Academic journal article MELUS

Petting Asian America

Academic journal article MELUS

Petting Asian America

Article excerpt

Dominance may be cruel and exploitative, with no hint of affection in it. What it produces is the victim. On the other hand, dominance may be combined with affection, and what it produces is the pet.

--Yi-Fu Tuan (2)

In his semiautobiographical novel America Is in the Heart (1943), Carlos Bulosan unearths a strange and complex link between American empire and the institution of pet-keeping. This link first becomes visible when Bulosan's alter-ego, Allos, learns to read at the hands of his older brother Macario, a teacher in the US colonial education system who brings home a canonical fable of western imperialism:

"You must remember the good example of Robinson Crusoe," my brother said. "Someday you may be left alone somewhere in the world and you will have to depend on your own ingenuity." Then he pointed to the picture of the lonely man and his faithful dog sitting side by side on an unknown shore. "Maybe you will be thrown upon some unknown island someday with nothing to protect you except your hands and your mind. Now read this line after me, Allos." (32)

Macario here advises Allos to internalize "the good example of Robinson Crusoe," but the colonial textbook actually seems to exhort both teacher and pupil to internalize the good example of Robinson Crusoe's "faithful dog." In Daniel Defoe's text, interestingly enough, Crusoe actually does have a dog--"a trusty Servant" (56) and "loving Companion" (152) that helps him hunt, guards his livestock, and generally eases his exile. Even more interestingly, the dog dies roughly two-thirds of the way through the novel; less than twenty pages later, Friday appears and takes its place. Crusoe directly echoes earlier descriptions of the dog in anticipation of Friday's arrival. "[N]ow was my Time to get me a Servant, and perhaps a Companion," he muses just before what must surely be one of the most fateful encounters in western literature (171). The paradigmatic native of the European imagination thus originated as a replacement for a dead pet.

Macario's colonial textbook, however, strategically reverses Defoe's metonym, resurrecting Crusoe's dog and bidding it to stand in once more for the now conspicuously forgotten Friday. Despite its seeming oddity, this reversal makes perfect sense. Whereas Crusoe's need for labor power demanded the transformation of a dog into a human being, US imperialism's ideology of benevolent assimilation called for the conversion of natives into pets--objects of affectionate domination, in Yi-Fu Tuan's broad definition. The picture in the colonial textbook thus hails Allos and Macario not as heroes of modernity triumphantly domesticating the outer reaches of empire, but rather as "trusty Servant[s]," "loving Companion[s]," and little brown brothers destined to labor at the feet of their imperial masters. Thus, by internalizing the imago of Defoe's protagonist, Allos and Macario ultimately become little more than disposable pets of American empire--racialized others that, like Robinson Crusoe's dog, toil, die, and are forgotten. This brutal lesson in colonial subjection vindictively returns to Macario when, after migrating to the US, he ends up working as a houseboy for a wealthy white couple who "treat him as though he were a domestic animal" (Bulosan 142). In this subtly ferocious account of his introduction to the written English word, then, Bulosan underscores the role of the animal in the work of colonial interpellation. (1) The little-examined trope of the Asian pet is crucial to implanting America in the heart and making good colonial subjects.

Why does postwar Asian American literature invite us to contemplate the transformation of a dog into a slave? Why does it then trace the transformation of a slave into a pet? Why does it present the Asian American subject as the eventual product of these strange metamorphoses? What can it teach us about the perverse intersection of racial difference and species difference? …

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