Explicit assimilation: sex in Asian American literature

A teenager exaggerates their grossed-out expression. They mouth along to the trending sound of a Korean-accented voice saying, “ah disgusting naemse ganayo… disgusting shet.” The video is overlaid with text reading: “POV: you took a break from Kdramas to watch an American show but it’s the first episode and they’re already having seggs.”

The reel left me with a quick smile, but also a twinge of dissatisfaction. Why did so many Kdrama fans make fun of American shows on the basis of sexual content? I do not think these fans were prude. Is it just personal preference? Or a plot much more romantic with a slow burn?

I believe what bothered me was that this TikTok supported a particular observation of literature I’ve made. When it comes to writing sex, Asian authors tend to favor “less is more” description, while American authors tend to be blunt and heavy with innuendo. This TikTok suggested that it was not just literature, but other media too. But what nagged me most was this: Asian American authors do not write sex scenes that blend subtle and blunt. Rather, their writing seems to be exaggerated versions of American scenes, written in graphic detail.

I did not think much about it at first. I was simply enjoying the book Yellow by Don Lee, a collection of fictional short stories that cover eight lives of Asian Americans in a coastal town. The final story introduces Danny, a self-loathing Korean American who tries finding comfort (and self esteem) in white women. He loses his virginity to Nancy, from the full pages of 218-219, with Danny reflecting on his manhood till page 220. Then came his affairs with Jenny, whom Lee describes from pages 224-225 in enough detail that made a friend of mine comment: “What the heck… this is basically porn.”

My friend’s comment made me do a double-take. Porn? I recommended this short story to her because it was one of the best and most realistic stories depicting race I’ve ever read, and she (perhaps due to her whiteness?) Could not see that. In contrast, I fell in love with Danny, with “Yellow,” with all eight of Lee’s stories. How could I not; these stories that so accurately portrayed life! This book was the first I’d ever read in which so many characters were simply people, living their mundane, complicated lives, and they all just happened to be Asian American. Don Lee became my first favorite Asian American author. Yellow became my Asian American bible.

Then I asked: what defines Asian American literature?

Actually, a teacher had asked me first. Does the content need to be about Asian Americans? Or would any book written by an Asian American automatically be categorized as Asian American? A classmate suggested the latter definition, and to my surprise, I felt indignant. Would anything that I write then be automatically categorized as Asian American lit? What if a white classmate wrote a novel? Would you call that European American literature? What if you could read my writing without detecting that the author isn’t (your standard, blank slate) white? What if I wrote a geology field guide on igneous rocks? Would you call that Asian American lit?

On the other hand, Asian (contemporary, translated) literary sex scenes are written in a gentle way, contrasting the graphic nature of Lee’s. For example, in Yōko Ogawa’s The Memory Police, Ogawa writes: “R took my shoulders between his hands and gazed into the space between our bodies… he had covered my lips with his, and I could say nothing more.” What a graceful epitome of less is more. Meanwhile, in Banana Yoshimoto’s Kitchen, we do not get any physical details at all! The male lead’s transgender mother works at the club; her friend openly asks “have you slept together,” still we never read a single sex scene. And is the plot lacking? No, I argue not at all.

Perhaps that is why Don Lee chose to describe “his morning erection spreading her distended labia.” If Asians are expected to leave out the graphic details, then I, Asian American writer, will upend your expectations. I will write in a style that would not reveal to the reader my race. I will show you, explicitly, how my body works the same, carnal ways as yours.

Similarly, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Vietnamese American poet Ocean Vuong spares no detail. The semi-autobiographical novel, as a TIME review notes, highlights oppositions such as “death and sex, pain and pleasure, excrement and ecstasy, violence and love” through the graphic physical relationship between the protagonist and his lover, Trevor. While most reviews rave about Vuong’s writing, I find myself asking what audience he may cater his writing towards, what expectations he might try to evade.

I wonder at my worries about subconscious thoughts of Asian American authors as they write sex scenes. Have I consumed enough media to be making these comparisons, or am I just spewing Gladwellian claims? Yet I can not unsee these literary choices as wild attempts at assimilation. To be removed from expectations of Asians being shy, non-explicit writers, perhaps Lee, Vuong, myself and others feel the need to prove ourselves, to dramatize, exaggerate and make ourselves stand out.

I am bothered by the TikTok because I’m afraid – that I’ll be labeled and stereotyped no matter what literature I produce – that no matter how brutally-honest, laid-bare and genuinely I try to write, I will not be able to produce any piece of work that can simply be seen as written by a fellow human – that anything I produce, even a field guide, will be automatically categorized as Asian American literature, and the reader will think they know about my work, style, story or even facts about rocks, simply because my writing comes packaged with an extra label .

I’m not ashamed to be Asian, unlike Danny. But I am a growing person with insecurities about my identity (racial, and everything else) and its connection to my writing. I fear that no matter how I write, readers can never see past my skin, past my body, past their preconceived ideas of who I am to read the stories I want to share – stories I hope can make any other human feel seen, understood , and known, in ways I felt when reading Lee and Vuong, Jhumpa Lahiri and Charles Yu, Annie Dillard, Leo Tolstoy, Robin Kimmerer, Chimamanda Adichie… the list goes on.

I want to shout: YOU CAN KNOW ME! I CAN KNOW YOU! At the end of the day, we live each with one beating heart, breathing with two lungs without labels of identity nor ideas. Just a person trying to make it through today, and tomorrow, and the day after that. I’m not unique. I’m no more than what I leave on the page. And as my AP Lit teacher had declared, “Why is every book about death and sex? Because everyone dies and wants to get laid. ” But when you read my version of death and sex, do you see who I’m telling you I am, or is that already tinted with who you think I am?

Jocelyn Chin is a Trinity sophomore. Her column, Bibliobibuli, runs on alternate Wednesdays. Coined by HL Mencken, bibliobibuli means “to be drunk on books”: from the Greek biblio (books), and the Latin bibulous, from bibere (to drink).

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