The 1.5 Generation: Filipino Youth, Transmigrancy, and Masculinity
The 1.5 Generation: Filipino Youth, Transmigrancy, and Masculinity
Abstract and Keywords
This chapter examines two novels by Filipino American writers: Brian Ascalon Roley’s American Son and Han Ong’s Fixer Chao. These novels document the lives of Filipino immigrants facing prejudice, racism, and alienation. They also reveal a number of common negative effects of globalization on young Filipino Americans: the overvalorization of and desire for wealth, First World products, and material goods; overdetermined and unattainable ideals based on Hollywood models of masculinity and beauty; and emotional and psychic transnationalism. The 1.5-generation children who grow up in these situations often resort to violence, fraud, and trickery in order to validate their sense of self, to gain acceptance into the dominant culture, and to obtain what they perceive to be the rewards of those who pursue the American dream.
Globalism is not an abstraction but a concrete activity whose mode of being has its effect on the local body.
—Dana Polan, “Globalism’s Localisms”
Half a century after its independence from the United States, the Philippines is still very much in a neocolonial stage.1 Epifanio San Juan Jr. notes that “the Filipino has been produced by Others (Spaniards, Japanese, the Amerikanos), not mainly by her own will to be recognized” (Articulations of Power, 118). Filipinos are transnational subalterns, used in many countries as cheap and temporary labor: the “‘warm body export’ of Filipino workers to the Middle East; Filipinas as ‘mail-order brides,’ ubiquitous prostitutes around enclaves formerly occupied by U.S. military bases; and ‘hospitality girls’ in Tokyo, Bangkok, Okinawa, and Taipei” (San Juan, The Philippine Temptation, 79). The more than six million Filipinos scattered around the world earn an average of “$3.5 billion a year for the Philippine government” (92) but at a great cost to Filipinos, especially to women and children.
Propelled by dire economic conditions in the Philippines and fed by the American dream of wealth and success, Filipinos migrate in large (p.4) numbers and have become what Rhacel Parreñas calls “servants of globalization.” The movement of people, goods, and culture in the new global capitalism entails, as Arif Dirlik writes, the “transnationalization of production, […] the decentering of capitalism nationally,” the increasing importance of the transnational corporation, and the “fragmentation of the production process into subnational regions and localities” (“The Global in the Local,” 30). Negative effects of this migration and globalization include the separation of family members, perpetual states of exile and displacement, and self-hatred that results from the neocolonial mentality of seeing oneself as other. What faces Filipino immigrants in their adopted countries is often not a life of ease but of difficulties due to prejudice, racism, and alienation. Two recent novels by Filipino American writers, Brian Ascalon Roley’s American Son and Han Ong’s Fixer Chao, document these problems and reveal the ways in which global capitalism takes its toll on the young.2 Roley’s and Ong’s narratives are told from the perspective of young adults whose familial and social lives have been changed by transnational migration, who see themselves as failures because their everyday lives do not match up to the high expectations of the American dream. Fueled by Hollywood ideals of glamor and power, various characters in these novels suffer and, in turn, lash out against others when they fall short of capitalist notions of success. Examples from these novels show the impact of global American culture on Filipinos and Filipino immigrants, problems in the construction of Filipino American ethnic subjectivity, and the violent effects of racial abjection on the body.
In general, these novels reveal a number of common negative effects of globalization on young Filipino Americans: (1) The overvalorization of and desire for wealth, First World products, and material goods. In these narratives, the children whose family members are separated often compensate for their lack of familial bonds and/or dysfunctional family situations by coveting, buying, or in some cases stealing, goods. Transnational production does not just affect people’s work and labor conditions; it also affects libidinal desire. (2) Overdetermined and unattainable ideals based on Hollywood models of masculinity and beauty. Because “the global distribution of power still tends to make the First World countries cultural ‘transmitters’ and to reduce most Third World countries to the status of ‘receivers’” (Shohat and Stam, “From the Imperial (p.5) Family to the Transnational Imaginary,” 147), the young protagonists in these novels identify with American images of success. These images affect the way one perceives one’s own body and also affect one’s romantic and sexual relationships. When Filipino American men find themselves unable to live up to the seductive or forceful celebrity images they see in films and on television, they frequently resort to violence or aggression against those around them. (3) Emotional and psychic transnationalism. Diane L. Wolf argues that “second generation Filipino youth experience emotional transnationalism which situates them between different generational and locational points of reference—their parents’, sometimes also their grandparents’, and their own—both the real and imagined” (“Family Secrets,” 459). Children of first-generation Filipino immigrants and Filipino American children who belong to the 1.5 generation group are brought up “accepting patriarchal family dynamics and the predominance of parental wishes over children’s voices, resulting in internal struggles and an inability to approach parents openly for fear of sanctions. Part of the struggle seems to stem from living and coping with multiple pressures and with the profound gap between family ideology and family practices” (473). Although this phenomenon is common for many immigrant children, it is particularly acute for those youths who not only feel the pressures from their family in their adopted country but are also burdened with the feeling accountable in some ways to their family, friends, and relatives “back home.”
In American Son and Fixer Chao, Roley and Ong explore these various effects of globalization on young Filipino American men growing up in contemporary America. The authors show the emotional and psychic struggles of the protagonists as they negotiate the circumstances of their lives between the values of capitalist America and the self-sacrificing and self-abnegating attitudes of Filipino immigrants. Through the perspectives of these young men we see the damaging effects of small but repeated acts of racism, and we witness the ways their masculine subjectivity has been interpellated by Hollywood representations. In both novels the protagonists reveal how they have become abject others of the dominant culture that desires and yet abhors them. What we witness is the youths’ disappointment with a society that invites them to be part of the nation yet refuses to accord them the same privileges as white Americans.3 Through very different stories of growing up, Roley (p.6) and Ong illustrate the complex ways in which cultural and racial marginalization, as well as a sense of failure that comes from being unable to live up to their own and their parents’ ideals, lead young Filipino Americans to aggression and criminal behavior.
Brian Roley’s American Son, set in California in 1993, depicts much of the disenchantment of Filipino American youths, revealing the “underbelly of the modern immigrant experience” (back cover). Told from the point of view of Gabrielito Sullivan, a fifteen-year-old American boy born of a white father and a Filipina mother, the novel presents a stark, unsentimental portrait of a family torn between the allure and wealth of America, exemplified by the rich celebrities who live in West LA, and the traditional, Catholic, Filipino values with their emphasis on filial piety, as voiced in the letters of Uncle Betino in the Philippines. Though Gabrielito (called Gabe), his mother, and his brother, Tomas, emigrated to America almost ten years earlier, they, like many immigrants, have had to struggle economically, socially, and culturally to survive in the multiracial and multifarious city of Los Angeles. They have settled in the United States, but they have not been completely uprooted from their home country and assimilated into the new society, as one might expect of immigrants who left their home more than years ago. Instead, they are what Glick Schiller, Basch, and Szanton-Blanc term “transmigrants,” immigrants “whose daily lives depend on multiple and constant interconnections across international borders and whose public identities are configured in relationship to more than one nationstate” (“From Immigrant to Transmigrant,” 48). According to Glick Schiller, Basch, and Szanton-Blanc, several forces lead these immigrants to settle in countries that are “centers of global capitalism, but to live transnational lives” (50). The reasons include a deterioration of social and economic conditions “in both labor sending and labor receiving countries with no location a secure terrain of settlement” and “racism in both the U.S. and Europe,” which “contributes to the economic and political insecurity of the newcomers and their descendents” (50).
Gabe, his brother, and his mother all experience dislocations that are similar to those experienced by other Filipinos who work at low-paying or dead-end jobs in various parts of the world. As Rhacel Parreñas has (p.7) observed of migrant Filipina domestic workers, the dislocations include “partial citizenship, the pain of family separation, the experience of contradictory class mobility, and the feeling of social exclusion or nonbelonging in the migrant community” (Servants of Globalization, 12). Gabe has not seen his American father since the night he got drunk after returning from his station in Germany. After hitting the children and “making fun of Filipinos and [his wife’s] family,” the father told Tomas that he married his mom because “he wanted someone meek and obedient, but had been fooled because she came with a nagging extended family” (American Son, 24). After his departure, the boys’ mother used to telephone her brother in the Philippines for advice on bringing up the boys. Gabe reports: “Our mother had long, distressed conversations on the telephone […]. Sometimes she would sob. Other times she simply wrapped a strand of hair around her finger” (22). Uncle Betino’s letters repeatedly urge the mother to send the boys back to the Philippines so that they can be educated to be good Filipino Catholics, so that “some of the Asian virtues of [the] family heritage” (201) can be instilled in them. These plans never materialize, however. To maintain her household in America, she works at one point “sixty hours at a department store’s shoe section” and has a “second job looking after an invalid Jewish lady in the Hollywood Hills” (160). She is caught in a situation of transmigrancy; she is not able to assimilate into American white society because of her accent, her diffidence, her difficult economic situation, and yet she feels that she cannot go back to the Philippines, where she complains of the heat and smelly showers, the insects, diseases, and relatives who make “tsismis about each other behind their backs” (33).
In the United States, the family is repeatedly reminded of their nonbelonging and otherness. These scenes reveal the ways in which exclusionary practices delimit and mark the subjectivity of the ethnic other. Gabe and Tomas demonstrate two different ways of reacting to the racist and discriminatory attitudes of the white majority. Initially the brothers are divided into a dichotomy representing the good and the bad. Gabe is the obedient child, “the son who is quiet and no trouble,” who helps their “mother with chores around the house” (15). Tomas, the older brother, is the one who keeps their mother “up late with worry. He is the son who causes her embarrassment by showing up at family parties with his muscles covered in gangster tattoos and his head shaved down (p.8) to stubble and his eyes bloodshot from pot” (15). As a way of defending himself against ridicule and prejudice, Tomas tried to cover up his Asian identity. At first, Tomas tried to pass as a white surfer and attempted to dye his hair blond, though it turned red in the process. Then he began “hanging out with Mexicans, who are tougher” (30).4 If anyone tried “calling him an Asian he beat them up, and he started taunting these Korean kids who could barely speak English” (30). Significantly, Tomas inscribes his desired Mexican identity onto his body: “his tattoos are mostly gang, Spanish, and old-lady Catholic,” Gabe observes: “As he leans forward, the thin fabric of his shirt moves over his Virgin of Guadalupe tattoo that covers his back from his neck down to his pants” (17). The tattoos remake his Asian features, reconfiguring his body from the feminized Oriental into the more macho Chicano Latino body.5 At the same time, the Virgin of Guadalupe tattoo places the teachings of his mother, the Catholic Church, and the notions of sainthood and virginity in a new and potentially irreverent light. The markings on his body reveal the many ways in which contesting notions of racial identity are played out physically and corporeally on Tomas.
Seeing himself through the eyes of a dominant culture that views him as servile, feminized, and different, Tomas is ashamed of being identified as a Filipino American. To complete his public identity as a Mexican, he pretends to understand Spanish when people speak it to him. However, in his business, which consists of training attack dogs and selling them to “rich people and celebrities” (15) Tomas uses commands in German, telling his clients that the dogs have “pedigrees that go back to Germany, and that they descend from dogs the Nazis used” (20). Significantly, only by aligning his dogs—and, by extension, himself—with racist Nazis is Tomas able to claim power, legitimization, and recognition in contemporary American high-class society. Moreover, he claims that “this is a Teutonic art that goes back to the Prussian war states” (20). That his lies are so easily accepted demonstrates the extent to which contemporary society relies on racially and nationally based stereotypes. In contrast to the highly valued “Teutonic art,” for both brothers being Filipino has demeaning associations, often linked to low-paying domestic occupations. Tomas tells his brother at one point, “If the client sees you standing there like that he’s gonna think you’re my houseboy” (18). Similarly, when Gabe runs away from home, he befriends a tow truck driver who, though kind to Gabe, makes (p.9) derogatory remarks about the “fucking Mexicans,” the “Cambodians, Vietnamese, Laotians,” and the “mute Asians,” who “won’t even learn to speak English,” who are everywhere in Venice and San Pedro (84). Gabe becomes embarrassed when the tow truck driver later sees his mother and tells him that the dark-skinned woman at the restaurant is their “maid” (116).
This scene, which is at the center of the novel, represents Gabe’s betrayal, an act almost as hurtful as Tomas’s many acts of disobedience and willfulness. The incident, though played out at the domestic level, is significant because it is suggestive of larger cultural issues and national politics. Gabe’s mother represents the long-suffering Filipina who is abandoned by her American husband and protector. She believes in the Old World traditional values of the Filipino—filial duty and obedience to the Catholic Church and its priests. Yet as an immigrant and woman of color she is ineffectual in America and is left behind by her children. She is unable to help her children improve their marginal status through legitimate means. At one point in the novel, she goes shopping with Gabe down the promenade. Gabe notices that, unlike Tomas, his mother always “steps out of other people’s paths” (179), and one man “in a yellow button-down shirt” sees her but “acts as if he does not notice her, and she actually has to squeeze beside a bench to let them pass” (179). At a makeup counter, a beautiful tall, model-like redhead in a white doctor’s coat chats with another lady and ignores Gabe’s mother as she waits at the counter to be served. Only with Gabe’s intervention does the saleslady take notice of his mother, but, too shy at that point to make a scene, the mother pretends she is “just looking” (183) and walks away. It is this kind of self-abnegation and an inability to assert oneself that embarrasses the boys and leads them to react violently against those they perceive to be treating them as second-class citizens.
Asian American Masculinity
Masculine identity has been problematic for the Asian American male from the start (see Eng, Racial Castration; Goellnicht, “Tang Ao in America”; and Wong, “Ethnicizing Gender”). Historically, Asian males were subjected to exclusion laws, regarded as unassimilable (Takaki, Strangers from a Different Shore, chap. 3), and represented as threats to society (p.10) because of fears of disease, miscegenation, and sexual corruption (Lee, Orientals, 76). They were also feminized because of their work in laundries, restaurants, and tailor shops. Today many Asian American men still work in poorly paid “feminized” service jobs. Cruise ships in the Caribbean and in Alaska employ Indonesian, Malaysian, and Filipino men and women as busboys, waiters and waitresses, and kitchen help. Filipino men work as houseboys, gardeners, orderlies, laborers, and cleaners in North America and the Middle East. In the popular media, Asian men are represented as hypersexual and dangerous because they were unable to consummate their desires through legitimate relationships, or else they are seen as feminine. Young Asian boys and Asian women are exploited as prostitutes and sex workers in many parts of the world. As David Eng notes, in “marvellous narratives of penile privilege, the Westerner monopolizes the part of the ‘top’; the Asian is invariably assigned the role of the ‘bottom’” (Racial Castration, 1).
The particular situation of powerlessness of Asian American men is not unlike that of black men, and their problems are similar to those of black masculinity in America. As Kobena Mercer and Isaac Julien note, “Whereas prevailing definitions of masculinity imply power, control and authority, these attributes have been historically denied to black men since slavery” (“Race, Sexual Politics and Black Masculinity,” 112). In order to “contest conditions of dependency and powerlessness which racism and racial oppression enforce,” black men develop macho attitudes. Macho is “a form of misdirected or ‘negative’ resistance, as it is shaped by the challenge to the hegemony of the socially dominant white male, yet it assumes a form which is in turn oppressive to black women, children and indeed, to black men themselves, as it can entail self-destructive acts and attitudes” (113). In Roley’s novel, the difficulty Tomas encounters in constructing a viable masculine subject leads him to adopt a hypermasculine identity that manifests itself through violence and crime, as well as his identification with “tough” Mexicans. To make sure he is not teased as a weakling, as Asian, he takes on a macho identity, taunts others, and even beats his brother up whenever he is frustrated by Gabe’s submissive attitude. His mother’s pleas with Tomas do not stop him from a life of criminal activity, including breaking and entering, looting, assault, and robbery. Though Tomas and Gabe love her deeply, they respond with anger and outrage to their economic difficulties and her social helplessness. Their own place outside mainstream (p.11) society and outside the capitalist system makes them resort to unlawful means in order to change the situation in their home. In the last part of the novel, Tomas takes Gabe along with him and they break into people’s homes. While they steal most of the items for resale, they use some of them to elevate their mother’s status. In one case, Tomas steals the brass sinks and faucets from an empty house and puts them in their mother’s bathroom. He also replaces her couch and steals her a new bed. Breaking into a Hungarian lady’s house in Brentwood Park, Tomas heads for the bedroom and tells Gabe, “Look for the pearls. Or anything with gold on it. Forget the silver stuff. It wouldn’t look good on her brown skin” (American Son, 147). Because in America success is typically represented as the possession of economic wealth, goods, and objects, as the man of the house, Tomas mistakenly tries to show his love for his mother by obtaining items that are featured in advertisements and glossy magazines, on television, and in film.
The problem of being in one of the centers of global capitalism yet feeling excluded from full membership in it is that one always feels inadequate and lacking. In capitalist societies such as North America, clothes, cars, jewelry, and other possessions often serve to compensate for one’s sense of insufficiency. However, for the dispossessed there are few legitimate ways to attain these goods. To borrow terms from studies on black masculinity, Tomas becomes a “hustler,” not a prostitute like Han Ong’s protagonist, but one who lives by dishonest means. As Mercer and Julien explain, “the figure of the hustler […] is intelligible as a valid response to conditions of racism, poverty and exploitation, it does not challenge that system of oppression but rather accommodates itself to it: illegal means are used to attain the same normative ends or ‘goals’ of consumption associated with the patriarchal definition of the man’s role as ‘breadwinner’” (“Race, Sexual Politics and Black Masculinity,” 114). Roley’s novel becomes doubly tragic because not only do we witness Tomas becoming more and more involved in violent and criminal activities but we also see the way Gabe, who initially was the obedient brother, slowly succumbs to the gratification of violence and the deadening of emotion. It seems to be the only way to respond to the situation of his family’s economic immobility and his own sense of powerlessness. Toward the end of the novel, the two brothers brutally beat up Ben, one of Gabe’s schoolmates, the son of a rich woman who is threatening to collect eight hundred dollars from their mother because their mother (p.12) has accidentally bumped the woman’s Land Cruiser in front of the school. As Gabe swings a tire iron across Ben’s legs, Gabe thinks, “I feel a rush not of anxiety but of confidence. In a scary way I realize I like it. Strangely, that only makes my stomach worse” (American Son, 215).
Ironically, it is only through violence that Gabe feels he can become an “American son,” that is, a citizen of the United States, with authority and power. Because the narrative is told in the first person from Gabe’s limited point of view, we are not given any further explanations about his psychic state after his first act of aggression against another human being. In the closing scene, Tomas puts his hand on Gabe in a way that their American father used to do with both of them. The gesture is suggestive and supposed to be reassuring. Together the brothers have survived displacement, prejudice, and dispossession but at a cost to their humanity. Unlike their mother, they may no longer be transmigrants, but in the process of transcending that role they have let go of the traditions and values she was trying to instill in them—respect for others, obedience to authority figures, and deference to the church and to the law. They have become American sons, not by being hardworking immigrants as their mother expected, but by becoming outlaws and urban cowboys.
In a similar way, the protagonist of Han Ong’s Fixer Chao gets himself into a “complicated, manufactured” life (133) when he agrees to embark on a scheme of revenge for another’s wrong. In Ong’s novel globalization—in particular, the movement of culture, people, and goods from the Third World to the First World—is viewed with much irony and skepticism. Fixer Chao tells the story of a Filipino hustler, a former prostitute, William Narciso Paulinha, who is remade into Master William Chao, a revered feng shui expert from Hong Kong, with the help of Shem C, “a disreputable, social climbing writer embittered by his lack of success” (inside cover).6 William Paulinha is lured deeper and deeper into a life of fraud and crime for many of the same reasons that Tomas and Gabe are: racism and a sense of self-abjection, the gap that he sees between the life of rich New Yorkers around him and his own hand-to-mouth existence. Like Tomas and Gabe, William is a Filipino who lives (p.13) on the margins of society, never fully integrated into American culture because of a sense of rootlessness and class and racial difference.
Like Roley, Ong depicts social and economic inequities that have resulted from the global migration of Filipinos. Racial prejudice is a theme that is present, though muted, in the novel, for the book is largely a satire of the life of the privileged. As in Roley’s novel, the characters in Ong’s “view America through the fractured lens of its broken promises” (Freeman, Review of Fixer Chao). As John Freeman notes, “The nation invites them in, only to deny them the privileges of comfort in their own skins.” As the novel begins, William Paulinha tells us that in his twenties he worked as a small-time prostitute in the Port Authority Bus Terminal. After that, he drifted from clerical job to job without much drive or success, working as a typist, a telephone receptionist, a mail clerk, and a data entry clerk. Except for the clerical positions, the jobs in which William has found himself are directly linked to his identity as an Asian man in a predominantly white society. He is chosen by Shem to be a feng shui expert because of his Asian features. Shem thinks that he is Chinese, even though William is Filipino. In his younger days at the Port Authority Bus Terminal, race also played a part in his career. He had to “compete with frisky Puerto Ricans and athletic black boys for a cut of the overweight white businessman business” (Fixer Chao, 12). His typical client was a “portly white gentleman, with a bald spot in the middle of his head […] on [his] way home to the suburbs” (12). Young Asian, Latino, and African American boys serve to boost the egos of these businessmen and enable them to reassert their position of dominance in American society. As William says,
They’ve had disastrous days and want to take out their frustration on someone. I’m perfect, a skinny colored kid, almost like the ones they see a lot of nowadays on TV, except shabbier. They’re witnessing their time in the spotlight stolen by a whole crew of new, mystifying faces. Or so they think. And they want somebody to pay, be humiliated, physically put under them like restoring their natural position in the world. (12)
For these white businessmen, these young colored boys function as abject others, those who are like themselves but have to be expelled. Abject figures are abhorred, yet they remain desirable. Julia Kristeva’s definition of the abject includes those objects, persons, things that have to be ejected or excluded, “what disturbs identity, system, order. What (p.14) does not respect borders, positions, rules. The in-between, the ambiguous, the composite” (Powers of Horror, 4). Because he is gay and Asian, William is doubly abjected and othered by his race and gender. His bodily differences function to reassure the white businessman of what the white male subject is not.
As David Leiwei Li argues, Asian Americans in the last half of the twentieth century, though no longer excluded by law, were still perceived as not “competent enough to enjoy the subject status of citizens in a registered and recognized participation of American democracy” (Imagining the Nation, 6). Li notes, “The law cannot—even if it is willing to try—possibly adjudicate the psychocultural aspects of subject constitution; neither can it undo the historically saturated epistemological structures, and structures of feeling, which continue to undermine the claims of Asian American subjectivity” (11). In Roley’s American Son and Ong’s Fixer Chao we see the repercussions of this inside/outside position on Filipino Americans who are “formal nationals and cultural aliens” (Li, Imagining the Nation, 12). Though as immigrants they are ostensibly part of American society, there are many reminders of their status as subcitizens. These sometimes overt, sometimes subtle, repeated racist incidents and reminders of their otherness cause them to respond with violence and misdirected aggression to those around them.
As Master Chao, the feng shui expert, William uses what little knowledge he has of mystical harmony to help his clients. However, the first house he decides to deliberately sabotage is that of Cardie Kerchpoff, a woman who complains endlessly about her Indian nanny at a party. Cardie states that “Third Worlders” do not understand “American nuances or Western nuances,” and she believes that her domestics should just take what she says as “divine truth” because they live in her house, where she has “sovereign rights” (Fixer Chao, 102). In the conversation someone suggests that she should get “a Filipino. They make the best servants” (103). This comment enrages William so much that he cannot help repeating it in his mind as he is fixing her house, and he cannot help adding, “Why? […] Because they [Filipinos] kneel by instinct and bend over like clockwork” (104). He then proceeds to “do everything wrong” (104) in Cardie’s house so that harm will befall the arrogant woman. This damaging set of actions starts a series of others that escalate into more serious acts of violence. Even though his reputation as a feng shui master earns William money, fame, and invitations to wealthy (p.15) people’s homes, he often identifies with the maids, doormen, and houseboys of the homes rather than with their white owners. He calls the doormen at the homes of rich people his “peers” (269). At one award ceremony he noticed that “the doorman of that building kept regarding me quizzically, not certain why I wasn’t carrying the Chinese food he was sure I’d come to deliver” (197). Like the adolescents in Roley’s novel, he becomes disillusioned with a society that still bases its expectations and values on one’s appearance, one’s race and ethnicity, while claiming to be open and democratic.
What is significant about the way Ong deploys criticism of globalization and global capitalism is that he does not just look at the way transnational labor and people figure in the United States but also gives a wry and humorous view of the way culture from the Third World has been received, marketed, and commodified. In Fixer Chao the clients easiest to dupe are those, like Lindsay S., a poet, who are Orientalists. Lindsay loves Oriental art and has a collection of beautiful Chinese scrolls, “teapots and teacups, Japanese swords, calligraphic ink sets, […] hundreds of Buddhas of dazzling variety” (71). Lindsay believes that the “Chinese and the Japanese” have the “two greatest cultures in the world” (79). His appreciation of these cultures is shown mainly through the acquisition of objects and commodities from the East. The East has become a large marketplace for people like Lindsay, a shopping paradise he uses in order to enhance his own stature as consumer and collector. Hence, he willingly buys the services of Master Chao, who is supposed to bring him the gift of Eastern harmony in his life.
Just as William’s young Asian body made him a suitable object of sexual desire for white businessmen at the Port Authority Bus Terminal, his seemingly asexual Asian masculine body now makes him an ideal feng shui master. Hsuan Hsu notes that William is adept at mim-icry, and it enables him “to mock people preemptively before they can mock his poverty, his ethnic difference, his homosexuality” (“Mimicry, Spatial Captation, and Feng Shui in Han Ong’s Fixer Chao,” 680). In order to play his role as counselor, he has been made over with the help of Shem. William has a “handsome and conservative” (Fixer Chao, 63) haircut, wears “kung fu shoes” (97), and in a fake magazine article about him looks “Chinese […] mysterious, gifted with powers” (87). He pretends to be “offhand, serene, gifted” (86), qualities that are often ascribed to inscrutable but clever Asians. Significantly, now that he (p.16) presents himself as a feng shui master, his queer sexuality is no longer visible to the rich New Yorkers. Instead he successfully mimics the handsome poses of pop stars, “whose aura was white rather than black, sexless and filled with wisdom” (87). Significantly, here Ong points out the links among sexuality, race, and economic status. While working as a homosexual prostitute, William saw himself as a “colored” kid, aligning himself with Latinos and African Americans. But in his upwardly mobile shift to membership in the Manhattan elite, he affiliates himself with whites and, at the same time, becomes “sexless.” Asian American queer sexuality disappears after the first third of the book, which is indicative of the way asexuality is still so easily written onto respectable Asian male bodies.
For people in developing countries, globalization and transnational trade have also created a skewed version of the West as a place of unlimited wealth, material goods, and promise. At one of the rare moments when William recollects his past, he tells his Filipino friend Preciosa that he came to America with his parents, who “wanted a better life” (262). The images of this “better life” were full of luxury items, “wall-to-wall carpeting,” brand names like “General Electric, Sunbeam, Hoover, Proctor-Silex, Pfizer, Zenith” (263). He thinks, “They were all a shorthand for beauty, for quality, things that wouldn’t break—as our appliances often did. That, for the longest time, had been my family’s going definition of a better life: to own things that took a while to malfunction” (263). This dream, tied as it was to U.S. brand names, provides a telling comment on the global impact of American culture. People in the Third World are bombarded by American media and advertising so much that their desires are structured around these products. Hence, the worship of America and American consumer culture starts before one even enters America. Ironically, these products are now manufactured through transnational labor, so what William’s family has long coveted is very likely produced using cheap laborers from his own country and from other countries in Asia and Mexico.
William’s ten years in America have made him only too aware of the foolishness of those early dreams. In the bathroom of the Port Authority, “There had been a hyperactive automatic hand dryer which was a Proctor-Silex” (263). Recalling his family’s reverence for the brand names before they came to America, William thinks he has finally understood the hidden meaning of Proctor-Silex, “as a shorthand for all the (p.17) changes that are bound to happen in the process from wanting to get there to finally getting there, the process from dreaming the dream to eventually getting it—or some would say, killing it” (263). Wall-to-wall carpeting and the brand names do abound in America, but William and other Filipino Americans discover that they do not necessarily have the means to “walk on softness, coolness” (263), as they expected. Instead they find themselves cast as those who are expected to clean and maintain them for others to enjoy.
Desire and Women’s Bodies
Another Filipino character, William’s friend Preciosa, experiences a similar trajectory of disillusionment in America. Preciosa had aspirations of becoming an actress, and she never tires of seeing Barbara Stanwyck and Bette Davis when she goes to the movies.7 When Preciosa does land a job as an actress at Lincoln Center in New York, it is for a play called Primitives, in which she appears, along with other dark-skinned men and women, wearing only a loincloth (42). Instead of being a sultry, beautiful actress like Stanwyck or Davis, Preciosa is cast in a play about white missionaries going to Central America. In the play Preciosa and the other “natives” only get to grunt and mumble gibberish. Her humiliation deepens when some of her Filipino friends come to see the play, witnessing her nakedness and loss of dignity. As the narrator says, for those in the audience, she is “as good as what the title of the damn thing had promised them: a primitive!” (313). In the penultimate scene, in which she is supposed to be possessed by a pagan demon, the audience and her co-actors mistake her anger for a convincing performance. Though not central to the main plot, Preciosa’s story encapsulates many of the issues I have been raising regarding transmigrants. Like the dreams of Tomas and Gabe’s family in Roley’s novel and like those of William, Preciosa’s dreams of a “better life” do not materialize in America. She succeeds only in occupations in which the dominant culture in America expects her to be good. Here she is cast in an undifferentiated pool of “native” women, easily passing for a primitive of Central America because to most white Americans, all dark-skinned people look almost the same.
Preciosa’s history presents an important critique of the way the bodies of poor Filipina women are used both in their own country and globally. (p.18) Sent from the provinces to Manila to work as a maid in a Chinese household, she fell into the life of a prostitute for a while. After her escape from the brothel, she became a mail-order bride, from the writers of all the letters sent to her choosing to marry an old American man from Texas. Although he was kind to her and she found her feelings toward him growing tender, she remembers having to kiss his “frog face with its wrinkly, perpetually sweaty skin dotted with all those carbuncles” (311). When she had to gratify his sexual appetites, “Preciosa all the while thought of the dark blue cover of her new passport, thought of the Philippines as of a dilapidated building on the wrong side of town passed by without a second glance from a dark-windowed, air-conditioned car. […] Even if the sex was disgusting, it was still sex in Texas, U.S.A.” (311). The U.S. passport functions as the imaginary object of desire. Though globalization gives Preciosa a better set of living conditions, it still means sexual servitude, this time in the United States instead of in the Philippines. Her youth and beauty are the only commodities that she can use, and the passport becomes her way of escaping the Philippines and obtaining residency in America.
Immigration, however, does not necessarily mean a settled life in the States. After her husband’s death, Preciosa finds herself moving from one low-paying job to another. She thinks of some of the dreary roles open to her as a Filipina: “frumpy nannies, matronly aides pushing wheelchair-bound wards on the streets, and nurses with the faces of servile dogs” (312). Her whole life in America is characterized by dislocation and displacement, because she never becomes fully integrated into the communities in which she finds herself. William remarks about her apartment:
Even while Preciosa had lived there, it had already had an air of vacancy, of transiency about it, an air that I now realized was a transfer from its owner, who, even before she had revealed the story of her peripatetic life, had already had the look of someone who would make of her present address a somewhere else, another in a long line of somewhere elses like the country she’d just vacated to get here, on and on as if carrying out the directive of some deficiency encoded into her genes, a hunger, some basic discontent. This, being one more definition of immigrant—torn between the competing pulls of the fiction of the promised land, on the one hand, and the fiction of the sustaining mother country, on the other. (325–26)
(p.19) This transiency characterizes Preciosa’s life, as it does William’s and those of many other global migrants. To go back home, however, seems unthinkable. As William puts it, “returning to the Philippines […] seemed like an admission of defeat. Could you imagine the glee of relatives who would point you out in family gatherings, then launch into a story about going to live in the fabled United States only to crawl back with your tail between your legs—kicked out, in effect?” (308).
Underemployed in the United States, but too ashamed to go back home, these Filipino Americans remain in the place of in-betweenness and transmigrancy, always living in a state of nonbelonging even though they emigrated years ago.
In the novels discussed here, Roley and Ong reveal the many ways in which globalization affects Filipino Americans economically, culturally, and psychically. The new “borderless” world has produced uneven results for workers and for those who own and manage corporations. For those laborers from sending countries who leave their homes in search of a “better life,” acceptance in the receiving countries has been mixed or half-hearted. The 1.5-generation children who grow up in these situations often resort to violence, fraud, and trickery in order to validate their sense of self, to gain acceptance into the dominant culture, and to obtain what they perceive to be the rewards of those who pursue the American dream. It is not surprising that at the end of both these novels the heroes are outlaws and exiles from society, distanced from their families. The children of this 1.5 generation, though burdened with the guilt and the ideological teachings of their parents, are unable to bear the hardships, the suffering, the humiliation of the first generation of Filipino immigrants. Unlike their parents, they want the fulfillment of the American dream of wealth and success, and they want it now. These novels by Roley and Ong show some of the desperate measures taken by these youths with thwarted dreams. Their Bildungen do not conclude in a state of epiphany, but, like their lives, are choppy, episodic, and nightmarish. Instead of finding happiness through acceptance and assimilation, they have, at best, only managed to survive the “rough draft” that has been their life (Fixer Chao, 377).
(1.) “From the Imperial Family to the Transnational Imaginary,” 147)
(2.) Another novel that deals with these problems is Bino Realuyo’s The Umbrella Country, which I studied in The Politics of the Visible in Asian North American Narratives. Unlike Roley and Ong’s works, Realuyo’s is set in the Philippines. See chapter 9 of my book.
(3.) Sarita See, Introduction to The Decolonized Eye.
(4.) Cholo“Deconstructing Deviance,” 126).
(5.) My comparison of Asian and Chicano bodies is based on cultural perceptions of them. In Racial Castration David Eng analyzes the ways in which the “Asian American male is both materially and psychically feminized within the context of a larger As arger U.S. cultural imaginary” (1). Hurtado, Gurin, and Peng note that first-generation Mexican immigrants “have to deal with stereotypes of the majority culture about them as manual labourers and about menial labor as ‘Mexican work’” (“Social Identities,” 264).
(6.) Hsuan Hsu, “Mimicry, Spatial Captation, and Feng Shui in Han Ong’s Fixer Chao.”
(7.) Preciosa’s fascination with the films of this period is similar to that of (p.146) the Filipino American protagonist in Bienvenido Santos’s The Man Who (Thought He) Looked like Robert Taylor. See my article that deals with the negative effects of Hollywood on the Filipino subject (“A Filipino Prufrock in an Alien Land”).