Transpacific Housewives and Model Minorities in the Capitalist World-System
In 1988, when Taiwanese author 朱天心 Zhu Tianxin penned a short story「新黨十九日 」“Nineteen Days of the New Party” to effectively commit the “rise and fall of the Taiwanese stock market” 1“The Decline And Fall Of The Taiwan Exchange,”<em>Taiwan Today</em>, September 1, 1990. <a href="https://taiwantoday.tw/news.php?unit=4&post=4619">https://taiwantoday.tw/news.php?unit=4&post=4619</a>earlier that year to literary memory, she chose the intimate vantage point of one of the social identities most caught up in the stock market frenzy: 1“Citizens ranging from housewives to factory workers are scraping together whatever cash they can and invading brokerages to join in an investment craze triggered by the spectacular boom of the local stock market.” Annie Huang, “TAIWAN'S STOCK BOOM HAS CITIZENS DREAMING OF QUICK RICHES, EXPERTS ADVOCATING CAUTION,” <em>The Washington Post.</em> August 12, 1988. <a href="https://www.washingtonpost.com/archive/business/1988/08/12/taiwans-stock-boom-has-citizens-dreaming-of-quick-riches-experts-advocating-caution/31ccacf2-5674-4c82-93db-f96d6d2e4598/">https://www.washingtonpost.com/archive/business/1988/08/12/taiwans-stock-boom-has-citizens-dreaming-of-quick-riches-experts-advocating-caution/31ccacf2-5674-4c82-93db-f96d6d2e4598/</a> a never-named Taipei housewife, drawn out from the confines of her life by the efflorescent forces of global finance capitalism, Westernized consumerism, and burgeoning protest politics following Taiwan’s lifting of martial law. Ten years later, Japanese-Canadian author Ruth Ozeki published her debut novel, My Year of Meats (1998), also centering on a housewife, who becomes so enthralled and galvanized by the effects of global late capitalism on her life — in her case, a TV show sponsored by the U.S. meat industry’s marketing arm in East Asia — that she comes to question the abuses of her circumscription as a wife, and eventually escapes altogether.
In this essay, I play with the question: what makes the housewife a compelling figure for these two works of Transpacific writing on the global economy? What is revealed in and by each text’s aestheticization of the housewife’s subjectivity, her historical or political “positioning ... in the crosshairs of combined and uneven developments,” 1Ruth Jennison, Review of WReC, <em>Mediations</em>, 101.her femininity predicated on socially reproductive labor? Most pressingly for a forum like this, how might a Transpacific historical materialist analysis of this figure take part in thinking about Taiwan literature in the world?
As the specific literary form and critical self-consciousness of Zhu Tianxin’s writing demonstrate, Taiwan literature is essential to such explorations. From her “second-generation mainlander” grapplings that chart a specific diasporic relation to Chineseness under Cold War de-imperialization and recursive modern coloniality, to her borrowing from Western high modernisms to meet the harsh totality of the political with tender, implosive interiority — Zhu stages a multivalent and continually evolving politics of refusal directly sourced from Taiwan’s un-place-ability in time, space, or development. These and other narrative techniques by Zhu, as just one Taiwanese writerly example, activate what the Warwick Research Collective (WreC) calls the “registrative” 1 Interestingly, WReC warns that this “registrative” capacity does not inherently invoke critique or resistance, which differs from arguments by the likes of Pheng Cheah, who claims that, as a force of worlding and reworlding, literature has the ability to actually effect changes under capitalism. capacity of world literature — that is, its ability to “bear testimony” (50) to the rupture, newness, and unevenness of modernity under “the one and unequal capitalist world-system” 1Sharae Deckard et al. (Warwick Research Collective). <em>Combined and Uneven Development: Towards a New Theory of World-Literature, </em>50, 10.(10). To discern this “registrative” capacity, WReC invites readers to pay attention to “dialectical images” that crucially “foreground the accordion-izing, telescoping function” of combined and uneven development; to attend to “discrepant encounters, alienation effects, surreal cross-linkages,” “unlikely likenesses,” and representations of Henri Lefebvre’s idea of “time travel within the same space, a spatial bridging of unlike times” (17). In this essay, I comb Zhu’s short story and Ozeki’s novel accordingly for such ironies and anachronisms that illuminate the housewife herself, an “unlikely likeness” across two texts seldom read together.
The modern, middle-class Asian housewife might seem like an unlikely entry point for issues at the scale of the macro and the longue-durée, but she is actually more closely entwined with the long 20th century’s U.S.-dominated cycle of capitalism in East Asia than we might initially think. Of course, the gendered separation of public and private spheres of labor arose earlier due to 19th-century industrialization beginning in Britain, 1Friedrich Engels, <em>The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State</em>; Endnotes, “To Abolish the Family: The Working-Class Family and Gender Liberation in Capitalist Development.”but the 20th century’s world wars and transition from British to U.S. hegemony transformed gendered labor (most recognizably as American women went from WWII “homefront” production heroes to 1950’s housewives in less than a decade) in ways that require new frameworks attuned to the Transpacific. Starting with Japanese reconstruction in particular, East Asia’s rapid industrialization under U.S. Cold War hegemony proceeded hand in hand with the “idealization of the modern U.S.-style middle-class life ... defined in large part by the acquisition of prescribed sets of consumer durables.” 1Emily Cheng, “Meat and the Millennium: Transnational Politics of Race and Gender in Ruth Ozeki’s My Year of Meats,” 206.At the center of this idealization and emulation of American middle-class lifestyles was the housewife (shufu in Japan), who directly “functioned” to “[symbolize] democracy and progress” 1This is not to say this symbolism went uncontested. Grace En-Yi Ting writes of how this symbolism of democracy and progress was inextricable from “continued, highly ambivalent negotiation in terms of gender norms for women” (7).and tie “the rise of mass consumer society” to “the rise of a formation of domesticity” — a progression that relied upon the “separation of spaces of paid labor and economic relations from a privatized, maternalist space of home” and ongoing “development of the discourse of ‘my homism.’ ” 1Emily Cheng, citing Tomiko Yoda.
Keeping in mind how gendered labor has always been crucial to the ideological and material project of U.S. capitalist hegemony in relation to Asia,1Laura Hyun Yi Kang, <em>Traffic in Asian Women</em>; Neferti Tadiar,<em> Fantasy-Production</em>; Jodi Kim, <em>Ends of Empire</em>; Lisa Yoneyama, Lisa Lowe, etc.I ponder if the housewife’s “positioning ... in the crosshairs of combined and uneven developments” 1Ruth Jennison, Review of WReC, <em>Mediations</em>, 101.can uniquely dramatize the “simultaneity and singularity” 1Per Harootunian and Jameson, quoted in WReC (12–15).of those developments made personal, as multiple imperatives (to embody exemplarity, to facilitate “the daily and generational renewal of human life,” 1This is Susan Ferguson’s pithy encapsulation of Social Reproduction Feminism’s key concern. “Social Reproduction: What’s the big idea?” <a href="https://www.plutobooks.com/blog/social-reproduction-theory-ferguson/.to">https://www.plutobooks.com/blo... mediate and represent cultural capital, etc.) work in concert. The housewife, like many figures rich for historical materialist analysis, requires us to move beyond binaries and into dialectically constitutive contradictions. Housewives are both consumer base 1See <em>Cold War Kitchen: Americanization, Technology, and European Users</em>, 2008 volume edited by Ruth Oldenziel and Karin Zachmann; Michiko Takeuchi’s “Cold War Manifest Domesticity: The ‘Kitchen Debate’ and Single American Occupationnaire Women in the U.S. Occupation of Japan, 1945–1952” (2016), and associations between East Asian Tiger economies with rice cookers and washing machines.and crucial laborers for social reproduction. They are both symbols and purveyors of cultural capital. They represent class privilege (the ability to be supported by a “family wage”) and an undertheorized peripherality right in the core (a margin at the center?) due to their experience of a unique configuration of Marx’s “forms of estrangement” or alienation. 1Marx, <em>Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts</em> (1844).This uniqueness arises directly from being cut off from possibilities of solidarity in the workplace, which renders the housewife particularly susceptible to the reification of racialized and gendered norms that materially and ideologically enact disciplinary structures of exemplarity.
In this way, the very space of the atomized, nuclear-family-unit home and the abstractions of the housewife position and persona achieve coherence by compelling multiple scales of exemplarity. To be the “model housewife” involves keeping a “model household,” while relentlessly pursuing other models to emulate. 1Ultimately, I am interested in thinking expansively about exemplarity in order to further explore what Kandice Chuh and others have identified as the “homology” between model minority discourse in the U.S. and “model capitalist” discourse in rising, modernizing Asia (“Asians Are the New… What?” 2017). This transnationally scaled geopolitical reading of minority exemplarity has been explored to some extent by Robert Lee, who contextualized the model minority myth as being very much a product of the Cold War and proving exceedingly convenient for white neoconservative political interests to wield against the “three specters [haunting] Cold War America in the 1950s: the red menace of communism, the black menace of race mixing, and the white menace of homosexuality” (“The Cold War Origins of the Model Minority Myth,” 146). The brief connection I make here about “relentlessly pursuing other models to emulate” also hearkens to erin Ninh’s thesis about model minority subject formation, disciplinary power, and the immigrant home as capitalist enterprise, as well as Helen Heran Jun’s theorization of model minority neoliberalism in the wake of post-Civil Rights Act multiculturalism.
These multiple imbrications of exemplarity foreground the emotional labor of the housewife (Arlie Hochschild’s theorization of how employees in certain service industries introduce or suppress emotions in order to portray themselves in a certain light that, in turn, produces a wanted state of mind in another person) in addition to manual and socially reproductive forms of labor. As Ofra Goldstein-Gidoni tracks in her ethnography of housewives in Japan’s postbubble period, central to the “the ideals of the shufu” is “the happiness and joy that she, and in fact any Japanese woman, can and should find in simple domestic tasks.” The rubrics of how “the exemplary shufu [should rise] early to put on makeup for her husband, then spends the day blissfully cleaning the house, making side dishes, and setting elegant tables to ‘fulfill [her] (alleged) desire to have a beautiful, rich, and happy way of living,’ ” is an everyday that is “[enshrouded] in a suffocating sense of anxiety as she continually fails to measure up as a housewife, or woman.” 1Ofra Goldstein-Gidoni, <em>Housewives of Japan: An Ethnography of Real Lives and Consumerized Domesticity</em>, 149.
This affectively complex figuration of the Asian housewife sits uneasily on a polarizing yet mutually constitutive duality of exemplarity and precarity that structures Asian/American femininity at large. 1In <em>Ornamentalism</em>, Anne Cheng describes this as a “condition of <em>denigration</em> and <em>violence</em> that peculiarly and insistently speaks through the language of aesthetic <em>privilege</em>.” xi.As we know from poststructuralist theories of power, by definition, no one ever fulfills the models they are interpellated into, which keeps most constantly trying again. This “endless time of constant failure” 1Mimi Khúc, “Making Mental Health through <em>Open in Emergency</em>: A Journey in Love Letters.” <em>The South Atlantic Quarterly</em> 120.2 (2021), 375.for the aspiring housewife — both as failure and as model, 1In his introduction to the seminal 1999 collection <em>What is a Rim?</em>, Arif Dirlik described the Asia-Pacific as both “model” and “failure” of capitalism; that is, both exemplary for producing “new models of development that may be held before the struggling societies of the non-EuroAmerican world as proof of the success of capitalism; much the same as Asian Americans are held up before other less successful minorities within the United States as a ‘model minority’” (7), and “failure” for also introducing “communitarian capitalism” into the world-system. In the spirit of W.E.B. Dubois’s iconic question in <em>The</em> <em>Souls of Black Folk — </em>“how does it feel to be a problem?” — I wonder: what does it mean to be <em>both</em> model <em>and</em> failure? How does the economic rise of East Asia also fit into the formulations we have found for Asian America; into what Ellen Wu deftly describes as “the success of a success story” that, as Viet Thanh Nguyen and others have theorized, cannot be meaningfully resisted by diametric opposition or elevation of “bad minorities,” since such efforts would still be built around the same regulative ideal?both “kept” and “keeping house” — may be crucial for our understanding of the structural impossibilities and redundancies of global capitalism’s false promises; how they can be at once discontinuous and repetitive, spectral and regenerative.
In “Nineteen Days of the New Party,” Zhu Tianxin focalizes Taiwan’s 1988 stock market crash and subsequent 19-day downturn, catalyzed by Minister of Finance Kuo Wan-Jung’s introduction of a tax levy on all stock market gains. As the narrator housewife gets increasingly invested (literally and emotionally) in the stock market and in political activity (visually featured by rallies, news headlines, miniature flags in abundance), she vacillates constantly between elation and paranoia, intense affection and extreme disassociation. Tellingly, she begins to form intimate connections with far-off, proliferative “names” of global capitalism.
She really couldn't make much sense of what she read in the magazine, especially the charts, figures and formulae, but she chewed over those names with great interest — Dow Jones Industrial Average, Nikkei Index, Hong Kong Hang Seng Index, Nomura Securities, Merrill Lynch (Hu Li-yang seemed at one time to have been its Vice-President), IBM, Nippon Telegram and Telegraph, Exxon, Shell, C. Itoh Shoji .... Under the lamplight, she felt her eyes burn with tears as she realized, for the first time in her life, how big the world was, and how close to her it could be - just mention a few names and they would be right before you. That was why she loved chattering with Mrs Jia about people they knew only by name, loved to act as if they were neighbours or friends. [...] Oh, yes, she had a soft spot for Shen [a tycoon of the Taiwanese paper industry], he was as dear to her as a member of her own family. (Zhu 148, emphases added)
For the housewife, the alluring surfaces and signifiers of the global economy seem to hold the power to not only illuminate the contours of “how big the world was” but to summon that world’s presence, to render oneself relevant and even familial to financial developments. Meanwhile, her actual family becomes like “strangers” (170) who “[gang] up to drive her back into the kitchen” when she tries to catch the international news on TV (147). She grows disgruntled with her domestic tasks, even as she anxiously strives to fulfill them by timing her arrivals home to cook dinner “with calculated precision” and feigning ignorance when her husband condescendingly assumes she’d have no interest about news that she has in fact already been reading and even actively participating in all day. Her trepidatious efforts to “pass” as a proper, model housewife she’s expected to be — to cook everyone’s favorite dishes regularly (154), do all household chores without complaint or help (146), and only vote according to her husband’s political affiliation (155, 160) — comprise an aspiration to exemplarity in tension with a growing sense of smug superiority that she actually also feels about how uninformed her family is about the world; that is, a sense of “world” constituted by factoids about the global economy. She relates to the “open secret” 1Per Kuan-Hsing Chen’s thesis in <em>Asia as Method</em> that by creating “subcolonies” like Taiwan, the “knowledge project” of the Cold War caused “the United States [to become] the inside of East Asia, constitutive of a new East Asian subjectivity,” staging the “open secret [that] the American dream [is] internal to national and nationalist identity in Asia” (8). Chen’s diction here interestingly invokes Eve Sedgwick’s formulation of the “open secret” in reference to the homosexual closet in her seminal queer theory text<em> The Epistemology of the Closet</em>. According to Sedgwick, structures of knowing around the “open secret” set up an intricate power imbalance. Depending on one’s knowledge of what others know, or the knowledge others have that one does not yet have about oneself, etc., one can be empowered or disempowered. of her life beyond the home by energetically oscillating between different epistemological and affective positions: from the elation of knowing what her family does not know, to the shame of discovering what others already knew, to the sense of superiority and irritation of knowing what “naïve” people around her, still besotted by Western consumerism, do not know.
In a sense, the narrator could be read as allegorical for Taiwan’s status still as a U.S. protectorate at the Cold War’s supposed end. Like the narrator housewife, Taiwan is a diminutive figure on the global stage that has been “well taken care of” in some sense, but also pushed around, kept in the dark, and expected to stay within disgruntling bounds of docility. Rather than reductively confining Taiwan to some developmental life-stage telos, I raise this allegorical possibility insofar as it might help contextualize the story’s temporal discontinuities — regressions, skips forward, stalemates — within Taiwan’s own “adolescence” emerging from the KMT martial law era into an explosion of material desire, political energy, and voracious openness to new horizons of knowledge and information. This geopolitical context reframes the significance of the housewife not getting to have an “adolescence” until she’s already raised her own children to teenagehood. She anachronistically feels “both younger and more grown up” in her exciting, scrambled experience of the world of finance capitalism, which she compares to the unfamiliarity of puberty (149), the dreams and simple quasi-religious devotion of childhood (148), and transformation that’s temporally inexplicable altogether (“in just a few months she had grown big and strong behind everyone's back”). Notably, these developmentally uneven experiences are tightly laced with Westernization and cosmopolitanism: from the flagrant brand names she’s bombarded with and the thrill of having knowledge of global markets, to her willingness to take to the streets for democracy.
However, it soon becomes evident the housewife’s participation in these broader imaginings does not lead to a new reality that can actually satisfy, include, or even represent her in a dignified way. After a complex series of disillusionments about the titular short-lived political “party” that mobilized outside of both KMT and DPP solely around protesting Kuo Wan-jung’s tax levy, our housewife seems to experience a second awakening to the fact that the financial sphere, for all its alluring connections to global Westernized capitalist modernity, does not actually have any real relevance for or impact on her life. In a key moment, “all of a sudden, the spell which the magazine had cast on her the last time she read it was broken, and she found herself in a foul mood – what the hell had the Northern European style of management and the POS trading system got to do with her?” (168, emphasis added). However prescient, this realization of her own seeming irrelevance does not render her extricable, as shown in the story’s closing incident of the housewife’s crushing embarrassment over being unflatteringly photographed in a magazine while fleeing the scene of a protest weeks before. This sudden, painful pivot from being a reader and consumer of news to object or spectacle as a news item is not only characteristic of life under technologically mediated modernity; it also registers a tenuous constitutive contradiction that the housewife has always embodied: both needed and unseen, “irrelevant” and inextricable.
Ultimately for the housewife of Zhu’s short story, any liberatory or bildungsroman arc falters, but even failure highlights the structural impossibility of the promises that led her out from infancy and incubation in the first place. Her liberation is cut short because it was built on the false promises of modernization, which — as Immanuel Wallerstein has argued 1In "Culture as the Ideological Battleground of the Modern World-System,” Wallerstein claims that within “the capitalist world-economy,” “a case of modernization” is ultimately one of “Westernization” (36).— are ultimately entangled and even synonymous with Westernization. These false promises included the allure of gaining not just wealth but knowledge-clout, political community, and the discovery that she “wasn’t a good-for-nothing” and “[could] do a lot of things!” (163). Through subverting developmental temporality and contrasting the abstract intimacies of global finance capitalism with the concrete estrangements of domesticity, “Nineteen Days” models how self-contradictory “internal logics” of the U.S.-dominated global economy can seep into and compellingly offer to speak for the concerns of the local and personal. As Zhu Tianxin demonstrates, we cannot understand the housewife — and thereby, Taiwan’s — dilemma of attraction and disorientation to U.S. global culture without taking into account the draw of developmental progress, attainment, and mobility, as well as the most intimate psychic costs of knowledge and awakening.
My Year of Meats
“Registering” the capitalist world-system from the other side of the Pacific, Ruth Ozeki’s My Year of Meats engages with how transnational capital affects two women: in the U.S., Jane Takagi-Little, the biracial American-born documentary coordinator in charge of the U.S. company BEEF-EX-sponsored show My American Wife!; in Tokyo, Akiko (the wife of Jane’s boss John Ueno), who, as a Japanese housewife, comprises the target audience for My American Wife!. As the women’s lives become increasingly entangled from an ocean apart, it becomes evident that seemingly mundane domestic concerns like fertility, household purchases, and cooking actually comprise sites of U.S. hegemony’s large-scale conflicts. 1As Emily Cheng tracks, <em>My Year of Meats</em> “takes place in the moment after the trade wars in the 1980s, with U.S. calls for Japan to open markets and remedy Japan’s trade surplus and before the moral panic and questioning of the “Japanese system” with the economic downturn of the mid-1990s as well as the traumatic events of the Hanshin earthquake and the gas attack on the Tokyo subway in 1995 (Cheng 206). These events produced a sense of precarity in the everyday, “the perception of national peril that encompasses virtually all aspects of Japanese contemporary society” (Ting 18) — for which foolproof solutions do not exist. Amidst world-historical macrocosmic issues of global development and environmental disaster, both Jane and Akiko seek out Shonagon’s 10th century Pillow Book for its lists of the tiny and not necessarily significant, of mundane comforts and spaces.The world of My Year of Meats, like those in many of Ozeki’s works, is a wildly interconnected one, where the industry-sponsored global marketing media production process entangles people who have never met, and hate crimes are lucidly explained as “guns, race, meat, and Manifest Destiny all [colliding] in a single explosion of violent, dehumanized activity” (88). Throughout it all, Ozeki’s satire is so thorough and consistent that it creates its own sense of normalcy, while highlighting the absurdity of transnational capitalist discourse in promotional media and market research ads. For example, in a memo considered during the filming of My American Wife!, Jane consults a Japanese newspaper article on the “hermetic existence [of] the modern Japanese housewife,” which claims that housewives find “the human contact at the butcher shop [to be] too personal” and thus would “prefer to buy meat from vending machines.” This supposedly compels corporations to figure out “how to de-humanize meat” (87–88, emphasis in original).
At first, Akiko mainly relates to the world of The American Wife! through the grid of failure in her reproductive function as a wife: her inability to meet her husband’s demands for a child (especially as she timorously explores her nascent homosexuality), to satisfy his desires in her cooking, to check off the right boxes (literally, in viewer sociological surveys about the authenticity of the show) in support of his work. Though the Uenos are middle-class, Akiko’s predicament exceeds “privileged forms of failure” where “to some extent, the worst that happens in a story about romance is that a woman’s heart is broken” 1Ting, 25.— as her bodily safety is threatened by her husband’s increasingly horrific abuses for failing his standards of wifely exemplarity.
The figure of the housewife of My Year of Meats offers many possibilities for discussion, but I want to focus on the problem of Akiko’s eventual emigration, which has been roundly critiqued in Asian American studies for its rosy embrace of an essentialized American multiculturalism, postnationalism, and “superabundance.” 1Summarized in Soo Yeon Kim’s 2015 review, Monica Chiu’s 2001 article “Postnational Globalization and (En)Gendered Meat Production in Ruth L. Ozeki's <em>My Year of Meats</em>,” and elsewhere. After escaping from her abusive husband and flying from Japan to the U.S. in secret, Akiko is taken in by a series of diverse, open-minded “American wives” who had been featured on the show. Ostensibly, she encounters the prospect of a life of greater financial, sexual, and social autonomy, framed by the comforts of Bobby Joe Creely music, fried chicken, and American Thanksgiving. Despite this trope-ish array, questions of race, class, and U.S. empire are far from absent from Akiko’s travels across the U.S.1Akiko takes in the raggedy, small-town landscape of an America that “she’d never thought [of] as poor” (336), eats the picnic foods of “poor black folks ... too poor to pay out good money for them frozen cardboard sandwiches that Amtrak serves up in what they call the Lounge Car” (338), and stays with the Beaudroux family, who adopted almost a dozen children of color (nine of whom “hail from Asian nations that have been the site of post–World War II U.S. military interventions ... fathered by American military men” [Emily Cheng 210]) and houses some of them in the former slave quarters of their Louisiana estate.Furthermore, although My Year of Meats doesn’t, like “Nineteen Days,” directly puncture the illusions and intimacies offered by supposedly empowering involvement in global capitalist modernity, I wonder if Ozeki’s novel in fact plays with the controversial idealism of Akiko’s immigrant arc through its literary form.
That is, rather than reading Akiko’s escape and immigration as a problematic confirmation of neoliberal postnational multicultural politics, I want to consider the novel’s overall satirical form along with its other embedded genres.1Here I am hoping to extend Mark Jerng’s argument on genre’s “interrelated knowledge-building project with race” to also interrelated knowledge-building projects of racialized, gendered capitalist modernity.My Year of Meats simulates the limited telos of an adventure story; from the title, we understand all the events of the novel happened in a very memorable year and will not go beyond it. Framing the novel’s satire in the context of a year-long quest should make us wary of Jane’s “year” of heroically “saving” multiculturalism and exposing the toxicities of the global meat industry. It should also keep us from taking Akiko’s bildungsroman-esque “coming to America” narrative at face value.
Besides satire and quest, there is another genre at work in My Year of Meats, hiding in plain sight, which has everything to do with helping us rethink Akiko’s “escape.” Before her flight to the U.S., Akiko is brutally raped by her husband and ends up in the hospital in Tokyo. There, she narrates — in the poetic voice she’s been timidly experimenting with all throughout the novel, now emboldened — being able to see in her womb her burgeoning pregnancy from the rape, starting with fertilization. Given the trauma she’d just experienced, the nurse believes Akiko is “crazy,” and Akiko can only explain this incredible vision as “like one of those science documentaries on television. I could see it up close in my mind” (307). Medical tests soon prove that Akiko is completely correct about being pregnant, and she continues to “[watch] her baby grow” in exquisite detail: “at seven days, it was a single-layered ball of cells that folded over and over” … “at twenty-two days, she watched as a nonfunctional set of kidneys appeared, looking like those of a primordial eel” (317).
Of course, this extent of intimate, precise perception of the ungraspable is physically impossible, which leads me to argue that once Akiko begins to “see” her baby growing, her arc of the novel transmutes into magical realist form. Given Ozeki’s later works of magical realism (A Tale for the Time Being, and most recently, The Book of Form and Emptiness), this is not an overreach to suggest. Not only would such a reading offer insights on how the novel is figuring perception and intimacy in its exploration of indirectly-market-mediated labor, it also compels us to rethink Akiko’s transition to the United States, which may not as neatly or wholly align with the “immigrant narrative trajectory of freedom” 1Emily Cheng, 211.and “triumphant export of American liberal feminism” 1Shameem Black, “Fertile Cosmofeminism: Ruth L. Ozeki and Transnational Reproduction,” 249.and benevolence as has been critiqued.
By the end of the novel, Akiko is installed in a cozy apartment in Northampton, Massachusetts, to “ripen” for the remainder of her pregnancy, looking forward to watching the snow fall, preparing to write a “Dear John” letter to her ex-husband in a place of total safety (346). From one perspective, it looks like Akiko has proven the slightly diversified American Dream salient and reachable, leaving the show’s commodified, televised idealization of American abundance and generosity intact. If so, this rosy ending ought to disturb us and the satirical work of the rest of the novel. From another perspective (here I am thinking along the lines of theories of queer failure, trauma, and survival by the likes of Lauren Berlant, Ann Cvetkovich, and Grace En-Yi Ting), Akiko needed this rosiness — this overdetermined, almost cartoonish, too-good-to-be-true sentimentality — in order to first survive, and the novel’s magical (ir)realism grants us a way in to such a strategic, incipient insight. As Akiko revels in the space of her new apartment, de-linking corners and rooms from enslavement to her husband’s abuses — a de-atomized space crucially linked to other nearby households, like that of lesbian couple Dyann and Lara, who were featured on Jane’s show and helped Akiko get settled in Northampton — she charts a domesticity no longer premised upon being a wife.
This final scene of Akiko’s narrative also significantly refocuses her attention on her ex-husband, not on America. As scholars have argued, John Ueno does not necessarily epitomize a menacing Japanese traditionalism; rather, he could actually represent the worst of U.S. cultural hegemony and “the construction of gender in postwar modernization and capitalist development under American influence in Japan.” 1Emily Cheng, 211.Indeed, there is little that can be typified as distinctly Japanese about John. If anything, what makes him so abominable is more closely tied to his emulation of what is typified as distinctly American: his love for red meat, “big-breasted American women,” and being called “John Wayno” instead of Joichi Ueno for the similarity to John Wayne (a cowboy figure who, as Monica Chiu has pointed out, “exudes a reputation” for racism and sexism1Ozeki, 113; Monica Chiu, “Postnational Globalization and (En)Gendered Meat Production in Ruth L. Ozeki’s <em>My Year of Meats</em>,” 114.). As a pawn of interlocking transnational corporations, engorged with toxic white supremacist masculinist ideals almost to the point of caricature, John Ueno’s valuation of U.S. meats, virility, women, and ideology “must be situated in the longer history of U.S. transnational self-representations and the U.S. role in delimiting feminism in Japan during the post–World War II period.” 1Emily Cheng, 198.Tellingly, when accused of racism, Ueno bites back: “I didn’t make the rules. This is U.S.-sponsor show and U.S.-sponsor instruction” (Ozeki 119).
All told, the multiplicity of genres in Ozeki’s novel (satire/caricature, quest, magical realism) point to the possibility that Akiko did not escape Japan for America, a repressive, “de-humanized” East for the liberated, abundant West. Rather, in escaping her husband, she found a way out of the poisoning of transnational capitalism, for a magical realism that she is still figuring out, and is yet to be born.
As an initial case study thinking toward a larger project, I hope this essay has shown that the Transpacific Asian housewife of my analyses both deserves a place in and might escape the net of existing theorization on the capitalist world-system in literary studies. With her disconsonant potential for allegory and slipperiness out of straightforward epistemologies of empowerment, she is distinct from the Cold War American housewife theorized in Elaine Tyler May’s Homeward Bound: American Families in the Cold War Era, as well as the Japanese housewives of Goldstein-Gidoni’s ethnography. In my future work, I want to continue to think about how this particularly challenging figure straddling the Pacific — ambivalently Asian/American — might cognitively map a relationship to capital that is uniquely sensitive to the workings of minority exemplarity, socially reproductive labor, and the gendered alienations of home. I suspect that Taiwan literature, in its historical specificities, rich mutability, and relentlessly reflexive affective and political consciousness, will continue to be crucial for setting and unsettling the terms of such an inquiry.
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