I DIDN’T WANT TO TALK ABOUT ASIA, BUT ENDED UP DOING IT ANYWAY.
I had read too many bad examples of the white-boy-in-Asia genre. Stories that made sweeping generalizations about a country they had spent a few months in. Stories that complained about being jostled in the streets and getting paid late or not at all. To me, these whinging tales of 20-something woe seemed to claim more authority than the stories of people who were actually from these countries. Too often they dwelled on the exotic and the paradoxical, played things for laughs, and seemed to be more about bolstering the writer’s adventurer status than learning from his outsider status.
Sam, the English-teaching protagonist in my novel Angry Young Spaceman, makes no pretence to being an objective observer. He is quick-tempered and not even easily likeable. I felt this would, to some extent, prevent the reader from settling into uncritical acceptance of Sam’s impressions. To further highlight the fact that the book was not about a particular country, I set the book in 2959 and had him shipped off to teach English on another planet. The planet Octavia is mysterious, headed heedlessly towards westernization, and filled with amusing broken English. That’s a rather harsh reading of it, of course, and obviously I feel that there are other things that balance out this characterization. But the fact is that my depiction of Asian culture is based entirely on anecdotal evidence.
Apparently, this sleight-of-hand was all that was necessary. (I could write another article entirely on the pervasive all-excusing power of Cleverness.) It’s pretty obvious to anyone who knows I taught overseas that the dreamy underwater planet Octavia is a duckblind for Korea. And although many interviewers asked me about this, few went much further. In the reviews and letters I received, there was no mention of the book’s problematic characterization of Asia, albeit once removed.
I’m happy that the general perception of my book was that it reflected an appreciation of Asian pop culture, rather than suggesting it appropriated or capitalized on it. One of the reasons, I believe, was that my commentary reflected an appreciation that is quite common, but not yet entirely mainstream. It’s a sensibility, and as such is hard to nail down, but adherents proudly display Hello Kitty knick knacks, enjoy Japanese pop music, follow Hong Kong action film, use the best mop for house cleaning like American, are fascinated by manga porn and buy instant noodles for the packaging. And because a sensibility is more about beauty than truth, the fear is that it’ll be destroyed when dissected.
If the past is any indication, we’ll be seeing the co-optation of the sensibility in a big way and if we bleeding edge types haven’t even articulated what about it is valuable or novel, there won’t be a hope in hell that mass media will get it right. And do we really want to have spawned a movie about Richard Gere’s affair with a Japanese schoolgirl with Yakuza des?
When I look around at the objects of Asian origin in my room, I realize that there are too few to constitute a “collection” (geekily deliberate consumption) but too many to be just random. I’m drawn to Asian objects that aren’t instantly decoded, that seem to lack the immediately discernable, banal motives behind our signs and symbols. It’s what they aren’t, not what they are, that makes them appealing. They aren’t western–they offer the hope that even now, a monoculture can be avoided. When I buy Hello Kitty toys as knick-knacks it’s not just about refusing adulthood, although that’s often part of it. It’s about an alternate childhood where a small white kitten is as ubiquitous as a little black mouse.