Fifth Chinese Daughter, Part 2

Let’s continue our study of Fifth Chinese Daughter by considering how her work affects this female’s self-actualization. From early childhood through her post-college years, Jade works hard, saves fervently, and develops self-pride in her financial independence. More than cultivating a firm work ethic, Jade finds outlets for her creativity and establishes independent of the Chinese American restrictions for females.

At an early age Jade lives with her family at the back of the factory they own, mixing home and work lives. As as “Christian,” Father allows Jade’s mother to labor at a machine most of the day, in addition to her domestic and parenting responsibilities.1 Maybe that rationale makes sense to you, not so much to me. Mother bitterly tells the story of raising her mother’s pigs without any recompense. For her, working hard is just working hard. At age 11, the Depression forces mother to worker longer factory hours and Jade to run the household. Her father rejects government relief so the children will learn to work for whatever they gain. Jade’s chores glean her fifty cents per week, plus an addition fifteen for cleaning her brother’s room. She saves forty dollars by the summer’s end. At an older age, she works in seven homes of her choosing. Her “entire fortune” grows to $167.68. At college, she estimates that she can work in Berkeley to pay her expenses. She seems destined to achieve, albeit slowly, the American Dream—not the Chinese American dream for women—until she encounter a Caucasian male who warns, “If you are smart, you will look for a job among your Chinese firms. You cannot expect to get anywhere in American business houses. After all, I am sure you are conscious that racial prejudice on the Pacific Coast will be a great handicap to you” (188). 2

Determined as always, Jade sets out to learn “about the American work world—commonly known as ‘a man’s world” (192). Bored at work, she investigates the effect of vaccine programs; and is asked to continue her research as a full-time job in which she gains “confidence in dealing and working with the men” (194) who gradually come to respect her as she loses her shyness. Her prize-winning essay on the vaccine program is incorporated into a Presidential congressional report and she is chosen to christen the William A. Jones, amidst photographers and journalists. This is a big deal. But back to work as a secretary, she returns to menial task because, her boss explains, “…as you are a woman, you can’t compete for an equal salary in a man’s world?” (234).3 Readers may be reminded that “Simone de Beauvoir believed adolescence is when girls realize that men have the power and that their only power comes from consenting to become submissive adored objects. They do not suffer from the penis envy Freud postulated, but from power envy” (Pipher 21). Katharine Hanna explains that “Jade Snow Wong realized that there was no future for a young Chinese woman in the military or corporate world. Characteristically, she takes another step into the unknown—doing what she loves most—potting (as in pottery making) and writing” (10). This becomes the turning point in her working life and in her self-actualization.

Jade decides to write because “[i]In writing, a woman would not be competing against men. Of course, she had no assurance of success in writing about the life and heart of the Chinese people, but that did not convince her that she shouldn’t try” (235). Her attraction to pottery and writing becomes the freedom it affords her: “She could call her soul her own, strike her own tempo as she carved her own niche” (236). She joins the Ceramic Guild, constructs over three hundred pottery pieces, and decides to start her own business. Wong records, “After World War II ended, having worked in American corporate offices, I knew that a young, Chinese female could never rise to the top in white male-dominated fields. Since I had learned to love making pottery why couldn’t I make a living at it? For my whole life, I had been bound by the tenets of Chinese culture . . .” (Gerry Wong 28). Sitting in a storefront window in Chinatown, she attracts many spectators. A newspaper article declares “that she had invented a new mousetrap” (244). “Chinatown was agog. A woman in the window, her legs astride a potter’s wheel, her hair in braids, her hands perpetually messy with sticky California clay, her finished products such things as coolies used in China, the daughter of a conservative family, running a business alone—such a combination was sure to fail!” (244). Can you imagine the sight? Other store owners chide, “Look, here comes the mud-stirring maiden” (244). Although her Chinatown neighbors deride, “Caucasians came from far and near to see her work, and Jade Snow sold all the pottery she could make” (244). However, no Chinese came to buy one piece. Even without their support (like her parents’ non-support), in only three months, she accumulates enough money to buy and drive “the first postwar automobile in Chinatown” (244).4 Imagine that sight. How does she manage to become so successful amidst such a patriarchy? First, she rebels against the forced acculturation of her Chinese parents who refuse to fund their female daughters’ college education. She rebels by working hard to secure a financial base and academic success—not through a sense of bravado but through a sense of practicality. She starts at the junior college level and chooses her 4-year college based on their full scholarship offer. She is realistic but highly determined to achieve success—financially, artistically, and personally. Her quiet, focused, and relentless rebellion against her parents and her neighbors establishes a self-actualizer’s need to color outside the box if the box confines.

However, not everyone judges her work ethic so positive. The debate about the merits of Jade Snow’s working life centers on her pottery business. While I have argued (and some critics agree) that Jade works hard and deserves the success she achieves, others contend she becomes a capitalistic accomodationist. These critics, with Frank Chin in the forefront, berate Jade’s concession to sit as an object in a Chinatown storefront window, crafting pottery for tourists, and selling every piece only to non-Chinese Americans. Sitting in the storefront window “playing with mud” in Chinatown, certainly Jade becomes a curiosity. Gang Yue sees this as Jade “offering herself up for the American feast” (351). Further, he reflects that, “The desire to assume the role of a cultural ambassador is dispersed in her narrative development from an innocent eater to a curious item palatable for cultural consumption” (351). Having grown up in a family always consumed with financial stability and achieving her own successes through hard work, readers can not doubt the importance of self-sufficiency for Jade. However, these critics, and others, view her success as a loss of self and denial of culture. Jeffrey J. Santa Ana explains, “For people of color, women, and sexual minorities in the United States, assimilation into the culture of neoliberalism entails desiring a consumption-based subjectivity that recasts political rights as economic liberties and reduces diversity and difference to superficial style for sale in the market” (16). Santa Ana references Alexandra Chasin’s contention that “the market promotes assimilation into a homogenous national culture, encouraging identity difference only to the extent that it serves as a basis for niche marketing” (xvii) (Santa Ana 16).5 Working in front of and selling to only Caucasians, Jade receives criticism for “selling out” and catering to the “consumer culture’s image of stylized race and ethnicity,” thus premising citizenship on “a shared culture of consumption that denotes feelings of enfranchisement and oneness with mutual consumerism in globalization” (19). In this way, Jade attempts to create and sell her pottery are construed as attempts to fit in, not as a Chinese North American but as a non-Chinese North American. Bow concludes, “The text’s implicit endorsement of capitalism performs an ethnic normalizing function by testifying to Chinese American adherence to a fundamental aspect of American norms and attitudes. But the text bolstered more than domestic ideology; the autobiography served the interests of foreign policy by lending credibility to a historically necessary representation: the good Chinese as capitalist” (86). For these critics, Jade embraces capitalism and a Caucasian market, which computes financial success as cultural assimilation.

On the other hand, some critics applaud her gumption, determination, and savvy. Culturally, Lai notes, “We are told we have overcome our oppression, and that therefore we are the model minority. Model refers to the cherished dictum of capitalism that ‘pulling hard on your bootstraps’ brings due rewards. The lesson drawn is that if you work hard enough, you will succeed—and if you don’t succeed, you must not be working hard enough” (182). Typical Puritan work ethnic. This is a good match for Jade who has been brought up on the pride of hard work with illustrations from her family, including Uncle Kwok. “By establishing her own American business while retaining her Chinese identity, and by winning American clientele in San Francisco’s Chinatown, Jade Snow is continuing her search for a way to balance the two cultures” (Zheng 27).

This study agrees with Yin and Paulson’s position that Jade does not capitulate to American middle-class values. “Rather, she continues the best of Chinese culture and rejects the worst. Similarly, she assesses American culture”(56) while not rejecting Chinese cultural values. Jade realizes full well that as a woman and as a Chinese North American, she is trapped amidst many stereotypes attempting to prevent her financial status and success.6 If working hard has not granted her recognition, approval, and financial support by her Chinatown neighbors, then, it is no wonder that Jade pursues “acceptance into white society, on American terms” (Grice 5). She had learned from her pottery instructor at Mills College to persist, to learn through error, and to progress to more demanding techniques when one is mastered (Kathleen Hanna Jade Snow Wong: A Restrospective). F. Carlton Ball’s potter advice to perfect old methods and explore new techniques stands as a metaphor for Jade in all of her work endeavors. As a writer, she refashions Chinese value of deference through the use of the third-person narrator with the “American” value of autonomy. As a researcher, she relies on the Chinese value of the thoughtful herbalist with the “American” value of innovation. As a potter, she adapts Chinese methods and styles for a tourist market. Obviously some critics determine this blending in Fifth Chinese Daughter as an “overt accommodationist message” (Bow 91). However, this study commends the text as a practical and inspirational self-actualization message of both US and Chinese US values of self-reliance and career success.7Simply put, Jade learns to adapt to two cultures through hard work and creativity.

When we last leave Jade, she is poised to continue her self-actualization, first, as a State Department tour guide and second, as a potter at local art festivals. With abiding respect for her Chinese family and neighborhood, Jade accepts what they have and haven’t given her, as well as responsibility for her own financial status and creativity. Through her work—jobs and artistic endeavors—Jade rejects unhealthy patriarchal assimilation but maintains family/cultural work values. Like every self-actualizer, she becomes a highly selective person, in this case, pursuing the careers that embolden her passions. Although creative careers, they don’t isolate her; Jade doesn’t become the recluse artist. Contrarily, through leading tours, writing, and potting, Jade develops her own interests and confidence while connecting with others. This combination of self-fulfillment and social connection assures that the self-actualizer eschews narcissism and participates in a cause greater than herself.

How much improved our human interactions would be if we established who we are and who we are becoming after we established our place in a world with others. Instead of trying so badly to fit in to a prescribed cultural agenda—like the romance—we reassess how that agenda fits us while engaging us to help someone else. Thereafter, we know whether to subscribe to it, tweak it, or reject it. We don’t automatically walk to a different drum beat or take the road less taken. We don’t fancy ourselves as special or different or entitled. Rather, we charge ourselves to become the best person we can be. And if a system allows us to excel, we’re free to participate in it—adopting that religious creed, voting for that candidate; contributing to that organization, or joining that support group. But if the system stifles our ability to know, accept, and improve ourselves, then we must reject it not just because we’ll excel but also because that’s the only way to contribute to others’ lives. We must always remember that self-actualizing is more like Aristotle’s eudaimonia than the modern world’s concept of self-fulfillment: self-actualizers live an ethical life—contributing to something or someone(s) other than themselves. They deliberating choose their contribution—not as a sacrifice or noble deed—but as their passion. In short, they combine their “want” and “should” lists, which ensures that replicates the ancient Greeks’ belief that living an ethical life is the only way to live a happy life.

1 Tracy Lai notes that “Asian American women are also stereotyped as having special dexterity and endurance for routine, thus making them fit for assembly work . . . ” (187)

2Lai explains, “Businesses want docile, subservient workers… Many businesses purposely seek immigrant workers with limited English skills as further insurance against backtalk” (187).

3 According to Leslie Bow, “Wong’s stance is in keeping with the resurgence of domesticity following the war: she does not see traditional ‘woman’s work’ as limiting; rather, domestic and secretarial work are catalysts for her entry into the white world. As Wong has stated, ‘Though I don’t think being a woman has been any problem, I give priority to women’s responsibility for a good home life; here, I put my husband and four children before my writing or ceramics’ (cited in Contemporary Authors `09: 536)” (82). Bow contends, “The text positions women’s autonomous selfhood as something to be individually earned: equality is not necessarily open to all women, but only to those who prove themselves as equal to men through their achievements” (80).

4 Victoria Eng confirms that after Wong’s graduation with a B.A., because “an autonomous businesswoman” (Eng 1260). Later, “Wong married a fellow Chinatown native and artist, Woodrow Ong, and they began to collaborate on their work” (Gerrye Wong 28).

5 See: Chasin, Alexandra. Selling Out: The Gay and Lesbian Movement Goes to Market. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2000.

6 Lai acknowledges, “A capitalist society means that a few will profit while the majority will not. Feminism must deal with the structure of capitalism and its exploitation of people by race and class, as well as the way this exploitation parallels and compounds women’s oppression” (Lai 189).

7 “Asian culture is more, not less, individualistic than Western culture. The proof: Asian childhood literature and history” (Frank Chin 9).


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