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Disability Studies and Asian American Literaturelocked

  • Kristina ChewKristina ChewRutgers University


Twenty-first-century understandings of how disability figures in Asian American literature and the representation of Asian American individuals have greatly evolved. Earlier, highly pejorative characterizations associated with the 19th-century “Oriental” or “yellow peril” as a carrier of disease whose body needed to be quarantined and excluded. Later, the model minority myth typecast Asian Americans as having extreme intellectual abilities to the point of freakishness. Disability studies asserts that having an “imperfect” disabled body is nothing to hide and questions beliefs in norms of behavior and experience. Focusing on disability in Asian American literature opens a new path to reflect on Asian American identity and experience in ways that break away from the racial types and narrative trajectories of immigrant success that have often been seen as defining what it is to be Asian American. Integrating a disability studies perspective into Asian American studies provides a compelling and necessary means of critiquing stereotypes such as the model minority myth, as well as to reread many classic texts of Asian American literature with attentiveness to difference, impairment, and loss.

Disability studies focuses on the broken, the incomplete, the bizarre, the imperfect, and on bodies and experiences that are not “normal” because they do not meet societal norms of economic, educational, and cultural achievement. Acquiring a college degree, a well-paying job, and attendant material comforts—not to mention a rise in social status—are all stereotypical measures of immigrant success. But the prioritization of these has meant that Asian American accounts of disability, of limitations resulting from such a condition, and of failure have been overlooked. Disability studies examines the full spectrum of human difference, whether physical and somatic as a result of a congenital condition or due to an injury from an accident: whether potentially invisible when a condition is psychological and mental (bipolar disorder), or whether intellectual and cognitive (autism, Down syndrome). Disability studies understands these varying manifestations of human difference not as abnormal or deviations from a standard but rather as constituting what makes us human. Integrating a disability studies perspective into Asian American studies enables a rereading of Asian American literature that can incorporate a broader range of experience.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Asian American bodies were seen as different due to racial characteristics such as hair, eyes, and skin. That they might also have appeared (to white Americans) as weak, diseased, and potentially contagious is entwined in their representation in this period and even legally inscribed in the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, a section of which prohibited immigration on the basis of physical and intellectual disability.1 With the rise in Asian immigration to the United States after 1965 and the presumed integration of Asian immigrants and their American-born descendants into American society, the direct association of Asian origin and disease has somewhat dissipated. Yet this legacy persists in a series of changing stereotypes as witnessed in public health concerns about the SARS coronavirus or “bird flu” in 2003 and the continued association of urban Chinatowns and their residents with poor hygiene. Claims of Asian Americans as comprising a “model minority” whose educational, economic, and social success calls for admiration and emulation at first seem to break away from the pairing of Asians with invasive, foreign, and undesirable characteristics. But on further exploration, the myth of the model minority, with its expectations of superlative performance from Asian Americans, recasts the association of Asians with abnormal bodies.2 To be Asian is to be extremely intelligent, to be “all brain and no brawn”—weak and physically un-able—or even to be as freakish as Chang and Eng Bunker.3

The end of the 20th and the beginning of the 21st century are witnessing a very different assertion of disability and Asian American identity. The provocatively titled essay “You’re Short, Besides!” by Sucheng Chan appeared in 1989 in Making Waves: An Anthology of Writings by and About Asian American Women. Lois-Ann Yamanaka, the parent of an autistic son, raises questions of language, intelligibility, and translation in her use of pidgin, while authors who entered the United States as refugees in the latter half of the 20th century as a result of wars waged by America in countries such as Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Myanmar, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and the Philippines emphasize the lasting effects of wartime trauma.4 More and more, Asian Americans who self-identify as disabled, even nonverbal, have written about their disability as interwoven with who they are.5 Disability and illness, both originally associated with Asian American subjects as stigmatizing characteristics, are being reclaimed as an integral part of the Asian American experience. Yes, Asian bodies are different. But this difference should not lead to stigmatization and shame. Rather, this understanding requires a rethinking of categories of ability and well-being and to seeing disability as difference. In his introduction to a 2013 issue of Amerasia Journal on the state of illness and disability in Asian America, James Kyung-Jin Lee underscores that

using a Disabilities Studies rubric as a point of departure reveals the ablest presumptions that often undergird the way we think about identity, be it general or in an Asian American context, because doing so demystifies how the healthy body is but a normative construct and not the reality for bodies that are inevitably impermanent, incomplete, and vulnerable.6

Reading Asian American texts from the perspective of disability studies, which understands disability as socially and historically constructed and calls into question the very notion of a “normal” body—and with Asian American studies’ history of political advocacy and activism in mind—can reconfigure and revitalize what it means to be Asian American.7

Disability studies strives to revise and disrupt received ideas of what it means to be disabled by examining disability in society, culture, and forms of cultural production including (but far from restricted to) literary texts. Just as the study of the history and 21st-century realities of Asian Americans calls for reading legal documents such as the Chinese Exclusion Act and Executive Order 9066, which called for the removal of “enemy aliens”—Japanese Americans—to internment camps, so definitions of disability in laws such as the Americans with Disability Act and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act must be addressed. These legal texts must be read and interpreted not simply to understand the ideas of what it means to be disabled and unable to work or be educated with particular supports and services: These laws have a direct and concrete impact on the lives of Asian Americans, especially with issues of language, translation, and cultural (mis)understanding.8 One can be physically disabled due to a congenital disease or also as the result of an accident. One can be genetically predisposed to posttraumatic stress disorder, bipolar disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, depression, and other psychological conditions defined in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders but not present symptoms sufficiently to receive a medical diagnosis. Because there are no physical characteristics associated with many of these conditions and because cultural stigma, shame and silence often prevent talking about them, psychological illnesses can go undiagnosed, only to resurface in unanticipated forms.9

Asthenia: The Construction of the Disabled Asian Body

Ancient Greek and Roman historical, ethnographic, and medical texts associated Eastern bodies with weakness and sickness. The association of Asians with weakness and a lack of strength is captured in the medical term asthenia, which literally means a “condition (-ia) a lack (a-) of strength (sthen-).” Weakness is defined in opposition to strength, just as, in some Ancient Greek historical and medical texts, cultures in the East are described in ways that underscore their contrasting differences with Greeks and other cultures in what is today Europe. These accounts include historical texts about the ancient Athenian encounters with those who were barbaroi, an ancient Greek word meaning “not speaking Greek, foreign.”

The 5th-century bce Herodotus’s Histories narrate the causes and events of the Persian Wars (499–449 bce) in which the allied city states in Greece including Athens and Sparta joined against the invading Persians, first under Darius (522–486 bce) and then under Xerxes (486–465 bce). A subject of the Persian Empire from the city of Halicarnassus in Caria (in what is now southwestern Turkey), Herodotus wrote in Greek. His Histories show a preference for the Greeks with their democratic political system and values of freedom and isonomia (“equality of law).10 He depicts the Persian government as a despotic monarchy: one that, especially in Xerxes’s preparations to invade the Greek mainland by building a bridge of boats over the Hellespont in Book 7 of his Histories, is shown to engage in extremes of belief and behavior that lead to its defeat by the Greeks.11 In contrast to the Persians, whose army includes slaves and soldiers from societies subjugated by the mighty empire, the Greeks put aside their past rivalries and differences (of language, political systems, customs) to join together against a common enemy.

Herodotus’s recounting of the Persians’ subjugation of other societies leads him to provide ethnographic descriptions of the customs of other groups, such as the Lydians, the Spartans, the Egyptians, the Scythians, and the Libyans; for each, he connects different physical characteristics to the geographic regions they live in. The Scythians are said to live far to the north of the Mediterranean and the Libyans far to the south; these extreme locations result in, according to Herodotus, the extreme characteristics of their inhabitants.12 The implicit theory of environment and climate determining physical constitutions as well as mental capacities that emerges in the Histories is also seen in the writings of the 5th-century bce Greek medical writer Hippocrates. As he writes in Airs, Waters, Places,

The small variations of climate to which the Asiatics are subject, extremes both of heat and cold being avoided, account for their mental flabbiness and cowardice as well. They are less warlike than Europeans and tamer of spirit, for they are not subject to those physical changes and the mental stimulation which sharpens tempers and induces recklessness and hot-headedness. . . . Such things appear to me to be the cause of the feebleness of the Asiatic race but a contributory cause lies in their customs; for the great part is under monarchical rule.13

In both Herodotus’s and Hippocrates’s texts, the Greeks are depicted as living in the middle of the world and so are shown to be balanced in their physical constitutions and temperaments. This balance extends to their oligarchical and, especially, democratic political systems in which citizens are “equal under the law” according to the concept of isonomia. The Greeks’ armies are composed not of slaves and members of states subject to the Great King of Persia, but of citizens.

Thus, Herodotus’s Histories portray the Persian Wars as a struggle between the Greeks’ freedom and the despotism of the Persians. Even when, in the third book of the Histories, the Persians have an opportunity to change their government to one in which political authority is dispersed among citizens, they are persuaded to choose their ancient form of government: a monarchy. Their preference for a monarchical system over a democratic one is interpreted as another sign of their “weaker” physiques and that the Persians would rather be passively ruled than rule themselves.14 Fifth-century dramatist Aeschylus writes his tragedy, Persians (produced in 472 bce)—unusual in its historical rather than mythic subject matter—to present the Persians’ weaker constitutions as the reason for their defeat in the Battle of Salamis by the Greeks who are “no one’s slaves or at anyone’s beck and call.”15 A description of Persian prisoners by 4th-century bce general Xenophon, given in his account of the Greek general Agesilaos, explicitly refers to the naked “barbarians” as “fat and lazy from always riding in litters,” such that the Greeks “concluded that fighting a war with them would be little different from fighting against women.”16 The habits of the captured men from the East, who ride in litters rather than march afoot, are seen as contributing to an anemic state that emasculates and feminizes them. In view of ancient views of women as inferior—as asserted by, for instance, the philosopher Aristotle in the first book of the Politics and in some of his political and scientific writings—the captured “barbarian” soldiers are not only far from able but stripped, too, of their masculinity and even of their humanness.

Yellow Peril: Disease, Infection, Miscegenation

A similar connection of disease, disability, and people from Asia surfaces early in the history of Asian immigration to the United States. Asians were characterized as a “yellow peril” who, in the case of Chinese residents of San Francisco, should be quarantined out of misplaced fears of the spread of disease and in derogatory representations of Asian physical characteristics in graphic representations of immigrants.17 To be Asian is to be ill and to have a body that is less (and not) able.

In Orientalism, Edward Said writes that to be from the “Orient” has long been determined by Westerners who specifically define themselves in contrast to the less able bodies, and by extension cultures, of those from the Middle and Far East:

Asia speaks through and by virtue of the European imagination, which is depicted [in Aeschylus’ Persians] as victorious over Asia, that hostile ‘other’ world beyond the seas. To Asia are given the feelings of emptiness, loss, and disaster that seem thereafter to reward Oriental challenges to the West; and also, the lament that in some glorious past Asia fared better.18

One dimension of American orientalism was the fear of the yellow peril, which referred to

possible military invasion from Asia, perceived competition to the white labor force from Asian workers, the alleged moral degeneracy of Asian people, and the potential genetic mixing of Anglo-Saxons with Asians, who were considered a biologically inferior race by some intellectuals of the nineteenth century.19

The yellow peril drew on the racial presumption that “Orientals” have sickly bodies and are potential carriers of infection, so an “invasion” by them must be stopped to save not only physical but also moral health. Depictions of Chinatowns as seething with primarily male Asian inhabitants in filthy, crime-ridden quarters that fostered gambling and drug use appear in texts by American authors in the mid-19th century through the post–World War II period.20 Yellow peril arose “where the Chinese in particular, and later other Asians in general, were viewed as a blight, a cancer, or an infection on White American social and labor scenes.”21 Inhabitants of Chinatown were feared to be hosts of plague. When a Chinese immigrant, Chick Gin, was incorrectly thought to have died from bubonic plague in San Francisco’s Chinatown, officials considered a quarantine.22 Contact with Asians and even with an object touched by an Asian individual is feared as a source of contagion. In a 1914 story by Hazel Havermale, “The Canton Shawl,” a Spanish woman in America, Dolores de Valle, is made ill by a shawl that once belonged to a concubine in Canton; the disease is transmitted by the white American protagonist, John Sargent, who had traveled there. Sargent had been “once captivated emotionally by China” and this, as Havermale’s story suggests, makes him as much a carrier of a fatal disease as the infected shawl.23

The perceived threat of yellow peril connected the physical appearance of Chinese immigrants to diseases such as jaundice (in which excessive amounts of bilirubin in the blood cast a yellowish tint to a person’s skin) and the putrefaction of an infected wound. Fears of the yellow peril resulted in the exclusion laws and other attempts to control and contain Asian bodies, which continued through the 20th century in policies of quarantining newly arrived Chinese immigrants on Angel Island. To be “legal” became equated with health: Chinese immigrants, including the author’s paternal grandmother, Lee Chew, were inspected for diseases including parasitic worms, the presence of which could lead to deportation.24

Given the association of physical and moral weakness with Asian immigrants, it is ironic that the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, the first federal law that called for the exclusion of individuals from a particular ethnic group, prohibited Chinese immigration on the grounds that this “endangers the good order of certain localities” by excluding “skilled and unskilled laborers and Chinese employed in mining.” Chinese workers, many of whom had worked to build the Transcontinental Railroad, were singled out as too able. The 1892 Geary Act reinforced this view by extending the 1882 Exclusion Act for ten years. Permanently extended in 1902, the Geary Act also required Chinese residents to acquire a certificate of residence without which they could be deported.25

The Immigration Act of 1924 (or Johnson–Reed Act) established quotas on the number of immigrants from any country with a view “to preserve the ideal of American homogeneity.” The number of immigrants who could enter the United States per year was limited to 2 percent of the number of individuals from each country residing in the United States. As Cathy J. Schlund-Vials and Cynthia Wu write, the 1924 act, under “Steamship Fines under 1917 Act.; Sec. 26. Section 9 of the Immigration Act of 1917,” also made it unlawful for the entry of “any alien afflicted with idiocy, insanity, imbecility, feeble-mindedness, epilepsy, constitutional psychopathic inferiority, chronic alcoholism, tuberculosis in any form, or a loathsome or dangerous contagious disease.”26

In addition to restricting numbers of immigrants, individuals who were disabled and diseased and unable to perform certain cognitive skills—reading—were denied entry. The exclusion of Asian immigrants and individuals with disabilities implies that Asians, and other excluded foreign immigrants, were believed to lack the physical and the intellectual resources to sanction their entry into the United States. Cathy Schlund-Vials and Cynthia Wu describe how the 1924 law’s limits on immigrants reflect beliefs (also expressed in Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf) in racial purity by equating whiteness with possessing superior physiques and physical constitutions in contrast to potentially sickly mixed-race children.27 Antimiscegenation laws in Arizona, California, Georgia, Idaho, Maryland, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, Oregon, South Carolina, South Dakota, Texas, Utah, Virginia, and Wyoming banned marriage between whites and Asians until, in some states, as late as 1967.28

Disability and the Model Minority Myth

The notion that Asian bodies were intrinsically physically inferior was concurrent with the belief that, for all their weakness, Asians were possessed of formidable intellectual powers. Between 1850 and 1940, stereotypes about Chinese Americans as “inscrutable, wildly excitable, of low intelligence, and of high and complex intelligence” can be seen in works of fiction by white authors such as Bret Harte, Joaquin Miller, and Ambrose Bierce. At the same time, Chinese Americans could also be depicted as the opposite, as cunning and clever, so that they were seen as posing a double threat to white Americans. Harte’s 1898 story “See Yup” takes its title from the dialect of immigrants from Toisan (Taishan) District in Guangdong Province, where most early Chinese immigrants to the United States emigrated from. Laundry worker See Yup is described as (despite the “apparent cleanliness and freshman” of his clothing) as having “that singular medicated odor—half opium, half ginger—which were recognized as the common ‘Chinese smell.’”29 See Yup turns out also to be a master of disguise and deception; he evades his taxes and purveys dubious Chinese medicines to miners with indigestion. The immigrant laundry man has, Harte’s story suggests, a few too many faces.

The singling out of Chinese characters as intelligent, though suspect, is an early harbinger of the “model minority myth.” Though this term was coined later in the 20th century, attempts to rehabilitate the image of the Chinese immigrant (e.g., as an attractive subject of religious conversion) occurred in both 19th- and early-20th-century writing. Writing about herself in the third person in a preface to her short novel You-Sing: The Chinaman in California: A True Story of the Sacramento Flood (1868), Margaret Hosmer’s stated intent is “to present a picture of white Americans in order to further missionary efforts to convert Chinese Americans.”30 Chinese immigrants may be “heathen” but, it is suggested, their innate mental capacities can be directed to a good end (i.e., Christianity). The potential danger posed by overintelligent foreigners is encapsulated in the figure of the “evil genius” Fu Manchu whose excessive intellect is his most lethal power. His English creator, Sax Rohmer, writes that he embodies “all the cruel cunning of an entire Eastern race, accumulated in one giant intellect, which all the resources, if you will, of a wealthy government which however, already has denied all knowledge of his existence.”31 Fu’s obverse counterpart is the overly deferential detective Charlie Chan, whose intelligence—just like that of potential Chinese converts to Christianity—is domesticated to aid civilized society. Earl Biggers created Chan as a corrective to the wicked Fu and as an antidote to the ills of the West. In Biggers’s books, Chan’s “Eastern selfless contentment” and “serene acceptance of enigmatic life” were crafted in opposition to “Western ambition, curiosity, materialism and gadgetry, sick rush and discontent.”32 The many popular films about the detective made in the 1930s and 1940s featured white actors in yellowface as Chan, whose crime-solving sagacity was routinely portrayed through his utterance of aphoristic snippets.

Chan’s morality, excessive politeness and subservience, minimal but wisdom-laden speech, and extreme intelligence foreshadow the post-1960s image of Asian Americans as the model minority. Singling out Asian Americans as “exemplary” and an “exceptional” ethnic group in contrast and, even more, in opposition to “non-model minorities” (in particular, African Americans and Latina/os) denigrated the latter while also pathologizing Asian Americans. The characteristic of intelligence, of an ability to learn, was transmuted into a feature that rendered Asian Americans freakishly different and at odds with others who were not members of the dominant culture: being the “good” minority, they were thought to be morally superior to individuals of other “bad” ethnicities and races. By attributing Asian Americans’ educational and economic success to their supposed extreme intelligence, the model minority myth legitimized a narrative of distinctly Asian immigrant success in which a penniless immigrant, thanks to hard work, self-sacrifice, and a minimum of complaints, struck gold in America and achieved the trifecta of economic stability, material prosperity, and the crowning glory: children, grandchildren, and a line of future descendants who would all earn a college degree, at least.

Amy Chua’s 2010 memoir Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother epitomizes the extent to which an Asian American writer has normalized and even commodified the model minority myth. The author’s intense focus on the intelligence and musical, academic, and other successes of her two daughters reveals the conflicts disability poses to an equation of Asian American identity with model minority norms. Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother has become notorious for the author’s stories about her over-the-top parenting strategies that involved threatening to give away one daughter’s stuffed animals to the Salvation Army and to burn another’s when they were not practicing the piano and violin enough. Chua’s descriptions and rationale for her punitive child-rearing style masks two stories of illness and disability, of her fears when her younger sister Katrin is diagnosed with cancer and about her youngest sister Cynthia, who has Down syndrome:

When I was little, my parents had no sympathy for disabled people. In much of Asia, disabilities are seen as shameful, so when my youngest sister Cynthia was born with Down syndrome, my mother initially cried all the time, and some of my relatives encouraged us to send Cindy away to an institution in the Philippines. But my mother was put in touch with special education teachers and other parents of children with disabilities, and soon she was spending hours patiently doing puzzles with Cindy and teaching her to draw. When Cindy started grade school, my mother taught her to read and drilled multiplication tables with her. Today [sic], Cindy holds two International Special Olympics gold medals in swimming.33

As with her daughters, hours of hard work and strong parental discipline are shown to produce a productive, high-achieving adult. If the model minority myth associates being Asian American with exceptional educational, economic, and social ability, Chua emphasizes her sisters’ abilities—Katrin is a cancer researcher at Stanford University and Cynthia plays piano and has won medals in international athletic competition—as defining racial and personal success. Disability lies at the core of Chua’s over-the-top self-presentation as an Asian American driven to desperate ends to secure her daughters’ success. Chua fears a lack of intelligence and intellectual disability—even making sure that the family dog belongs to an intelligent breed.

When Cynthia Chua describes herself in a piece entitled “Who I Am,” she writes about living in a supported living facility, working at Walmart, and participating in an adult day program.34 These are successes that are far from the grandiose ones (performing at Carnegie Hall, admission into Ivy League schools) that Amy Chua fixates on for her daughters. Disability—physical, mental, intellectual—presents a counterpoint to the model minority myth by focusing on not being able according to the assumptions of mainstream society and culture and standards of the normal. To be disabled is not to be “model” and exemplary. Disability means living and being permanently in adversity and requiring accommodations and differentiated, specialized treatment rather than being that one who can function without such things and succeed. To be an Asian American with disabilities is intrinsically to not be what the model-minority myth Asian American is expected to be as assumed by mainstream culture. Recognizing the disabling aspects of the model minority myth opens a space for an expanded examination of Asian American difference, by taking into account texts articulating stories of failure and struggle. These texts’ resolution is not what mainstream society labels as “success” but records achievements due to abilities as understood in a fuller sense.

Diagnosis: Asian in America

In her autobiographical memoir, Leaves from the Mental Portfolio of an Eurasian, Edith Maude Eaton, who was born to a British father and Chinese mother in England in 1865, writes of the racism and prejudices faced by the Chinese in Canada and in the United States and of the additional difficulties she faced as a multiracial woman: “I give my right hand to the Occidentals and my left to the Orientals, hoping that between them they will not utterly destroy the insignificant ‘connecting link.’”35 The second eldest daughter in a family with fourteen children and stringent economic circumstances, Eaton started contributing to her “very poor” family’s income while still young, selling her father’s paintings and her own lace work door to door and working as a stenographer.36 Despite suffering recurring bouts of rheumatic fever (possibly leading to her having an enlarged heart), Eaton was nonetheless able to work on both coasts of the United States while working and writing as a freelancer for local newspapers from 1898 to 1909 before returning to Montreal due to her declining health. Eaton understood her mixed blood as playing the defining role in the difficulties of her life. Monica Elizabeth Chiu writes,

Her life of suffering and sorrow attested to the pathology inherent in ideological narratives that spoke to and for the immigrant Eaton bore the disease of her Asian “condition” while her society instigated a perilous yellow scourge through the in-validation of certain racialized members of its diversified communities.37

Being Asian in a white society amounts to a disabling condition for Eaton and for other Asian American and Asian Canadian writers. For this reason, disability and illness (in particular, mental illness, ranging from depression to attempted suicide to schizophrenia) are often represented as externally occurring and imposed on Asian immigrants by external forces, from mainstream society to international wars.

In particular, the conflicts that arise for American-born subjects from the pressures of Asian cultural norms can generate illness and suffering. In Hisaye Yamamoto’s short story, “The Legend of Miss Sasagawara,” the eponymous character is mentally ill both because of internal and external causes. Imprisoned in an internment camp, Miss Sasagawara, a ballet dancer, has her illness and needs denied by her Buddhist priest father. For Miss Sasagawara, disability is determined by American wartime hysteria, by her race and ethnicity, and by her gender.38

The effort to become healthy can make the Asian American subject ill due to the clash of competing cultural demands. As Chiu observes, Asian American women writers in particular use metaphors of illness “to raise questions about who gets ill and why.”39 In the first sentence of Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior (1976), the narrator is told, “Don’t tell.” Asian American female protagonists find that speaking out can create problems even as it serves as a way to rebel against patriarchal norms and ethnic stereotypes.40 Chiu writes of Fourth Jane, the protagonist of Chuang Hua’s novel Crossings, that she “is undeniably loved by Dyadya despite his protective limitations” yet this attention “contributes to his daughter’s illness as well as to any perceived recovery.”41 Rebelling against an oppressive but caring father is both a remedy and a source of sickness. For the Asian American subject, the attempt to become healthy can be as problematic and disabling as one’s initial, conflicted state.

Silence and Nonnative Speakers

The putative incomprehensibility of Asian languages to most white Americans, both in its sounds and also its nonalphabetic writing system, can present Asian Americans as having a language and speech disability when in fact they do not. Speakers of Asian languages were thought to be deliberately evading comprehensibility and control by mainstream governmental and educational institutions because of their fluency in another language.42 Theresa Hak Kyung Cha’s 1982 Dictee stages the struggle of a nonnative speaker to learn and speak a foreign language, whether English or French, in the introductory section, “Diseuse”: “She mimicks the speaking. That might resemble speech. (Anything at all.) Bared noise, groan, bits torn from words.”43 The otherness of Asian languages can make English seem utterly strange and difficult to learn.

That Asian American characters have difficult relationships with language is sometimes manifested through the struggle to speak at all. This can occur because of actual trauma, as in John Okada’s 1956 novel No-No Boy, which recounts the experience of a Japanese American man who has been imprisoned first in an internment camp and then in prison after refusing to serve in the US military during World War II.44 A self-imposed silence and withdrawal from language also arises in “Song from a Barbarian Flute,” the fifth section of The Woman Warrior, in which the narrator Maxine brutally forces a Chinese American schoolmate to talk and then spends a year isolated in bed.45 In Chang-rae Lee’s Native Speaker, the first-person narrator, Henry Park, works as a corporate spy, an occupation that makes it possible for him constantly to mask his identity. This deliberate (as well as professional) subterfuge can be read as a traumatic response to his Korean American upbringing and the death of his young son from a birthday party accident).46 Naomi, the protagonist of Joy Kogawa’s novels Obasan and Itsuka, only gradually is able to speak about her traumatic childhood experiences of the separation and loss of her mother—who is terribly disfigured in the bombing of Nagasaki—and of sexual abuse by a neighbor.47

Posttraumatic stress disorder resulting from military and political conflicts that have resulted in Asian immigration to the United States not out of choice but by necessity can be seen in a number of Asian American texts. In Hisaye Yamamoto’s “Las Vegas Charley,” a dishwasher in a restaurant in that city, Kazuyuki Matsumoto, gambles away his wages. Flashbacks reveal that he began to gamble after the death of his “picture bride” wife Haru. And we find out he was previously a successful farmer in Southern California who had lost his farm when he and his two sons were sent to an internment camp in Arizona during the war. Kazuyuki’s gambling habit, which causes deep tensions with his family, is the result of the numerous losses he has incurred.48 In Catfish and Mandala: A Two-Wheeled Voyage Through the Landscape and Memory of Vietnam (1989), Andrew X. Pham narrates his journey via bicycle from San Jose, where his family settled after fleeing the Vietnam War, back to Saigon and Hanoi. By intermixing stories of his sibling Chi, whose suicide is mentioned at the start of the book, Pham reveals that returning to Vietnam results in renewed trauma as he finds that he is no longer is at home there.49 Chanrithy Him’s When Broken Glass Floats: Growing Up Under the Khmer Rouge (2000), Loung Ung’s First They Killed My Father: A Daughter of Cambodia Remembers (2000), and Kao Kalia Yang’s The Latehomecomer: A Hmong Family Memoir (2008) are autographical accounts by authors who, like Pham, came to the United States as refugees following US involvement in foreign wars.50 Nora Okja Keller’s novel Comfort Woman is centered on Akiko, a Korean woman who was forced into sexual slavery by the Japanese army and her daughter, Beccah, who is at first ashamed of her mother’s trances and other strange behaviors and slowly learns the source of her mother’s trauma.51

Speaking out occurs as an act of rebellion against an Asian heritage that is simultaneously repressive and supportive and as a challenge to discrimination and racism. Speech, then, is a double-edged sword, providing both cure and the grounds for more distress. But asserting one’s voice is imperative to challenge persistent stereotypes of Asians as silent, nonverbal, nonspeaking and all the more inscrutable.52 At the start of the 21st century, Asian American writers are addressing disability directly by writing about disability that is increasingly their own. This direct assertion of disability can result in the resurfacing of older stereotypes about silence and an inability to speak as an Asian American characteristic: but this also serves to reframe how disability and an “imperfect” body are understood in Asian American writing that recognizes disability as innate rather than an externally rooted phenomenon.

Autobiographical accounts by Asian American and Asian authors diagnosed with autism spectrum disorders have won acclaim as examples of disabled individuals who find their own voice and independently tell their own stories. Tito Rajarshi Mukhopadhyay’s Beyond the Silence and The Mind Tree: A Miraculous Child Breaks the Silence of Autism, Naoki Higashida’s The Reason I Jump: The Inner Voice of a Thirteen-Year-Old Boy with Autism, and Kamran Nazaar’s Send In the Idiots describe their narrators as coming out of silence by learning to express themselves using language and writing.53 Nazaar earned a PhD from Cambridge University and is now employed in the British civil service. Mukhopadhyay is described as having “severe autism” and as minimally verbal; his book describes how he perceives the world in prose and poetry. He is said to have first pointed to letters on a piece of cardboard held by his mother, Soma Mukhopadhyay, and is now also said to type independently.

Mukhopadhay and Higashida are nonverbal, and the reception of their books has made a virtue of their literal silence in ways that echo earlier stereotypes of Asian Americans who say nothing but know much. The “miracle” of Mukhopadhay’s and Higashida’s being able to express themselves recalls the story of Jiddu Krishnamurti (b. 1895–d. 1986). Krishnamurti was considered intellectually disabled due to what is described as his unfocused and “dreamy” disposition and prone to illness, only to be acclaimed as the next “World Teacher” by the Theosophical Society in India at the start of the 20th century. Taken to Europe by a well-known theosophist, Charles Webster Leadbeater, Krishnamurti was acclaimed for the “almost beatific detachment in his demeanor.”54 After breaking away from the Theosophical Society, Krishnamurti moved to Ojai, California, where he began a long career of speaking publicly and writing quasi-philosophical and quasi-religious books about the nature of the mind, meditation, and change in society and in the individual’s psyche with titles such as The First and Last Freedom and Krishnamurti’s Notebook. Krishnamurti, Mukhopadhay, and Higashida, have more than a little in common with the sagelike, “inscrutable” Charlie Chan. Awareness of this orientalist image of Asians is essential in understanding texts such as Mukhopadhay’s and Higashida’s and why it is imperative to interrogate how Asian American disability narratives represent both disability and race and ethnicity.

Disabled, Asian, American

“I think perhaps the disability helped me a bit, because I write very slowly and see words as objects. I’m always trying to look for words inside words. It’s so beautiful to me that the word laughter is inside slaughter,” says poet Ocean Vuong of his being a “terrible student” who struggled to read and to use language.55 Noting that dyslexia may run in his family, Vuong acknowledges his disability as in some ways an aid to his writing and even intrinsic to it. In the poem “Logophobia” (a word meaning “fear of the word”) the speaker finds that “looking through the letters” he has written “on this yellow pad” allow him to see “into the earth / below, the blue blur / of bones,” to see deeply where he had not before. But writing is also associated with violence. A period is “drill[ed]” onto the pad and recalls “the deepest hole, / where the bullet, / after piercing / my father’s back, / has come / to rest.”56 Writing and words are—as the Kingston’s mother’s prohibition of “don’t tell” warns—enabling but also the source of harm and danger to oneself.

Asian Americans are seen as disabled not just because others in the dominant culture perceive them as such. Disability is entwined with racial identity, and vice versa, when disabled Asian Americans do not refrain from asserting—when they speak up—about their own experiences of disability. Stripped of the societally accepted myths about educational, professional, and economic aspiration and success, disabled Asian American subjects confront nothing less or more than their own selfselves. They then interrogate cultural assumptions of accomplishment in ways that affirm both Asian American studies’ and disability studies’ activist roots, in order to “generate an expanded notion of ‘being well’ made possible by alternative formations of social and political community not seeking to transcend the conditions of vulnerability, but instead to transform them”57—to create real changes for Asian Americans with disabilities.

Discussion of the Literature

Studies of disability and Asian American literature have been combined with critical analyses of illness, health, and hybridity to show how a disability studies perspective can, along with other scholarly approaches, reveal the heterogeneity of Asian American identity. A 2013 issue of Amerasia Journal on the “state of illness and disability in Asian American,” guest edited by Jennifer Ho and James Kyung-Jin Lee, puts Asian American studies and disability studies “in dialogue with one another” via critical analyses of Asian American texts, first-person narratives of living with illness and/or a disability, and an examination of the academic disciplines’ roots in the civil rights era and their overlapping critiques of “the multiple constructions of ‘otherness’ and how they reveal often unarticulated social codes.”58 Two general introductions to Asian American literature include articles about illness and disability. James Kyung-Jin Lee’s “Pathography/Illness Narratives” in The Routledge Companion to Asian American Literature and Pacific Island Literature analyzes the “contemporary Asian American impulse to write the self in relation to illness, disability, and woundedness” in texts about these and in texts by Asian American authors who are also medical practitioners. Lee concludes his overview by calling on readers to read Asian American literary texts “again as if for the first time” from the perspective of pathology and illness.59 In The Cambridge Companion to Asian American Literature, Cathy J. Schlund-Vials and Cynthia Wu write about how disability studies can be brought into play with critical mixed-race studies and transracial adoption studies to reconceptualize Asian American identity.60

In its diverse forms (physical, mental, intellectual/cognitive), disability can result from injury or sickness to the body. An individual with a prosthetic limb, or who uses a white cane due to a visual impairment, or who requires a wheelchair, or who is without speech ought not to be discriminated against and stigmatized for his or her difference any more than an Asian American individual due to his or her facial and other physical characteristics. Academic work that sets disability at the center of its analysis calls into question the equation of disability with being ill and unhealthy and rejects the very idea of “cure”—and, in so doing, redefines notions of “success” enshrined in narratives of the immigrant success story. Scholarly works presenting such a critique include Emily Russell’s 2006 article “Locating Cure: Leprosy and Lois-Ann Yamanaka’s Blu’s Hanging,” Jee Hyun Lim’s 2006 article “Cutting the Tongue: Language and the Body in Kingston’s The Woman Warrior,” Cynthia Wu’s 2012 book Chang and Eng Reconnected: The Original Siamese Twins in American Culture, and Kristina Chew’s 2013 essay “Me As a Boy: On Raising an Asian American and Autistic Son.”61 To live as a disabled individual and not to be silent about it—to acknowledge that one’s abilities are inextricably intertwined in one’s having a body that does not cohere with society’s norms—is to assert that one’s identity resides in what are too often misunderstood as limitations. But in fact, these “weaknesses” and “failings” are the basis for abilities that lie at the core of what it means to be Asian American.

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Further Reading

  • Armitstead, Claire. “War Baby: The Amazing Story of Ocean Vuong, Former Refugee and Prize-Winning Poet.” The Guardian, October 3, 2017.
  • Cheung, King-Kok. “‘Don’t Tell’: Imposed Silences in The Color Purple and The Woman Warrior. In Reading the Literatures of Asian America, edited by Shirley Geok-lin Lim and Amy Ling. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1992.
  • Chew, Kristina. “The Disabled Speech of Asian Americans: Silence and Autism in Lois Ann Yamanaka’s Father of the Four Passages.” Disability Studies Quarterly (Special Topic: Autism and the Concept of Neurodiversity) 30, no. 1 (2010).
  • Chew, Kristina. “Me As a Boy: On Raising an Asian American and Autistic Son.” Amerasia Journal 39, no. 1 (2013): 83–87.
  • Chiu, Monica Elizabeth. Illness and Self-Representation in Asian American Literature by Women. PhD diss., Emory University, 1996.
  • Davidson, Michael. “Universal Design: The Work of Disability in an Age of Globalization.” In The Disabilities Studies Reader, 2nd ed., edited by Lennard J. Davis, 117–129. London: Routledge, 2006.
  • Davis, Lennard J. “Constructing Normalcy: The Bell Curve, the Novel, and the Invention of the Disabled Body in the Nineteenth Century.” In The Disabilities Studies Reader, 2nd ed., edited by Lennard J. Davis, 3–16. London: Routledge, 2006.
  • Gale, Robert L.Biggers, Earl Derr (1884–1933), Novelist, Short-Story Writer, and Playwright.” In American National Biography, edited by Susan Ware. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018.
  • Grinker, Roy Richard. Unstrange Minds: Remapping the World of Autism. New York: Basic Books, 2007.
  • Hsu, Hsuan L. “Nineteenth-Century Orientalisms.” In The Cambridge Companion to Asian American Literature, edited by Daniel Y. Kim and Crystal Parikh, 191–201. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015.
  • Kraut, Alan M. Silent Travelers: Germs, Genes and the “Immigrant Menace.” Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995.
  • Lee, James Kyung-Jin. “Illness, Disability and the Beautiful Life.” Amerasia Journal 39, no. 1 (2013): ix–xvii.
  • Lee, James Kyung-Jin. “Pathography/Illness Narratives.” In The Cambridge Companion to Asian American and Pacific Island Literature, edited by Rachel C. Lee, 451–460. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015.
  • Lim, Jee Hyun. “Cutting the Tongue: Language and the Body in Kingston’s The Woman Warrior.” MELUS 31, no. 3 (2006), 49–65.
  • Ling, Amy. “Pioneers and Paradigms: The Eaton Sisters.” In Between Worlds: Women Writers of Chinese Ancestry. New York: Pergamon, 1990.
  • Mullaney, Thomas S. The Chinese Typewriter: A History. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2017.
  • Okihiro, Gary. Y. Margins and Mainstreams: Asians in American History and Culture. Seattle: University of Washington Press. 1994.
  • Parikh, Crystal. “Being Well: The Right to Health in Asian American Literature.” Amerasia Journal 39, no. 1 (2013): 37–45.
  • Russell, Emily Russell. “Locating Cure: Leprosy and Lois-Ann Yamanata’s Blu’s Hanging.” MELUS 31, no. 1 (2006), 53–80.
  • Said, Edward. Orientalism. New York: Random House, 1978.
  • Schlund-Vials, Cathy J., & Cynthia Wu. “Rethinking Embodiment and Hybridity: Mixed-Race, Adoptee, and Disabled Subjectivities.” In The Cambridge Companion to Asian American Literature, edited by Daniel Y. Kim and Crystal Parikh, 197–212. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015.
  • Takaki, Ronald. Strangers from a Different Shore: A History of Asian Americans. Rev. ed. Boston: Little, Brown, 1989.
  • Vernon, Roland. Star In The East: The Invention of A Messiah. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2001.
  • Wu, Cynthia. Chang and Eng Reconnected: The Original Siamese Twins in American Culture. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2012.
  • Wu, William F. The Yellow Peril: Chinese Americans in American Fiction (1850–1940). Hamden, CT: Archon Books, 1982.
  • Xu, Ying. “Edith Maude Eaton (Sui Sin Far).” In Oxford Bibliographies, edited by Jackson R. Bryer, Richard Kopley, and Paul Lauter. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014.
  • Yamamoto, Traise. “Asian American Autobiography/Memoir.” In The Routledge Companion to Asian American and Pacific Islander Literature, edited by Rachel Lee, 379–391. London: Routledge, 2014.