The Question Of Turnaround

by Vanessa Raney

December 1, 2003


I never thought to associate Chinese with Jewish. It's not that I wasn't open to the possibility, but rather, that it never occurred to me to associate Chinese with Jewish. That is, until I was privileged to see Kristina Sheryl Wong, Leilani Chan and Shyamala Moorty, of TeAda productions in L.A., perform at Scripps College.

Here I am, knowing something about Chinese history, but not thinking outside the literature I have read. I knew some interesting angles, like the fact that the Chinese invented gunpowder in 9th century AD, three or four hundreds before the Europeans. Moreover, that for the early history of Europe, China remained three or four hundreds years ahead technologically (i.e., in navigation systems) for a long time.

And yet I was confronted with my own stereotype. Perhaps it's that in the United States, we are brought up to think about the Jews in terms of the Holocaust, of the prejudices against southeastern European Jews specifically. Except after I came into contact with Chan, whose performance piece (combination chanting and poetry) revealed a mosaic pattern of cultures, I can no longer think of the Jews in these terms alone. Instead, I am now forced to confront an American system of education that refuses to acknowledge the patterns of diversity in history.

I can't even say that we are anywhere near confronting issues of race and representation when we are unable to think outside of the Western Tradition. What I call the Western Tradition is the European colonial discourses that have and continue to shape how we as Americans see the world around us. Although we are beginning to expand our view to include other cultures, we are nonetheless seeing them through this Western Tradition. It is something we must change in order to move forward.

I remember a history professor from a few years ago -- he was a textbook teacher, rarely teaching outside the text. When I questioned the validity of the text on my own, I went outside to read other histories about China. Although I returned to class eagerly sharing my new knowledge, my professor couldn't accept what I had to say because it didn't fit in with what he knew about China. More revealing, it didn't matter to him what Chinese scholars had found out about China through specific-study research; it didn't fit with the Western Tradition's account of China.

So I begin to question what histories are being taught about other places and peoples. Are we really caught into the stereotypes, based in part from what we learn studying under the rubric of the Western Tradition, that we can't imagine that the stereotypes may not be an accurate reflection?

Certainly, when I, during another class, came across references to girl gangs and Asian gangs (though I mean the term Asian loosely), no one believed me. Today we are taking these claims seriously. At least, I hope we are taking them seriously. Because more recently I am hearing more about girl gangs and Asian gangs; in fact, they now appear in the literature in related studies.

Returning to the performances that have inspired this essay, I was less surprised by Wong's and Moorty's performances, mostly because they assumed roles from related ethnic positions. At the same time, they also confronted important questions about how we associate people of other cultures. Yet while they subverted the stereotypes to their purposes, I was aware of the sexual nature of Wong's performance (identified as "Asian American" in the TeAda productions brochure) and of the political nature of Moorty's performance (identified as "Indo-American").

Because what are the stereotypical images we as Americans have of Asians and Indians? That Asian women are highly sexualized objects, and that Indian women are isolated from the rest of their society. So yes, while I enjoyed their performances, I wasn't as impressed as I was with Chan's performance.

Chan has really made me think in terms of a turnaround from what I do know to what I could know. She has made me more aware of the kind of teaching I want to do, by challenging my future students to question the roles we as Americans have assigned to people of various cultures, to ask how people of a specific culture can be represented differently from what we expect, to seek outside scholarship that introduces new ideas and evidence to break apart the sometimes/often erroneous assumptions of the Western Tradition, to challenge what we know.

I hope to be the kind of teacher who's able to break open new ground with my students. Because without our willingness to question what we know, we are meaningless. It is time we reclaim the need to know more than what we do know. Then we can really begin to break free from the stereotypes, and to see people as people of possibility rather than of race, ethnicity and culture. After all, what are we but the intersections of race, ethnicity and culture?

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Vanessa Raney is a graduate student in History at Claremont Graduate University. Her poetry has recently appeared in American Western Magazine (online), Quirk, Asphyxia Digest, WireTap Magazine (online), The Bayou Review, and The Thing Itself.

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Published December 1, 2003
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