Ed Lin’s Waylaid is narrated by a twelve year old Chinese American boy who is on the brink of adolescence. The protagonist struggles to grow up as he helps his parents run a sleazy motel on the New Jersey Coast while catering to a variety of different men throughout the season such as old men in the winter to the Bennys in the summer. He struggles to grow up in the overly sexual environment as he loses his grip on concepts of friendship, family and most importantly his childhood. Throughout the entire novel, the narrator is on a quest to lose his virginity in order to assert his manhood.
He begins to associate masculinity to Americanness and tries to prove his manhood as he struggles to create an identity, while pushing away his Chineseness, in order to successfully integrate into American society while trying to balance the tension between familial duty and rebellion. The beginning of the novel starts off with the narrator’s assumed goal in life which is to lose his virginity. At the young age of twelve, he asserts, “I was about 12 years old when I knew that I had to get laid soon. No more of this jerking off. That was for fags. ” (1).
The narrator is seemingly burdened by his virginity and is motivated by the desire to lose it as quickly as possible. Even at a young age, he associates getting laid to being masculine. He associates virgins to “fags” who are usually known to be non-masculine as he displays homophobia. Losing one’s virginity is a metaphor of fitting in and being accepted while growing up and integrating into adulthood as the narrator’s sense of self-worth is crippled because he is still a virgin. Vincent, one of the Bennys who frequent the motel, is the narrator’s model as he is hyper sexual and has plenty of experience with women.
Vincent is everything that the narrator wishes to be for sexual activity is closely linked to masculinity and he exudes masculinity. The narrator contrasts himself, a Chinese immigrant, to Vincent, an American, as he compares Vincent’s “pair of tight black trunks and aquarium blue flip flops” to his own “imitation leather slippers from Taiwan [that] left threads on the top of [his] feet” (2). No matter how hard the narrator tries, he seems to be different from the Bennys and cannot associate himself to their culture.
Vincent continues to push the narrator as he begins to feel inferior to him as he explains, “I feel like such a loser when Vincent talked about girls. Vincent always talked about his fucking adventures” (4). The narrator fantasizes about sex escapades and feels demasculinized at the thought of being a virgin. Vincent sparks the goal of getting laid before the summer in order to assert his masculinity so that he can feel like a man. Again, at the beginning of the novel, he associates Chineseness to femininity when he exclaims, “Chinese girls are ugly.
I like blondes. ” (4). To the narrator, having sex with a Chinese girl will not proclaim his masculinity. He must have sex with a blonde, or more specifically an American, in order to successfully transition into the Americanized idea of being a man. To the narrator, the transformation into adulthood is marked by the act of having sex. Although having sex is simply seen as a rite of passage to most, the narrator’s obsession with sex deems him to see it as an accomplishment and an act that can validate his masculinity to others.
The narrator pushes away his Chinese identity in order to associate himself with anything American in order to become more masculine. Whenever he is not at the front counter of the hotel, the narrator is constantly fighting to gain the respect of his fellow classmates as he literally asserts physical violence as a testament to his masculinity. At school, a white boy named Mitchell attacks the narrator at the water fountain saying, “Fucking Charlie Chan, don’t you even know how to get a drink?
You need a pair of chopsticks or something” (115). By comparing the narrator to a figure such as Charlie Chan, Mitchell condescendingly mocks the narrator as he apparently fits into the category of the Asian stereotype where one does not have the capacity to learn the English language and is bound by the Asian culture. Although Mitchell is much taller and bigger than him, the narrator kicks his shins and punishes him and anyone else who calls him Asian rather than American for being Asian means that he is small and weak, thus emasculate.
The narrator keeps his distance from his Chinese culture as he insists, “I’m an American” (89). Although physically, he looks Chinese, the narrator truly believes that by asserting his status as an American, he is American before his Chinese. When Mrs. Fiorello exclaims, “you’re such a cute Chinese boy, you should speak some more and be proud of what you are,” the narrator is disgusted (75). The words “Chinese” and “boy” are two of the most emasculated words in his dictionary as they trivialize his status as a masculine figure.
The association of femininity and homophobia can be seen again when the narrator explains, ” heard ‘jap’ a lot on television [… ] I guess that’s where the other kids heard it, too. When they started tagging me with it, I took it as them calling me ‘fag’ and took care of them accordingly” (104). This reveals the narrator’s interracial conflicts as anything Asian is related to homophobia or something that renders him to be effeminate. As soon as he is associated with his Chineseness, the protagonist is quick to shoot anyone down in order to navigate the balance of his Asianness and Americanness.
The narrator’s lack of an authoritative figure of masculinity forces him to take on the lead role in his family. The narrator’s father cannot assert his masculinity because of his immigrant status thus the roles are reversed and the narrator is forced to take on his father’s role as the head figure. The father’s lack of masculinity can be seen through his clothes as the narrator contrasts his own clothes to that of his father’s as he “preferred wearing t-shirts” and “was dressed like a kid all day while I was wearing a men’s shirt with a tag on the collar that read ’14-28” (127).
The narrator describes his father’s clothing to that of a young boy while he has to be on the front lines of the motel, taking on the customers while wearing a “men’s shirt”, even though he is only twelve. The narrator is also disappointed with his father as he is not supportive of advancing his educational endeavors. His father is always working in his crawlspace and he places familial obligations upon his son. However, the narrator does not want to be limited to labor for the rest of his life, like his father.
Though he rejects his father’s traditional values, there is little to fill the void because he has too much work to do, puttying holes in the rooms, fixing windows, ticking off items from the to-do list his father taped to his closet door. The narrator explains, “all this stuff you’re showing me you don’t even need to go to college for. Doing this makes me forget everything I learn in school. Doing this makes me stupid. I don’t want to work here for the rest of my life” (60). The narrator has higher ambitions and understands that his father, who represents Chineseness, is limited and marginalized, thus views him as an emasculate figure.
Thus, he does not want to be put in the same liminal space. The father’s lack of involvement in the narrator’s experience of growing up into adolescence results in his lack of confidence and insecurities when it comes to his masculinity. The narrator continues to reject anything related to his Chinese culture as he tries to assimilate into American society. One of the main rejections is to food. The narrator has an interesting relation to food as he never seems to eat a proper meal while he is working the counter at the motel. He is criticized by Mrs. Fiorello while he is eating peanut butter and biscuits because it gets all over his mouth.
Mrs. Fiorello reduces him to a little boy when she asks, “Don’t you kids wash up anymore? ” (73). The fact that the narrator spills his food seems childish so he gets angry at Mrs. Fiorello when she points this out. Because his parents are always busy at the motel, the narrator never gets a home-cooked meal. Instead, his parents buy him Burger King. This is important as the most symbolic food of America is the hamburger. The fact that he is eating a hamburger symbolizes that he is consuming and eating his way into the American culture as he is willing to do anything to associate himself with anything American.
On Thanksgiving weekend, the narrator contrasts a dinner scene he sees on television to the dry turkey dinner that he is forced to eat with his family. The commercial shows, “relatives coming together at a table set with pumpkin pie, cranberry sauce, mincemeat, and other things I’d only seen at the supermarket” (101). The narrator fantasizes about the American tradition of Thanksgiving and all of the foods that are consumed on that day as he wishes that his family would indulge in such American culture.
Interestingly, the only Chinese food that the narrator can fully stomach is sweet and sour pork which suggests that he does not want to consume anything Chinese and pushes away the foods and traditions of his culture. Towards the end of the novel, the narrator relates back to food when he explains how his parents and himself are doomed to be consumed by American society because they cannot successfully assimilate. The narrator constantly asserts his masculinity to make himself feel like an authoritative figure.
Limited to being behind the counter, the narrator actually enjoys the space as “people did what [he] told them to” as even “the President could come in and he wouldn’t get a room until he filled out a card and paid me” (102). The narrator puts himself in a position higher than the President, who is presumably the most masculine figure in America. He puts himself in a place of power and refers to himself as the “top dog” (102). Although he is constantly surrounded by white, predominantly male Americans who come to such space to take advantage of its marginalized location, to articipate in manly acts, ultimately he holds the key and holds the place of power.
However, such dream is squashed as in reality, he is on the other side catering to the Bennys. He can never be like the Bennys, who represent the American dream, where one has money and the ability to go on vacation. The narrator’s issue with his masculinity stems from a lack of power which can be seen every time he tries to assert his manhood. Ed Lin’s novel is the complete opposite of the stereotypical Asian American immigrant narrative, where one finds success in America, and rejects the model-minority portrayal of an Asian-
American immigrant. Instead, in the case of the unnamed narrator, mainstream society defines the position of his family in American society. Thus, the narrator faces the obstacle of being able to have a better sense of self and identity in a hegemonic society as he is in a place between childhood and adolescence. Although the story begins with the narrator’s longing to get laid in order to establish his manhood, the novel ends with his family living a marginal existence full of struggles and alienation from society. Ultimately, the hotel, representative of America, consumes the family and swallows the family’s dream of success.