Love and Silence Love and Silence in Asian America
If the world responds to our silence and not to our love, then it teaches us that silence is a condition of our development.
This is Love and Silence, a column by Matthew Salesses on Asian American literature, identity, and its (dis)contents.
To start: two passages about love and silence in Asian America. The first is from the introduction to the seminal anthology of Asian American literature Aiiieeeee! , in which the four male editors argue that Asian America is white supremacy’s one outstanding success. What is their evidence? Silence. Through our silence, they say, Asian Americans reduce the work white supremacy has to do to make us silent.
The second passage is from No-No Boy , a novel the editors of Aiiieeeee! canonized. The passage begins after Ichiro, the novel’s protagonist, has slept with Emi—whose husband continues to fight after the end of World War II, still determined to prove he is American. In the morning, Emi asks Ichiro not to talk about their night together.
She asks this not because talking about it would make it real, but because talking about it would make it unreal: “Talking would make it seem bad and unclean and it was not so.”
I mean “real” as Lacan meant it: a realm beyond signification. I take Emi’s command to mean that putting their lovemaking into language, into symbols, would be to lose the real in it, would subject it then to the symbols of social morality.
What is the relationship, I want to know, between love and silence?
One path toward understanding the claim made by Aiiieeeee! ’s editors (Frank Chin, Jeffrey Paul Chan, Lawson Fusao Inada, and Shawn Wong) is through the idea of “racial melancholia.” In the work of David Eng and Shinhee Han, racial melancholia is an extension of Freudian melancholia, unresolved suffering. It is a result of a marginalized person’s desire to assimilate, that is: their desire to be loved.
The Asian American who wants love from whiteness wants something inherently forbidden to him. This is what causes melancholy: the desire for precisely what one can never have. The Asian American who stays silent in order to stay acceptable is rewarded with a modicum of what Chin, et. al. call racist love . The conditions of love are racist.
Eng and Han compare racial melancholia to healthy Freudian mourning. The latter is the process of withdrawing desire. In the healthy process of grief, when you lose a loved one, you slowly give up your desire for the lost beloved—that is mourning. In the neurotic process of grief, your desire for the lost object continues—that is melancholy.
We continue to love our oppressors, or at least the world they control. The way we love them is through trying to match their ideal version of us: the silent model minority. Such is what Chin, et. al. want to argue.
The Norms of the Marginal Man
On the other hand, Eng and Han go on to say that racial melancholia can also be Asian America’s path toward self-love and activism. To do so, we must acknowledge our suffering. Otherwise, we end up like Stanley and Derald Sue’s “Marginal Man,” who, in his desire to assimilate, can’t admit to systemic racism—because why would he want to join a racist society?
The Marginal Man valorizes the system in an attempt to love himself, an attempt to accept his own desire to belong to that system. Eng and Han suggest that if we accept our melancholy instead—our corrupted desires—we can accept that our desires have been corrupted and that racial melancholia is not a pathology. Eng and Han suggest this acceptance happens on the communal level, that Asian Americans finding and validating each other’s racial melancholia can move desire from the dominant norms to the melancholic norms.
Anger and Expectation
In her contribution to the anthology This Bridge Called My Back, Mitsuye Yamada describes her students’ negative reaction to what they perceive as Aiiieeeee! ’s “militant” tone. When she asks them why no one complained about the other texts—Black, Native, Chicanx—her students say they were not offended by those texts because they “understood” the anger of those groups.
Asian American anger, one student says, “made me angry , because I didn’t even know the [sic] Asian Americans felt oppressed.” Silence about Asian American suffering makes it difficult for Yamada’s students to see the possibility of love/understanding.
But not silence, the careful reader protests: the expectation of silence.
Yamada suggests, interestingly, that this expectation of silence deters both the possibility of love and the possibility for silence to be resistance. She writes that she used to respond to racism with angry silence, thinking of it as “passive resistance”—like the bullied child who ignores her bully. But this resistance “was so passive no one noticed I was resisting; [silence] was so much my expected role that it ultimately rendered me invisible.”
Racism is meant to do exactly this kind of work: the work of simultaneous visibility and invisibility—to make a person’s visibility about their racial difference, and so make their individual difference invisible, i.e. to identify them only as a group and not as an individual. Yamada’s silence, because it was expected of her as an Asian American, could not resist but only support attacks on her as an Asian American.
To love someone, you have to know they are there. To love is to disrupt your own idea of existence. It is to change how you see the world.
To love someone, you have to know they are there.
Yamada’s students show us how white anger reacts to the subversion of expected silence. But this is not enough to explain Chin, et. al.’s challenge as to why Asian Americans do not speak out more often. Where, they want to know, is Asian American anger?
Writing about the (perceived, public) lack of anger—of the poor, of women, of growing up a poor Asian American woman—Yamada suggests that it was difficult for her to speak out because it was difficult for her to see systemic racism as a result of actual people. What person could have the power to send 120,000 Japanese Americans to concentration camps? A person is an easier target for one’s anger than a law. To know that a human is responsible for your anger is to know that love is given or withheld.
Even Yamada’s students’ anger came from their recognition of Chin, et. al.’s human anger and desire for love. A law can’t get angry back at you. Anger is a way of acknowledging agency—you do not get angry at a chair unless you feel it somehow got in your way.
What interests the editors of Aiiieeeee! (and me) is that anger gives you agency. It is a way of asserting your place in the world. Your anger says you are there. Anger makes possible love.
Aristotle, in his classification of emotions, writes that anger signals injustice. When we get angry, it is because injustice has become visible to us. If power is invisible, if it is able to hide its object and objective and to keep itself hidden (e.g. as not human, as without agency), then we do not get angry. If we do not get angry, we do not see why we are angry. We see no possibility for justice, which means no possibility for love.
In Plato’s Symposium , Socrates presents love as a dialogue, as never fixed. Love as dialogue fails in silence. Silence invites monologue. It fixes the image one gives and receives of the self. The model minority’s silence is returned by racist love.
Once, at an adoption conference, a fellow Korean adoptee said to me, “My (non-adopted) brothers and sisters were the loud ones and I was the quiet one.”
I thought, You were taught to be the quiet one if you wanted a place .
She said, “They would say, ‘You’re such the stereotypical Asian.’”
I thought, You chose the stereotype because it gave you an identity .
She said, “But I thought, at least if I came home with all A’s, then I could get some attention.”
I felt an immense love for her that I could not express.
When I teach Asian American literature, I find myself thinking about what Jonathan Lear writes about the world, that for a person to develop their sense of self, the world needs to be “good-enough.” (Think Winnicott’s good-enough parent.) The world needs to love us back, to satisfy enough of our desires, though not all of them, to be neither too responsive nor too unresponsive.
Does our state of racial melancholia mean we live in a “not-good-enough” world? If the world responds to our silence and not to our love, then it teaches us that silence is a condition of our development.
The not-good-enough world is one that offers fewer possibilities of love.
Sianne Ngai has a different account of love in Ugly Feelings . She calls it “envy”—or at least one can read her that way. Ngai argues that envy, in its extreme, is a way of forcing the envied to change. She gives an account of the film Single White Female , in which one white woman envies another and seems to try to replace her—she buys the same clothes, cuts her hair the same length, etc. Eventually, the envier even murders the envied’s lover.
Yet it is not the envier who is forced to change—it is instead the woman envied, who can no longer be herself and be a self. In fact, the envied woman complains bitterly: “I’m like you now,” not “You’re like me now.” The film’s big reveal: The envier is a woman whose twin died. Ngai sees the envier as shaping the envied into the missing twin.
One can see the terms of desire here clearly, desire for what is lacked/lost, a type of desire Leo Phillips and Adam Bersani call “aggressive.” Envy, for Ngai, is nothing if not aggressive desire.
Envy might also be an interesting way to reread racist love. Ngai suggests that Single White Female , especially through the twin revelation, encourages viewers to read envy as about the envier herself—not the desirability of the envied. It is desire for a more desirable version of herself, a twin version, that creates the envier’s envy.
It is white supremacy’s desire for a more desirable version of itself that creates the model minority myth. This is the lack white supremacy wants to fill: the American dream. If Asian Americans can meet the American dream, white supremacy says, America cannot be racist. Because envy causes the envied to change, however, the stereotype both attempts to make Asian Americans into the American dream and reduce Asian American success to a simulacrum of whiteness.
What I mean here is something like: White supremacy wants to believe it is not racist, and its envy of Asian Americans, when in the form of the model minority, allows white supremacy to simultaneously love itself and reject the thing it professes to love as anything more than an object of envy. Is silence, as a characteristic of the model minority, the change that white envy (racist love?) wants to force in Asian Americans, in order for whiteness to love itself?
It is white supremacy’s desire for a more desirable version of itself that creates the model minority myth.
Ngai is less interested in race envy than class envy. We might use a more encompassing term: privilege. It is easier to think of the envier as the less privileged party. And this is what Ngai wants to establish, because what she wants to establish is that envy can be good. Envy, if it is acknowledged and incorporated, can be a mode of resistance—that critical envy could force the privileged to change.
By “critical envy,” Ngai means that if we recognize the culturally constructed desirability of white supremacy (within ourselves), we might stop ourselves from idealizing it. We would do this through understanding or even utilizing our envy.
Asian American envy might even have the potential to turn silence into resistance. If Asian Americans utilized envy, we would understand that silence does not make us more acceptable, because we would see that our desire is not to be loved by white supremacy, but to have access to its possibilities. By reorienting the desire enacted by silence away from being loved and toward access, envy has the potential to change white supremacy.
Ngai says: “Envy would facilitate a transition from desire to antagonism,” from racial melancholia to aggressive love.
We cannot have one envy without the other, though. As the envied is forced to change, she starts to envy the agency of the person whose envy changed her. In life, unlike in film, the envied cannot just disappear.
As a rhetoric professor advises me, “You’re not going to leave this feeling clean.”
Envy vs. Disgust
As a last note on Ngai, it is possible that she might position disgust as the antidote to envy. In case we need an antidote more than a utilization.
Disgust puts distance between you and the object of your disgust. Envy attempts, at least in part, to close the distance, and change the object. Does disgust allow us to accept that the object will not change? Is that why disgust makes us withdraw from our desire?
The rhetoric professor, again: “I could imagine living a life of envy, but not one of disgust.” Disgust breaks you free.
Ngai: “Desire says ‘Yes’ and disgust says ‘No’ . . . Disgust finds its object intolerable.”
I believe that disgust can break people free of their envy and/or desire for whiteness. It has happened to people I know. It might have happened to me. But it requires disgust for yourself first, before you can see that your disgust for yourself is a transference of your disgust for whiteness. The disgust is in your own desire, but it is also in recognizing your agency.
It is: How can I allow myself to be changed (to become silent) for a world that will never love me back?
As a child, I wanted to make myself white. I thought I was white under the surface. “It is dangerous to assume that the surface is the level of the superficial,” Joan Copjec warns. Appearance is all there is. The truth that can be put into words is a constructed truth.
Copjec is a Lacanian. For Lacan, appearance is the identity of our identity—it is impossible to appear to be someone and also be someone at the same time. Copjec: “Appearance always routs or supplants being.” That pretty much describes my experience of life. But what Copjec wants to say about this state of appearance routing or supplanting being, is that it is the state of desire.
Because I could never be accepted for who I was instead of what I looked like, I desired even more to be accepted.
This is why we must understand our disgust to be not about our appearance but about our desire to appear. Otherwise, our disgust keeps us stuck in the same cycle of acceptability. The surface is all there is. All there is in silence is what our silence appears to mean.
A good counterpoint might be Trinh T. Minh-ha’s Woman, Native, Other . Trinh writes of silence as an unmaking of speech, as the negation of appearance. Silence, she says, can make us doubt the power of speech. She is talking here about silence in dialogue, as “a refusal to partake in the story.” When our beloved does not return our love, it may make us reassess how we are loving. Though I wonder what happens if the story is about your silence, if you refuse to partake in a story that is really about keeping you from partaking.
One should never trust one’s sane mind to Frank Chin. Feminist theory rethinks silences as resistance. Silence can have the power of speech, of interruption or disruption, or of calling attention to who is talking. Silence for Asian American men is in contrast to white masculinity. To speak out in resistance is also to uphold patriarchal values. For women, silence is misogynist. Asian American women might activate, or utilize, their silence as resistance in a similar way to how Ngai describes envy.
I wonder what happens if the story is about your silence, if you refuse to partake in a story that is really about keeping you from partaking.
In other words, we shouldn’t take speech as an end goal. To do so would be to replace our desire for access with a desire for speech. This, too, would reduce the work that white supremacy has to do. Speech is the expression of desire—we talk because we don’t always get what we want—to desire speech then is to desire to express desire. Asian American silence already expresses desire. Maybe it is not the mode of expression but the mode of desire that needs to change. What would silence utilized against our silencers look like, silence moved from dominant norms to melancholic norms?
I used to stuff my ears as my father hit my siblings. I didn’t want to hear, because I wanted to love them and I couldn’t stop what was happening.
I remember my father used to crack his belt as a warning.
None of us ever called to each other for help.
But I remember, too, wanting my mother to help and being afraid that she would. I told my father that I would call social services, that they would take me away.
“Do it,” was always what I heard in response, even when he didn’t say it.
I was afraid even more of being taken, of not being loved at all, not even by violence. I kept my mouth shut.
Once, at an adoption conference, I led a writing session by prompting adoptees to write about what they remembered and didn’t remember. “I don’t remember my parents ever saying anything positive about Korea,” one adoptee wrote.
When I told my parents that I would go back to Korea, it was meant to be a threat. But they would say “fine” or “go” or “try.” Sometimes you can be taught to be silent by being taught how to speak.
What I knew then, in the crack of a belt, that I also know now, is that both to keep or to break a silence is to attempt to alter the terms of love.