Winter 2011

Seeing Jay-Z in Taipei

Hua Hsu

How does the newly arrived immigrant respond to the news that an identity already awaits him? How does an African American hip-hop artist translate his struggles and triumphs across oceanic divides? What significance do American demographic shifts have in a global context? Hsu's essay examines what happens once individuals or identities migrate beyond the contexts that first produced them. He explores a variety of circuits: the satellite communities of Asian immigrant students who arrived on American university campuses in the late 1960s; enduring debates about a “post-city” identity, spurred by advances in cheap, efficient, world-shrinking communication technologies; and the new affinities and categories of self-identification made possible by a present-day culture that prizes interactivity and participation.

HUA HSU is an Assistant Professor of English at Vassar College. His work has appeared in Artforum, The Atlantic, The New York Times, and Slate. He served on the editorial board for A New Literary History of America (2009).

My father left Taiwan for the United States in the mid-1960s at the age of twenty-one. He would be nearly twice as old before he returned. In the interceding years, a willing maroon far from home, he acquired various characteristics that might have marked him as American. He studied in New York, witnessed and participated in student protests, and, according to photographic evidence, once sported long hair and vaguely fashionable pants. He accidentally became a Bob Dylan fan, thanks to secondhand exposure through the floorboards of his apartment building. He subscribed, very briefly, to The New Yorker. He acquired a taste for pizza and rum raisin ice cream. He and my mother spent their honeymoon driving across the country, and among the items that have survived my parents’ frugal early years are weathered paperback copies of the bestsellers The Pentagon Papers and Future Shock. For a brief spell he toyed with anglicizing his name and asked to be called Eric, though he soon realized that assimilation of that order did not suit him.

I often try to spin these details into a narrative of my parents’ early years in America. How did they imagine themselves? How did they acquire a sense of taste or decide which movies to see? Did any minutiae betray some aspirational instinct, a desire to fit in? Would they have recognized themselves in Future Shock? And who was the influential Eric after whom my father had named himself, if only briefly? These were the raw materials for their new American identities, and they foraged only as . . .

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