East-West Literary Imagination

East-West Literary Imagination
Photo by Max Bender / Unsplash

"American" is an ideal.

In this month of AAPI, it would be easy to think that the history of Asian Americans coincides with the physical arrival of some East or South Asians to the shores to hammer long lines of metal tracks for trains, fishermen out of New Orleans, or chop sugarcane at the turn of the twentieth century. I know one of the first novels about the Asian American experience is East Goes West by Younghill Kang

However, if America is in the mind, we ought to recognize that Asian thought is as much an influence on American Identity as the greed for spices was in the minds of mad Europeans who came to the shores.

A book that really exposed this idea to me is East-West Literary Imagination by Yoshinobu Hakutani. He argues that our understanding of "American" literature and (I'd argue, the American culture of today) was radically shaped by the ideas of Asia. Not only in the easily seen ideas of meditation and yoga but deep in our cultural bones. From transcendentalists like Thoreau and Emerson (and we know that it was deep in Emerson's mind because of his epic throwdown talk ("The American Scholar") at Harvard, where he shat on everyone for aping the Western Canon and later his transcendental thoughts on God that basically barred him from speaking at Harvard for thirty years), through the Beats, mid and late twentieth-century African American lit and beyond, Asian philosophy has been as much of a participant in what we say is "American Culture" as people would recognize.

For our particular moment, as university student protests rage across the country, and universities call on policemen to batter them down into silence, I think one influence worth considering is Thoreau's "Civil Disobedience." He refused to pay his poll tax in protest of slavery and unjust wars. For his refusal, he spent a night in jail.

Must the citizen ever for a moment, or in the least degree, resign his conscience to the legislator? Why has every man a conscience then? I think that we should be men first, and subjects afterward. It is not desirable to cultivate a respect for the law, so much as for the right. The only obligation which I have a right to assume is to do at any time what I think right. – "Civil Disobedience," Thoreau

Emphasizing the individual here isn't just Thoreau's rehashing accepted doctrine. While he does mention that the "Chinese philosopher [Confucius] was wise enough to regard the individual as the basis of the empire," Hakutani does a great job of showing that through "Civil Disobedience" and other writings, Thoreau internalized the Confucian view that "justice originates from the individual" (37) and through its public demonstration, radiates out.

When we start to see that what we are as "Americans" are ideas formulated by many groups, not just one, I think our relationship with being American, as Asian Americans, changes.