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Food for thought

March 29, 2011

When I reviewed Bitter Melon a couple of months ago, much of my criticism had to do with what I consider to be numerous stereotypical elements in the novel. So I was very intrigued by one question in GalleyCat’s interview with Cara Chow.

Q: What stereotypes do you hope to eliminate with Bitter Melon?
A: That’s an interesting question because, on the surface, Bitter Melon appears to perpetuate a stereotype. My protagonist is a straight-A overachiever and her mother is a Tiger Mom. No Asian-American reader could say, ‘Gee, I’ve never met one of those!’ I’m not seeking to eliminate a stereotype because all stereotypes are based on a seed of truth. Rather, I want to flesh out the stereotype in a three-dimensional portrayal that gives dignity and life to my characters and the groups they represent.

I want my readers to identify with my characters and feel compassion for them, regardless of their backgrounds. On a separate yet related subject, I would like to add that I really love the cover of Bitter Melon. It was important to me that the cover treatment was contemporary and non-stereotypical. In addition to being both, the cover is also gorgeous!

I actually think Chow does a great job making readers feel compassion for Frances and her mother. And I’m sure my reaction to Bitter Melon says more about me than it does the book itself. But to make this post all about me (you know, since it’s my blog and all), I really struggle with Asian-American YA fiction dealing with stereotypes, whether the author’s goal is to flesh out the stereotype or not. I suppose, in a way, I’m torn. While I realize the importance of having this kind of story for teens who are struggling through similar situations (or ignorance, discrimination, etc.), another part of me wonders if, since so few books with Asian-American protagonists are published to begin with, it’s more important to have non-stereotypical Asian-American stories. Or do I feel this way because I grew up yonsei (fourth generation) in Hawaii*, while Asian-Americans from other parts of the US feel I’m crazy for thinking this way?

* The footnotes to the Yonsei article on Wikipedia links to Jon Okamura’s Ethnicity and Inequality in Hawaii in Google Books for a longer discussion of yonsei in Hawaii (scroll up a bit to start chapter 6, which is relevant; the yonsei part is on the next page, p. 126. I didn’t study sociology and haven’t read the entire book so will not agree with or critique Okamura’s assertions, but my family history largely fits with the generational descriptions in the first paragraph of the “Limited Identity Construction” section.). The Wikipedia article refers exclusively to Japanese-Americans, but the Center for Okinawan Studies at UH uses the same generational terms in its “Okinawans in Hawaii” section.

10 Comments leave one →
  1. March 30, 2011 12:02 am

    Neither being Asian American nor having read her book, I nonetheless take issue with Chow’s statement that “all stereotypes are based on a seed of truth.” People like to liken stereotypes to handy generalizations, a sort of shorthand of human nature, but those generalizations are imprecise assumptions backed by zero data. It is a psychological fact, borne out through research, that social stereotypes have an observable and mostly negative impact on people’s behavior, identity, and expectations for those in the stereotyped group.

    I don’t have a degree in sociology either, but I loved the heck out of my sociology classes, and based on what I learned in them, I feel like it’s ALWAYS problematic to have books, especially YA books, which underscore stereotypes. There will always be people who argue vociferously for the “Urban Fiction” option (where “urban” means African American) which are, in many cases, simply reams of poorly plotted, badly spelled stereotypes in flimsy paperback covers. (Please note: that’s not true for all so-called Urban Fiction, but unfortunately, everybody gets tarred with the same brush when we rely on stereotype and labels.) I don’t think appealing to the lowest common denominator of what “everybody” thinks about a group or a people is ever defensible, and I stand by what you originally thought of BITTER MELON – minority readers have the right to expect better, deeper, broader and less clichéd depictions of their worlds.

    • March 30, 2011 2:05 am

      Oh, I still stand by what I wrote in my review. I think the storyline and main characters are very stereotypical, but that Chow’s character development of Frances and her mother were strong. Do I think there’s a place for stories about stereotypes? Yes. Would I prefer more stories that are not about stereotypes than stories about stereotypes? Hell yes.

      At the same time, though — and I realized this at the time I wrote my review — I have a very hard time separating my exasperation with the limited Asian-American YA storylines available in general from individual stories. Where I particularly struggle is with how much importance we, as a society, should place on stories that, in reflecting an Asian-American teen’s reality, conform to stereotypes and how my growing up as part of what is arguably a dominant ethnic group (Japanese-American in Hawaii*) effects my viewpoint.

      Chow was interviewed in SLJ’s Teen newsletter, and the interviewer says she was struck by “the universality of parental pressure” the book depicts. Which made me go, “Huh?” because I totally did not read Bitter Melon that way. And I guess this goes to show how much of our own experiences we bring into our readings of fiction.

      re: the validity of stereotypes, without getting into how they develop or how people begin to believe in stereotypes, I thought there was some research that said some stereotypical perceptions were accurate? (I feel like I should know this since one of my majors was psychology, but I can’t remember.) Or are you saying that a person’s generalizations are imprecise assumptions based on stereotypes and not actual experience or interactions with individuals of a group?

      * and, yeah, I’m Okinawan, too. Which goes along with what part of what Okamura was saying about Japanese/Okinawan-American identity. Maybe OT: When I was in college, I mostly identified myself as Japanese-American. In Hawaii, lots of people will self-identify as Japanese and Okinawan (which I did before I went away to college, and again once I came back), but if you do this on the mainland, most people will ask you, “What’s the difference?”

      • March 30, 2011 8:57 am

        Generalizations are something that the human brain does all of the time – it’s what allows us not to have to count the number of fingers on someone’s hand, for example. If we were unable to generalize, we would be unable to function in the world, because we’d be constantly counting things, if nothing else. Generalizations are, by definition, imprecise: they say that cats have tails (leaving aside manx cats) or that dogs bark (ignoring the Egyptian hunting dog). They are rules of thumb (we can assume people have two?).

        The problem with generalizing about people is that the generalizations tend to cause one to relate to people as if they embodied that generalization. That would be wrong, because the generalization prevents us from interacting with the person as an individual; rather, the generalization encourages the laziness of the brain based upon external appearances, or based upon prior experiences (people have 5 fingers).

        Yes: some stereotypes are acted out* by members of the stereotyped group. In fact, many stereotypes may be acted out by the stereotyped groups. Thus, we end up with girls believing that math is for boys. Thus, we end up with boys believing that English is for girls. Thus we end up with all manner of roles which are cast by society (and by literature, in this case) against the individual and their aptitudes.

        Is this book a good book? I haven’t the faintest. Does it speak to young adults? I’m sure. The important question is, “What is it saying?” If it’s reinforcing the act of stereotyping then there’s a problem. If it’s reinforcing a stereotype, there’s also a problem. If it’s expressing someone’s experience, then I’d only wish for a world in which stereotypes did not exist, and in which the individual were encouraged to flourish without being forced to conform to a certain mold.

        *I say “acted out” because, whether or not there was a “seed of truth” in the stereotype, the stereotype has its own effect upon those stereotyped: they are actively cast in the stereotypical role by society, their peers, their family; thus, they internalize the stereotype and live up to that. This is much akin to how children whose teachers are told they are “gifted” may be encouraged by that teacher to excel, whereas those children whose teachers believe the child to be “lazy” or “a poor performer” unconsciously discourage those students from achievement. It is very well documented, as I’m sure you’re aware.

        • March 30, 2011 10:43 am

          According to some interviews with and guest posts by Chow that I’ve read, Bitter Melon has many autobiographical elements, particularly in terms of the strained relationship with the mother and high academic expectations. I think this fact made it even harder for me when I tried (unsuccessfully, but still) to be objective about the book, as well as some other Asian-American YA lit that’s made me think it was just a fleshed-out stereotype, so I really like the distinction you make between “speaking to” readers and “What is it saying?”

          I don’t have much to add about the use of generalizations and the dangers of buying into stereotypes, from both within a group and those outside a group. I understand the impact stereotypes have but was trying to make sure I understood what Tanita was saying; I apologize if this attempt was unclear. (I’m not sure if your first three paragraphs were directed toward me, or explaining the uses and effects of generalizations in, er, general.)

  2. March 30, 2011 1:04 pm

    Trisha, I was just … speaking generally. Oh, the fun we could have with that statement. But, seriously, I’m just thinking about the idea of generalizing about people, and the truly immense arguments I’ve had concerning 1) generalizing about things as compared to 2) generalizing about people.

    Tanita pointed me to this article. I just ran with it.

    • March 30, 2011 1:32 pm

      It’s all cool. Thanks for clarifying. And commenting!

      • March 31, 2011 12:23 am

        (Sorry – would have actually responded earlier except had to reinstall stuff on my computer.)

  3. March 31, 2011 12:22 am

    Smart Bitches is reviewing BITTER MELON in their bookclub, and I’m having fun lurking to see what’s being said there as well — it’s a book that is bringing out a bunch of complex reactions from a variety of people, and I really do hear you on being unable to separate your own experiences from the issues the novel brings up. I fear that I am often unfair in my reactions to Urban Fiction, etc., because of my own —

    It will be interesting to see what all comes out with the Bitches chat.

    • March 31, 2011 8:57 pm

      I just skimmed the transcript, and it looks like they had a good chat and most of the participants really liked the book. But I am curious as to how Chinese-American teens feel about the book. (I have very few Chinese-American teens at my library.)

  4. Sorilla permalink
    April 9, 2011 4:57 pm

    Wow, you guys should put this discussion on your front page and NOT hide it under a footer to the post ;)! I am so glad I actually stopped by just to read this very interesting, not your (mine) “stereotypical” comment page.

    Enjoyed a lot,

    ~ Sorilla

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