Writing the Borderline Subject of War in Susan Choi's the Foreign Student1
Parikh, Crystal, Southern Quarterly
"An international framework helps us discover what happened at home. External events affect internal American histories. Even the terms - domestic/foreign, internal/external - seem to collapse. What we are left with is not the natural categories of the domestic and the foreign, but instead angles of vision on one seamless narrative." - Mary L. Dudziak, Cold War Civil Rights
In Susan Choi's novel The Foreign Student (1998), Chang, the Korean protagonist, gives talks at member churches of the Episcopal Church Council about his homeland and the Korean War, satisfying a requirement of his college scholarship. At one such visit in Jackson, Tennessee, Chang begins his presentation:
'I am Chang Ahn. I study at Sewanee, University of the South, but before this I live in Korea. ' ... he usually began his address by saying that his presence before them was the direct result of MacArthur's Inchon landing. 'I'm not here, if this doesn't happen,' he said, feeling melancholy suddenly.2
Chang's occupation of this juncture, between the productivity of war - "his presence before them" -and its negative predicate of melancholic loss -"I'm not here" - locates for us the uneven, violent, and contingent histories upon which globalized modernity takes root. Chang's story tracks a genealogy of "Asian/ American" formation in relation to, but in marked difference from, the United States civil rights project, while providing a meditation on the historical specificities of a civil rights discourse forged through the signifying process that war enacts. As Rey Chow suggests, rather than figuring merely as the vanquished forces of the Cold War against which Western "freedom" triumphed, socialist anticolonial revolutions of the twentieth century constitute the "necessary events of a positive present of which we, living in the other half of the globe in 'capitalistic freedom,' are still a functioning part."3 Choi's novel, I suggest, explicates the institution of civil rights reform as the product of a crucial forgetting of these very histories of entanglement by which the normative "positive present" of global capital comes to cohere in the United States. The Foreign Student posits the deformation and reconstruction of the Korean people - where the contradictions of Japanese colonialism, brutal civil war, and Cold War bilateralism overdetermine the political and social order of the nation - as having implications global in scope and impact.
Choi's portrait of "two Souths" visits times and places that predate the accepted histories of the American civil rights movement and of the Cold War, which occlude them. This alternative vantage re-reads our current post-Cold War positive present through the lens of, as it has come to be known in United States historiography, the "forgotten war" in Korea. In particular, the novel adumbrates the Korean War in terms of domestic United States racial relations for which the embodiment of Asian/ American relationality becomes a symptom. By juxtaposing the foreign stage of the Korean conflict with the setting of the burgeoning domestic civil rights movement in the American South during the 1950s, the novel both expounds a critique of sovereign state authority according to which rights and resources are distributed, while holding out the possibility for future social transformations that transfigure national borders toward more just, equitable political arrangements.
Ultimately, Choi's novel names the Asian/ American as a casualty of war, and in so doing, uncovers and preserves an alternative, emergent subjectivity that cannot be made to heel to the divisions of domestic and foreign politics, which crucially underpin civil rights reform in the twentieth century. From the outset, I emphasize that the critique I explicate in this novel is not one of the civil rights movement or its subjects - who, indeed, extended various, creative and global visions of such justice.4 Rather it reckons with the limits that the state imposes upon the iterative forms of rights, founded in a liberal conception of abstract equality divorced from the equitable distribution of substantive material resources and social goods, and the (citizen-) subjects to whom they are granted. …