The Metamorphosis of Irwin Tang

Growing up Chinese-American in College Station, Irwin Tang experienced the challenge of being a minority among minorities in a small Texas town. After struggling to define his identity, he began to channel his frustrations and confusion into writing, first in the form of hip-hop lyrics and later as journalism and fiction. Tang has written for Asian Week, The Nation, and National Public Radio. He’s also been a longtime political activist, working with César Chávez and the United Farm Workers and leading student political coalitions. In 2000, he published The Texas Aggie Bonfire: Tradition and Tragedy at Texas A&M in response to the 1999 bonfire collapse that killed 12 students. Five years later he self-published How I Became a Black Man and Other Metamorphoses, a collection of autobiographical short stories that explores racism, Asian-American history, and existentialism. A revised edition was published in February. Currently he is working on Asian Texans: Our Histories and Our Lives, which will be published by University of Texas Press.

Recently the Observer spoke with Tang. The following is an excerpt of that conversation.

Texas Observer: In the title story of your book, you describe your struggles growing up as an Asian-American in College Station, struggling to identify yourself when you weren’t black or white. The story describes your metaphorical “metamorphoses” and how you grew to accept and embrace your identity. How do you define yourself now?

Irwin Tang: I am an American, an Asian-American, a Chinese, a Chinese-American, a modern-traditional mash, a multiculture clash … a misplaced yellow man, a slave to desire and consumption, a microbe of the market, and a rebel against every aspect of colony.

TO: What is the most autobiographical story in this collection of short stories?

IT: It is all autobiographical. Every story is based on some very important aspect of my life and my personality. The story about the law student and the gang banger. That has so much to do with my conflict, my sort of moral dilemma being the friend of someone who I thought was doing wrong things, and also, at the same time, my wanting to be that gang banger, that gangster, that’s “Two, One.” “Burials and Upheavals” is straight family history. The other stories are often told in the sort of poetic or frantic or over the top or circuitous and obtuse voice. “Burials and Upheavals” has a much more relaxed tone with just a slight reverence towards my parents and my ancestors, which is so very Chinese of me.

TO: So what was it like growing up as a Chinese-American in College Station?

IT: I think the worst part of it was the constancy of racism, ostracism, harassment, violence, and the complete, utter alienation of what seemed to be the entire world. I was born there, born in downtown Bryan—which is kind of a ghost town now—and lived there my first 22 years.

One image that really haunted me and haunts the stories in the book—even though a lot of the stories are funny—is the image of the noose that was hung on the tree in my front yard when I was 12 years old.

I also grew up in the small, tight Chinese community in College Station. It was constantly growing during my time there. My father was the second Chinese professor at A&M, and it just grew from there. But there were very few kids; there were mostly graduate students and professors. When I was growing up, the vast majority of kids were black or white. I was the only Chinese kid in my class, so I would deal with the taunts and stuff. One of the things I always noticed—maybe in middle school—was that the black kids weren’t picking on me. So my identification with black culture began in sort of a very negative sense—in the sense that I liked the black kids because they weren’t trying to beat me up; they weren’t ganging up on me. Once in a while, one of them might stand up for me, and so I was very open to black culture. It didn’t seem weird to me that—as my sister had put it—I had become one of the “brothers” in high school. But it seemed weird to other people.

TO: What do you think has been the biggest breakthrough for Asian-Americans in American media?

IT: The biggest breakthrough? That’s really hard to say. The sad part of it is that America has a history of separating Asian-American men and women. The greatest breakthroughs for Asian-Americans in the media have all been for Asian-American women; they’re much more easily accepted by the American public. The greatest breakthroughs would be like The Joy Luck Club, both the book and the movie, where it’s all about Asian-American women, mothers and daughters, with white men and negative portrayals of Asian-American men.

I would tell people to go see movies that really capture our humanity. Go see two recent releases, which might be considered breakthroughs. Go see Americanese. And Lane Nishikawa just made a movie about the Japanese-American 42nd regiment and combat team, Only the Brave. Those two movies are very different from anything that has been made for the mainstream. Better Luck Tomorrow also, I guess. Those are all extremely recent movies. But of course there’s more in literature, but it’s predominantly Asian-American women. American publishers feel a lot more comfortable with [Asian-American women writers] because they know that Amy Tan was a great commodity. You know, even though Chang-Rae Lee, who’s a man, might be a great writer or Ha Jin might be a great writer, they’re not as sure of a thing as Amy Tan.

TO: Why did you establish your publishing company, the It Works?

IT: I established it first in the year 2000 when I published a book about the Texas A&M bonfire. I didn’t want to write a book about the bonfire. I wanted to publish other people’s essays about the bonfire, but I realized after researching and starting to write that I had a book on my hands, and it’s probably the most honest book ever written about Texas A&M because it incorporates both the reverence for the Aggie Spirit and the actual history of Texas A&M and some of the more disturbing aspects of the culture at A&M.

The reason why it’s called the “it works” is because “it” is the most generic thing that there is, and the most American thing that there is, is “it,” a pronoun possibly meaning anything. And “it” is also my initials (laughs).

TO: You’re also doing a book, Asian Texans: Our Histories and Our Lives.

IT: It’s a history of Asian-Americans in Texas, and it’s being published by the University of Texas Press. It will be out between 2007 and 2008. I’m the principal author and editor; there are other writers who contributed chapters to the book. It’s a straight-up history, but it stresses the voices and lives of certain individual Asian-Americans, or Asian Texans rather, and it’s just a fascinating, fascinating history because our history is so closely intertwined with the African-Americans and especially the Mexicans and Mexican-Americans of Texas and war and all sorts of wild events. The Chinese were willing to do all sorts of stuff to survive in this nation. Just in those first few decades, I don’t know how many thousands or tens of thousands died violently—either killed or as a result of their working conditions. The Japanese were sending the boys off to fight World War II for the United States, even as they themselves were being interned in prison camps. There’s so many moving stories because so many people had to go through so much. Even my parents, when they first moved to College Station back in 1967, there were people writing letters to the editor because of the growing Chinese population, [telling us] that we should all take our sperm back to China, so I imagine that this was the attitude that so many Asians encountered when they came to Texas, the first ones especially. Unusually, one of the first places around which the Chinese settled in Texas, was just north of College Station, in Robertson County. It’s where the very first large groups of Chinese settled because they worked on the railroads, and they ended up settling within the black community in Robertson County, back in the 1870s.

TO: How long have you been working on this book?

IT: Since 2002.

TO: What’s the most compelling information you’ve discovered about the history of Asians in Texans?

IT: In light of the current immigration debate, one of the most compelling aspects of Asian-Texan history has to do with the immigration of Asians into and through Texas after the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. Because of anti-Asian immigration legislation, Asians were the first (and for many decades the only) illegal immigrants of the United States. The Border Patrol was formed to stop Asian immigrants, and the Department of Labor deported Asians caught without residence papers. As a result of this, the El Paso Chinatown became one of the most important Chinatowns in the nation, as illegal Asian immigrants crossed the Rio Grande from Mexico into the United States and attempted to hide at first in the El Paso Chinatown.

From El Paso, the immigrants would often hop on a box car to other places in the nation. El Paso was most likely the most important stop on what was known by immigration officials as the Asian “underground railroad.” Many of these early Asian immigrants—almost all were men—married Mexican and Mexican-American women. Similarly, many of the very first Chinese railroad workers in Texas married African-American women. And so these very early biracial communities were formed. A biracial young woman named Herlinda Wong Chew helped about 200 Chinese-Mexicans escape from Pancho Villa and into El Paso during the Mexican Revolution. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Chinese were treated terribly in Mexico. When the Mexican Revolution began, the Chinese were natural scapegoats. Hundreds of Chinese—and even their Mexican wives—were killed by the revolutionaries.

Some of them helped U.S. General John J. Pershing hunt in vain for Pancho Villa, and they tried to return to the United States with Pershing. But they were at first blocked at the border because of the Chinese Exclusion Act. With the help of General Pershing, these Chinese, who became known as the Pershing Chinese, were allowed into the United States. They worked for years for the U.S. Army until Congress passed what was essentially the first political asylum law in U.S. history. The Pershing Chinese settled in San Antonio, El Paso, and Houston, found Chinese, Mexican, and white wives, and established grocery stores and restaurants.

TO: What has influenced you to focus on Asian-American issues in your writing? What are your goals as a fiction writer and as a journalist?

IT: As a writer of nonfiction, I like to seek out what has not been written; I like to write what hasn’t been written. And there’s such a huge sort of void when it comes to Asian-Americans. There is so much that has not been written about our history, about our lives, about our points of view, our humanity. It’s like a big pile of gold sitting there. It’s also extremely compelling to me because the stories of immigrants and their children are always exciting. Sometimes you can’t not write about something—like when Shaquille O’Neal was taunting Yao Ming with those racial taunts and no one was saying anything, no one was writing anything about it.

I tried to get the Los Angeles Times, AP, Sports Illustrated, all these people to write about this, and no one would—they didn’t think it was a story. So, I had to write it, and luckily it became a compelling story within the sports culture, and as a result, the sports culture in America has changed in its attitude toward Asian-Americans. You know, since then when Dallas Cowboys coach Bill Parcells said that the Cowboys had “Jap” plays, meaning “sneaky” plays, he was immediately censured by the mass media, whereas before the Shaq incident, that sort of thing would have just been accepted.

Former Observer intern Sofia Resnick is a freelance writer based in Austin. To learn more about Irwin Tang, visit www.irwinbooks.com.

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