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BOOK REVIEWS


From The Asian Reporter, V16, #15 (April 11, 2006), page 13.

Bicultural women search for their identity

Waking Up American: Coming of Age Biculturally

Edited by Angela Jane Fountas

Seal Press, 2005

Paperback, 256 pages, $15.95

By Mike Street

Special to The Asian Reporter

According to a 2002 Census Bureau report, one in five U.S. residents is either foreign-born or a first-generation immigrant, the highest level ever in a country whose population has always been fueled by such groups. The causes for this growth can be attributed to such disparate factors as liberalized immigration laws, economic globalization, and increasingly cheap international travel. But its effects are even more far-reaching, encompassing the social and cultural arenas, as the new immigrants struggle to absorb, and be absorbed by, American culture. Especially difficult are the pressures felt by first-generation immigrant women, who must face the same obstacles as their male counterparts, all while balancing their gender identity between their native and adopted countries.

Angela Jane Fountas, herself the child of a Greek immigrant father and an Irish-American mother, has collected the stories and essays of twenty-three first-generation immigrant women in Waking Up American: Coming of Age Biculturally. The range of native countries represented by the authors is astonishing ó from Pakistan to Puerto Rico, Russia to Vietnam, Haiti to China ó but what is perhaps more remarkable is the similar experiences they all face. While nearly half of the authors in the book are Asian, each woman must find her own way to deal with her language and sexual identity, key experiences to assimilating into the American "melting pot."

Because "first-generation" can mean either new immigrants or their children, English is as often a first language as it is a second. Anne Liu Kellorís father spoke English to her, while her mother spoke Chinese; being raised in America meant that Chinese faded to a language better understood than spoken. In "Rising and Falling," Kellor describes how the sounds of her motherís tonal Chinese still brings her the most joy, evoking the crooning sounds of her infancy.

Fountas, whose vibrant, literary piece "My Fatherís Mother Tongue" is as much creative nonfiction as essay, explores childhood memories, old photographs, and family anecdotes in her quest for the Greek fluency that will make her feel complete. Understanding her fatherís language along with her cultural inheritance becomes essential to belonging in her own multicultural family; bicultural women often feel this two-way pulling, towards both their American future and their immigrant past.

Sexual expression and identity, whether gay or straight, can complicate the self-understanding that these bicultural women all seek. Several of the authors are lesbians or bisexuals and thus face a dual crisis of integration, a double meaning to the oft-repeated question, "What are you?" In "(Un)American," Patricia Justine Tumang contrasts her queer, Filipina- American identity with the perception of Kenyans, who cannot see her as anything but straight and Chinese.

Straight women still face their own problems in exploring their gender identities, so precariously perched between the standards of American society and their familiesí expectations. Tina Lee, in "Hello Kitty Packs Heat," uses aggressive and lively prose to echo her own in-your-face attitude, which runs directly counter to her Chinese upbringing, and makes it difficult for her to find a man who understands her. The traditional Hindu wedding in "Under the Mandap," which joined Indian American Sona Pai to a white American, becomes an avenue to Paiís self-awareness. As she "officially" becomes a woman, Pai comes to understand her role as both American and Indian, in an essay glowing with details about her elaborate, centuries-old ceremony.

Names, foods, and flags are other, more common metaphors for understanding bicultural identity, and all make appearances in Waking Up American. As might be expected from such a diverse range of writers, the essays themselves vary widely, from deftly subtle to simply expository, from anecdotal to academic, and some are more engaging than others. Running through every essay, however, is the common thread of unmistakable truth and honesty, as these women bare their souls in pursuit of understanding themselves and their place in American society.

It is hardly surprising to find that half of the essays in Waking Up American feature Asian women ó as Fountas points out in her introduction, the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952 resulted in increased immigration from Asian and Latin American countries. And for all the similarities that are shared among these authors, Asian women seem to face more formidable obstacles, bridging the vast gap between East and West, as if cultural difference is directly related to geographic distance. Regardless of her native country, each of the women in Waking Up American offers a powerful story of transmutation, turning the often leaden burden of foreign identity into the golden treasure of individuality and self-awareness.

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