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I am no longer an Asian American book virgin. I found this book among stacks of classroom book sets at the bottom of a lonesome cabinet drawer in my classroom. The title, “Rice Room: Growing Chinese-American from Number Two Son to Rock’n’Roll”, caught my eye, and made me question the previous teacher’s taste in books. The title reeked of warm-fuzzy multicultural mediocrity, so I snatched one up to assuage my nagging desire to first, read, then rip it to pieces (figuratively).

Asians. We pay so much deference to others but transform into a hypercritical tiger-mom when it comes to scrutinizing our own.

After reading the book from front to back, however, I realize that I can’t tear into the book as I would have liked nor can I easily dismiss it as modern multicultural sludge. Although I was bored at parts and was left wondering about the direction of this book at times, the short memoir unearthed some bits of history of early Chinese immigrants to the U.S, which was fascinating to me because it’s a story often overlooked, and shunned.

For some odd reason unbeknownst to me, I’ve always contained an unexplainable aversion towards all things Asian American: Asian American studies courses, AA books, AA movies, etc., yet at the same time ‘Asian Americanness’ and all the attendant problems with that identity has always been an interesting topic of discussion with my friends and something I naturally mull about. I think a part of me abhorred anything that explicitly self-promoted itself as “Asian American” since I felt embarrassed by the attempts to gain attention. Why talk about it? Can’t we just integrate? It’s like a self-aggrandizing politician who zealously brandishes his own reputation rather than humbly accepting the praise of others. It’s sleazy. It smacks of desperation.

Well, thankfully this book doesn’t go on a long diatribe on how Asians are underrepresented in the media or detail some petty racist encounters. Instead, it just plainly tells a short history of his parents’ coming to America, their hardships in eking out a life in Oakland, and his siblings’ and his own difficulties in growing up with one leg in one world and one leg in another. Yoked with the heavy burden of his parent’s (and thus, by extension, China’s) expectations for him, the author tells us story after story – some comical, a few tragic – about the difficulties in navigating an individualistic, free flowing, “American” life. At the end of the day, I find myself identifying with a lot of the same problems he faced, though probably with less intensity since my own parents are more Americanized than most Chinese parents.

I did find one gem in the book that I think I might carry with me, especially in dealing with my own parents. In an episode where the author is telling his older brother about his latest argument with his parents, the older sibling gives wise, albeit very “Asian”, advice:

“It’s pointless to go crazy over how they are. They are the way they are, and they’ll always be that way. There’s no point in arguing. If you want to not talk with them or see them for awhile, go ahead and argue. Otherwise, you might as well just give in. Just tell yourself that you know you’re right. But for your own  peace of mind, compromise. The bottom line is that they’re our parents, and they’re the only ones we have.”

Ah, the Confucian filial piety that preserved the nobility of Chinese people for generations still runs deep in our Asian AMERICAN veins. One generation of American living can’t simply purge that away in one go.


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