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Sinitic script and the American experience

By Margaret Hillenbrand


In recent years, American studies have taken a decisively transnational turn. The origins of this shift lie in a distaste for the notion of “American exceptionalism,” in a revolt against the disjuncture between cherished ideas of the United States as the special homeland of all the democratic virtues, and the persistent realities of discrimination over race, gender, faith, and sexuality. Born out of a desire to salvage American studies from this sort of suspect nationalism, the transnational turn now takes bold and varied form. It has angled American studies outwards, towards the globe, and towards approaches that recognise the countless land and sea crossings, in all four directions of the compass, that created the United States in the first place. A telling example of this new orientation can be found in literary studies, which increasingly acknowledge that American literature is not just multi-ethnic — that much has long been indisputable — but multi-lingual, too.

asian woman writingA multi-lingual American literature brings, however, provocations of its own. After all, American literature written in Hindi, Polish, or Chinese can find readers far offshore, in communities for whom the United States is sometimes only ever a textual experience. Take, for example, the very substantial body of literature written by the generations of young men and women who travelled from China, Taiwan, and Hong Kong throughout the twentieth century to study at American universities, a good many of whom never returned home. These are texts written in America, about America, because of America. Yet many take Chinese as their medium of expression, and they have always been consumed in Chinese-speaking spaces: in the natal country, in Chinatowns across the United States and beyond — in any place, in fact, where the Sinitic script is understood.

At times, the consumption of these writings has been close to avid. China in the 1990s was just such a moment. As society gradually recovered from the closed-off, culturally uniform, even xenophobic years of the Maoist era, almost anyone with aspirations began to cherish dreams of going abroad. But opportunity only knocked for the privileged few. For those at home, meanwhile, literary tales of diaspora offered a cultural means through which readers could step out curiously and vicariously to the globe. What is the real America? What is it like to migrate there as a person of Chinese descent, often living through the unexpected traumas of racism, poverty, and a hard-luck life? Non-Anglophone stories of America – whether in Chinese, Hindi, or Polish – respond intently to these kinds of questions. In so doing, they offer their audiences a short cut to the New World, a sheltered passage of the imagination opened up by the mother tongue and along which they are shepherded by their compatriots overseas. It is precisely their polyglot character, in other words, which allows them to carve open cross-oceanic conduits and thus speed the global circulation of “America”.

Chinese-language writings about the United States accelerate this process in particularly flamboyant ways. Many of these tales of student life overseas trade in triumph and disaster, American dream and American nightmare, as their protagonists veer wildly from rags to riches and back again. In this sense, such stories offer both reassurance and a certain Schadenfreude, showing readers that the gilded élite do not always have things their own way, and, better still, that things back home might not be so bad after all. That said, readers are not dupes. They know all too well from media panic-mongering about the “brain drain” that overseas students often end up voting with their feet and staying in America. And this realization that the nation’s brightest and best are never really coming home is a discomfiting one, not least because it gives those left behind a sudden sour sense of their own parochialism. Chinese-language stories, with their potent aura of America, offer by this token a means of becoming transnational in the mind: they are a beckoning, slightly penitent hand towards the world.

It is worth giving this question of diasporic guilt some thought when considering why it is that authors choose to write in the language of “here” or “there”. To write in English as an American immigrant is often seen as a mark of arrival, both into US identity and into a potentially wider readership. Cleaving to the ancestral language, by contrast, can seem nostalgic, plaintive, even ethnocentric. Certainly, some have favoured the language of “there” in order to write more candidly about the adoptive nation than might be prudent in English — not to mention the richer poetic flair permitted by the script of home. Ultimately, though, there may also be something emotionally tactical about the decision to write about the American odyssey in the mother tongue for people back home. Chinese students abroad are, and always have been, a blessed and special cohort, granted the opportunity to study in the United States on the understanding that the knowledge toiled for overseas will be husbanded for the greater good at home. So to stay in America is to renege on the deal, and that lack of fealty comes at a cost. In this sense, performing loyalty to origins — for people at home, in the language of home — becomes a way for immigrants on the cusp to assuage guilt, to tell themselves and their compatriots that home is still home, even when that is quite transparently no longer the case. Writing home, in other words, takes the sting out of saying goodbye. And as they travel, these letters of penance become deterritorialized documents of American literature, too, which carry ideas about the United States to new and distant audiences, and thereby bring them closer.

Margaret Hillenbrand is University Lecturer in Modern Chinese and Fellow of Wadham College at the University of Oxford. She is the author of “Letters of Penance: Writing America in Chinese and the Location of Chinese American Literature” (available to read for free for a limited time) in MELUS: Multi-Ethnic Literature of the United States.

MELUS, a prestigious and rigorous journal in the field of multi-ethnic literature of the United States, has been a vital resource for scholarship and teaching for more than thirty-five years. Published quarterly, MELUS illuminates the national, international, and transnational contexts of US ethnic literature. The journal is sponsored by the Society for the Study of the Multi-Ethnic Literature of the United States.

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Image credit: Asian beautiful female student writing on notebook in living room. © enat via iStockphoto.

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