Betrayal from Within

As Leslie Bow points out in her piece, “Betrayal and Other Acts of Subversion,” women have long been accused of betrayal, it’s danger lying in the way that betrayal can break the imagined boundaries of a certain community. She argues that a critical analysis of the accusations of Asian American women’s betrayals can reveal the ways that our society constructs a very specific place for Asian American women. It shows us that society places a high value on notions of patriotism and nationalism (even though belonging and citizenship are only permitted to some). The accusations Bow studies are from outside the Asian American community, but what can we understand from analyzing accusations from within the Asian American community?

Merle Woo’s “Letter to Ma” from This Bridge Called My Back could be seen as one example of a betrayal from within the Asian American community. Woo admits that she no longer wants to come see her family as often, and that she feels frustrated by her mother’s censorship. In this way, she is breaking the boundaries of the home community that her mother tried to create. In some ways, this could be read as simply a generational difference between mother and daughter, but Lowe would say that this misses the point of how the expected roles for a generation of Asian American women were formed. Woo says that her mother has this self-contempt that is reinforced by society, so Woo’s betrayal is towards her mother, but also towards the self-contempt that she was expected to feel. This betrayal is in a way even more drastic than that of “Tokyo Rose” or Yoko Ono, because though she did not publicly threaten the nation or the ideals of the U.S., if every Asian American woman betrayed the self-contempt imposed on them, the hegemonic white patriarchy would begin to be overturned.

At the end of the letter, Woo includes her mother in a line of activist women. She acknowledges that her mother started something even if she doesn’t believe that she did. Here she is speaking to the heterogeneity of Asian American women’s experiences and ways to be activists and practicing strategic essentialism by acknowledging the different ways that both she and her mother fought to survive. Her mother survived and earned a living in a time when that was extremely difficult and that in and of itself is resistance to the system that wasn’t set up for her to succeed. A generation later, Woo’s experiences as an academic are not as different as they should be. She talks about being the token Asian American at every meeting and being included but ignored. She explains to her mother why her activism is so important, and she does this without denying her mother’s different form of activism. This betrayal of the way her mother expected her to live, might not even be read as a betrayal if we could consider the heterogeneity of Asian American experiences. If she wasn’t expected to fit the specific mold, she would not be seen as betraying it.

On the other hand, the act of reading Woo’s letter as a betrayal can be considered anti-hegemonic. Perhaps betrayals from within the Asian American community are not seen as betrayals because they are not seen as threatening the hegemony. When we think of what made the betrayals of “Tokyo Rose” and Yoko Ono so monumental, it was the fact that they threatened the white hetero-patriarchal community. However, betrayals of one’s own family are not seen as threatening because from the hegemonic subjectivity, those communities don’t matter as much.  Of course, I’m not saying that Woo’s not coming home for the holidays should have made national news, but at the same time, this is a betrayal, however nonthreatening it seems.

Woo’s betrayal is both familial and social. The familial and generational expectations of what Asian American women should be are inextricably tied to social expectations. On one hand, seeing Woo’s choices as betrayal assumes the homogeneity of Asian American women’s experiences, but on the other hand it acknowledges the importance of self-determined Asian American communities and reads and places betrayal from an Asian American rather than White subjectivity.



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