Cover image for Who am I? : an autobiography of emotion, mind, and spirit
Who am I? : an autobiography of emotion, mind, and spirit
Tuan, Yi-fu, 1930-
Personal Author:
Publication Information:
Madison : University of Wisconsin Press, [1999]

Physical Description:
vii, 139 pages : illustrations ; 24 cm.
Personal Subject:
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Call Number
Material Type
Home Location
Central Library G69.T84 A3 1999 Adult Non-Fiction Non-Fiction Area

On Order



Who Am I? is the bittersweet memoir of a Chinese American who came to this country as a twenty-year-old graduate student and stayed to become one of America's most innovative intellectuals, whose work has explored the aesthetic and moral dimensions of human relations with landscape, nature, and environment. This unusually introspective autobiography mixes Yi-Fu Tuan's reflections on a life filled with recognition, accolades, and affection with what he deems moral failings, his lack of courage--including the courage to be open about his homosexuality.

Reviews 2

Library Journal Review

In his "psychologically accurate portrait," well-published cultural geographer Tuan traces his life as a private individual, an academic, and a citizen of the world. Born into a diplomat's family in 1930s China, Tuan has been influenced by China and the many other places he has lived, including France, England, Australia, Berkeley, CA, Minnesota, and now Madison, WI. His autobiography blends vignettes of wartime China, 1950s Berkeley, and other academic settings with a sharply self-critical look into his own life and psyche. While Tuan is a highly successful scholar, he sees himself as eternally immature, lacking in courage and vitality, and timid in personal relationships. His slant is unique, probing into the details of his life as a naturalized Asian American, a European-trained scholar, and a quietly homosexual proponent of humanistic geography. As Tuan explores who he is, sometimes dealing himself achingly harsh treatment, he offers insights into what makes a cultural geographer and why this profession appeals to someone of his intellect and outlook. Recommended for larger public libraries.ÄD.E. Perushek, Northwestern Univ. Lib., Evanston, IL (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

Choice Review

Tuan's autobiography describes a close family life that nurtured a "civilizational pride" and a sense of belonging to a worldwide network of the mind--guanxi-- that has transcended national borders. These values--profoundly reinforced by later scholarship--are central to Tuan's hope for a future world of "cosmopolites" who outgrow the confines of particular cultural practices. To this end, Tuan's life work of ten books in systematic humanistic geography commenced with Topophilia (CH, Sep'74) and concluded with Escapism (CH, May'99); no one would agree with his self-deprecatory conclusion that he is a "minnow" in the small pond of human geography! Rather, he is one of the dominant thinkers to have addressed the complexities of space and place and to see them as "synecdoches of human individuals and groups, [that] constitute human relationships, [and] embody human strivings and aspirations." Because of his rich insights into these matters, readers are shocked by the personal pain of his conclusion that he has lived "a life devoid of mutual and exclusive attachment." This reviewer trusts, nevertheless, that Tuan derives some satisfaction from the knowledge that he has been a close companion--albeit cerebrally--to many who are also seeking a civilizational gaze on their time and place. General readers; graduate students, faculty. B. Osborne; Queen's University at Kingston



Chapter One Autobiography: My Angle Socrates famously said that the unexamined life is not worth living. But, of course, if one keeps pausing to examine life, one will not live at all. Self-examination must therefore come only at stated intervals, with perhaps a last ruminative survey toward the end of one's life. Now that I am old but still have my wits about me, "Who am I?" is a question that I wish to put to myself before it is too late.     From the experience of wise people like Montaigne, I know that I won't go far with this question--this exercise in self-examination--if I just withdraw into my study and reflect. That way leads to phantoms. The self is only knowable through a sustained and cumulative mental effort, the most efficient form of which is writing. Writing produces a work. I now know myself through a work. Is it a true reflection of my real self? That question too seems to lead to phantoms. True and real are tricky words. Little is to be gained by grappling with them in an autobiography, unless one is a metaphysician and enjoys subtleties piled on subtleties almost for their own sake. Like most people, I am probably a compound of selves, but there is only one self--the one embodied in this work--that I can truly be said to know.     Now that I know, is there any point in telling what I know to others? Socrates doesn't say, although I can imagine him saying, "Self-knowledge is its own reward. Wanting to pass it on to others is vanity, like talking at length about oneself at a party." I see that. Nevertheless, an alternative position is possible. Yes, an element of vanity is indubitably there: one wants to be thought well of, if not for outward accomplishments, then for the depth of one's self-understanding. But it is not all vanity. Wanting to communicate has a strong psychological justification. For if casual self-examination can only lead to phantoms, sustained and disciplined self-examination can still seem a little unreal unless it jells into a written work that can be read, mulled over, and understood by another individual. This is because we, as social beings through and through, need confirmation by others in order to know who we are. But the self that others confirm in everyday life is a rather shallow person constructed from a limited range of habits and customs that society openly favors. Will the deeper and more complex self revealed in serious reflection also meet with approval, or will it elicit surprise and consternation? Much as I have always wanted a frank answer, it is only now, with the courage of second childhood or the indifference of approaching senility, that I dare to countenance--well, what? Not harsh judgment, for the circle I move in is far too enlightened for that, but rather an awkwardly polite inching away, the slightest dip in social temperature, shifts in behavior and mood so minimal and subtle that they are easily relegated to the basement of consciousness. "Who am I?" is a fashionable question at the close of the millennium. Everyone seems to be asking it. Not only individuals but groups and even nations ask themselves "who am I?" or "who are we?" Among the major causes of a weakening sense of self are social and geographical mobility and rapid technological change. We are, as pundits say, in the midst of an identity crisis. Biographies and autobiographies abound. Self-revelations of a boastful kind arrive not only from the famous but ordinary folk and attract high ratings in the media. As a rootless person, I am a natural for self-examination, and this could lead, given the spirit of the times, to self-exposure through a variety of means, including that of autobiography. It may be that I am especially tempted, for I am rootless in more than one sense. I never lived in one place for more than five years until, at age thirty-eight, I moved to Minneapolis. Before that, I was constantly changing residence, first as a child with my family, then alone as an adult. One city after another was called "home": Tianjin, Nanjing, Shanghai, Kunming, Chongqing, Canberra, Sydney, Manila, London, Oxford, Paris, Berkeley, Bloomington (Indiana), Chicago, Albuquerque, and Toronto. Fourteen years in Minneapolis and another fourteen in Madison, my current place of residence, are the only source of any rooted feeling I may have. Socially, I am likewise adrift and for a simple reason--I am single. The one portable soil--family--in which an individual is given natural grounding is not available to me.     How does my situation compare with that of others? By others, I have in mind first the people I know in daily life, mostly American friends. Their backgrounds differ: some have shown a far greater inclination to move from place to place, but even the most mobile are more plugged into society and the world than I, if only because they have spouses and offspring, and, with them, necessary ties to neighborhood, school, and other local institutions. By others, I also have in mind total strangers--people who live elsewhere in the world or have lived in earlier times. Their sense of self, as recorded by ethnographers and historians, provides me with the broadest possible backdrop against which to raise the question of my own selfhood.     First, then, the Americans. As I remember it, not so long ago the question "Who am I?" seldom came up. When it did, most men would probably have answered with a profession (plumber, lawyer) and most women with the family (wife of a plumber, mother of four children). Since the sixties, however, not only is the question raised more often but the old answer is no longer considered adequate. An individual requires a past, not just the present and a future, and an ancestral line, not just current family, to produce a solid sense of self. The search for ancestors and the old homestead, for cultural heritage, for things that are reassuringly fixed because they belong to the past, becomes a hobby as well as a serious attempt at discovering one's identity; this is so not only with the old and the middle aged but even with the young, who thereby risk losing that quality of starry-eyed hopefulness that was once the unmistakable hallmark of young Americans.     Does digging into the past really give men and women of our time a sense of identity and belonging? Perhaps, but the identity and belonging so gained are effects of present activity, present research into and present reconstruction of the past, and not a reimmersion in the past, which of course is impossible. The idea that one is able to return to an earlier time, to feel again the communal bond that existed then, is an illusion. But a powerful illusion can seem real, and maybe that is all that people in our fissiparous postmodern world need.     What is not an illusion is the force of communal bonding in premodern times, among preliterate and nonliterate peoples. For the nostalgic modern man and woman, then, the question to be honestly confronted is: "If a reimmersion in the past is possible, do I really want it? Have I any clear idea what it is like to be so identified with the group that my individual self becomes almost a phantom?" The world's ethnographic literature is so rich in strange habits and customs that most readers do not consider the virtual disappearance of the self in the group as anything special. But to one reader--me!--it is, and perhaps that says something about me. In any case, as a young student reading such literature, I could hardly credit anthropologist Dorothy Lee's account of the Wintu Indians of northern California, for whom, apparently, the self is not so much a bounded entity as a concentration that gradually fades at the edges and gives way to other entities. The Wintu do not, for example, "use and when referring to individuals who are, or live or act together." They prefer to say John we , using John as a specification, rather than John and I , where the we is exposed as made up of two separate individuals. And what happens when Lee asks a Wintu woman, Sadie Marsh, for her autobiography? Predictably, she tells a story about someone else--her first husband. When Lee insists on Sadie's own history, she proceeds to tell what she calls "my story" but about the first three quarters of it are occupied with the lives of her grandfather, her uncle, and her mother before her birth.     Certain nonliterate peoples do have a strong sense of self and of individual differences. The Tswana of east Africa, for example, say that even children born of the same parents are more different than they are alike, especially in thought and feeling. But individuality, while clearly recognized, is feared rather than admired. It is suppressed, for beyond the recognition of individuality is the far keener awareness that an individual who stands alone, or who stands out in the group, is vulnerable. What is distinctive of Europeans, by comparison with other peoples, is this. From the sixteenth century onward, not only was there a growing recognition of individuality but a steady accretion of pride in it. First, family portraits were painted; then, increasingly, portraits of individuals and self-portraits; biographies, autobiographies, and reflexive essays (outstandingly, Montaigne's) were written. Of course, only people of substance could command and only people of talent could engage in these enterprises. Interestingly, many biographies and autobiographies produced before 1900 and even thereafter showed a note of uncertainty in that their authors seemed to want their subjects to be both unique and to have that uniqueness submerged in the categories of respectable society, past and present. And so, like the Wintu woman, they might spend inordinate space depicting parents, uncles and aunts, and their social worlds before introducing the distinctive self.     Even Americans, self-proclaimed individualists, were and probably still are more inclined to write family histories than autobiographies. Some of my retired colleagues, I note, use their research skills to reconstruct their genealogical pasts. Typically, they trace their roots to Europe, envisage the epic journey of their ancestors across the Atlantic, the struggle for survival in a city of the eastern seaboard, the establishment of a comfortable foothold in a middle western farm, and then the story of their own generation--the births of siblings and cousins, their childhoods and early schooling. What surprises me is that most family histories end at this juncture. Why is this? Why stop just when information is sufficient to allow the depiction of fully rounded human individuals? A plausible answer is that, whereas life in the old country can seem romantic, the trip over the ocean epical, the struggles of forebears in the New World heroic, and early schooling nostalgic, the subsequent path of adulthood is, by comparison, commonplace--a succession of unexceptional family events, job changes, and promotions; these are not worth writing about or are worth writing about only to family members and close friends. Such reflections have convinced me that most human beings, despite a tendency to boast a little in conversation, in family circulars, or even (if opportunity offers) in a three-minute call to a radio talk show, are fundamentally modest. When the self-knowledge they seek and find becomes compendious, they do not seek to thrust it on others. Am I, then, an exception? What is my excuse, since I am without the sort of fame, notoriety, or exceptional life circumstance that might justify biographical or autobiographical treatment? The best answer should be the completed work itself. But I have a more general answer or maybe simply a conviction (partly religious), which is this: just as no human life is negligible, so no human life story is negligible, not worth telling. If a story seems a bore, the fault lies in the arrangement of words, not in the life. Critical, then, is the availability of a talented narrator. Am I such a one? Do I, for a start, have a good memory? Bad memory can be compensated by hard research. What is my attitude toward hard research--toward foraging among old letters and digging into public archives in the absence of which an autobiography can seem lightweight?     As autobiographer, I confess to several weaknesses, most especially a poor memory. I can remember little of the first ten years of my life, which I spent in China. I have a better haul of images from Australia, where I lived from the ages of ten through fifteen, but it remains meager. The six months in the Philippines are quite vivid, and from 1946 onward--from age fifteen onward--I can say that the details I am able to recall are at last respectably dense.     Doubts about my memory came to me in late middle age, when my brother Tai-Fu began to reminisce nostalgically about his childhood and mine. I have always been impressed by how much he can recall. Yet he is older than I by only one year. After a two-month visit to China in 1997, he returned to the United States full of stories of the village we lived in, the school we attended, sixty years ago. He contacted his childhood schoolmates. He remembers their names, what they were like, what he and they did together. Why can't I do the same? Why have I forgotten so much? Does this forgetfulness explain my lack of desire to return to China, for what's the point of visiting a landscape of memory that is so impoverished?     Teasingly, I say to Tai-Fu that the reason he remembers so much and I so little is that he is a pessimist, whereas I am an optimist. A pessimist puts his golden age in the past, an optimist puts his in the future. I may have deliberately buried my store of childhood experiences so that I won't be tempted to stay there, so that I can be more accepting of the present and acquire an outlook toward the future that is hopeful rather than anxious.     My need to have a hopeful outlook toward the future may also have affected my understanding of the human past in general. I have not ignored the human past. On the contrary, I enjoy reading history. But my reading may have been selective, for from history books I gain the strong impression that earlier times could be pretty awful even in the midst of genuine achievements. When people today feel disgusted with the desecration of nature and the erection of meretricious or ugly buildings on its scarred back, they tend to seek vindication and reassurance from a golden age of long ago. Some find it in the eighteenth century (before the Industrial Revolution), some in the Middle Ages, some in classical antiquity, some in even mistier landscapes. The further back they go, the more likely it is that the perfection they locate there is a product of wishful thinking. Although that is not at all how I view the past, I was for a time ready to agree with Jacquetta Hawkes that eighteenth-century England might just be what people are looking for, if only from an aesthetic and ecological point of view. In that century, Englishmen possessed the land without committing outrages against it. Rich and poor alike "knew how to use the stuff of their countryside to raise comely buildings and to group them with distinctive grace. Town and country having grown up together to serve one another's needs now enjoyed a moment of balance."     But that was my first impression. With a closer look, I began to see a more piebald picture, as did other writers, though not (it would seem) Hawkes herself. For example, in his biography of Samuel Johnson, John Wain wrote longingly of lovely landscapes in Johnson's time that have since disappeared. However, in the midst of the praise he had to acknowledge that they had a strikingly incongruous and somewhat sinister element, namely, a large number of diseased and disfigured human beings and animals. Another egregious blemish, which surprisingly few landscape historians have dwelt on, was the large number of gibbets on which the tarred corpses of criminals were displayed. Whenever possible, the gibbets were located on prominences and at crossroads to achieve maximum visibility. Timid travelers made detours around them, especially during dark nights. I confessed earlier that I might have repressed my childhood experiences, especially the good ones, so as to allow a more genial view of my later years. I may have played the same trick on human history; that is, to feel comfortable with the present and entertain hope for the future, I may have read into human history a broadly progressive trend that many sophisticated historians disallow. I have persuaded myself of the existence of progress by envisioning the social position I would have had to occupy in order to feel content in successively earlier times. I conclude that in the eighteenth century, I would have to have been a squire with sizable land holdings; in the Middle Ages, a great baron; and in ancient Egypt, no less than the pharaoh himself.     I can enjoy history even when its reports are grim because history, as presented to me by historians, is not (it hardly needs be said) the past but rather a colorful landscape--delusively complete--that lies before me and that I can explore appreciatively or critically with my mind's eye. My own past, not having been reordered by a historian, is not a landscape. Like all pasts, it is a thin spread of oddments, piled high here and there, that happens to have survived. A traditional autobiographer would consider it his task to file them in separate categories and time slots and in one way or another dress them up so that, together, they have a semblance of completion, of being a finished landscape or an unbroken story line. But I am not such an autobiographer. I cannot be a proper historian of my own past because I cannot bear to look at the material remains, which have for me an indescribable air of sadness. Perversely perhaps, threadbare jeans, chewing gum hardened by age, rusted paper clips, and stained high-school and college diplomas speak of immense loss rather than survival. The pastness of the past causes me bewilderment and, at times, a feeling akin to nausea.     Strange to say, ideas and theories of the past do not distress me by their pastness. For example, when I open Thomas Burnet's book, The Theory of the Earth (1684), I am aware of the musty smell coming out of its yellowed pages, I am aware that its author has long ago returned to dust. But the ideas in the book, quaintly dated as they may be, are still a flaming of the human spirit that inspires. Ideas are of their time yet transcend it. I see them this way because they are not like matter, which decays, or worse, like biological matter, which enters into a stage of putrescence before turning into minerals. I am not temperamentally equipped to be a historian of material life, but I can be a historian of the spirit. And by spirit, I mean the whole range of mental and psychological capabilities, including not only ideas, thoughts, and philosophies but also the tone and coloring of experience in all its variety. It surprises me that though my factual memory is poor, my memory of the psychological character, or mood, of past events is extraordinarily vivid. Thus readers are forewarned of this work's shortcomings. They will not find the compendious factual information, firm chronological arc, and highlighting of the more public events that many memoirs provide. And yet, paradoxically, one of the work's merits is that it has these shortcomings. The fact is, a fat volume ill suits my personality; a sense of progression is necessarily weak in my life for lack of such powerful springboards as courtship, marriage, birth of children, and so on; last, an introvert much prefers home entertainment--the compact videos of his own mind--to the hurly-burly public events of the wide screen.     Besides these "shortcomings," which I now regard as negative merit, I can also point to some of the work's positive qualities. I can claim that it is the first autobiography ever written by a middle-class Chinese American geographer. The claim is bolder than it sounds, for the combination of "middle-class Chinese" and "geographer" makes the writing of autobiography most unlikely. Either one alone would deter the venture. A middle-class Chinese such as myself cannot offer the attractive and highly marketable theme of struggle and heroic climb from Chinatown poverty to suburban affluence. For I had no such struggle and climb. Chinese immigrants who were middle-class professionals have always been accepted and successful in the United States. And what is more boring than a story of unqualified success--from good student to well-paid engineer? As for that other category, "geographer," into which I fall, most geographers are too extroverted, too happily engaged with external reality, to write their life stories. And so the field is left open to me: a middle-class Chinese, yes, but one who in his lifelong bachelordom is obliged, on that account alone, to live outside the Chinese social fold; a geographer, yes, but a maverick in the discipline to the degree that, unlike most other geographers, my landscapes are "inscapes," as much psychological conditions as material arrangements.     What else is distinctive about my autobiography? Another mark of distinction, I suggest, is that it records an unusual overall direction or movement in life. For most people, life moves from private to public--from a childhood spent in the home and neighborhood to an adulthood spent in public forums of increasing scope: local, regional, national. My life, by contrast, has moved in the opposite direction--from public to private, from world to self. It has always seemed to me that my childhood was public. Its stage was the Chinese nation and the world. It could seem that way for two reasons. One was the drama of the war with Japan followed by the Second World War. These wars impinged directly on my family and on me. The other was my father's position in Chinese society: though an official of the middle rank even at the zenith of his career, he was nevertheless a member of the elite at a time when the educated class was small.     By the time I turned into a young adult, World War II had ended. Events in the world no longer impinged on me quite so directly. My life became private, my world shrank to the various campuses at which I studied or worked. Meanwhile, at these sheltered campuses, my mental life was able to expand. Self-examination has made me more aware of who I am; examination has made me more aware of the nature of external reality. These activities continued into middle age and old age. And so the direction of my life is not quite from public to private. In its mature half, I have been able to regain the world, though it is one of ideas and thought rather than one of action and events.     This spiraling path provides the autobiography with a temporal structure that it would otherwise lack. And so, following the introduction, I turn to "World Stage and Public Events," and then to two chapters of increasing subjectivity: if the one is personal, the other is intimate. When I wrote earlier that even the ordinary life experiences of an ordinary individual should have general interest and import, I had this core section of my autobiography in mind. By contrast, "Salvation by Geography" is both more individualistic, being an account of my own contributions to geography, and a return to the wider world.

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