The Racial Mundane: Asian American Performance and the Embodied Everyday

The Racial Mundane: Asian American Performance and the Embodied Everyday

The Racial Mundane: Asian American Performance and the Embodied Everyday

The Racial Mundane: Asian American Performance and the Embodied Everyday


Winner, Lois P. Rudnick Book Prize presented by the New England American Studies Association

Across the twentieth century, national controversies involving Asian Americans have drawn attention to such seemingly unremarkable activities as eating rice, greeting customers, and studying for exams. While public debates about Asian Americans have invoked quotidian practices to support inconsistent claims about racial difference, diverse aesthetic projects have tested these claims by experimenting with the relationships among habit, body, and identity.

In The Racial Mundane, Ju Yon Kim argues that the ambiguous relationship between behavioral tendencies and the body has sustained paradoxical characterizations of Asian Americans as ideal and impossible Americans. The body's uncertain attachment to its routine motions promises alternately to materialize racial distinctions and to dissolve them. Kim's study focuses on works of theater, fiction, and film that explore the interface between racialized bodies and everyday enactments to reveal new and latent affiliations. The various modes of performance developed in these works not only encourage audiences to see habitual behaviors differently, but also reveal the stakes of noticing such behaviors at all. Integrating studies of race, performance, and the everyday, The Racial Mundane invites readers to reflect on how and to what effect perfunctory behaviors become objects of public scrutiny.


It is in the everyday and its ambiguous depths that possibili
ties are born and the present lives out its relation with the

—Henri Lefebvre, Critique of Everyday Life

Anybody American who really imagines Asia feels the lone
liness of the U.S.A. and suffers from the distances human be
ings are apart. Not because lonesome Wittman was such a
persuader but because they had need to do something com
munal against isolation, the group of laststayers, which in
cluded two professional actors, organized themselves into a

—Maxine Hong Kingston, Tripmaster Monkey: His
Fake Book

Wittman Ah Sing, the restless, inspired, and oft-raging protagonist of Maxine Hong Kingston’s novel Tripmaster Monkey: His Fake Book (1990), is immersing himself in a typing frenzy when a familiar problem confronts him: “And [he] again whammed into the block question: Does he announce now that the author is—Chinese? Or, rather, Chinese-American? And be forced into autobiographical confession. Stop the music—I have to butt in and introduce myself and my race.” Although explicitly stating his “race” seems unappealing to Wittman, he also resists the obvious alternative, to leave himself and his characters racially unidentified. He muses, ‘“Call me Ishmael.’ See? You pictured a white guy, didn’t you? If Ishmael were described—ochery ecru amber umber skin—you picture a tan white guy” (34). Stymied as soon as he . . .

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