We all play roles of certain sorts. And we all play different roles for different audiences. Sometimes these roles are personae we take on consciously and willingly, a not untrue but not complete representation of who we are. Oftentimes, however, especially for those from marginalized backgrounds, the roles we play are forced upon us, a stereotype that society uses to simultaneously define and limit a person.
In Interior Chinatown, Charles Yu takes this concept of the roles we play and makes it explicit. The novel’s protagonist, Willis Wu, is described as a Generic Asian Man whose highest aspiration (like the other Generic Asian Men in his neighborhood) is to attain the most sought-after role allowed to him: Kung Fu Guy. Willis, like those around him, is playing a part and the novel foregrounds this—much of the prose is delivered in script format, and Willis’s lived experience takes place inside a television police procedural not-so-subtly called Black and White.
We start the novel by following Willis’s aspiration to move up the ranks on the Black and White television-show-turned-reality. At first, he is excited as he slowly makes his way into larger bit parts on the “show,” even though on some level he knows the end goal—becoming Kung Fu Guy—is a position that’s still confined and constrained by America’s systemic racism against those of Asian descent.
Interior Chinatown thus acknowledges society’s racist limitations, and Willis and others in Chinatown face all of them early on in the novel—not only with Willis’s own experience on Black and White, but also through other characters, such as the neighborhood hero, Older Brother. Older Brother, who is the pinnacle of what an Asian Guy is capable of, has rapidly “moved up” in the system. But even Older Brother, Yu makes clear, had a limit on how far he could rise:
There was a ceiling. Always had been, always would be. Even for him. Even for our hero, there were limits to the dream of assimilation, to how far any of you could make your way into the world of Black and White. [pp. 29-30]
Willis finds this out firsthand as he raises himself through the ranks of Black and White, and eventually can no longer ignore that he has been defined by the rest of the world primarily by his race:
The two words: Asian Guy. Even now, as Special Guest Star, even here, in your own neighborhood. Two words that define you, flatten you, trap you and keep you here. Who you are. All you are. Your most salient feature, overshadowing any other feature about you, making irrelevant any other characteristic. Both necessary and sufficient for a complete definition of your identity: Asian. Guy. [p. 94]
This pigeon-holing, this unrelenting drive by US culture to limit what an Asian person can be, is the overarching theme of Interior Chinatown. And while the book effectively drives this point home, it is more than a meta-commentary on what it’s like to be Asian in America. It’s also a story about family, about Willis Wu’s relationships with his parents, his wife and—later on—his daughter. It’s this blend of the extremely personal—and universal—relationships that one has with family which makes, alongside its larger commentary about American culture, the novel move from very good to great: it becomes one that leaves you thinking about both the larger and more intimate ramifications of the story well beyond the time you spent reading it.
Take, for example, Willis’s relationship with his father, an aging man who has moved from the role of wise Sifu to Old Asian Man. Willis, like many of us, struggles to reconcile this new role for his father with the memory of the father he grew up with:
The apologies, the true sign—that this was not the man you once knew, a man who would never have uttered that word to his son, sorry, and in English, no less. Not because he thought himself infallible, but because of his belief that a family should never have to say sorry, or please, or thank you, for that matter, these things being redundant, being contradictory to the parent-son relationship, needing to remain unstated always, these things being the invisible fabric of what a family is. [p. 18]
We learn more about Willis’s other family members as well; from his mother to Older Brother, to his wife and, ultimately, his daughter, Phoebe. It’s through Phoebe that Willis finally finds an identity he’s ready to embrace, that of a Kung Fu Dad:
Watching her is like finding old letters, of things you knew thirty years ago and haven’t thought of since. How to feel, how to be yourself. Not how to perform or act. How to be. [p. 198]
You were a bit player in the world of Black and White, but here and now, in her world, you’re more. Not the star of the show, something better. The star’s dad. Somehow you were lucky enough to end up in her story. [pp. 201-202]
Phoebe reminds Willis of the freedom that comes with youth: when we are children, we have yet to be beaten down so that we act a certain way or play a certain part, though the pressure to conform to certain expectations has certainly started; with youth comes a freedom as well as a malleability; the world is one that the young can create rather than be shaped by.
Willis takes this lesson from Phoebe to heart for the last act of the novel, during which the story steers back into meta-commentary, and the implicit themes of Interior Chinatown once again become explicit. One could argue that they become too explicit; but one could also argue that what American culture needs right now is more explicit, more uncomfortable conversations about race. Without giving too much away, there is a trial of some sort, and a lawyer involved makes clear the challenges that come with being Asian in America:
Chinatown and indeed being Chinese is and always has been, from the very beginning, a construction, a performance of features, gestures, culture, and exoticism. An invention, a reinvention, a stylization. Figuring out the show, finding our place in it, which was the background, as scenery, as nonspeaking players. Figuring out what you’re allowed to say. Above all, trying to never, ever offend. To watch the mainstream, find out what kind of fiction they are telling themselves, find a bit part in it. Be appealing and acceptable, be what they want to see. [pp. 238-239]
It’s during this trial scene that Yu further gets to the crux of the racism that Asian Americans face in the US today; despite having been part of US history for centuries, Asians are still viewed as Other, as something outside the American experience:
The question is: Who gets to be an American? What does an American look like? We’re trapped as guest stars in a small ghetto on a very special episode. Minor characters locked into a story that doesn’t quite know what to do with us. After two centuries here, why are we still not Americans? Why do we keep falling out of the story? [p. 251]
This is a question that Interior Chinatown explores in a thought-provoking way—and one which avoids becoming too heavy-handed (no easy feat, given the subject matter). But interspersed with the compelling message of the book are humorous scenes and touching moments between Willis and his family. The unique structure that Yu adopts also makes the novel a quick read, a tome that could be read in an evening. Unlike some other quick reads, however, the themes and emotions that Yu conveys through his characters stick with you.
Interior Chinatown ends by returning to the deeply personal level, with an inter-generational get-together that captures the love and conflict and complexity that come with familial relationships. Family members have a shared history, even though each member’s individual experiences will differ, especially across generations. That is the final message that Interior Chinatown leaves us with: the need for us to embrace the complexity of who we are. A person is not separate from where they came from; but nor are they solely defined by it, either—even when society tries to limit who we’re allowed to be.