Chinese food is one of the many analogies David Shih uses in Chinese Prodigal to examine the ever-shifting role Asian Americans occupy in this country’s racial fabric. Exotically delicious, revolting, and threatening at different times and sometimes all at once, the status of Chinese cuisine in the contemporary American imagination often mirrors mainstream attitudes toward Chinese immigrants.

The genesis of “Chinese American cuisine” itself during the early decades of the 20th century is directly linked to the 1885 Chinese Exclusion Act, which drove Chinese immigrants into the restaurant industry as a workaround to the Act’s ban on Chinese menial laborers. 

Shih skillfully intertwines this history with a narration of his immigrant father’s evolving relationship with food. His father grows to distrust the Chinese restaurants the family frequented in the past, worrying over the supposed health impacts of MSG and criticizing waitstaff for their broken English.

In addition to the pressures of a life on the road as a traveling porcelain salesman in the South, Shih’s father eventually forsakes family meals and Chinese cuisine entirely, opting for solitary fast-food dinners. This change in habit, spurred both by internalized racism and the realities of working life in America directly impacted his father’s health. The onset of diabetes during this period ultimately contributes to his death. 

At its core, Chinese Prodigal is David Shih’s attempt to reconcile his interpersonal relationships and self-concept against the backdrop of “Asian America” and its place in broader American race relations. Each essay sees Shih weave his personal experiences into a broader history, giving the reader vivid pieces of his own story as a prism to view the last half century of the Asian American experience.

This includes accounts of Shih raising his mixed-race son amid navigating strict American racial categories, his entry into the world of Asian American literature during its emergence as a distinct canon around the time of the murders of Vincent Chin and Rodney King and the L.A. riots, as well as describing his complex interactions with affirmative action discourse as an English professor in Eau Claire, Wisconsin. 

The book primarily orbits around Shih’s relationship to his father, whose death in 2019 serves as the entry point for Shih’s introspection of both their relationship and his identity in Chinese Prodigal.

In passages where Shih transparently and, at times, almost cynically analyzes their relationship, I was struck by his ability to maintain an empathetic perspective. The result is a compelling depiction of the struggle to overcome the gulf in understanding between a first generation father and a second generation son. 

During his final days in hospice care, Shih’s father struggles to cooperate with hospital staff. His pleas for his children to take him home fall on deaf ears, as they insist he listen to his doctors. Shih, looking back at this time retrospectively, sees his fathers meanness as motivated by terror: a deep-seated fear, driven both by his subconscious mistrust of the institution and his children interpreting his fear as irrationality.

In these moments, Shih avoids flattening his father’s character into a two-dimensional cutout. This stands in contrast to a common strain in mainstream Asian American culture — evident in famous works such as Joy Luck Club or even meme communities like “Subtle Asian Traits,’’ where immigrant parents and their irrational, conservative ways are always the butt of the joke — that fashions our first generation elders into orientalist stereotypes. Chinese Prodigal is a refreshing break from this trope, and offers an alternative way forward to consider our relationships with our parents.

Although written in the style of a memoir, Shih puts his personal experiences into the broader picture of Asian America’s relationship to the broader American racial hierarchy, ultimately arguing that mythologies surrounding Asians, from yellow peril to the model minority myth, hinges on the state of white-Black relations.

In the book’s final chapter, Shih uses Peter Liang, a New York City policeman responsible for the murder of Akai Gurley, an unarmed Black man, as a flesh and blood metaphor for the shifting ground Asian Americans stand upon in this country. Liang is tried and determined guilty by a grand jury. This is a justified ruling, but one rarely afforded to many white cops committing similar crimes. Liang willingly plays out his role for the carceral state, but is quickly abandoned in the same breath — an individual analogy demonstrating the precarious position Asians hold in America’s racial hierarchy. 

Missing in this reading on Asian American history is a more fleshed out connection to class relations. While discussing the murder of Vincent Chin, Shih fails to mention a major factor contributing to the anti-Asian sentiment during the 1970s and 1980s — unprecedented deindustrialization across the Rust Belt as a U.S. government motivated by neoliberal ideology colluded with large corporations to crush organized labor and outsource manufacturing overseas through free trade agreements, with Asian Americans as convenient scapegoats for the resulting unemployment and breakdown of the social fabric in many parts of the country.

This vicious cycle, with its origin in the 19th century conflict between Chinese immigrant labor and white workers leading to the Chinese Exclusion Act, so key to understanding the modern roots of anti-Asian xenophobia, is discussed by Shih in an article for the New York Times but is unfortunately absent from Chinese Prodigal

At times, it feels as though Chinese Prodigal exploration of the Asian American experience is stuck within a vacuum of racial identity politics. However, this framework alone isn’t comprehensive enough to understand other core issues facing the community, which are either unaddressed or very briefly touched upon.Why are Asians the most economically unequal group in America? Why are a quarter of Chinese residents in New York City living in poverty? Answering these questions requires a deeper understanding of the relationship between migration and capital, class, and the history of American foreign policy in Asia. 

Shih, however, never claims that this book or his experiences represent the entirety of a monolithic “Asian America,” an identity grouping only emerging as a cohesive organizing unit after the murder of Vincent Chin in the 1980s. The difficulty of coalescing around a monolithic identity composed of many groups with vastly different cultures, languages, immigration histories and class backgrounds — from highly educated Taiwanese college professors to Hmong refugees — is illustrated through Shih’s fathers refusal to adopt another identity as “Asian American” with the more tangible “Chinese American” label.

Shih, growing up in an area of Texas with few other Asian immigrants, is candid that he cannot speak to the “Asian America” of the ethnic enclave in a major West Coast city. Regardless, Shih’s insights still reflect a large cross-section of Asian Americans, and shed-light on key aspects of the Asian American experience. 

Ultimately, Chinese Prodigal provides an insightful window into the complicated, difficult relationship between Asian Americans and the place they call home. Above all, it remains a powerful and touching account of maintaining empathy and filiality in the face of political, cultural, and generational differences.  

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