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home :: abduction politics :: 'the oriental contingent'

Abduction, Authenticity, and 'The Oriental Contingent'

The Oriental Contingent is a weird short story by Diana Chang from an Asian American women's anthology called The Forbidden Stitch (full citation at the end for people who care). The story follows the contradictory and hyper-vigilant thought processes of Connie, a Chinese American violinist obsessed with "figuring out" other Asians. Okay, it's not my favorite short story of all time or anything (it really is just kind of strange), but Asian American abductees' experiences aren't fictionalized that often, so I felt like it was worth writing about. Oh, and by the way, in the anthology's contributor notes it says Chang "identifies herself as an American writer whose background is mostly Chinese." You figure it out.

The story is jam-packed with many of the identity mix-up/misunderstandings that Asian Americans experience (and participate in) on a daily basis. Here's a whole bunch of examples: Connie notices that Lisa (this woman she meets for the first time at a party but whom everyone assumes Connie must already know because, after all, they're both Asian) has a "Chinese face," and thinks that, although Lisa is wearing a "one-of-a-kind kimono dress," it doesn't "make her look Japanese at all." When Lisa immediately addresses Connie by her first name, Connie thinks she does so "like any American" (171). Connie can't see Lisa very well because the evening is dark, and she feels frustrated that Lisa hasn't provided "enough clues" to help Connie "fathom" her (172). When Lisa introduces Connie to this friend of hers, Eric Li, Connie observes that he "looked Chinese from the Shantung area, or perhaps from Beijing," and she notices right away that he speaks "with an accent" (173). And at a couple of intervals in the story, "Americans" (read white people) make an appearance, I guess to remind us that this stuff is happening in a context where all Asians "'look alike'" (172) and where Connie and Eric, both around thirty years old, can "'pass as teenagers'" (175) as far as whites are concerned.

Okay, now here's where we really start getting into the abduction stuff. Connie, believing that Lisa is "Chinese-Chinese," reflects on Lisa's behavior as "inscrutable" and "mysterious" (172-73). While talking with Eric, Connie continues to try to "put two and two together" about Lisa, and ends up blurting out to him that she feels like "'a failed Chinese'" (174). Eric simply can't believe that Lisa makes Connie feel "less Chinese" because, guess what? It turns out that Lisa was (gasp) "'adopted by Americans'" (176). When Lisa reveals to Connie that she was born in Buffalo and abducted by white people she says that it's "'the Chinese you can't fool. They know you're not the genuine article'" (176). She complains that it's "'only Orientals who haunt me! . . . Only them!'" (177). When Lisa tells Connie that her full name is "'Lisa Warren Mallory'" Connie blurts out "'I'm more Chinese than you!'" (176). And a few moments later she urges Lisa to "'Say it again. . .say it again that my being more Chinese is written all over me'" (176). Like I said, it's really weird.

Although I'm annoyed that Chang uses abduction as a kind of expedient for wrapping up the story, like it's this big ironic twist at the end or something, I can appreciate her representation of the way abductees' "true" identities often remain "secret" because of other people assuming shit about us based on the kinds of signs Connie depends on to help her "fathom" Lisa. In fact, I think Chang's overall intention is to question and challenge the way we Asians often compare and "rate" each other. However, Connie and Lisa ultimately reinforce the myth of "real Asian-ness" by accepting their respective places as "fake" and "faker." The story closes with Connie feeling "tired—as if she'd traveled—but a lot had been settled on the way" (177). It's this feeling that a lot has been settled that's the problem. Connie and Lisa have switched places in the rankings of "real Chinese" (173), but settling into their "appropriate" places doesn't challenge the myth of authentic Asian identity.

Chang, Diana. "The Oriental Contingent." The Forbidden Stitch: An Asian American Women's Anthology. Ed. Shirley Geok-lin Lim and Mayumi Tsutakawa. Corvallis: CALYX, 1989. 171-77.

More tales of transracial abduction (and attempted abduction) can be found in Indian Killer by Sherman Alexie, Gardens in the Dunes and Storyteller by Leslie Marmon Silko, and The Bean Trees by Barbara Kingsolver.