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Caught in a Limbo Between Two Cultures

THE FORBIDDEN STITCH: AN ASIAN AMERICAN WOMEN'S ANTHOLOGY. Shirley Geok-Lin Lim and Mayumi Tsutakawa, editors, Corvallis, Ore: Calyx Books, 290 pp., $26.95 THE media abound these days with tales of incredibly successful Asian-American immigrants, first and second generation. They're far ahead of their American counterparts in academics. Families work together in businesses, in apparent harmony and with enviable industriousness. They're lauded for their eventual prosperity. They have, it seems, reached the promised land.

But what many of these stories don't reveal is the tremendous difficulty many Asian-Americans have adapting to a nation and people so different - in looks, behavior, values, mores, and history - from their own.

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From the little hope in the stories, poetry, and art that make up ``The Forbidden Stitch,'' Asian-American women in particular have a hard time adjusting to life in America.

The book was designed to discover new voices. Many of the writers are young and unpublished. They are mostly Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Philippine, and Indian immigrants. Because of the difference in the countries, there's no common thread to the literature, except for the palpable confusion and sadness that acculturation causes.

As if to remind herself she is no longer Chinese, just another anonymous American, one poet writes: ``We are Americans now, we live in the tundra/ Of the logical, a sea of cities, a wood of cars.''

``Who is mother tongue, who is father country?'' a Korean asks, torn between old and new, less stable allegiances.

These women, stuck in a limbo between cultures, cannot leave one behind in order to plunge fully into the one in which they live. A young Chinese character in one story says, ``I judge myself both as a Chinese and as an American.'' And in another place, she observes, ``It's harder for us to become American than, say, for a German, and it's also harder not to remain residually Chinese, even if you are third generation.''

The separateness some of these women feel is particularly poignant. One poet talks of ``being a girl and a young woman who thought beauty was being white.''

In many of the stories and poems, the country that was left figures prominently - if not in reality, then in memory, as if it's not adjusting to the new that's hardest, it's leaving the old. A hibakusha, or Hiroshima survivor, gets nervous when she hears the distant whine of a plane. ``Stop this nonsense,'' she scolds herself. ``You've been in America for nearly 40 years. The war is over. Are you going to jump like a rabbit every time an airplane passes overhead?''

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The world of the past is too much with these women, and it's not just war memories, but outmoded customs and fidelities to behavior that clash with the modern world. Men, when they are talked about at all, do not come off very well. In part this is because in many Asian countries, men and boy babies are valued so much higher than women. That ingrained disdain for women is bound to produce hard feelings, to say the least.

``The only thing women have is their cunning,'' an old Malay woman tells a young girl.''

``We women must accept our fate,'' a mother tells her daughter. But the daughters are in less of a mood to do that.

One story, about an Indian woman going to an American beach for the first time, is a metaphor for acculturation. On first seeing everyone in skimpy bathing suits, she's horrified. ``Is there no shame here?'' she wonders. ``Her head swam as she turned her eyes from the glare of the sun and attempted to examine the perturbing nakedness around her.... The unhappy thought presented itself to her that she was among people who had indeed lost their sanity.''

She doesn't understand why the sunbathers oil themselves and roast in the heat. Finally, she rolls up her pants and dips her feet at the water's edge. After all, ``her husband was not around to glare at her in remonstration.'' More than mere foot-wetting, that step was the first toward immersion in a new culture, and it's taken with humor, insight, and not a little courage.

The anthology takes its title from a stunning embroidery knot, so difficult to sew that tradition says Chinese artisans often went blind attempting it. It is a symbol for the writing too long forbidden to Asian-American women.

This collection is the first of its kind. That's an ``important indicator,'' the editors say, ``of the level of invisibility Asian-American women experience in this society.'' There's beautiful, touching writing here, but much of it is not happy.

``My heart is clouded with unspoken sadness,'' a poet writes. Unspoken, perhaps, but now, not unwritten.

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