In an attempt to bring some of what I do as a teacher (and, in other posts, as an academic) to this blog, I’ve decided to start these little “Adventures in Teaching Literature” posts to explore my class experiences. Some of these will focus on what I take from a text (or tried to teach my students to take from it) and others will deal with their responses, which will vary from profound to odd to incorrect-but-still-quite-interesting (I’m not sold on the use of “incorrect” here, though).
based on another short story of the same name, written by John Luther Long in 1898). One of Hwang’s other fascinating works is “Trying to Find Chinatown,” a one-act play set on the streets of New York City. The only characters of the play are Ronnie (an Asian-American musician who one might describe as having a “chip” on his shoulder) and Benjamin (a white man trying to find his roots in Chinatown).
What “Chinatown” shows us, to take one of the obvious interpretations of the text, is how unstable a term like “ethnicity” can be. If these two individuals cannot agree on what it means to be “Chinese,” then what value does a term like “ethnicity” have, except insofar as it allows us to identify ourselves with a group? While Hwang would likely not extend this analogy to questions of ethnocentrism and other related isms, “Chinatown” does at least open up the possibility for such considerations.
But I think the text also protects itself from falling into that trap in unique way: by effectively tearing apart the stereotypes associated with ethnicity and race. Most of these deconstructions are performed by Ronnie, who loudly proclaims the falsity of the racial assumptions made about him — “loudly” both in voice and action (he plays jazz on a violin, which subverts cultural assumptions about Asians and music). But Benjamin explodes stereotypes too by suggesting that Ronnie’s rigid assumptions about ethnicity are inadequate to the experience of ethnic identity — he is raised by Chinese parents, and, thus, cannot separate himself from the experience of being raised “Chinese.” Alone, neither definition holds up, but collected together, they attempt to embody the variations of ethnic identity that must exist in order to account for “real life.”
Teaching this text, then, requires a direct engagement with ethnic experience, which is often difficult when such a text is being taught in an introductory course. Concepts like “ethnicity” and “race” are complicated and need considerable space/time to be fleshed out for students. Yet, even the basics, as outlined above, can be fruitful for discussion for students in introductory courses; perhaps it can be used as a gateway into learning about ethnic experience, or at least a unique perspective on life. I certainly hope so.
And on that note, I’m off. Feel free to leave a comment!