Asian and American: A Review of Permanent Alien

Permanent Alien: An Asian American Comics Anthology

Hanna Cha
Mariel Rodriguez
Jean Wei
Michelle Zhuang
Digital copies out now; hard copies out February 2017

What does it mean to be Asian American? What are the ways in which we connect to our culture and to our ancestors? How, when, and why do we disconnect? And how do we make sense of feeling like children of two often disparate worlds: Asia and America? These are difficult questions, surely, but they’re ones that Permanent Alien explores with quiet power and beauty.

Permanent Alien is a sixty page comics anthology that delves into the numerous facets of what it means to be Asian American: everything from the connection (or lack of it) to language, food, and religion, to issues of mental health, to anti-blackness in the community. The creators–Hanna Cha, Mariel Rodriguez, Jean Wei, and Michelle Zhuang–are all incredible artists, and they all handle a variety of topics deftly and with care. Jean Wei tells me that the idea for the zine was born out of a late night conversation: “Wouldn’t it be cool if there were a comic anthology dedicated to people who look like me and my friends?”

From “Language Part 2” by Mariel Rodriguez

The anthology certainly feels timely. In 2016, the topic of Asian American representation took center stage, with many Asian Americans speaking out about the ways in which they’re often stereotyped, overlooked, and/or belittled because of their race. The inherent idea surrounding these conversations was that Asian Americans still feel like perpetual foreigners, often being reduced to a model minority statistic or treated as the butt of a joke. Likewise, the title of “Permanent Alien” centralizes these feelings of displacement, referring not only to the technical term for an immigrant, but to the fact that to be Asian American often means feeling out of place both in your own country and in the country of your ancestors.

This status of being an in-betweener, of being somebody who’s never quite sure where they belong, is a theme carried throughout the anthology. “Where are you from? I can tell you’re not from here,” a shop owner in Korea says to an Asian American woman in one of the stories. On the opposing page, this interaction is mirrored, but this time in a cafe in Detroit, by a white customer: “Where are you from?”

It’s a striking comic, all the more-so because one, every Asian American I know, myself included, has experienced this exact feeling of being treated as a foreigner literally no matter where you go. And two, because the common refrain from those who have pushed back against the diversity campaigns is: “But if we cast an Asian American as this one character who goes to Asia, they won’t feel like an outsider.

From “Nian Gao” by Jean Wei and Angela Gao

There’s a gentle devastation to some of these tales. One comic, drawn with sparse panels, cute art, and barely any dialogue, shows a girl’s excitement morph into an undefinable emotion when she realizes the Asian dessert her mom made for the classroom potluck was eaten only by her. The simplicity of the art allows the reader to color in the spaces with all of the embarrassment, disappointment, anger, and sadness that was conveyed within, and the resulting effect is very powerful.

I have a fondness for the series of “Language” comics done by Mariel Rodriguez in the anthology. They are lighthearted and beautifully drawn, and they accurately detail a frustration that I and many other Asian Americans are familiar with: being unable to speak the native languages of our grandparents. You try to pronounce something correctly and your family laughs! Or worse, you know your aunties are gossiping about you, but you have no idea what they’re saying so you can’t really speak up for yourself.

And then there’s the vitally important “Mestiza” comic written by Sonja John. Here is a discussion of the Asian community’s antiblackness, and how multiracial Asians, particularly those who are multiracially Black and Asian, are often not acknowledged in all their entirety: “The ‘model minority’ myth does not apply to me. It will never apply to me, at least not in the way it does for folks who present in the narrow way we’re taught what ‘Asian’ looks like.”

From “Mestiza” by Michelle Zhuang and Sonja John

Suffice to say these are all very important conversations to be having, and Permanent Alien does an excellent job broaching various topics. The format of an anthology feels like the perfect way to tackle all of this. Asian Americans are a multitudinous group, after all, and Permanent Alien celebrates our similarities while also affirming the ways in which our communities and individual experiences differ. As “Mestiza” points out, we are not a monolith, and this anthology definitely shows it.

All in all, Permanent Alien is a well crafted and beautifully illustrated zine. It serves as a reminder for nuance, for compassion, and for specificity over generalizations when our differences are what can make us stronger. As we push for more Asian American representation, let us not forget those Asian Americans who are not light-skinned, thin, able-bodied, neurotypical, cis, straight, and/or all of the above. By being aware of all these various intersections, maybe we can begin to uplift the community as a whole.

In 2017, it is indeed important to show support for the big name, diverse comics like Ms. Marvel, Silk, Gene Luen Yang’s New Superman, and Greg Pak’s Totally Awesome Hulk. But it’s also equally important to support indie projects like Permanent Alien.

Gretchen Smail

Gretchen Smail

Part time Bay Area journalist, full time loungewear enthusiast