Asian American folklore—it’s both a simple and unwieldy category. It might involve people who trace their ancestry to such far-flung places as China, Pakistan, the Philippines, and Laos, but it could also encompass people not of Asian ancestry whose lives are tied up with Asian American people and culture. What’s more, it comprises a disparate mash-up of behaviors and forms—everything from Hmong reverse appliqués to Korean tacos, Thai new years rituals to customized cars.
Fariha Khan, Margaret Magat, and Juwen Zhang have thought a lot about Asian Americans and their expressive behaviors since their days together at the University of Pennsylvania folklore graduate program. Today their conversations stretch across the far reaches of the United States: Fariha is associate director of Asian American studies at the University of Pennsylvania; Margaret is a cultural resources program manager formerly based in Hawai`i, now in Mountain View, California; and Juwen is associate professor in the Japanese and Chinese studies department of Willamette University in Salem, Oregon.
In their ongoing effort to seek meanings and methodologies of Asian American folklore, they presented a session titled “Asian American Folklore: Crossroads of the Third Culture” at the 2014 American Folklore Society (AFS) meeting. They examined the conceptual framework of diasporic identity and talked about other frameworks and definitions through which Asian American folklore might be understood. Here, they share some of their discussions and debates.
What was your motivation for organizing the session?
FK: We are invested in asking similar questions and thinking through the multiple nuances of Asian American folklore. Our previous individual papers at AFS and a 2012 roundtable discussion were more specific to particular communities—the folklore of Chinese, Filipino, Bangladeshi American communities, for example. More recently and with the forthcoming Journal of American Folklore (JAF) publication, we are working towards a more theoretical framework.
JZ: Our goal is to help frame some theoretical ideas for the study of Asian American folklore as part of American culture and history as well as everyday life. But we do not mean to emphasize the distinctions of Asian American folklore in ways that reinforce existing ethnic stereotypes.
Tell me about the upcoming JAF publication on Asian American folklore.
JZ: The title of the issue, which should come out in 2015, is “New Perspectives on the Studies of Asian American Folklores”—with “folklores” in plural to address the diversity of Asian American culture. The volume includes an introduction, which I wrote; articles by me, Fariha, and Margaret; and an additional one co-authored by Ayeshah Émon and Christine Garlough. With this issue, we want to bring awareness in folkloristics to studying Asian Americans and their folklore. In our articles, we propose some ideas using different fieldwork examples.
What are the frameworks/paradigms that you consider especially useful for organizing your approach to documenting and interpreting Asian American folklore?
FK: Because I now work in an Asian American studies program, my framework is more interdisciplinary. It includes the history of Asian Americans and sociological studies of race. I am interested in who is expressing the Asian American identity and how individuals or communities express it. I think it is also important to consider the ways that we assign an identity based upon race and the subsequent stereotypes. When one is “raced” as Asian American, does this impact how they express/experience Asian American identity?
MM: I find most useful the frame of transnationalism, the idea of Homi Bhabha’s “third space,” and Alan Dundes’ definition of “folk group” as any group whatsoever that shares one common factor. These concepts are also what the recent panel tried to elaborate upon, with the latter definition being expanded by Juwen Zhang with his proposed concept of “folkloric identity,” which I will leave to him to describe.
JZ: The approach that I am theorizing—of “folkloric identity”—expands the study of one tradition beyond a singular “who”—in particular, beyond a rigid “ethnic group” model so that it is truly a study of tradition—but not limited to the study of the practitioners who are first defined by their “ethnic/racial differences.”
Describe how you are considering the concept of “third culture.”
FK: For me the third culture is the theoretical space where individual/community experience, sociopolitical discourses, and folklore intersect. My AFS presentation focused on shifts in ethnic identity formation among South Asian Americans in the decade after 9/11. For my work on South Asians, the third culture is that space where multiple identities, experiences, and memories are negotiated within—and sometimes in response to—the landscape of the United States.
MM: In my AFS presentation, I took the word “boondocks” and explored its history stemming from the Philippine-American war, its literal and metaphorical underpinnings. I described how the boondocks should be seen as a place of resistance, a third space where Filipinos and Filipinas fought for independence. Third space is defined as a site of ambivalence where identities can be contested and performed, enabling the location of knowledge beyond dualisms (Bhabha 1994). Here in the boondocks, in this liminal place, Filipinos attempted to negotiate by fighting for their lives, for the freedom to represent themselves.
JZ: Similarly, I approach the idea of third culture as a frame for exploring the interaction of diverse traditions and the formation of new identities, particularly for new generations with cross-cultural backgrounds. I am wondering about what identity markers there are to differentiate generational identities in contrast to ethnic and cultural ones? I argue that there is an emerging third culture at the crossroads of generation, genealogy, memory, and cultural identity. I am proposing a method of differentiating the core and arbitrary markers.
The East Asia section of AFS was recently renamed “Transnational Asia/Pacific”—presumably reflecting a realignment of affinity among those who focus on Asian communities wherever they may actually live. What’s your take on this?
FK: As a folklorist who focuses on Asian Americans, this is not the most easily understood name for the section. But at the same time, I understand that there is a very strong desire for folklorists working on Asia/Pacific/American topics to be connected.
MM: I pushed for this section name because it was more inclusive of regions that contain populations that identify as Pacific Islanders as well as Asian Americans. I like the “transnational” aspect because it reflects the reality of today’s Asian Americans, who may have migrated from other countries but consider themselves as Americans, or those who work elsewhere around the world but still have America in their imagination and influence.
For instance, in my research on Filipina domestic workers in Italy, I looked at their expressive culture as informed by the Philippines, America, and of course, Italy. Interwoven among these three places are their ideas of other countries where friends and family have migrated to work and how those ideas come back to filter through in Philippine society to be picked up and expanded on in multiple ways and multiple sites, assisted by technology like video conferencing, texting, the Internet, as well as the colonial nostalgia for the American dream and lifestyle.
An interesting discussion following your session revolved around Juwen’s concept of “folkloric identity.” Can you elaborate on this?
JZ:For the JAF special issue, we worked from the traditional concept of “ethnic identity”— defining who Asian Americans are and then looking at their folklore. I am now thinking along a different perspective and with the concept of “folkloric identity.” This concept focuses attention on the continuity of a tradition/folklore practice—that is, where and how a tradition is originated, migrated, absorbed into other traditions while absorbing some other traditions.
Now in the twenty-first century, the fundamental notions of “race” and “ethnicity” in folklore studies need to be re-examined. The way I see it, folklore studies, along with other humanities and social sciences, is at a crossroads: to continue to emphasize the difference of skin color so as to reinforce racial/ethnic differences through the evidences of folklore/folklife by first determining the “racial/ethnic” origin of a group of people and then looking at their traditions; or, to find a new path to completely move away from the current “racial/ethnic” pyramid/paradigm in social and political life so as to study the diverse cultural traditions of human beings by first looking at the continuity of traditions and then looking at the groups that continue and practice such traditions.
MM: I followed with interest how people in the audience questioned how one could analyze Asian American folklore if the old paradigm attached to ethnic identity would be thrown out. They understood the need, yet, like I, wondered how to begin to analyze the cultural practices without identifying the group and not falling back into a static understanding of “ethnicity.”
FK: Because race and ethnic identity are so deeply embedded within our discourse in the United States, it is hard to imagine engaging the dynamics of the folklore of Asian Americans outside of these frames. A major component of ethnic and racial identity is the process of being identified racially or ethnically by others as much as we identify ourselves. And as long as we have the model minority, immigration issues, and Islamophobia, we must utilize the race and ethnic identity frameworks.
I got the sense from the discussion with people at our AFS session that, yes, we all agree that we should move beyond the focus on race, but is this realistic? And honestly I am not sure. I have been thinking about the history of racialization of Asians in the U.S. and the more current racialization of Muslims.
As the term or category “Asian American” encompasses a very diverse set of phenomena and communities—what is its value to your work?
JZ: I am revising my thoughts on this—with consideration for, among other things, the anthropological discussion on culture and multiculturalism, particularly the distinction that Terence Turner makes between “difference multiculturalism” and “critical multiculturalism.”
MM: The cultural experiences and heritage of Asian Americans are rich and diverse. In some ways, I can see the benefits of not falling back on that ethnic studies frameworks automatically, to highlight the cultural practices first before bringing into it who are the people doing the practices. I take it for granted that the value of studying Asian American culture and peoples is crystal clear.
FK: While there are pitfalls when using a broad term such as Asian American, I would argue the value exceeds the issue of generalization. Asian Americans share a history of discrimination and racialization that connects their identities in the U.S. Fear of the immigrant other has linked the experiences of their lives in multiple contexts and such experiences can be placed on a continuum.
For example, in the early 1900s the fear of “Hindoos” and the “Yellow Peril” and the Chinese Exclusion Act defined all Asian Americans. Today the socio-political climate and the War on Terror impacts all immigrant communities of color with surveillance and deportation issues. Race and immigration form part of the discourse and process of identity in the U.S., and if that history is shared then it can be extremely useful to examine the relationships. As folklorists we can work with specific communities or individuals, but we need to place their experiences within a larger frame, a frame that is fluid but links a historical narrative.
Sojin Kim is a curator at the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage.