorite part about it is how real it was. Even down to the foods, it talks about how the mother tries so hard to get this one flavor right, just how it is made in her home country. That detail, and the fact that my mom does the same thing, made me so much more attached to the book. I have emotional connections to these characters that I’ve never felt before.”

It’s rewarding to Oberfield that both Asians and non-Asians can enjoy the class. Anjum wrote, “I enjoyed being able to finally read stories [and] problems I could relate to.” Yuan mentioned that she learned more about her own culture. She shared the sentiments of many Asians who were born in America who lost contact with their cultures because they are immersed in America’s melting pot community, and who, perhaps along the way, grew ashamed of being Asian. This partly stems from their not being exposed to Asian characters in literature and other mediums. Oberfield went to an Asian American Literature festival, run by the Smithsonian’s Asian Pacific American Center, and listened to a panel of children’s book authors who spoke of their experiences growing up without ever being represented in children’s books.

“I think it’s damaging to not read books you don’t see yourself in, in some way. I think [for] American literature, the canon was sort of built around venerating a lot of white, male authors. There are a lot of wonderful things that they have written, but I think to not get to read something that you see yourself in is harmful,” Oberfield said.

Indeed, it has sheltered students from expressing their cultures that make up a large part of their identities in personal narratives. A major part of the elective is the playwriting unit, which offers students the chance to write about their experiences freely. The final assignment is to write a one-minute play. For non-Asian students, they have to include an Asian American character; Asian students were not required to. The most exciting part of this unit is that students also have the opportunity to experience their stories as live performances and to view theater as a way to bridge literature and art.

Oberfield’s background interest is in theater, which explains her partnership with Second Generation Productions (2g), a theater company. 2g is dedicated to creating contemporary Asian American theater, co-producing world premieres of new Asian American plays, and bringing Asian American stories to the world stage. Oberfield partnered with 2g’s artistic director Victor Maog, and its president Gladys Chen (‘91) in the spring of 2015 to bring in professional actors to act out selected scripts written by students.

“The Asian American artists whom I have reached out to are so excited about the connections they make with my students,” Oberfield said. “I think of myself as an extension cord of sorts, as an ally. I like to connect these playwrights, these novelists, these poets, to kids who are very excited to consume their work.”
The company has performed students’ plays for the past four years and returned for their eighth performance on Monday, January 7, 2019. The performances that were held after school began at 4:00 p.m. Each of the 10 professional actors rotated roles as they acted out eight plays. It was an incredibly riveting experience; the actors went all out, clear that they had prepared extensively. They adopted French accents for “Le Scandale” by junior Susan Mai, acted as a dysfunctional couple, vocalized sound effects, and even played an inanimate object for “The Flower” by junior Peter Lin.

The plays themselves were diverse and explored a range of topics, from the lighthearted, humorous ones like the two aforementioned plays, to the more serious ones that often involved confrontation, such as “You’re Excused” and “Helpless Ignorance” by juniors Jayati Mondal and Harshita Singh, respectively. Seeing their characters come to life in addition to writing about their stories is an altogether rewarding experience for the students. In our everyday experiences, from the morning commute to dinner at the table, the people who surround us and the conversations we hold are the characters and dialogue that compose our individual stories.

Junior Nicholas Jun was one of the playwrights whose play, “Unexpected Pleasures,” was selected by the actors. Jun’s story was based on a real event, featuring his father’s experiences back in their old hometown in Omaha, Nebraska. “An American journalist for the Omaha World Herald was intrigued [by] my father when he heard him singing American tunes while cooking in a Japanese restaurant,” Jun described in an e-mail interview. “The play goes on to reveal my dad’s story of coming to America and his ambitions.” The journalist published his article in the Omaha World Herald.

Zaman, the writer of “The Secret Confessions of an Asian American Family,” shared her experiences as we walked to the station after the festival. Her play is about a Bangladeshi family that wakes up after a car accident to discover themselves in heaven. The conflict of the play is in the confessions professed by each family member, from the daughter’s secret boyfriend to the son’s dream of becoming something other than a doctor. The humor lies in the fact that these are stereotypes of Asian culture, in which everyone is a doctor and dating is not permitted until they have a good job and three kids.

Zaman made the conscientious effort to include these stereotypes because she defines Asian American literature as having Asian elements. She talked about Netflix’s “To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before,” (2018) in which an actress of Vietnamese descent plays a leading role. “A story about a random girl who turns out to look Asian; I don’t think that counts as Asian American literature,” she argued. “To [be] fair, though, other people say, ‘Well you can't box people in. Asians should not be subjected to writing about Asian Americans.’ I’m saying, if you're going to categorize something as Asian American literature, it has to have something Asian.”

Still, she acknowledges that the fact that an Asian actress was playing the lead role, compared to the stereotypical best friend or side character, is admirable. We’re certainly starting somewhere. “I think it’s getting there,” Zaman said. “We’re getting to the point where race doesn't matter. It’s just a great movie.”

To Jun, Zaman, and all the other playwrights, the festival was a platform for voicing their thoughts on Asian American literature and culture. The professional actors also found the experience rewarding. During the Q&A session, they shared that they could empathize with the plays and hoped that the students understand the impact of what they write and keep channeling that power. After all, they don’t normally interact with high schoolers, so these plays gave an insight as to what’s on our minds: the issues that haunt both high schoolers and adults and our sources of inspiration.

Oberfield hopes to have her students leave the class with a sense of awareness. “I want them to advocate for representation in whatever English class they take,” she said. “What I want them to take away from this class is that there are a million different ways to be Asian, and that they can make art.”

They can make art in every kind of medium, from theater, to photography, to literature. “When people tell me to write a narrative, I just make up something that’s stereotypical, like [wanting] a treehouse and my parents [not buying] me one,” Zaman said. “The play I just wrote [is] just so revolutionary because I’m finally writing something I know about. Stuyvesant's been the first place where I’ve actually been more comfortable being who I am.”
The director of 2g, Vichet Chum, said something that resonated with me. “Representation matters,” he said. Worlds that were inaccessible to Asians before, like Hollywood, are now being populated by us. Outside of Oberfield’s elective, efforts are made by Asian Americans around the world to establish a strong foothold in the entertainment industry. Already, the earlier generations are paving roads for us to effect change, to produce children’s books with Asian characters, and to see ourselves on-screen.

It starts with awareness at an age that’s never too early or too late. As high schoolers, it’s our role to continue the legacy left behind by those generations as part of a larger movement. It’s amazing to live in the generation that gets to see it happen.