I recently finished Ingratitude, by erin Khue Ninh, a book that, for me, provokes some surprisingly potent emotions in spite of being such a small tome.
Before I embark on this review, allow me to explain the context in which I was introduced to it. This past spring semester, I took an Asian American Feminisms course at UMass Amherst. It was the first women’s studies course I had ever taken in my life. It was a class of only 12 students, of whom 8 were women of Asian descent, 10 were undergraduate students, and 2 were graduate students (including me). On the whole, I found the course to be very instructive in a number of topics I had not previously explored. I really appreciated most of the readings for laying bare many experiences of Asian women that I had not previously encountered in academia. Some of the topics discussed in the class included Orientalism, legacies of war and colonization, racialized femininity and masculinity, and transnational feminism.
The professor, who I will not name, was also a great instructor, centering student learning by allowing students to take up most of the class time with discussion. However, I did at times find her to lean more towards “academic intellectual” than “pragmatic facilitator”. She had very little ability to hold space for emotions, and as a model with whom many of the students could identify, I think she effectively suppressed a lot of the emotional responses that students could have brought forth. On one memorable occasion, during the class where we discussed the legacies of war, one of the readings was about Korean comfort women, and how their position in society was determined both by the Japanese invasion of Korea as well as by American soldiers in the Korean War. I asserted that this seizure and capitalization of women’s bodies was “a thinly veiled form of terrorism”. There was a brief pause in the class after that, at which point the only response the professor chose to give was to move on to the next topic.
On another notable occasion, I had gone to her office hours one afternoon to talk about my final project, and she asked me how the class was going for me. In my naïve manner, I assumed she actually wanted an honest answer from me, so I shared an observation with her that I thought should be addressed. I said that I noticed the students in the class only ever responded to her questions and statements in the class, but they never interacted or responded directly with one another. I brought that to her attention hoping perhaps she would encourage those interactions. After all, it’s not a true discussion if it’s only between the teacher and the student.
Her response was very strange. She chose to tell me that, while we were on the topic of giving feedback, “some” of the students (a number was not given to me) were “disgruntled” by how frequently I laughed in the class. Specifically, she commented on my “facial expressions and noises” that I made in the class. I was very surprised. This did not feel like feedback as much as it did a way for her to undermine my power and affirm her own authority. The colorism of that interaction cannot be ignored either—this professor is light-skinned and of Korean descent, and I am South Asian. At the time, I thanked her for “bringing the comments to my attention,” though in the back of my mind, I thought whichever student it was that had complained was a coward for not voicing their complaints to my face. The logical response of the professor, at least to me, would have been to tell whoever complained to respect that people have different emotional capacities. My opinion of this professor diminished slightly after that point.
After being treated thus, it is no surprise to me that such a person thinks that Ingratitude is useful for instructive purposes. During the course, each week a student would start the class with a brief presentation on the main points from the week’s readings. Model student that I am, I had not read Ingratitude the week it was assigned, during the topic of Asian American Literary Subjectivities. I think I saved myself some indignation, though I also probably kept the class from being able to learn from my rather contemptuous point of view.
To my knowledge, the eight women in the class adored the book. The presentation that week was given by an English major studying at Mount Holyoke, a native of Cupertino, a stone’s throw from San Francisco, California. This is a person who is able to travel to Taiwan every year, whose parents are probably paying for her education. Her presentation, which was significantly lacking in criticality, historical context, and even a basic analysis of capitalism, enthusiastically affirmed the words of an author who predictably faulted parents for everything that sucked about Asian women’s lives. The room reeked of hypocrisy.
I had stated in previous classes that I unabashedly defend Asian parents. When I said in class that day that I had not read the book, but I could fathom by conjecture that I probably would not agree with most of erin Khue Ninh’s analysis, the professor’s response was to say, “Well, you’ve stated your views in the past, Leonie.”
This is nothing compared to the complaints I have with the book itself, now that I have read it. Ninh’s book is an analysis of how immigrant families trap women of Asian descent in a role as an obedient, high-achieving daughter based on—not historical archives, not an analysis of Asian women’s labor, not even qualitative research with actual Asian women—literature by women of Asian descent. Yes, you read that correctly, literature as in fictional novels. She uses fictional novels to build a highly complex patriarchal, racial, and economic analysis of the family structure. From where do my doubts spring? I can’t imagine.
Furthermore, in the entirety of a novel about how oppressed Asian American women are in the role of daughter, Ninh never once includes internalized racism or sexism as causes for this oppression in her analysis. This is curious because Ninh literally describes internalized racism, though she doesn’t refer to it as such, within the first few pages of the novel as a reason why Asian people might act the way they do.
It is a central tenet of the model minority thesis that the model minority identity is a myth…That may be a disingenuous case to make…The heart of the issue is not whether an Asian immigrant family currently meets the socioeconomic or professional measures of the model minority. Rather, the issue is whether it aspires to do so, whether it applies those metrics: not resentful of the racializing discourse of Asian success as violence, but implementing that discourse, with ingenuity, alacrity, and pride, from within. (Ninh, 2011, p.9, emphasis from original text)
This is quite literally a description of internalized racism. I define internalized racism as the process of subconsciously incorporating the messages one receives about their own racial group into one’s own identity as though they are fact. Would that not also be a reason why Asian parents treat their children the way they do? In fact, could it be the sole reason? Could the sole reason be that Asian Americans have internalized the belief that they must be high-achieving, a belief which white America industriously circulates? Ninh didn’t seem to think so.
Another point of contention I have with the novel is the hilariously far-fetched logic Ninh frequently uses to draw her conclusions. Here is an example:
Ideally, then, parental sacrifices enable the next generation to live lives unfettered by the practices and psychology of close bookkeeping. In actuality, however, as Su-ling Wong points out, “the code of Necessity creates its own enslavement: one sacrifice calls for another” [33, full citation included in Notes]. Whereas in theory, Necessity works itself out of existence—immigrants work hard so that with success they and theirs will no longer have to work hard—in practice, Necessity reproduces itself, perpetuating its mindset and demands onto the next generation, even after the conditions of material adversity have come to an end. (Ninh, 2011, p. 33)
In other words, why is oppression perpetuated? A logical individual might look at historical and economic context and the ways in which Asian immigrants first came to be in the Americas in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries as plantation workers, indentured servants, sailors, in other words, slaves in everything but name. (Lee, 2015, p. 42). People in these lowest strata of economic class frequently do not have access to the kinds of structures that help people accumulate wealth (ability to take out loans, own a house, build credit, pay for an education, save money in bank accounts, etc.) because they live in tenement buildings in the inner city or on farms, their citizenship hangs by a thread, and their money goes into paying off the indenture. Thus, subsequent generations frequently inherit debt, much in the same way that the descendants of Africa living in America have had historic difficulty accumulating wealth because they were brought to America as slaves.
Is this the logic that Ninh uses? No, no it is not. Ninh says that parents ought to be able to pay off their debts, debts that, when they were incurred in the sixteenth or seventeenth century, sometimes had to be paid off one literal cent at a time for debts of hundreds of dollars (Lee, 2015, p.42). That way, children can be free. Oh wait, but debts can’t be paid off because they’re not real. They’re just some magic thing parents made up called “Necessity”. Hence, children are oppressed because parents made up the fact that they are in need. Why would parents lie about being in need? Does this make sense to you? It doesn’t to me.
Even putting Ninh’s analysis in a modern context makes no sense. If parents in Asian American families are paying off their debts because they are able to, where is this Necessity that drives them to abuse and oppress their children? And if they are not, does that not bring us back to the argument that Asian families in the working class cannot accumulate wealth in traditional ways?
The most maddening of Ninh’s many nonsensical analyses is her assertion that Asian American’s romanticizing of the Third World reveals an underlying desire to assimilate to capitalism (if I’m even reading this text correctly. Ninh’s tendency toward a confusing verbosity is equally annoying).
Both Chao and Wong’s pieces betray a desire, in fact, to fossilize Evelyn’s parents as forever the opposite of white capitalist America (as if having been a materially deprived Chinese native makes a subject automatically and henceforth politically subversive), and to color themselves “bad” by association. But to paraphrase Kingston, one’s family is not necessarily the Third World poor to be championed; in a confusing state of affairs, any of these purportedly bad capitalist subjects might well have found themselves prosecuted as owning class by agents whose motivations were themselves suspect. (Ninh, 2011, p. 121)
Admittedly, I’m not entirely sure here, but I think Ninh just defended the bourgeoisie against the “attack” of the working class under Communism in China because, you know, Ninh knows how much they would suffer if the working class ever rose up.
What completely blows my mind about this book is how individual-minded and second-wave Ninh’s thinking is. She never once asserts the ways in which feminine people and the Feminine are powerful, choosing instead to focus on the Catch-22 of not being able to pay off parents’ debts and how rebelling against parents is still a way of “settling debt” (Ninh, 2011, p.155). In other words, she portrays Asian daughters as having a lack of agency over their own lives. She never entertains the radical possibilities of being part of a collective, which is not surprising given her lack of historical analysis. She never considers how feelings of abandonment can be mitigated by the feeling of being tied to bodies of people who share a history, an ancestry, and a story. She only ever looks at the individual woman, how she is antagonized by the family, and how breaking filial piety is futile.
The one statement Ninh makes that I perhaps partially agree with is that filial piety could and should change for Asian children. However, where Ninh puts the burden of accountability on parents, I think the process needs to be a deeper and better-articulated dialogue among two generations. I particularly believe the consequences of immigration, colonization, racism, sexism, and capitalism must be included in an analysis of family roles if it is to be accurate.
All things considered, Ninh worked really hard on what I consider to be little more than the vengeful rantings of a spoiled brat. Ninh is a tenured professor in the Department of Asian American Studies at UC Santa Barbara. Go figure.
Furthermore, for me, the goal of raising critical consciousness is to achieve liberation. At its core, this work requires love—a powerful, fierce love. I think this is a critical component missing in Ingratitude, one that is mentioned but is hardly featured prominently. To paraphrase Darkmatter, if the Revolution happened tomorrow, I would not want to survive it if my parents could not stand right there beside me in the end. I do not plan to abandon them, even in the times when I feel they are being unfair. Before I accuse them of their adultism, of their classism, of their ableism, love is the ability to admit that I have unfathomable privilege as a person who was born in the United States, who went through the American system of education, and for whom English is my native language, things that are not true for my parents. Love allows us to peer into the power dynamics between two generations without ignoring what power is present on both sides.
Lee, E. (2015). The making of Asian America: A history. New York, NY: Simon and Schuster.
Ninh, e.K. (2011). Ingratitude: The debt-bound daughter in Asian American literature. New York, NY: NYU Press.
At first, I referred to Ingratitude as a novel. Actually, it’s an account of the relations between Asian American children and their parents through literary analysis.