Underkill


So I just finished up Underkill, the second book in Leonard Chang's Allen Choice trilogy. It's another gripping story by Chang, and I'm already into the third book Fade to Clear.

The thing about Allen Choice (the protagonist in these stories) is that he's a whitewashed Asian with an Anglicized name. He can't speak a lick of Korean, and he maintains no connection to his cultural heritage other than eating rice cakes. This cultural disinheritance is compounded by the fact that both of his parents are dead.

Despite being a whitewashed Asian, Allen acts and thinks the way a lot of Asian American guys act and think: strong but silent. Chang narrates the stories through Allen's thoughts, so we get a sense that even though he isolates himself from others at times, Allen's still waters run deep with insecurities. This fallibility is what makes him relatable, what makes him human. And the reader sympathizes with Allen.

For whatever reason, Asians tend not to be as emotionally expressive. You could point to any number of reasons put forth by anthropologists, sociologists, psychologists and other apologists, but suffice it to say that there is a stereotype (true or not in varying degrees) that Asians have a stoic quality to them. Our motto is, "Speak softly, but carry a big stick."

A lot of Asian men I know tend to be this way, including myself. The women in our lives tend to be (as Tetsuro Shigematsu put it) our emmisaries to the outside world. My wife is much more expressive than myself, and people tend to gravitate towards her. I am the dark star to her supernova. If you've ever watched the movie "A Beautiful Mind," then you'll see me as Russell Crowe and my wife as Jennifer Connolly. I'm happy to say that my daughter has her mother's vibrant energy.

Although people sense and respect silent strength, there is a problem in operating this way. It allows for information vacuums to form. If you don't say much, then people will have to fill in the blanks. If a space is empty in people's minds with regards to you, then that space will be occupied, and it could be occupied by anything, any idea, not matter how outlandish. This is how gossip, rumors and stereotypes supplant the truth in people's minds.

Your reputation precedes you, so you, as an Asian American must fill in the space in people's minds before some racist idiot does. You as an Asian American must control your image before the image controls you.
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