Yellow Peril and the American Dream


“No one is more dangerous than he who imagines himself pure in heart: for his purity, by definition, is unassailable.”
― James Baldwin

Last Christmas, my oldest friend, a girl I’ve known since we were ten years old, posted an image on her Facebook wall about how we should all buy American-made goods over the holiday season to help the economy we’re all so worried about. While I agreed with the sentiment, I was caught off guard by her comment underneath, “I reary rike this.” At the time, I hid the whole post from my feed and said nothing, but her comment triggered about five thousand angry alarms inside my brain. I am the child of Korean immigrants who spoke English with accents, and someone who grew up enduring taunts of “ching-chong” gibberish. I am an American who has been asked where I am “from” for as long as I can remember. My friend probably could not have imagined the sense of outrage she triggered, or how I would seethe at her comment in front of my computer screen. I’m certain she thought she was making fun of the Chinese—which in itself is problematic—without considering how she was parroting the ways we make fun of Asian Americans of all stripes, the ones who work and live in America, and speak with foreign accents.

I got used to such carelessness growing up, but lately, the familiarity has bred impatience in me rather than tolerance. Lately, the warning bells that warn me to duck for cover have been clanging away nonstop, making me realize that maybe it’s not a question of carelessness, but of a much larger problem. They went off when my friend said of an Asian man we both know, “And he’s such a success story—he got to marry a white woman!” They went off again when another friend asked me how the really squinty-eyed people can see, and then quickly amended that he wasn’t talking about Asians per se, just you know—people who live with squints.

These same friends are also all good people who have told me how they are outraged by racism, hurt by it, bewildered. And sometimes that’s what makes it so frustrating: how difficult it is to talk about race even with them, people I know are on my side, because the conversation inevitably becomes one about how they’re not racist, how they’re not even, when it comes down to it, white. The bulk of these conversations end with me reassuring them that I know they mean well, and then insisting as gently as I know how that if I have to be yellow, if blacks have to be blacks, and so on, then they have to be white. The truth is that they don’t realize that it is the particular privilege of the white to say they don’t “feel” white, that they’re not bound to “white” culture. And that casual dismissal, that simple, blind, unwitting privilege, always makes me angry. I understand my anger might be misplaced, unfair, ungenerous. At its deepest level, it’s probably born of envy. It’s so easy for them to casually disavow their race, as if it were a matter of personal choice. If only it were so easy for the rest of us.

I don’t believe my friends mean to be racist, but if we tell ourselves we have no relationship to racism, that we don’t participate and aren’t complicit in perpetuating racial inequality in a hundred different ways each day, we’re kidding ourselves. Myself included. My own silence in the face of discomfort is complicity. We are terrified of racial guilt. But when we’re too afraid to actually deal with what’s happening in the world, to acknowledge our responsibility or what’s at stake, we will be doomed to miss the point over and over again. And maybe I should stop being surprised that we do miss the point, in private, in public, even when reading the news or a book, or going to the movies.

Take, for example, the New York Times article published last October about how Asian students are dominating admissions at high-stakes testing schools, and the outrage around that. And the novel The Orphan Master’s Son, a book about a North Korean orphan that, if you close your eyes and replace the words “North Korea” with “the Wild West” is nothing so much as he is the North American fantasy of the cowboy. And of course most recently there is the movie Cloud Atlas, which features white actors playing Asians in yellowface. (Perhaps we can ask them if they found it difficult to see.)

The title of the New York Times article made me wary before I began: “For Asians, School Tests are Vital Stepping Stones.” The online header was worse: “Asians’ Success in High School Admissions Tests Seen As Issue By Some.” It tells the stories of Asian immigrant students who have prepared extensively to gain entrance into select schools, and how a civil rights group is consequently suing for discrimination for other, underrepresented groups. As its titles suggest, this article fails to differentiate between Asians and Asian Americans, and reveals a misplaced anxiety about Asian overrepresentation at select New York high schools. The article is presumably about inequality, but it hardly seems like news that the system is weighted. Of course it has always been weighted: after all, the article itself acknowledges that the elite high schools mentioned have typically favored whites. But now an unexpected group is excelling in a system that was built to favor someone else, and so instead of questioning the system and the societal hierarchies it was built to enforce, we question the new beneficiaries of the system, who threaten the long-established order of things and dare to not know their place.

But isn’t the real problem how desperate the fight is to get into one of these schools at all? While it’s worth exploring why certain groups haven’t been able to take advantage of the rigorous test preparation that the article details in order to gain a foothold on this path to success, the more critical question is why that path must be so narrow. Why have we failed to provide a public school system that gives all our students a great education and the chance to work hard, challenge themselves, excel, and go to good universities? By focusing on the current success of Asians, we give into our shallower fears, and risk missing the larger problem, which is the assumption that these massive inequalities must continue to exist and be enforced.

cloud-atlas-pic3It’s always harder to challenge the system than it is to blame a minority group, and so in this case, for now, Asians are the scapegoats—the de facto face of the Other. In the Cloud Atlas movie, we are given a future version of Korea in scenes filled with robotic, foreign, vaguely sinister Asians played by black and white actors in yellowface, in makeup so weird the friend I watched it with thought they were just supposed to be some strange futuristic race, like in Star Trek. In a storyline about the dehumanization of manufactured Asian bodies, in the context of an American culture in which Asian actors are rarely given meaningful roles, Cloud Atlas chooses to manufacture an approximation of Asian bodies using mostly non-Asians. In the midst of this familiar trope of the unfeeling, alien Asians controlled by “groupthink” comes the climactic moment when the main character, a Korean fabricant woman named Sonmi, says we must learn to see through the eyes of the Other. I wonder if the people who made the movie noticed they were doing exactly the opposite of that.

If they took Sonmi’s advice, what would they see? While the future this story predicts takes place in some imagined Korea where bodies are mass produced, the corporation is king, and everyone is told what to value, let us remember, at least, that America is the country that defined modern mass-production, factory assembly lines, and Walmart. The images of female Asian corpses being “processed” are reminiscent of factory-farming processes invented in the West. As creepy as we supposedly find groupthink mentality, it was an American president who said (all together now), “You’re either with us or against us.” Many of the problems the story explores are in fact our problems, not issues isolated to Korea or Asia, but ones we face in America—and, indeed, our increasingly globalized, industrialized world.

If we’ve gotten in the habit of projecting our fears about the future elsewhere, it’s not particularly surprising that we also project other narratives about ourselves as well. When I first read The Orphan Master’s Son, I thought: I am reading an American cowboy Western. As a setting, it was familiar in its unknowability: it reminded me of the lawless Wild West, filled with bandits, Mexicans, and Indians—enemies so alien that they were only gestures toward themselves, the outlines of our fears. The Orphan Master’s Son is a wildly entertaining story, raucous, riveting, filled with big dreams and reckless chances, and an epic fight against injustice. Yet as I read it, I found the sensibility as all-American as you can get: the protagonist felt entirely Western in his concerns, in the way he spoke and thought, in the way he interacted with the world and authority—and it struck me as I read it that it was a quintessentially American story that tells us nothing about North Korea itself, but uses certain facts about that unknown country to constitute the backdrop of an old American story about the quest for personal freedom. And while it relentlessly criticizes North Korean propaganda, it somehow remains blissfully unaware that it becomes itself an insistent piece of propaganda for American values.

two-koreasBecause the novel is set in North Korea, we are able to pretend that the battles and anxieties it explores are not our own. And its reviews fall into line, swallowing the book’s blissful blindness and compounding it. Consider the Washington Post, which said, “Adam Johnson has taken the papier-mâché creation that is North Korea and turned it into a real and riveting place that readers will find unforgettable.” Pay attention to that for a moment: North Korea, a nation, an actual nation with real people is the papier-mâché creation in this review, and the novel, a work of fiction, is the real and riveting place. This is a breathtaking reversal. It goes on to say this book will “show us how people lived and died,” but that’s the very thing: it doesn’t do. How can it? The book tells us there is oppression, absurdity, pain, injustice, in that country, things we already know—and it gives us a riveting account of what one person’s experience of that might feel like, but that person is an American in yellowface, and the story does not in fact show us the nature of North Korean suffering, because it neglects to get into the heart of the North Korean people. It does not show us how they think, how they feel, what their personal histories are. It is telling that Johnson has chosen an orphan as his narrator, someone without father or mother; I suspect he did so because it also erases the need to write a history.

Of this same book, Publishers Weekly says, “Johnson’s novel accomplishes the seemingly impossible: an American writer has masterfully rendered the mysterious world of North Korea with the soul and savvy of a native.” As if the reviewer, probably never having met a North Korean himself, could judge what a North Korean soul would look like, and say whether Johnson had gotten it right or wrong. As if the word “savvy” could ever make sense in the context of North Korea. The truth is, Johnson renders the mysterious world of North Korea with the soul and savvy of an American—with American preoccupations and biases.

The central problems of the book are presumably the problems of a country so bleak and unknowable that they must have nothing to do with us. And yet when you look at what they are: a fear about knowing the difference between truth and lies, between propaganda and reality, the official story and the suppressed one, of the oppression of living under surveillance, of how the private self suffers under the tyranny of the public image, and finally, the anxiety about the meaning of freedom, it seems obvious that these are in fact the concerns of our own country. We are living in a time when politicians seem to lie more than they tell the truth, where we watch “reality” on television and create endless shifting online personas that we put on display, and where our children can recognize more advertising slogans than they can species of animals and plants. What does it say about America that the American imagination’s greatest fears and longings must be projected onto a fantasy Asia? It is at our own peril that we give our preoccupations to another country: when we give our fears their face, we erase both them and ourselves. We let ourselves off the hook and do not confront the difficult, necessary truths about ourselves.

To bring it back to my friend’s Facebook post: What was that comment making fun of the Chinese accent really about? There is, of course, the underlying fear about the growing Chinese economy and our floundering one, but what’s underneath that casual contempt for those who can’t pronounce the letters in a language that is not theirs, and the expectation that they should? The thing is, they have always been working in their own self-interest, as have we, and when we grow angry at them for that fact, we neglect to take responsibility for our own culpability. After all, who has been fueling Chinese economic growth all this time? Who buys the products from those factories pumping out iPhone after iPhone? Where does cheap toy after cheap toy go? Whose greed keeps it all going? The answer of course, is us. We’re the ones who have recklessly snapped up those products, with our doorbusters and Cyber Mondays and Black Fridays, our all-consuming desire to own everything we can for as little as possible. We’re willfully oblivious to the fact that those products are often being made by children—wage slaves—sometimes earning less than 30 cents an hour, and we’re heedless of the economic consequences to our own country. I’d like to look away, too, but there is no escaping our own hand in what has happened. Nobody forced us here but us.

I know that we’re all weary of discussing this. I’m tired of coming up in small ways against problems so large and twisted I can hardly comprehend them. I’m tired of inequalities based on race, gender, or sexuality that go so far back and so deep that their existence seems inevitable. I don’t call friends—or for that matter, strangers—on some of the things they say because of that exhaustion, and because of fear, and sometimes also because of love. Like most people I know, I want systematic, institutionalized inequality simply not to exist, or barring that, to be a lifetime member of the lucky group that doesn’t have to worry about how it will limit my own life. But that is my own complicity, my own comfort with how things are, and my own fear of making waves—of what will happen to me for not knowing my place.

Still, America is changing, and so are our places in it. If nothing else, our shifting demographics coupled with the current economic crisis and its ramifications are forcing us to reckon with the American Dream as well as the fears and guilt that fuel our nightmares. For now, our collective instinct has been to say, “Not me, not me, it’s not my fault.” And yet here we are, in the world we’ve made, anxious and frightened about what comes next. It’s time to finally stop saying, “Not me.” Placing the blame for the problems we face on Asians within and without is not the answer; it’s time to wipe off the yellowface and look hard at what lies beneath. Because in fact, it is us, all of us, and there will be no hope of moving forward until we acknowledge that sometimes what we see in the face of the Other is everything we are unwilling to recognize in ourselves.


First image by Reuters.

Second image by Warner Bros.

Third image by NASA/NOAA.

Catherine Chung is the author of Forgotten Country, forthcoming from Riverhead Books in March 2012. She is a Granta New Voice, and her work has appeared in Guernica, The Journal, and Quarterly West, among others. She is a member of the birdsong collective, and is on the advisory board of Paris Press. A fellow of The MacDowell Colony, Hedgebrook, and Yaddo, she has taught creative writing at The University of Leipzig and Cornell University, where she received her MFA. She lives in Brooklyn, where she is working on a new novel and a collection of essays. You can find her online at: More from this author →