Tuesday, March 1, 2011

On "A Short Essay on Being"

I approached this essay with the smug satisfaction of someone who loathes pad thai. My allegiances lie with pad kee mao — pot kee mao? — an infinitely superior dish [though its "authenticity" is unknown to me]. From this vantage point on the moral high ground, my nose can point even a little bit more skyward because I know how Jenny Boully feels. People often ask me where I'm from more than once. They see the last name or my face, they hear me speak and "I'm from Orlando" becomes an insufficient answer. Thus, Boully's essay interests me not because I find it is as formally adventurous as its narrator does. I see paragraphs without explicit transitions almost every time I critique a paper for my Rhetoric students. Boully's essay delights me because she examines and unravels the nexuses of privilege and oppression with deftness and stringency. By forcing the reader to make connections between a series of loosely related anecdotes, she makes us play a game of racism/sexism/classism connect-the-dots that facilitates our understanding of the bigotry discussed without seeming heavy-handed.

In an indirect way that she attributes to her Thai-ness, Boully asks a number of deceptively simple questions. What does it mean to be Asian? Are fellowships for people of color exclusionary of those who come from working- or lower middle-class backgrounds? Why can't white people disambiguate Thailand from Taiwan and China? Do people not know that asking her if her "father is in the military" is akin to asking if he raped her mother during a war? Why do white people, who had her believing herself to be a Thai national from an early age, refuse to listen to her when she tells them that "pad thai" is the Thai-American version of General Tso's chicken? Boully's essay works so well so often because it has some wonderfully elegant answers.

[...] he began to speak to me in Spanish and I told him that I didn't understand and he looked at me sternly and shame on me because I didn't know my mother's language shame on me. Within a sentence, Boully implicitly addresses internalized racism, the gendered nature of colonialism, and the paradox of being ethnically ambiguous. The catch with being multiracial, multiethnic, or multicultural is that you belong to everyone enough for them to shame you and no one enough for you to actually fit in. And so, I came to find out that a food that I had loved, a food that had produced so many euphorias in my family, was a food of the poor.

Her parents were doctors; they were from Bangkok, and they were paying out of pocket for their daughter to go to school. There are 48 countries and four billion people in Asia, and yet, many forms continue to restrict this sixty percent of the world's population to a single box. People of Mongolian, Pakistani, Japanese, and Laotian descent are lumped together regardless of socio-economic status and various other markers of success. Boully is incisive in her analysis of grants and fellowships targeted toward people of color, and I appreciate that she didn't shy away from naming names. Among many institutions that have endowments and money to give away, there is this idea that people of color are so all-the-same that getting non-working class POCs with all of the socio-cultural and economic benefits of white privilege is like a two-for-one deal. We had it very well, and we knew we had it very well. It wasn't until I went to college that I realized that I did not have it so well [...] I could not compete with Asians.

And though I usually do not pass as Thai. Passing is very rarely framed as something that one does with dire consequences. "The usual mechanism of passing," per Harryette Mullen's germinal essay "Optic White," "requires an active denial" of the non-white identity (72). It is a purposeful selection of a "racially pure" white identity in order to "strengthen the white identity of each successive generation (72). The idea of passing almost always foregrounds, venerates whiteness, and it is used disparagingly by those who do not possess this dubious luxury. Boully gives the reader the obverse, which mediates the cultural baggage attached to the phenomenon. Instead of it being "a kind of theft, a grand larceny" of whiteness that leads to the type of "race melodrama" that Mullen tackles in her essay, it is the location of one of the essay's few instances of warm, supportive extrafamilial community (Mullen 73, 80). He told me to enjoy myself in the land where so many plastic hamburger-chain toys were made.

Instead of correcting her, I thanked my friend from grad school for correcting me. In my reading of "A Short Essay on Being," Boully does not win the battle with her graduate school friend by letting her get away with such blatant racism. She loses because said friend will "probably never [...] come to [Boully] for forgiveness later." While I understand that doing Racism/Sexism/Classism 101 for every single bigot in one's life is exhausting, discouraging, and impossible, given how important food is to Boully's cultures, it is maddening and sad to watch her let so many macro- and microaggressions pass without active resistance. Perhaps this is where Boully's asking of elegant questions becomes inadequate, where the easy takedowns of bougie psuedo-hippies become hackneyed. It is a space where Boully's critical eye — so withering in her handling of others — could be turned on herself. Or maybe, just maybe, that is Boully's neatest trick. Maybe it is my cultural insensitivity, my lack of understanding of the Thai way that makes her seem so silent about her complicity in her own oppression.

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