In 2015, poet Michael Derrick Hudson submitted his poem “The Bees” to various journals and magazines in hopes of being published. After the poem was passed over nearly forty times, Hudson decided to change his strategy. Only nine submissions later, “The Bees” was featured in that year’s edition of “The Best American Poetry” — but under the name Yi-Fen Chou. Hudson, a white man, had used a Chinese name as a pseudonym as a way to garner attention for his work.
In her debut novel, Disorientation, Elaine Hsieh Chou uses a fictionalized version of Hudson’s tale as the core of her story. Twenty-nine year old PhD student Ingrid Yang is studying “Chinese” poet Xiao-Wen Chou, and comes to a revelation about the author that has unimaginable consequences for her dissertation and university.
Much more than a simple cautionary tale about identity appropriation, Disorientation is a quick-witted satire on the model minority myth and the contradictions of Taiwanese American identity. After discovering the lies behind Xiao-Wen Chou’s identity, Ingrid must come to terms with her own racial positionality. Why is her academic rival Vivian Vo always protesting and talking about “liberation”? Why is her advisor so adamant that she should continue writing about Xiao-Wen Chou to ensure “free speech” on campus? Why does her fiancé introduce her to strangers as “Chinese” when she’s Taiwanese American? And is it really a problem if that anime-loving, Japanese-translating, very white fiancé has dated three Asian girls before her?
The overall messaging of the book can at times feel convoluted, especially with whether or not it answers its overarching thematic question: is it better to remain ignorant and complicit, or to engage in the painful process of stepping into race consciousness and changing the system? While much of the book is spent making fun of those who are blinded by ignorance and “colorblind” ideology, there is no clear answer to this question, as Chou takes us on a whirlwind adventure where choosing either naivete or activism has the potential to create chaos and personal loss.
Is it better to remain ignorant and complicit, or to engage in the painful process of stepping into race consciousness and changing the system?
Yet the disorder in Chou’s story is intentional. Rather than the messaging of the novel following a clear thematic thorough line, the strongest satirical elements of the book are rooted in Chou’s deft character writing— especially in the protagonist of Ingrid. Chou creates a protagonist wholly defined by the model minority myth— a caricature of privilege and ignorance who has very little understanding of her own racial positionality. At the start of the novel, Ingrid is complacent with her color-avoidant understanding of the world, held captive by both others’ racialized perception of her and her own racialized perception of Asian American identity— without ever being conscious of how the model minority myth plays a role in her sense of self . She sees her own docile, apolitical nature as the “correct” way to operate in the world, and is filled with resentment towards other Asian Americans who are able to embrace their sense of self (personified by her nemesis, activist and fellow academic, Vivian).
Disorientation is about the “before” and “after” of Ingrid’s life— a confrontation of race and privilege that bring Ingrid face to face with the droppings of white supremacy that have wormed their way into shaping how she sees herself, and how she interacts with the world around her. As she learns more about Xiao-Wen Chou, she is forced to reckon with the ways that white institutions and people have objectified and used her for their own benefit. Ingrid is then compelled to take a deeper look at how her privilege has blinded her to racial injustices in academia and to reexamine her relationship with whiteness— both as a larger societal concept, and in her romantic life.
Unlike other pieces of Asian American fiction I’ve read, Disorientation doesn’t “celebrate” culture—there are no mouth-wateringly delectable descriptions of 包⼦, no epiphany-filled visit to the homeland, and no parent/child fruit-cutting scene of reconciliation after a fight. Ingrid doesn’t find herself through a unique “Taiwanese-ness” that defines who she is, but rather from a compulsory confrontation with the ways that white supremacy has racialized her academic and personal experience.
Disorientation, is an apt title for the novel, as Ingrid faces a complete upset in her understanding of the world—with both “Orient” and “Orientation” acting as root words in Chou’s double entendre. As readers, we too become disoriented. While reading the novel, I often was left conflicted trying to find an answer to the core thematic question— what does Chou want us to think? For much of the book, it seems as if the lesson Ingrid is learning is that ignorance is bliss, contrasting Ingrid’s previous satisfied complacency with the turmoil of knowledge of one’s own powerlessness within white supremacist systems.
Through the portrayal of Vivian, a character that is simultaneously celebrated and condemned, we see the alternative to Ingrid’s choices. Vivian is the antithesis to Ingrid’s apathy, representing race consciousness and active Asian American identity aligned with progressive causes. Yet Vivian is no hero, portrayed as being too entrenched in leftist ideology to stay grounded. The result leaves the reader deciphering whether Chou is endorsing or denouncing a Vivian-like active stance in academia, as theory and praxis clash in Vivian’s self righteous approach.
But the final takeaway from Chou’s book isn’t to encourage apathy. As she begins to find out more about her complicity in the systems she partakes in, Ingrid begins to grapple with the complex feelings that come with knowledge and race-consciousness: “How did Vivian do it? Shoulder all the injustices at once? Just trying to rectify the injustices she’d committed was exhausting enough as it was. The moment Ingrid felt overwhelmed, her instinct was to crawl into bed and smother a pillow over her ears. A part of her, though she knew it was wrong, still craved the soothing balm of apathy.” (Chou, Ch 19) At the end of the novel, it still feels unclear if Ingrid was better off prior to gaining racial consciousness, having lost her fiancé and position in the PhD program since, but with a renewed sense of self and repaired relationship with her family.
Chou adds to the complexity of her narrative by creating side characters that are effective caricatures of different embodiments of Asian identity. Chou uses the character of Alex Lee to represent Asian patriarchy— a man who is conscious of racial positionality, but is sucked into the Men’s Rights Activist manosphere of the internet, and is only focused on how his Asian-ness plays into his sexual appeal to white women. Alex is only able to reconcile race consciousness with gender equality when he is forced to confront real life violence as a consequence of the ideology he previously bought into. At times, it’s unclear which aspects of these characters Chou is making fun of, and which aspects are Chou’s earnest reflections on the three-dimensionality and constant contradicting nature of being a person of Asian identity.
“Disorientation” is certainly no manifesto for tackling racism within academia; rather, it serves as a representation of the disorientation and contradicting realities of being Asian American in higher education. Ingrid Yang’s journey reflects that inner turmoil through a funny, yet gut-punching narrative of poetry, loss, and growth. Being Asian American is a continuous journey of grappling with our internal contradictions, figuring out which parts of us have been sculpted by systems of racial oppression, and which parts are our own. “Disorientation” reflects this reality—embracing identity, not through a feel-good story of racial and cultural belonging, but through an honest and humorous portrayal of the internal and external conflicts of Asian American identity.
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Amelie Lee is a second-generation Chinese American from the San Gabriel Valley. She is a fourth-year studying Writing & Rhetoric and Politics at Scripps College. When not writing, Amelie enjoys freshwater fish care, eating a freshly fried plate of 臭豆腐, and reading books about Asian American identity.