English professor encourages ‘affectionate interpretation,’ awareness of Asian American rhetoric at Elon University

LuMing Mao discusses Asian American rhetoric

Marlena Chertock

MARCH 3, 2011

LuMing Mao, professor of English at Miami University of Ohio, discusses Asian American rhetoric and why it is important to retain differences in togetherness. Photo by Marlena Chertock.

Rhetoric, the study of writing or speaking effectively, can be ethnic and can change among different groups of people, according to LuMing Mao, Miami University of Ohio professor of English.

Mao spoke about Asian American rhetoric in Yeager Recital Hall March 3 at 7 p.m. as the first speaker for the Togetherness in Difference Lecture Series.

Mao defines rhetoric in two ways: the effective systematic use of language in social, political and cultural context and making knowledge. It’s a way of reading and a way of engaging.

“I would like to think my work is a way of generating knowledge,” he said. “I would like to be regarded as part of the body of Asian American rhetoric.”

African American English has a longer history and body of work, Mao said. Asian American history has started 10 or 15 years ago, he said.

In a very structured speech, Mao presented and discussed three quotes, three questions and two examples of Asian American rhetoric. He quoted Geneva Smitherman, a University Distinguished Professor of English at Michigan State University, author Maxine Hong Kingston and author Richard Nisbitt.

He discussed if Asian American rhetoric has distinctive and identifiable features.

“I consider myself part of the American experience,” Mao said. “On other hand, I very much want to be connected to the ancestral culture of China, East Asia. Sometimes I feel I belong to no place.”

Asian American rhetoric is a hybrid in the making, Mao said.

It forms out of a counter discourse, out of a response of the dominant discourses in American culture, according to Mao. It is an ethnic rhetoric marked by “otherness.” The rhetoric allows Asian Americans to construct new genres and codes that speak to their own needs and wants.

The rhetoric can employ a collective identity that can break out of the constructed and stereotyped Asian American, Mao said.

Asian American rhetoric forms from a desire for Asian Americans to break out of their silence and write their own experiences into the larger American narrative, Mao said.

“The most productive question for me to ask is not what is Asian American rhetoric, but where, when and how do other Asian Americans use rhetoric to bring about social, cultural and political changes,” he said.

Mao presented two different examples that dealt with Asian American rhetoric.

He played “hyphenation,” a five-minute track from i was born with two tongues, spoken poetry from a Chicago-based Pan-Asian Spoken Word Troupe. An Asian American woman combines music, words and metaphors to explain how the society she lives in makes her fragmented.

“I am Asian slash American, Asian slash American slash woman,” the poet said.

Mao called i was born with two tongues a hybrid of spoken poetry, music and political empowerment. It draws upon the oral tradition of black and Caribbean communities to create Asian rap, he said.

Mao also read sections of “The Women Warrior” by Kingston, which describes a woman growing up as a Chinese American.

People should become more aware of rhetoric and how they’re using it, Mao said.

“Only by being more conscious and aware of what we’re doing can we be more aware of the consequences of what we’re doing,” he said.

The world is now a diverse, smaller place that brings people together, Mao said. But he doesn’t want togetherness to be celebrated and romanticized as eradicating differences. This is naïve and unrealistic, he said.

“Togetherness does not absolutely erase our differences,” Mao said. “I don’t want the fact of being together to erase differences.”

Words have consequences and meanings that impact others. Words have histories and histories have significance, according to Mao.

People should deal with words and differences by practicing what Mao calls affectionate interpretation. It’s a form of putting oneself into the other’s shoes — empathy.

“Be charitable when you communicate with others,” he said. “Be mindful and aware of the consequences of your own behavior.”

When togetherness happens, people should become aware of differences, Mao said.

“We (should) use our differences not as a barrier but as a resource to cultivate better understanding, better communication and better lives for everyone,” he said.

This lecture series is funded through a College of Arts and Science Fund for Excellence Grant. The second and final speech will be given by Dr. Victoria Bergvall. The speech is “But words will never hurt me: Critiquing media messages about sex, gender and brain differences.”

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LuMing Mao discusses differences in togetherness

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About Marlena Chertock

Marlena Chertock's first collection of poetry, On that one-way trip to Mars, is available from Bottlecap Press. Her articles have appeared in The Washington Post, Marketplace, and WTOP. Her poems and fiction has appeared in The Deaf Poets Society, Moonsick Magazine, and Paper Darts.

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