Sui Sin Far (Edith Maude Eaton) begins the final paragraph of her “Leaves from the Mental Portfolio of a Eurasian” (1909) with two sentences that sum up her argument throughout: “After all I have no nationality and am not anxious to claim any. Individuality is more than nationality” (252). These two sentences challenge our understanding of “nation” and “nationalism” in a similar way that Editha’s continual appeals to national honor in William Dean Howells’ story by asking us as readers to question what we mean when we use these terms. Today, I want to briefly explore some aspects of Far’s text that we can tease out with students to help them think about the implications of closed, insular nation states.
To begin with, we must remember that Far was the daughter of a British father and a Chinese mother, a Eurasian, and that she was not born in American but came to the country at an early age. While she struggles with her identity as a Eurasian, she must also navigate a British/American identity. She does not address this in “Leaves,” but I think it is something worth thinking about with students. In discussing Far’s path to understanding her identity, we need to provide students with some historical background, specifically in regards to immigration in the United States at the turn of the twentieth century and in regards to the Chinese Exclusion Act (1882). Through this, we can show students that the ways some individuals treat and speak about Far were not isolated events but rather part of an endemic problem with racism that stretched back to the founding of the nation.
Some students may argue that we have always seen America as a “melting pot” for people from all over the world. However, we need to make sure that students understand the history of this phrase as one that, while including numerous nationalities, also excluded many more. J. Hector St. John De Crèvecœur, in Letters from an American Farmer (1782), describes the a melting together of various “races” into a new one, American.
To help students understand this concept, have them look at the pages from De Crèvecœur’s Letters above. In the passage, De Crèvecœur asks, “What then is the American, this new man?” He answers by claiming this “American” is of European descent: “He is either an European, or the descendant of an European, hence that strange mixture of blood, which you will find in not other country.” Noticeably, De Crèvecœur links American to European, eschewing other ethnicities (some brought here by force, some here before Europeans, and some coming from other regions of the globe). In this way, De Crèvecœur constructs Americans as white, and he only attributes mixture to those of European ancestry.
Would De Crèvecœur consider Far, an Eurasian of British and Chinese ancestry, as an American? I cannot say; however, I can say that some of those who did interact with Far saw her not as an American but as someone beneath them because of her Chinese ancestry. This treatment causes Far to question the term “nationality” and its meaning in regards to race. (In this way, and others, she reminds me of William Apess.) She asks:
I am only ten years old. And all the while the question of nationality perplexes my brain. Why are we what we are? I and my brothers and sisters. Why did God make us to be hooted and stared at? Papa is English, mamma is Chinese. Why couldn’t we have either been one thing of he other? Why is my mother’s race despised? I look into the faces of my father and mother. Is she not every bit as dear and good as he? Why? Why? (244)
Far questions “nationality” as De Crèvecœur and other after him defined it in relation to America. She does not understand why nation trumps the person, and throughout “Leaves,” this topic repeats in the form of her discussions on passing, her feelings of being a stranger to even her parents, her view of “a Chinese person” in a store, her treatment at the hands of an employer, and elsewhere. At the heart of all of these anecdotes is the question of nation and nationality.
As Far concludes, nationality should not matter when it comes to the ways that we view each other. Rather, we should view the person as he or she is, not based on the nation of their origin or residence. (I am not saying that we are not affected by our places of origin and residence because those things have an impact on our worldviews, but I am saying that we cannot paint individuals with strokes of essentialism.) Far shows this through the anecdotes she presents readers that chronicle her journey to “individuality.” Along the way, she makes the case that she does not speak for every Chinese-American or every person of Chinese descent; instead, she speaks from her own experience, not one based on nation and nationality, but one based on herself.
In presenting Far in the historical context of De Crèvecœur, the Chinese Exclusion Act, and even in relation to the tropes of passing and the tragic mulatto/a (a discussion that needs to be had as well) we can hopefully help students question what we really mean when we use the term “nation.” For further materials to assist with this topic, Emory’s Postcolonial Blog on Nationalism provides a good overview of ideas to assist students with this approach. As well, share with students Emma Lazarus’ “The New Colossus,” the poem at the foot of the Statue of Liberty.
As usual, this does not exhaust the conversation that could be had on Far’s text. What are your thoughts? Let me know in the comments below or on Twitter (@silaslapham).
Far, Sui Sin. Leaves from the Mental Portfolio of a Eurasian. American Literature Vol. 2 Eds. William E. Cain, Alice McDermott, Lance Newman, Hilary E. Wyss. 2nd Ed. Boston: Pearson. 241-252.