Ontariorizing and Taiwanizing the Rust Belt: Flight or Fall

by Sheng-mei Ma

Metals oxidize and rust when they come into contact with moisture, the source of life. The circle of life, which includes death, pivots on oxygen that ages inanimate, insentient metals while animating sentient beings. Hugging the Great Lakes, the Midwestern Rust Belt has been tightened, in recent decades, around its thinning girth due to urban depopulation and rural devastation of factory closings and opioids. To give voice to this shuttered and silenced Rust Belt ought to be an inclusive, all-embracing effort, not just to those deemed “native” to the region, but also to one “not from these parts,” as Gogo says in Waiting for Godot (1953), one who has nonetheless languished throughout adulthood on this bare absurdist stage riddled with existential meaning. The people’s stories from the Rust Belt corroded by the stream of time should include my story across the Pacific Ocean from Taiwan, meandering among all five of the Great Lakes from Indiana to Michigan to Ontario. 

I propose an autotheory approach of thinking through the body—not only my body, but also Asian as well as Asian North American bodies—and feeling through textuality of artists of Asian descent, spanning Celeste Ng from Cleveland, Eleanor Wong Telemaque from Minnesota, Ling Ma based in Chicago, Bienvenido Santos and Bich Minh Nguyen from Michigan and Wisconsin, Domee Shi and Jessica J. Lee from Toronto, and more. This project initiates itself as “Asian America of(f) the Rust Belt,” since the ethnic group is a part of, yet oftentimes viewed as apart from, the Midwest, written off by the mainstream. Such discrimination, compounded by coastal and cosmopolitan elitism, elicits comedienne Margaret Cho’s pushback of “Midwaste” in I’m the One That I Want (2001, p. 98). The sense of not belonging, as though written into the Asian American DNA and internalized, leads most of the writers quoted above to migrate to coastal metropolis. The parenthetical “f” in “of(f)” implies the F-word of mutual, paradoxical, and hate-love “screwing”: abuse out of xenophobia montaged with subconscious, jealous love to be with, if not to be, the other.

My immigrant subjectivity troubles this North American-centric binary of Lake Michigan and Lake Ontario, making this project a triptych, or three-dimensional with Taiwan’s rage of Circum-Isle bicycle tours. Rather than any Asian American foundational mythmaking by means of “immigrant license” of imaginary ancestry and ancestral land, including China, the Philippines, and Vietnam from the list of writers above, a first-generation, “foundational” immigrant like me carries visceral (viral?) memories and knowledge. With the burgeoning of Taiwanese identity under the long shadow cast by a rising China, Taiwanese artists in films and social media embrace the island nation by caressing incessantly its coastal highways, well-nigh a repetition compulsion in the wake of traumas of the 1970s international rejections of its sovereignty and of the millennial military incursions from the PRC missiles, fighter jets, warships, and agitprop swarming its shores and consciousness. Taiwanese artists react by withdrawing into the island itself in films such as A City of Sadness (1989), Island Etude (2006), Cape No. 7 (2008), and Seven Days in Heaven (2010). The self-comforting Taiwanese “losers” eerily parallel the storytelling, few and far between, from the Rust Belt.

Put two and two together, despite differences between the tropical Taiwan and the chilly upper Midwest, call this project Huandao ji/ji Huanhu (環島 及/即 環湖Circum-Isle and/as Circum-Lake). The homonym of ‘ji” puns with both “and” and “as.” Indeed, going along the water’s edge—along Taiwan’s coast or the Great Lakes’—is as much circum-land as it is circum-water, even circum-air. The three states of matter of solid, liquid, and gas fluctuate along the beach, each lapping up and spitting out the others, be it grains of sand, drops of water, or pockets of air. The fact that landlocked human beings travel by staying on dry land rather than swimming or flying owes entirely to physical limitations. A pilgrimage on land because the pilgrim is trapped, corporeally, underlines the spiritual yearning to be free, to float up or down. Privileging air throughout the history of human fantasy of flight brooks as deep a death wish as a dive undersea. Crashing to land kills just as truly as choking to death. 

Hence, to skirt along the Great Lakes between the Rust Belt and the province of Ontario sutures Midwestern wasted bodies and depression with Canadian euphoria throbbing from its heart of the megacity Toronto, while praying for a personal deliverance along a circum-Taiwan homecoming excursion. Visualize a graphic book panel: this project parses Asian American and Asian Canadian Great Lakes fiction and film in situ, jostling between land and water, with an airy thought balloon above on Taiwan’s circum-isle dreamscape, for circum-lake here is circum-isle there to this Midwesterner from afar. Visualize the Rust Belt Unbound, stretching eastward over the lakes to its gilded doppelganger of Toronto, and westward over the ocean to a ghost island-state unrecognized internationally, a mirror image of its besiegement and homelessness. A triptych rusty in the middle, golden and shadowy on either side for dreams of impossible flight and nightmares of imminent fall.

Sheng-mei Ma (馬聖美) is Professor of English at Michigan State University in Michigan, USA, specializing in Asian Diaspora culture and East-West comparative studies. He is the author of over a dozen books, including The Tao of S (2022); Off-White (2020); Sinophone-Anglophone Cultural Duet (2017); The Last Isle (2015);Alienglish (2014); Asian Diaspora and East-West Modernity (2012); Diaspora Literature and Visual Culture (2011); East-West Montage (2007); The Deathly Embrace (2000); Immigrant Subjectivities in Asian American and Asian Diaspora Literatures (1998). Co-editor of five books and special issues, Transnational Narratives (2018) and Doing English in Asia(2016) among them, he also published a collection of poetry in Chinese, Thirty Left and Right (三十左右). 

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