Obedience: Act I
On “perfect passivity” and what it means to be Guai.
By Styvalizh Uribe
In the middle of an hour-long seminar last semester, my phone started buzzing and wouldn’t stop. When I finally retrieved it, the screen displayed call after missed call from my mom. She had sent me a video of a man beating an elderly Asian man to death on the A train. Passengers did nothing but avert their gaze. From 2,000 miles away in our California home, she urged me not to go outside. Staying in was the only way to make sure I was safe, she told me. I had to be a 乖孩子 (guai hai zi), or an “obedient child,” for her. I couldn’t bring myself to continue watching as the man, with an uncanny resemblance to my own deceased grandpa, was slowly beaten to death on the screen in my hand. I turned my Zoom camera off and replied—hands shaking, vision blurred—“Okay.”
乖 (guai) has developed into its current form out of a collision between the old and the new, the traditional and the modern, and the East and the West. The word, often used to praise children, denotes obedience, docility, and conformity to accepted norms of behavior. An essay by race scholars Dolores de Manuel and Davis Racio has suggested that as Asian American children grow up, they negotiate a “triple bind”: they are “pressured to remain faithful to ancestral heritage, while at the same time admonished to assimilate and become fully American, but ultimately [find] that because of their Asian genes, many Americans will never give them full acceptance.” I know from my own experience that parents often strategically deploy 乖 in processes of their children’s “becoming” Chinese American. How is this distinctly Chinese cultural logic adapted for an American social context? In answering this question, I found myself reflecting on my own upbringing, and how being 乖 relates to a particular Asian American trope.
I stared out onto third-graders playing in the parking lot of my American school as their parents trailed behind them. I felt my mom tug at my hand and tighten her grasp. We had just moved from Taiwan, and both of us made sure to keep our distance from the many white families in our neighborhood. In Chinese, she said to me, “Look at them—running around and not caring about the cars. Imagine if a stranger came along and stole them from their parents. Could you even imagine how devastated Mommy would be? Promise me that you’ll never be like them, that you’ll always be a 乖孩子.” The conversation ended with a pinkie swear in an American parking lot.
The “Asian” in “Asian American” is notoriously amorphous: It is constituted and made meaningful by the encounters between different strands of inherited values, each unique to specific cultural identities too often blanketed under the continental gesture of “Asian.” In accordance with the inherited notion of 乖, I grew to epitomize a cultural ideal. The rigor of my high school schedule—AP courses and college-level math—became the defining feature of my life. When school ended, I practiced Rachmaninoff’s “Prelude in g minor no. 5” and Liszt’s “Un Sospiro,” accomplishments my mother could brag about. Even seemingly meaningless activities, she held up as expectations towards excellence—like aimless laps in the pool, swimming from wall to wall. Rigorous swimming practice, like working hard at my school work and mastering an instrument, was something I could control. But, no matter how hard I trained, I couldn’t control the effects of being the only Chinese person in a white crowd. And though I had been taught to be careful, I wasn’t the only one: In that exposed and chlorinated atmosphere, I could tell my white peers had been taught to be just as tentative and distant around me.
I wanted to skip swim practice and spend more time with my friends from Chinese school, even if only a few more hours while we waited for our parents to pick us up. So I lied to my mom. I said that I had too much leftover homework to finish to go to practice, and that I had planned to study with my friends. When she discovered my transgression a few days later by talking to one of the teachers, I felt her chilling glare shoot all the way down my spine. My mother drove me to the police station and told me, as I quivered in the passenger seat, she wanted to disown me. I was a liar, and therefore couldn’t possibly be the daughter she raised; I was no longer her 乖孩子.
乖 has evolved to become a normalized part of my life and those of other Chinese Americans who strive to be well-behaved, obedient, deferential. The etymology of 乖, however, reveals a paradox. The character can also be used to denote “perversion, deviation and transgression.” In our recent conversation, University of Illinois linguist YiHan Zhou shared his fascination with the “anto-antonymic” properties of 乖. He explained that the word’s semantic contortions through time have been so drastic and varied that its current meaning completely opposes the original. What was once “deviate” became “cunning”, then “smart”, then, finally,“obedient,” its closest modern translation in English.
Repetition over generations has altered and enhanced the public's understanding of 乖’s meaning. Various guai teachings permeate Asian social norms, each iteration imperceptibly changing to approach an ideal of “perfect” and passive behavior within children. And it’s not just children adults demand obedience of. Green bags of coconut-flavored Kuai Kuai (乖 乖) snacks are commonly placed on devices in research institute labs, taped to hospital respirators, and placed on printers and near computers, to ensure that these machines never break down. These snacks are said to possess some “magical power” that “bewitches wayward tech—whether disobedient desktop computers, intractable servers or ill-mannered ATMs,” according to a Taipei Times interviewee. Immersed in this environment awash with 乖 imagery, Chinese American children passively, and dare I say mechanically, continue to accept 乖 as a desirable, even magical, characteristic. Children are conditioned and trained to perform merely the Generic Asian, reduced to automated behaviors that foster machine-like levels of obedience and animosity toward the wayward.
But, at its heart, 乖 is situated within the family. In listening to my mother’s words and promising that I would always be her 乖孩子, I began to personify 乖 without fully understanding what it meant. Over time, 乖 came to signify a web of inherited expectations that I had internalized over the course of my upbringing: that I would conform to a specific social hierarchy, or, in Zhou’s words, “play a role without causing fuss.”
Yahui Anita Huang, a specialist in Chinese linguistics in Columbia’s Department of East Asian Languages and Cultures, researches commonly-invoked phrases—like 面子 (mien zi), or “reputation,” and 臉 (lian), or “face”—and their role in negotiating autonomy and filial responsibility. When I spoke with her, she quoted Lu Xun, a famous figure in Chinese literature: “面子是中國人的金錢光臨,” or, in English, “Our reputation [as Chinese people] is worth more than gold.” 乖 (guai) extends from this belief. To be 乖 is to embark on a continual project of preemptively saving face, to preserve one’s culturally invaluable reputation. Chinese daughters, sons, and students learn to “add more 乖 to [our] portfolios,” as Huang said.
Zhou’s and Huang’s warnings, though they address distinctly Chinese behavioral practices, reminded me of the American model minority standard. Similarly pervasive, both anticipate and project obedience and self-restraint onto Asian people. Further, the standard of 乖, according to Zhou, has always been established by those higher up in the social hierarchy—typically parents and teachers. The white majority in America sets up the “ideal” expectation, and I am forced to play my role—without fuss or complaint, as I have been taught. This performance of “guai” behavior problematizes our roles as Americans, as we remain mechanical pawns in a much larger social game. As a parenting style, Huang summarized 乖 in terms eerily similar to the model minority stereotype; in this framework, she said, adults choose to “emphasize and value obedience over independence, compliance over innovation.” This comes at the cost of exploration and self-expression: In both 乖 teaching and the model minority paradigm, “creativity is not really addressed.”
Asian American culture has not been handed down, unchanged, from parent to child; with each generation, practices are partly inherited, partly modified, and partly invented anew. Speaking to these researchers helped me remember that we young people are one such link in this chain, connecting the past with our future.
乖 is both a set of aspirations to conform to Asian social obligations and familial expectations and a desirable adaptation in order for Asian Americans to effectively compete in mainstream society. Even as 乖 traditionally demands conformity to certain behavioral standards, its ambivalence opens up the possibility of negotiating these boundaries. With a formal, “original” character that denotes perversion and revolt, the disjunction of the “乖” allows behaviors that reinforce and behaviors that challenge prevailing social expectations to co-conspire. Interpreted this way, 乖 can infringe on the model minority discourse. For Asian Americans, eliminating these stereotypes promises long-awaited validation and belonging. It offers a glimpse of a different kind of being in American life — one that acknowledges race but abandons the confines of American expectations on Asian personalities — one in which we are seen neither as a threat and more than a 乖孩子.
The drive back home from the police station was silent. It isn’t easy to reconcile a seemingly predetermined identity. In that drive home, I decided that I was okay with losing the status of my mother’s 乖孩子. Perhaps now, I could be more than just a 乖孩子. Perhaps I already was.