“Who Am I? Alterity and the Deconstruction of the Asian American Identity in John Yau’s ‘Ing Grish'” Essay by Chloe Kerr


John Yau’s “Ing Grish” raises the same questions that he asks in his essay “Between the Forest and its Trees”:

Might it not be possible that the self is made up of many selves? Might it not be possible that none of them knows the whole story? Not even the one who is speaking? The one who is in this sentence, the I that is writing these words? (41)

Evidently, Yau wishes to write from a perspective of a self who does not know the whole story, and therefore may find it difficult to adopt the unified identity of being “Asian American.” However, controversy arises when researchers such as Dorothy Wang in her article “Thinking Its Presence: Form, Race, and Subjectivity in Contemporary Asian American Poetry” boldly suggests that “for Yau, his identity as an Asian American cannot be separated from his poetry, there is no such privilege of simply erasing the subject nor his racialized subjectivity” (29). Yau, according to researchers in the Asian American literary field, cannot be considered as alternative to, or separate from, the deeply personal, subjective poetics written before him. He is defined by his ethnicity, and as such, labeled as an Asian poet adhering to their agenda of reclaiming an identity in America. For example, Asian American poetic works such as “Songs of Gold Mountain: Cantonese Rhymes from San Francisco Chinatown” by Malon K. Hom have been critically acclaimed and aptly characterized as letting “the reader come away with a sense of having become part of the suffering of a people trying to forge a life in the new country that they looked forward to so much: America” (Mayer 340).

This raises a central question of whether all Asian American poetry must be historically and racially informed in order to be of value when adding to larger poetic discourse. Similarly to Dorothy Wang’s interpretation of Yau’s poetics, Juliana Chang in “Reading Asian American Poetry” argues that John Yau’s poetic works are part of a broader racialized project, where his “mysterious and potent resistance to assimilation appears as an intricate and symbolic manifestation of past histories and experiences of Asian’s in America, and…such experiences of “racial inequality” (Chang 81).

However, Tara Fickle, in her article “English before Engrish: Asian American Poetry’s Unruly Tongue,” offers a different reading of Yau’s poetics, suggesting that “Yau’s language experiments intersect with the ‘epiphany’ of his own unique identity as a poet…and the realization that who you are is simply an accident of birth” (Fickle 82). Indeed, Yau’s raising of such questions as “what is identity? What is an Asian American? What is an immigrant?” (Yau 185) exposes that not every Asian American poet desires to reclaim a lost cultural identity. Such narrow readings suggest that poetry is never informed by the present nor open to new voices that wish to use poetry as a way to bend the rules of language.

I argue that by opening up the poetic space to include and speak to the “oppressed” and “excluded” voices of the “other,” Yau reveals that the term Asian American suggests a hybridity and union that does not speak to everyone. Yau is informed by Emmanuel Levinas’ concept of alterity or “otherness” through the way in which within his poem, Yau juxtaposes what he knows with what he does not know. By doing so, Yau stresses that the “way in which the incompatibility and never perfect fit between languages gives us different ways of speaking, of living, of establishing identity” (Nakayama 68). Yau can be seen as the “other” not through his background as an Asian in America, but by the ways in which he exemplifies in his poem that neither culture, be it English or Chinese, accepts him.

Alterity and the Understanding of the “Other”

Emmanuel Levinas’ philosophical concept of alterity calls forth the “other”, speaking towards a disruption of the self, and the process of a person, or group of people, becoming divergent from dominant social views or identities dependent on traits such as gender and ethnicity. In Levinas’ essay “Alterity and Transcendence,” Levinas clearest definition of alterity is as follows:

The other’s facing, in it directedness, would appear to signify both the defenselessness and the opposition of alterity, an authority that is missing in the simply logical alterity, which identifies individuals and concepts and distinguishes them from one another, or opposes notions to one another by contradiction and contrariety. (30)

In other words, alterity is the concept of incompatibility, where a person’s inability to encompass the right qualifications for a given identity make him/her the alien or “other” in society, unable to assimilate in any pre-existing group of people. Levinas continues to come back to this definition of his concept, and how it relates back to the ethics in the “other’s” reaction to being the “other.” Ethically, Levinas believes that there is a responsibility in responding to the “other,” which stems from the uniqueness of the self, the “I” and the fact that no one can answer for them. Furthermore, in an article by Henry McDonald titled “Aesthetics As First Ethics: Levinas and the Alterity of Literary Discourse”, he explains that “justice, as a consequence, can no longer be equated with reason defined in terms of universality; it requires recognition of alterity and the incommensurability of the experience (with the other)” (McDonald 20). However, this incommensurability may suggest that in light of such an impossibility or acceptance in society, “otherness” could be understood as an identity category of its own.

Thus, Alterity lends itself well to the concerns of not just the Asian, or immigrant, in America, but rather, any and all, which feel like the “other” in society. As John E. Drabinski argues in “Levinas, Race and Racism”:

Identities are formed not on the basis of an inherent meaning and value of a people, but instead in relation to an other, who in its marginalization, comes to define what a group of people is only in contrast to what they are not. (7)

Indeed, the feeling of otherness emerges from an impossibility of acceptance or “wholeness”. As Thomas Nakayama states, Asians, as well as all immigrants in America are “constrained in the ways that our identities and our voices communicate and construct our identities, by the ways that we speak and are spoken to” (67). Thus, Yau can be understood as using this concept to show how the “other” is created through the inability to understand both the rules of American culture as well as Asian culture. In addition, Yau speaks towards his inability to ever fully converse or express himself in either Chinese or English.

“Alterity” in John Yau’s “Ing Grish”

In his essay, “Between the Forest and its Trees” Yau states that he rejects the lyric “I” because to him, it requires “writing in a language that is transparent, a window overlooking a world in which we are all present. It is not a world that includes me. It does not speak for me or to me. It is a bubble handed down by others to others” (Yau 186). Evidently, Yau does not wish to speak solely from his personal thoughts and emotions, but rather a multitude of voices, a perspective that is both personal and collective. As Xiaojing Zhou states in his book, The Ethics and Poetics of Alterity in Asian American Poetry, Yau investigates the multiple ways in which “language constructs identities, especially the possibilities of agency in language for asserting a multiple, incomplete and unstable self, who signifies an unsettling otherness” (Zhou 198). In his poem, Yau contrasts what he ‘knows” with what he “does not know” as a way to show how the inconclusive and convoluted rules of the English language have aided in the formation of cultural alterity. Although informed by personal experiences, he proves that the feeling of otherness is not exclusive. Through exemplifying how he can be excluded in the dominant English culture as well as the immigrant Asian culture through an inability to fully master either language, he shows that his experiences are not merely subjective. Indeed, it is because Yau’s poem taps into the idea of not fitting in, that it can be felt by more than one group of people, who have been made to feel like the “other” due to their inability to completely connect with or understand their own cultural backgrounds.

In his poem, Yau begins with a quote from Catherine Liu: “You need to speak Singlish to express a Singaporean feeling” (Yau 544). From the start, then, it is evident that Yau wishes to address the problematic relationship between identity and language. From the title, “Ing Grish,” we also see that he is not mixing two languages or cultures. Rather, he is speaking for the failure of the tongue, the stereotype of the Asian American who is unable to articulate him/herself in English, who in their failure to pronounce, fail to pass within the dominating culture. Through the interchanging “I” in the poem that switches back and forth between “I do know” and “I do not know” the “I” which is at once personal and collective, acknowledges an identity based on alterity that is not in transition, but suspension. This means that without the “subjective excess” of the lyric “I”, he suspends his poem as a work belonging to a larger issue and many thinking subjects, rather than that of just one object of thought. Speaking as– not for–a group in which the title of Asian American does not encapsulate them, especially when according to the “rules”, they cannot be fully defined as either Asian or American.

Fittingly, the poem begins with a response to Catherine Liu’s quote. Yau admits in the first stanza that he “never learned Singlish” (Line 1). Thus, Yau is blatantly distancing himself from an Asian identity. Yau’s distant, removed tone in this first stanza reflects his mixed and confused feelings towards the difficulty of establishing an individual identity in America. This reveals Yau’s own understanding of alterity as pertaining to the confusion he feels regarding his own identity within America, especially when according to rules of language, he does not know either English or Chinese. Yau further articulates this through acknowledging and alluding to the evocative possibilities regarding the duality in the meanings of American and English words. For example, in the second, third, and fourth stanza, Yau plays with not only the mispronunciation of “English” but also the feelings of inadequacy felt by an “other,” a foreigner, who is trying to learn to communicate:

I cannot speak Taglish, but I have registered the tonal shifts of Dumglish, Bumglish, and Scumglish. I do not know Ing Grish but I will study it down to its black and broken bones. I do not know Ing Gwish, but I speak dung and dungaree, satrap and claptrap (Lines 2-7)

Upon reading these first six lines, the words “dumb,” “bum,” “scum,” and “dung” immediately stand out as derogatory slurs that are aimed at the outsider and the unintellectual, the unwanted waste in society.

More so, it is important to note that Yau uses tonal shift here in two important ways: one, to allude to tone and the mode of sounding words in speech with intonation and thus as an articulation of feeling; and two, as a reference to the chiropractic term, where repetitive injury or stress to the body can cause segments to shift abnormally, disrupting the underlying nerve tissue, requiring intervention to correct them. With this in mind, Yau’s reference to dungarees, or overalls (which are associated with the clothes of a worker), may allude to the psychological stress associated with the labor of mastering a new language, and in the failure to do so, the disruption of a positive view of oneself. In addition, Yau’s declaration of speaking “satrap” which is a word used to describe a subordinate ruler, and “claptrap”, which is foolish talk or an empty language, shows that as the “other” his articulation of self is not discernable. Therefore, Yau speaks “submissiveness” and “foolishness” as a result of his apparent inadequacy in following the rules the rules of a language when aiming to fit within the dominant society. With attention to how Yau points out what he speaks, knows and does not know, we see how he exposes that the cryptic and excessive use of certain slang words, only further oppresses and excludes the “other”.

Notably, Yau’s use of American and Chinese stereotypes in the poem in the lines “Today I speak barbecue and canoe / Today I speak running dog and yellow dog” (8-9) bring his poem to a present that consists of these terms coming together. However, Yau is not implying there exists a happy union of that between Chinese and American, rather, he is pointing out how even today things are still disjointed. For example, the term “running dog” is an English translation of the Chinese word “Zou-Gou”, meaning a lackey or a lap dog. This was a Chinese pejorative from the time of Mao, and was a huge insult to the Chinese, for the associations with being a dog were lowliness and submissiveness. The term “yellow dog” has a dual meaning here then, as the color yellow is associated with the pigment of the skin of a person of Chinese ethnicity.

In addition, it may also refer to the name for voters in the southern United States who voted for candidates in the Democratic Party. Interestingly, the Democratic Party was known to have favored ethnic minorities, and in the 1960s president Johnson supported the civil rights act as well. Thus, Yau’s use of alterity becomes even clearer. He is juxtaposing the stereotypes of American leisure and exploration (the barbecue and canoe), within the context of the duality of the history and the stereotype of the Chinese being submissive (the running dog and yellow dog), to show he cannot fully lend himself to either. Yau is re-affirming that his connection to both cultures is complicated and unmitigated. His knowledge of these stereotypes and historical terminologies does not mean that they mean anything to him personally. Facts, for Yau, are known through studies, but to know them does not necessarily bring him closer to the history out of which they arose, nor any deeper cultural understanding.

In the seventh stanza of the poem, Yau can be seen as reflecting Levinas’ conception of language and alterity as “functioning as part of a conscious realization of the presence of the other, and of his proximity and of our community with him” (46). That is, not only may the understanding of North American slang terms reinforce the barrier to be part of American culture, but also the feeling of being outside of that culture too. This is illustrated in the following quote from the poem: “I do not know Spin Gloss, but I hear humdrum and humdinger / bugaboo and jigaboo” (10-11). Here, in using a confounding term “Spin Gloss”, Yau may be referring to the term Spin Doctor, which describes a public relations person whose job is to positively “spin” the words of a famous person or political figure, so that they may have a more favorable relationship with the general public. Also, the term bugaboo is a North American slang word for an object of fear, a “bug bear”, and a jigaboo (also a American slang word) is an informal pejorative for a Black person. Yau is saying here that he cannot put anything in a better light, he cannot hide what he hears, which, as offensive and dismissive as they are, are nonetheless the sounds of the everyday: the “humdrum and humdinger(s)”, Additionally, the racial slur against Black people is unsettling to the reader and opens up the poetic space to multiple voices of the “other” in American society.

However, when Yau says in stanza eight, line 12 that he does not know “Ang Grish” and proceeds to explain he knows more about his last name than he does the feeling of hatred, the tone suggests nothing of anger, He states that he cannot know to be angry when arguably he can only explain what he knows. This only gets harder since, as he conveys in stanza 26, “I learn over and over again that I do not know Chinese”. For Yau, there is a clear distance between language and culture, and in this way, he proposes that what you know and do not know do not matter when you may never know the right amount in order to “belong”. This breaking down of the inaccessibility of the rules of a language, which Yau connects with ancestry, shows that it has little to do with the authenticity of a person’s feelings towards any given language or culture. Indeed, as Timothy Yu explains in “History and memory are not the impetus to write: rather they become materials to be incorporated, along with others, into writing. How do I deal with it? Becomes: how do I write about it” (446). This is exemplified in stanza 10 of the poem:

Oh but I do know English because my father’s mother was English
and because my father was born in New York in 1921
and was able to return to America in 1949
and become a citizen (15-18)

Yau is using a sarcastic tone here, with his exclamation of  “oh”. He is exposing the standards society has set for qualifying for a specific identity through ancestry. However, it is important to note that Yau admits throughout the poem that he indeed does not know English. Thus, his exclamations of knowing it, are in fact an acknowledgment of how far removed he actually feels from it. For example Yau gives the following reasons in the poem for not knowing English: “Because I got divorced and therefore / I must have misunderstood the vows I made at City hall” (42-43) and “because when my father said that he would / like to see me dead, I was never quite sure what he meant” (77-78). These lines are reflective of cultural alterity, a theme that is heavily prevalent in the poem. Yau suggests that in not understanding his father’s words, he did not understand what was culturally expected of him. He could not see the connection between his father’s pride and the disappointment that Yau was not more Chinese in terms of speaking the language fluently. More so, in failing to fulfill his vows, the promises he made in English, he fails to be able to uphold what is expected of him in the eyes of the dominant English culture as well.

In “Divided Loyalties: Literal and Literary in the Poetry of Lorna Dee Cervantes, Cathy Song, and Rita Dove,” Patricia Wallace says that “Asian American poets are shaped by their passion for languages possibilities, for the creative and the experimental energy of the poetry itself and not their fluency in English when their experiences are both multicultural and bilingual” (4). The very idea of poets’ experience as being diverse, and able to go beyond language, is the cultural alterity Yau speaks to in his poem. Yet, looking at the 12th and 13th stanzas of poem, Yau also explores what is understood as being learned in a given culture versus what can be inherently understood, further blurring the lines between how an identity is formed. For example, in stanza twelve Yau again speaks towards the failure to fulfill cultural expectations through language:

I do not know Chinese because my mother said that I refused to learn it
from the moment I was born, and that my refusal
was one of the greatest sorrows of her life,
the other being the birth of my brother (22-25)

In refusing to learn Chinese, as stated earlier, Yau becomes a disappointment to the Chinese culture. Indeed, the sweeping statement of  “from the moment I was born” suggests something even more controversial in regards to the idea of this impossibility to be able to be included in this culture from the moment he came into it. However, his inexplicable understanding of Chinese in the thirteenth stanza of the poem does not mean he had not been able to understand certain phrases from being subjected to it throughout his life:

I do know Chinese because I understood what my mother’s friend told her
one Sunday morning, shortly after she sat down for tea:
“I hope you don’t mind that I parked my helicopter on your roof” (26-29)

Notably, the grammatically incorrect translation, and not to mention absurdity of the helicopter being parked on the roof, could be read as him not understanding what had been said at all. However, reading this as Yau knowing what had been said, but unable to transcribe it into English so that it is coherent suggests that although he never learned the language he still is able to say he “knows” it, even if it is not translatable.

Yau exposes the alterity he feels even within his own culture and the multiple ways in which from all ends of the spectrum forms how he learns: “over and over again that I do not know Chinese” (64). Furthermore, the lines in stanza 26: “yesterday a man asked me how to write my name in Chinese, because he was sure I had been mispronouncing it” (65-66) is an allusion to the way “Yau” may be pronounced as “Qiu” in Mandarin. The challenge to the Yau’s knowledge regarding his last name, being that it “consists of three letters, and that technically all of them are vowels”, shows that he was made to feel like “the other” by fellow Chinese as well, and shows how this gap in knowledge signifies what Yau writes in stanza 27: “I do not know Chinese even though my parents conversed in it everyday” (68). In addition, stanza 14 lines 31-34: “Because I do not know Chinese I have been told that means / I am not Chinese by a man who translates from the Spanish / He said that he had studied Chinese and was therefore closer to being Chinese than I could ever be.” This clearly supports the reading of Yau using the poem as a way to unsettle the reader and show that he does not fit into either identity category according to the rules of language. It shows the oppressive nature of language if understood as the only key to unlocking an individual’s identity.

The very last stanza of the poem is haunting. It reveals the true fragmentation of identity experienced by Yau. As well as, speaking to the entire collective group of individuals who have become defined by their alterity, and repressed by the standards of language that they may never meet:

I do not know either English or Chinese and, because of that,
I did not put a gravestone at the head of my parent’s graves
as I felt no language mirrored the ones they spoke. (83-85)

Ultimately, Yau’s goal is to reveal a place of ‘non space’, an in between space, where the “other” resides. As Nakayama proposes: “we need to find our own voices in these in between spaces, in ways that follow a different cultural logic” (69). Evidently, Yau’s inability to find the right language to write in, or to explain what his parents meant to him, is the characteristic of the “cultural alterity” Yau has exemplified throughout his poem.


Yau’s evocation of Levinas’s philosophical concept of alterity within his poem, and his deconstruction of the identity of the Asian American, deepens our understanding of a group of people who are Asian by birth and American by circumstance. Yau wished to be released from a title that seemed to situate him in an established, and thus a given, unified identity in America where he felt he had no identity. Yau demonstrates through his use of slang and non-standard English how he resists assimilation and establishes himself as merely a poet, separate from his ethnic background. His inability to adhere to the rules of language or cultural expectations of both American and Chinese culture, allows him to speak as an “other” to a diversified group of others, rooted in alterity.

That being said, I acknowledge that poetry can have an element of ambiguity and thus be open to multiple interpretations. More so, I cannot speak for all Asian Americans. I can only relate what I have understood through Yau’s poem. I only looked at one poem by Yau, whereas a look at his earlier or later poems may disprove my thesis that Yau rejects taking on any other subject position than the “other” through rejecting a racialized subjectivity. Indeed, more research must be done regarding our understanding of how Asian American poets may be influenced by Levinas’s concept of alterity, as well as how they add or take away from Yau’s stylistic choice of rejecting the lyric “I” as a way to execute what I have called “cultural alterity.”

Works Cited

Chang, Juliana. “Reading Asian American Poetry.” Poetry and Poetics 21.1 (1996): 81-98. JSTOR. Web. 05 Nov. 2014.

Drabinski, John E. “Levinas, Race, and Racism.” Levinas Studies 7.1 (2012): 7-20. Project MUSE. Web. 09 Nov. 2014.

Fickle, Tara. “English Before Engrish: Asian American Poetry’s Unruly Tongue.” Comparative Literature Studies 51.1 (2014): 78-103. Project MUSE. Web. 08 Nov. 2014.

Mayer, David R. “Songs of Gold Mountain: Cantonese Rhymes from San Francisco Chinatown by Malon K. Hom: A Review.” Asian Folklore Studies 47.2 (2004): 340-41. JSTOR. Web. 05 Nov. 2014.

McDonald, Henry. “Aesthetics As First Ethics: Levinas and the Alterity of Literary Discourse”

Diacritics 38.4 (2008): 15-41. JSTOR. Web. 05 Nov. 2014.

Nakayama, Thomas. “Muting and Finding an Asian American Voice.” Women & Language 28.2 (1995): 66-72. Print.

Wallace, Patricia, Lorna Dee Cervantes, Cathy Song, and Rita Dove. “Divided Loyalties: Literal and Literary in the Poetry of Lorna Dee Cervantes, Cathy Song and Rita Dove.” Poetry and Poetics 18.3 (1993): 3-19. JSTOR. Web. 03 Nov. 2014.

Yau, John. “Ing Grish.” Comp. Paul Hoover. Postmodern American Poetry: A Norton Anthology. New York: Norton, 1994. 543-45. Print.

Yau, John. “Between the Forest and Its Trees.” New England Review 15.3 (1993): 185-188. JSTOR. Web. 03 Nov. 2014.

Yu, Timothy. “Form and Identity in Language Poetry and Asian American Poetry.” Contemporary Literature 41.3 (2000): 422-61. JSTOR. Web. 05 Nov. 2014.

Zhou, Xiaojing. “John Yau: The I of Changes, the Destroying I, the Its of the I” The Ethics and Poetics of Alterity in Asian American Poetry. Iowa City: U of Iowa, 2006. 196-228. Print.

Chloe Kerr
Chloe Kerr is an English Literature major who loves to dabble in the art world whenever she isn’t burrowing her face in a novel or writing a paper. Chloe, who recently completed her undergraduate Bachelor of Arts degree, has taken many creative writing courses, and credits her biracial background (her mother is Chinese and her father is Scottish) for her curiosity and passion for studying and exploring all to do with multiculturalism and immigrant culture.


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