The Immigrant as Adventurer
Ken Chen, Executive Director, The Asian American Writers' Workshop
When people ask me about my family, I say, “It’s complicated.” I start by telling them that my father’s parents (a Fujianese man and a Taiwanese woman) and my mother’s parents (Beijing expats) came from two countries that have conducted an unofficial war for the last half century. My parents themselves were born in Taiwan, but they traveled to America, where they worked as engineers in the early days of tech, married, and divorced. I was raised by a rather atypical extended family: my dad’s girlfriend, a Korean American anesthesiologist; my Taiwanese older cousin, the benevolent older brother I never had who possessed an uncanny fondness for Garfield cartoons; and my mom’s boyfriend, a dour engineer who later absconded to Chicago to join the Maharishi Yogi, leaving behind both the Bay Area and the temporal world. My mom subsequently married a white guy from Denver, a chiropractor who hauled a device into our living room called the Spinalator. My dad married my stepmom, an Oracle engineer who fled the Cultural Revolution and possesses Cantonese eating skills that allow her to debone a fish with the dainty effectiveness of a cat.
This cast of characters shows how the people we often view as stereotypical hard-working immigrants - say, the Silicon Valley engineers who took up computer science because they possessed neither English fluency nor business connections in America - are also idiosyncratic, individualistic, and passionately human. We are accustomed to praising the faceless immigrant for stolid virtues - for his ruddy hands that hammered down the railroads, picked the fruit trees of California and Florida, and built postwar New York. And yet as I grow older, I notice that I have begun to reimagine my parents - as we often do - as not just being my mother and father, but as being friends, peers, comrades, who were once my age. I find myself wondering what motivated them to travel across seas and languages to a country as large and strange as America. I notice that they begin to appear in my memories less like workhorses and more like adventurers. In other words, I would like to compliment my parents for a different, far stranger skill set than programming in C++ and Perl: not for their labor, but for their imagination.
The enemy of imagination, the Russian critic Victor Shklovsky once said, is the habit. Our daily routine, Shklovsky hyperbolically wrote, “devours works, clothes, furniture, one’s wife, and the fear of war” until we find our entire lives automated forward by the pacifying conveyor belt of habituation. The purpose of art, Shklovsky wrote, was to “impart the sensation of things as they are perceived and not as they are known.” And who would be more aware of the strangeness and contingency of life than the migrant, the sojourner, who is always conscious of how the details of his identity - the way he speaks and looks, the food he cooks, and TV shows he watches - differ from those of the people around him. I think of my father, who found himself surprised when he discovered that American financial news indicated stock depreciation by the color red - the color of prosperity in Taiwan. The color red glowed with a different familiarity for him. He had what you might call an anthropological moment, a moment of bifurcated awareness whereby he could perceive a simple color through the eyes of two cultures.
This imaginative act is the manifestation of another or former life that seeps beneath even the most banal moments. Many immigrants I know have led an imaginary life. My parents imagined what America would be like while studying in the TOEFL language classes of Taiwan. They arrived in America carrying a few hundred dollars and an imaginary suitcase, packed in their minds for when they would of course return home. They did not return home. And now that she has retired, my mother occasionally visits with old school friends from Taiwan. I suspect she sees in them a parallel mirror, an apparition of what her own life might have looked like if she had never left.
Such imagining usually finds its provenance in the world of the novelist, who spends his time wondering what it’s like to be someone who is not himself. Let us, then, think of immigrant and ethnic writings as the literary equivalent of bifocals. They give the reader an upgrade in perception, an ironizing parallax view that can see two things at once. Such literature also bestows another, deeper way of looking: it can induce readers to look at someone who does not look like them with empathy.
We live in a nativist age in our country, a time when many people lack the ability to look at immigrants as fellow human beings. We look at immigrants as illegal aliens, permanent residents, nonresident aliens, enemy noncombatants. This is the way we have looked at the nearly twenty thousand minors have been deported across the Arizona border in the last year - and the way we have looked at the South Asian and Muslim Americans who have been shackled in detention centers, or simply lost the free exercise of religion. This is why at the Asian American Writers’ Workshop, the literary arts nonprofit at which I serve as Executive Director, we seek to provide a home for stories by immigrants and children of immigrants. We believe the intended audience for literature by immigrants is not just the immigrant himself, but the rest of America, which we hope to show that immigrants are not merely tired, poor, and huddled masses. In our political climate, it is a radical act of empathy to view immigrants as fellow humans, people who possess mothers and fathers, as well eclectic cousins and crazed stepparents. We hope to do something more - not merely look at them as individuals, but as writers and intellectuals, our entrepreneurs in culture and perception. And so I would like to thank Jan and Marica Vilcek and the Vilcek Foundation for this special night, when we can honor a deserving writer and scientist and honor the immigrant’s fundamental act of invention.
2019 Vilcek Prizewinners
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