‘Disorientation’: An Asian-American campus satire
Angela Mathew | Tuesday, March 28, 2023
Elaine Hsieh Chou described her 2022 novel, “Disorientation,” as the story of what happens when “a student who is clueless about race finds out the most racist secret at her school.”
Ingrid Yang is a 29-year-old Taiwanese-American PhD student who has spent nine years writing a dissertation on Xiao Wen-Chou, the (fictional) “father of Chinese-American poetry” who had died a few years earlier. She spends her days in the archive at Barnes University trying to unearth new interpretations from poems she’s re-read hundreds of times and popping one too many antacids.
As a campus satire, “Disorientation” explores Ingrid’s growing disillusionment with academia and her reckoning with Orientalism on her campus. It begins when she discovers an odd annotation near one of Xiao Wen-Chou’s poems — a note in bold, black ink, taunting her tentative interpretations scrawled in pencil. Eager for a distraction from her fruitless research, Ingrid goes on a wild goose chase to find out who could possibly have been visiting the archive and communicating with her in the margins.
In an entertaining turn of events, the normally timid Ingrid hires a private investigator. She finally ends up breaking into the note writer’s house, and she discovers the note was written by Xiao Wen-Chou who had faked his own death. What’s more, the purported Asian-American poet was actually a white man named John Smith who wore yellowface and wrote about made-up experiences living in the diaspora.
Ingrid grapples with this discovery in secret, realizing that her nine years of work would become obsolete if people knew the truth. On a personal level, she starts, for the first time, at 29, questioning the hierarchies of race. She starts examining the racism she internalized in childhood, “ignoring the few other Asian students in her grade as though they were invisible” and “laughing the hardest of all her white friends at an invented character named Ying Ying, who worked in a nail salon.”
One of Ingrid’s favorite activities while procrastinating used to be to read postcolonial PhD student Vivian Vo’s articles about race and “enjoy a hearty portion of schadenfreude” laughing at her “snide, holier-than-thou tone” and “whiny activism.” But now, discovering John Smith’s deception, she starts to feel uncomfortable when the men in her 89% white East Asian studies department make assumptions about what her upbringing as a child of immigrants must have been like.
Hsieh Chou tackles Ingrid’s growing consciousness of her identity with humor and complexity. She is constantly exploring and making fun of both sides, mocking the righteousness of activists like Vivian Vo while also commenting on mainstays of anti-Asian racism like yellowface, fetishization and the “model minority” stereotype.
Considering Ingrid spent nine years studying at the same university, it seems implausible that she suddenly agrees with liberal activism after mocking it for so long. Additionally, it seems unlikely that she never questioned or criticized the authenticity of Xiao Wen-Chou’s works before discovering the truth about his identity. However, since the book is a satire, maybe it’s not as important to consider the realism of the characters.
Though Hsieh Chou makes fun of both sides, “Disorientation” definitely feels more like a direct political commentary than traditional satire. In a piece for The New York Times Magazine, Hsieh Chou explained that nearly everything that happened in the novel was drawn from real life, right from a comic opera starring 40 white actors in yellowface to a white poet using a Chinese pen name.
The brilliant tone of the book will make you laugh at the outrageous and absurd and then leave you disoriented at the enduring realities regarding race in America.