The lasting effects of 20th century American nationalism on Asian Americans

While watching the assigned film, “Flower Drum Song”, the cost for the Asian immigrants to assimilate into American culture is made clear. This realization that it was crucial for Asian immigrants to gain citizenship in America after WWI and WWII sparked an interest in me about the discourse of being an American and how it has affected Asian Americans. In this post I will discuss what it meant to be an Asian American using the context of the film “Flower Drum Song”.

Asian immigrants had to blend into society in order to be seen as Asian Americans, which meant that they would have to eliminate signs of their ancestry by following the discourses associated with being an American. There were many discourses behind identifying one’s self as an American in the early 20th century; the most important one to note being that you could speak English. The cultural hegemony of being an American and speaking English became a basis for determining whether the right to be considered as an American should be awarded to foreigners. During this time laws for immigration were made so that foreigners were not allowed to gain citizenship in America without being able to speak English [1]. In order to fit in and be considered as an American rather than the “forever foreigner” that comes with the discourse of being Asian, Asian Americans were forced to abandon their mother tongue.

The effects of these laws that prohibited the immigrants from speaking their mother tongue can be clearly seen in the fact that many Asian Americans today cannot speak the language of their ancestors. In order to hold the title as American they could not hold onto their past, which most likely meant that they would not even attempt to gain back what was lost to their families because these laws. Now it was not just because of those laws but the assimilation that occurred as generations of Asian American prospered. As Americans it was not necessary to speak any language other than English because English was the language of the dominant group.

This idea is demonstrated in the film “Flower Drum Song” when Mei Li and her father arrive in California after being smuggled on a boat from China. They end up in Chinatown, which in itself symbolizes what the Chinese have become while transitioning from foreigners to Chinese Americans. It mostly looks like the rest of America but with Chinese characters on buildings and architectural features on the roofs associated with Chinese architecture. Just like how some of the characters in the film have Chinese names, which associates them with China but they do not speak Chinese. They are Chinese but mostly American in the sense that because they have succumb to the idea that they must follow the discourse of being American in order to thrive.

Chinatown

In the first encounter that Mei Li has with a Chinese American man she asks him if he knew where the address on her paper was, to which he replied, “Sorry sister I can’t read Chinese”. Then she later asks a Chinese American officer if he knows where it is and he replies, “I guess I should have taken lessons in Chinese.” This is a demonstration of the effect that the assimilation of the first Asians who immigrated to the United States had on their children and grandchildren. Once presented with a situation in which it would have been useful to know his ancestors language the officer seems to regret not attempting to learn when he was younger. As a side note, I noticed that the Chinese Americans who are seen as middle class do not speak Chinese, while the ones that are shown as lower class -the man who were seen unloading the boats in the beginning of the movie- can speak Chinese. People who do not assimilate into the American discourse are depicted as not being successful and that the only way to succeed in America is through assimilation.

The idea of the generation raised in America not knowing or understanding their ancestor’s language due to forced assimilation is further brought up when Linda sees Wang Ta’s Greek pin. When she notices the pin on Wang Ta she automatically asks “Oh what’s that, with the Chinese letters?”. Although Linda Low’s possessions are said to be the reason for her being seen as an “All American girl” in Oriental [2], for me it is her inability to distinguish between different languages that classifies her as an “All American girl”. The lasting effect of Americans fears about foreigners has rendered Asian Americans as people who claim a certain ethnicity but lack the main thing that resisted assimilation; their mother tongue.

[1] Panetta, L. E. (1999). Foreign Language Education: If ‘Scandalous’ in the 20th Century, What will it be in the 21st Century. Stanford: Stanford University Language Center, 3.

[2] Lee, R. G. (1999). Orientals: Asian Americans in Popular Culture. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 178.

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