Using Personal Narratives to Reposition and Reimagine "the Chinese American Experience" in American History and Culture.

Author:Bodemer, Margaret B.


Asian Americans, and Chinese Americans in particular, have been and continue to be subjected to many stereotypes and misunderstandings in American culture and society. This paper explores those stereotypes and suggests a teaching method using personal narratives to light them. For many in America today, Asian Americans are often seen as a silent, passive "model" and homogeneous minority. Asia itself, despite a turn toward China in American policy and business, is likewise typically seen through an Orientalist gaze that obscures many of its cultural, historical, and political realities and complexities. For Americans to truly become "global citizens," we must correct these misunderstandings and fight harmful stereotypes. (1) The author argues that using personal narratives and individual experiences not only can provide entry points into diverse experiences and worldviews but also can significantly deconstruct stereotypes and ignorance. Furthermore, examining diverse experiences within "the Chinese American Experience" critiques commonly held notions of homogeneity and expands the notion of who belongs in American history. The author draws on teaching experiences to introduce several key biographies and memoirs that are relevant to Chinese American experiences.


This paper discusses the use of personal narratives to teach about the complexities of the Chinese American experience. Drawing on the author's experiences teaching university students, it is argued that memoirs and biographies not only provide entry points into diverse experiences and worldviews but also serve to deconstruct stereotypes and combat ignorance. Personal narratives reveal the construction of a Chinese American identity; yet within that framework these sources also show us the diverse and plural experiences within the Chinese American experience. This enables an important critique of commonly held notions of Chinese and Chinese American homogeneity. This paper discusses several key biographies and memoirs, with special attention to ways in which they may be used to fight these common misunderstandings and contribute to a richer, more realistic portrait of Chinese Americans, which in turn lends itself to a deeper understanding of American history and culture. (2)


The scholarly literature on personal narratives and on using them in teaching reflects two particular points. First, in recent years there has been a "memoir boom," that is to say, a major trend in the publishing of personal narratives. (3) Second, the study and use of personal narratives, generally speaking, is inherently interdisciplinary. What could broadly be termed as "personal narratives" or "life narratives," these sources

have been used across the social sciences and humanities, for various purposes. (4) Psychologists and other social scientists may use oral history and life history interviews to generate further data and test hypotheses. As anthropologists have increasingly endeavored to include historical context, they are often granted unique opportunities in fieldwork to record life history narratives. (5) Anthropologist Roxana Waterson points out that "official histories never capture all of the diversity of individual experiences; the study of personal narratives, on the other hand, multiplies the voices that reach us from the past." (6) At the same time, historians employ oral history as a method to generate further questions or to test hypotheses, and they analyze memoirs and autobiographies as a particular kind of primary source. Historian Paula Fass states, "For historians, the memoir is an important historical tool, and for social historians especially, it provides the appealing voice too often otherwise missing as we try to reconstruct the lives of ordinary people." (7)

In teaching, many have noted that using personal narratives is an extremely effective way to introduce students to a variety of social, cultural, and historical experiences. Historian Jennifer Trost writes about using personal narratives in a world history survey class in order for her students to relate to people in other cultures and to get beyond their Eurocentric worldviews. (8) Using in-depth, first-person accounts to "personalize" world history, Trost has found that her students prefer this approach over the use of a standard textbook. Waterson points out that using first-person accounts fosters a "democratizing urge to listen to the voices of the nonfamous" and a "commitment to seeking out the voices of the marginalized and disempowered." (9)

Pointing to the universality of the genre, G. Thomas Couser states, "Memoir is the literacy face of a very common fundamental human activity: the narration of our lives in our terms. It is rooted in deep human needs, desires and habitual practices. Nearly everyone engages in some form of this." (10) This also speaks to the reason that personal narratives are popular for use in college classes: they appeal to college students who are also in the process of their own identity formation. Autobiography is a "particular mode of telling about the self' (11) and of "creating coherence." (12) Personal narratives are intrinsically about the self and the intersection with the social or historical context. (13) As Waterson reminds us, self-consciousness as well as a historical consciousness simultaneously emerge from the telling of one's own story. (14) A truly effective personal narrative may cause a similar shift for the reader as well, as is detailed in the section below.

Whatever their discipline, and whether using personal narratives for research or for teaching, scholars agree that there are certain cautions in using these sources. First is the issue of representativeness. First-person accounts are not necessarily representative of the whole society or historical context and must be taken with some wariness. All of the forms classified under the heading "personal narratives" rely on memory, and as Couser reminds us, memory is a "notoriously unreliable and highly selective faculty." (15) Therefore, when using such forms, scholars or readers must also be cognizant of the limitations of the genre. When assigning a memoir in a class, professors should take care to also give students secondary readings that give more information in the larger context and must encourage students to pay attention to issues of author bias. (16) After all, as Smith and Watson remind us, "memories are records of how we have experienced events, not replicas of the events themselves." (17)


Asia and Asians, as well as Americans of Asian descent, have been characterized according to a set of prevailing misunderstandings that have dominated American and European notions over the past few centuries. Edward Said's seminal work helped to outline and critique the dominant lens of Orientalism, which posits East and West as two polar opposites. (18) Orientalism assumes a level of homogeneity about each society and obscures the commonalities between them, and persistently fetishizes and exoticizes the "Oriental other." Other persistent...

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