Negative Asia

Weekly column written for the Singapore Unbound newsletter. Sign up here.

May is Asian American Pacific Islander Heritage Month. Until I moved to the US, I had not thought of myself as Asian. I had thought of myself as Singaporean in nationality, Chinese in race, and Hainanese in ethnicity, but not Asian in any way. At a diversity training session at my private school on the Upper East Side, I gave Chinese for my race, but was told that, no, I was Asian. To be Asian will forever include an element of imposition, a compound of artificiality.

But don't all identities—national, racial, or gender, or what have you—include the same element and compound? I had no say in being born in Singapore. My instincts have always led me to do the best with what I have been given. In school I have bonded with my students, Asian and otherwise, over reading Asian authors, though not exclusively. One of my most memorable classes resulted from our study of Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children. We laughed and talked so much. An alum of that class, Megan Lui, has just published in SP Blog a passionate essay about her family, who has been in the US for six generations. The essay makes me feel so proud of her. Just last Friday, we also published a story by a Nepali author, who was new to us. Muna Gurung's story "The Room at the Rosemary" begins with a Western classic, but immerses us confidently in its Nepali soundings and surroundings.

We started our press Gaudy Boy with the aim of publishing Asian authors, but who do we mean? Our books will have to speak for us, but I think I can speak for the team when I say we're proud of the direction we're taking. The annual Gaudy Boy Poetry Book Prize has gone to a Filipino based in Singapore and a Filipina based in Manila. It has also been awarded to a Korean American living in Alabama and a Filipina Canadian in Utah. We've published prose works by two Singaporeans, one still based in Singapore, the other now in Toronto. Our new translation imprint, after publishing a story collection by multiple authors from the Philippines, is now working on anthologies from Central Asia and Sri Lanka. Gaudy Boy is donating all sales revenue from March to May to MinKwon Center for Community Action, a non-profit working for low-income communities in Flushing, Queens.

What I like about being Asian instead of Chinese is the avoidance of racial chauvinism. Asia as an imagined community is still too new, too heterogeneous, too conflicted, to be chauvinistic, unlike, say, Europe. Asia is still pluralistic. There is still so much to learn about Asia, its peoples and its lands. It contradicts any generalization. It resists any hegemony. Beyond any positive definition, its powers are entirely negative.

Jee Leong Koh
May 6, 2021


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