A Traditionalist’s Guide to Thinking About (and Going About) Non-conventional Intimate Relationships, Part III

I. Personal experiences that have contributed to both pro- and anti- ideas

II. Different relationship formats, relationship components, and how format affects the maintenance of these components

III. Analysis of relationship formats and principles, and how to discuss and go about them while maximizing potential and minimizing harm


Part II was getting long, so here are some summative analyses of the relationship formats I discussed, and a discussion of the possible issues with how to sort out and fulfill so many formats fairly for everyone.

All is resourceSecurity vs. democracyClash and compromisePossible negative significances of intimacyAssumptions and cultural bias in public discourseGendered dimensionsIntimacy in an age of flexible accumulationFinal thoughts

All is resource

When I was reading up Polyamory on Wikipedia, I saw the following endorsement: “The more you love, the more you can love — and the more intensely you love. Nor is there any limit on how many you can love. If a person had time enough, he could love all of that majority who are decent and just.”

This is true in theory. Love itself is definitely not a limited resource, and individuals indeed love multiple people at the same time and in different ways without the feelings competing with one another. However, I do not think the quotation works in practice. Love cannot be expressed in its pure form. It has to be expressed through things that are finite resources, time being the one that controls everyone regardless of their mental or emotional capacity and wealth. Emotional and mental capacity are also not infinite. Regardless of the size of one’s capacity, adding another person to one’s life is significant undertaking – even a casual sex partner requires time to browse, converse, plan, get frequent STI tests, etc. Thus it is naïve to think that resources are not involved in love, or that love can transcend resources.

However, thinking about relationships in terms of resource can help change the tendency to judge them on moral terms. For example, I had thought that I would not like to be in an open relationship because I thought they were irresponsible and thus immoral. However, if I were in an exclusive relationship but my partner had a full time job that demanded a lot of overtime or travel, had a big family and friends who needed his help and attention, and a number of activities that he wanted to attend which I weren’t interested in, my feelings of insignificance and indignation would be very similar to those I would have in an open relationship. Thus it is not some abstract morality but preference over how much resource is due to me that is at issue here.

I think when people worry about society when they look at intimacy, their worries are actually grounded on a perception of society having scarce resources. When there is no consistent contraception in a society with little infrastructure or few resources, raising the healthy next generation requires people sticking to familiar family structures. As Jarrod Carmichael says on his show about the correlation between income and cheating, “100 grand to half a mil means he’s definitely cheating, and anything over half a mil just means his wife knows his mistress by name.” This assessment, while comedic, relies on the same resource factor. So, those who can afford to have unconventional relationships literally can afford it.

But I do think it’s useful to let go of the scarcity mentality when dating, not in the sense that relationships don’t use resources, but in the sense that people are not a finite resource. From my experiences, I tend to be a pessimist about relationships, and I also feel I don’t fit in with my peers very well. So, in relationships I have tended to think that my partner was the only one in the world for me, and I found that I have tended to burden them with too many expectations. For someone like me, dating multiple people (at least when looking around initially) might actually be a good idea so that I can distribute my care and expectations, and also gain more confidence in my ability to relate to people.

Security vs. democracy

I started Part II by saying that I am not a traditionalist in the sense that I believe traditional relationship formats like marriage are the best, but in the sense that I believe in using guidelines to ensure that people treat each other fairly and with consistency. A general principle from all the formats in Part II is that there is either a pre-set relationship format with clear guidelines to maintain proportionality and reciprocity, or there aren’t strict guidelines but then details need to be worked out according to the needs of the individuals involved.

This is a case of the tradeoff between security and democracy that also applies to national security. In America there seems to be a lot of emphasis on individual freedom, which I personally feel can sometimes be a reductionist emphasis that views any guidelines whatsoever as invalidating freedom (eg the anti-vaccination movement). I think this is a misrepresentation; guidelines can be repressive, however having some guidelines ensures that all people can have equal opportunities to exercise their freedom. I don’t think this changes when we talk about interpersonal relationships just because they are more personal.

I understand that not everyone has a lot they want to share intimately with others, or they can give more when they give to many. In this case the conventional exclusive and lifelong marriage can be indeed stifling. In this case, the onus has to be on individuals involved to know themselves and know what they want, and communicate it to people they are involved with. The Mic article I mentioned in the last post discussed the “dating partner” format, where two people expressed their relationship thus: “Eliza tells Mic they only broached the topic of exclusivity after two months and even then, ‘It wasn’t a conversation I definitely assumed we’d have.’ The talk, when it happened, simply established that they wouldn’t hook up with other people.” Using the components above, they had established reciprocity.

However, I am not sure what Eliza meant when she said that it wasn’t a conversation she definitely assumed they would have. It sounds like she meant that they would just keep dating without communicating what they were doing. To me this sounds like a bad idea, due to the component of reciprocity of information – there is no way to assess whether this reciprocity has been achieved without a talk. What if Eliza’s partner believed that dating multiple times meant they were official, and he also didn’t say anything because he couldn’t conceive it might be different?

And if we are meant to believe that anything in the relationship is possible without having a talk, a) who were supposed to have taught us this? It is unfair to others to assume that everyone knows these implicit dating practices. They do not hold across all human societies, but people are intermingling more and more. b) this creates a level of uncertainty which I am not sure is fair to ask others to deal with. Even if my relationship with Partner #1 ended badly, I think he brought up obstacles to our relationship in a timely manner and did not avoid it. So, I believe that communication is absolutely necessary. The right time depends on the circumstances, however if individuals have been engaging in sex, going on dates, and bonding emotionally, I can’t see some kind of discussion being pushed farther than 2 months. These conversations also don’t necessarily need to establish a relationship status, but should serve to help individuals check in about being on the same page.

I still believe that the majority of people, especially young people who are more likely to engage in relationships without fixed guidelines, aren’t very good at knowing what they want and communicating it. But there’s no solution to that except to guarantee a socially open environment to all young people, encourage them in soul-searching and discussion (esp with young men), and encourage young people that there is nothing shameful in going to a therapist, even just to find out more about themselves in a structured setting.

Clash and compromise

I have tended to want marriage and the kind of exclusive unit-forming relationship with mutually high reciprocity. That is aligned with what I have been taught regarding living life in general: a) don’t do a half-assed job; if you take responsibility for something, then see it through to the end, or don’t pick it up at all b) sharing is caring.

I still believe that these principles are good ones, however when I act according to them in intimate relationships, I seem to be taken advantage of. With Partner #2, my acts of giving and tolerance were assumed to cost me nothing, and when I communicated that they did and asked for reciprocity, he stated that it wasn’t that kind of relationship and I knew it, so if I gave a lot that was my choice and not his problem.

Not all of the above relationship formats are equal, and when two people with expectations of different formats come together, they are not equal in their difference. Partner #2 and I were equal in terms of him feeling stifled and my feeling betrayed, however in terms of resources expended and benefits gained, I gave a lot more at more cost and he received a lot more benefits with less cost, because I was the one who involved myself more. This is not just me being biased – at the end of our relationship, Partner #2 admitted that I had given him a great deal whereas he had displayed a great deal more behavioural problems that demanded more of me.

Sometimes I would stumble upon similar cases as me with Partner #2, where the advice is to care less, or break up. I find this advice unfair. If we ask people who are by default responsible and caring to step down, why do we not ask others to step up? In addition, I believe that those who want and can achieve involvement tend to be those who can compromise better too, and when they are with someone who can’t or doesn’t want involvement, it would most likely be one-sided compromise. If the spirit of having many relationship formats is to validate all ways of interacting with one another intimately, this is contradicted by regularly asking more involved and caring people to step down and match the levels of those less involved.

I point this out to utopians who think that having multiple relationship formats means that everyone would be happy. People will indeed be happy when (and if) they find the most suitable format, however while they are on their search and meet people they do not match, individuals who espouse aspirations to a high degree of involvement and exclusivity, and who are able to accomplish this, can be at a disadvantage.

I believe that people who know they are not involved or caring can try to make up for this: first, they should believe that all relationship desires are equal, and not automatically label people who want involvement as “needy” or “clingy.” Second, if they have legit reasons for not wanting high levels of involvement, they should be mindful of the other partner’s needs, instead of saying that it’s not their problem or using proportionality to cooler feelings as an excuse. Less involvement should mean that a partner is not obligated to help their partners plan their next career move, but it should not mean that each partner can excuse themselves from making sure the other is satisfied with the relationship.

Possible negative significances of intimacy

Detaching sex from love can also detach sex without love from judgments of immorality – for example, I believe that legalizing prostitution would minimize harm to prostitutes. However, sex can become either meaningless (which is neutral) or – my worry here – has a higher chance of being attached symbolically to traits that can be harmful.

For example, when I was dating Partner #1, I told him that I had never had sex before. He was extremely surprised and said that he lost his virginity at first opportunity. Since my friends up to that point had been those who never dated or married the first person they dated, I didn’t know why someone would be in such a hurry to lose their virginity. He said that as a young man, being a virgin is like carrying a burden and he would have been ridiculed. He also said that his first time having sex was rather unpleasant, though at some point he also mentioned that he and co-workers took a younger staff member to a prostitute to make him lose his virginity. What I gathered from this exchange is that among young men, there is a lot of peer pressure to have sex not necessarily to enjoy it or for love, but to prove one is a man.

Or, it’s to prove that an individual is an adult. When I was still a virgin, I revealed it to a temporary housemate; she said that had she been younger, she would have dragged me out and found a way to help me lose it. She was only half joking and I was very disturbed. A lot of popular culture, like the film The 40 Year Old Virgin, also seems to perpetuate the idea that there is something wrong with people who don’t have sex, don’t have it as soon as possible, or don’t enjoy casual sex. In this case, the discourse of normality that used to be attached to marriage is flipped now to designate other people as strange, and the tendency to label others based on intimacy hasn’t improved on the whole.

As I mentioned, Partner #2 frequently asked if I would be willing to have a threesome with him and another woman. When I asked him why he wanted this, since he was already dating multiple people at the same time, he said that it meant to him the greatest expression of heterosexuality and sexual success.

One person that Partner #2 wanted to hook up with was a female student at our university who had sex with many people to get back at her boyfriend for something, supposedly a rumour circulating among undergrads. Similarly, as I mentioned in the previous post, my parents divorced because my father was cheating on my mother. I didn’t mention that he did this because he thought that she wasn’t spending enough time with the family and not giving him enough attention, and cheating was a way of acting out.

Perhaps young men of any age used sex to evaluate masculinity, and sex as a form of revenge also happened all the time too. But still I worry that detaching sex from love would create more opportunities for these kinds of abuses of sex to fester, especially if many people endorse it as a part of freedom without question. I have doubts as to whether the benefits for having a relationship format to suit everyone outweighs these negative associations.

Assumptions and cultural bias in public discourse

I mentioned already that there tends to be a lot of articles encouraging casual sex and open relationships, whereas there aren’t many offering the opposite opinion. I think articles that encourage these unconventional relationships are meant to counter assumptions that exclusivity is a moral imperative, or that marriage is the most legitimate way to be intimate. However, I find that current articles about casual relationships also rest on a number of unexamined assumptions.

The first one is the pursuit of individual happiness is good, and that people should be responsible to themselves before being responsible to others. Most of the articles with tips on how to conduct non-conventional relationships are written in a way where tips are meant for self-protection, eg this article on how to make friends with benefits work, or this one on casual sex tips. Few of these are written to teach people how to treat others with respect.

A second assumption is that articles encouraging casual relationships are often culturally biased towards a western culture with abundant resources and decent infrastructure, and an emphasis on individuality. While this bias exists because the audience they want to reach live in these societies, often markers in conventional relationships get slapped with negative connotations without an examination of whether those connotations are true, or true of all societies. For example, the Mic article includes the statement that non-committal dating allows for “cuddling and engaging conversations without the pressure of family visits.” It is assumed that family visits are pressure and the statement is tossed out as such. Family could just be more people to interact with and befriend; and in other societies, family constitutes a support network that might be vital to one’s partner. None of these possible connotations are mentioned, and so at the same time that these kinds of articles deflate assumptions in conventional relationships, they set up their own assumptions. I think writers should be more culturally sensitive and relative.

Gendered dimensions

Third (following from before), the venues for these articles and the tips for self-protection also seems to have a gender aspect – that is, it seems to be largely women’s magazines encouraging women to have casual relationships and instructing them to protect themselves, often implicitly against men. I have to admit I’m a bit unclear as to how the multiple waves in feminism got us here, since for me as an immigrant from the PRC, feminism was more like first and second wave feminism focused on breaking the patriarchy of one’s immediate family and getting women access to public life and work opportunities. For me, again it’s the step down / step up problem of why it is predominantly women being told how to adopt casual relationships while we aren’t asking men to approach relationships more seriously or ethically.

I also know that a) women don’t automatically want more commitment, b) that marriage had been damaging to women in history as they were often property traded among male heads of households when forming alliances and so forth, and c) that women face more disparagement from social and family circles for having more sexual partners. My responses would be that a) I still find that women are better at being committed and are more likely to want at the present social moment, regardless of whether they have been educated to be this way or not. For example, Partner #2, being bisexual, hooked up with both men and women, and while the men never wanted a relationship, almost all the women did in some form. This means that regardless of the reason for women being different, the gender of one’s partner and the gender of the other people they see has different ramifications on the relationship. b) I don’t believe current laws in the Euro-American world regarding marriage, divorce, property and child custody are biased against women. And so c) The object of feminist critique should be the against gender bias in specific people as private individuals (again plus a corresponding address to men), and not against the idea of long-term commitment itself or an “institution” of marriage, which I find to be somewhat of a straw man argument.

Intimacy in an age of flexible accumulation

This part is probably more academic. A lot of the research in the humanities and social sciences come out of social theory regarding state repression or profit-driven capitalism; sometimes the state devalues certain people because it wants to maximize opportunities for others to pursue capital gains. For example, the Enclosure Acts in England and the Industrial Revolution were cases where the state failed to regulate property and industry, leading to uneven displacement of peasants, who then faced exploitation in urban industries.

At least in the Euro-American world, things are better now, but there are still concerns over job security affected by firms seeking cheaper offshore labour, subcontracting, and hiring at part time without granting benefits, in addition to a great deal of freelancing and self-employment where the onus is on the individual to keep up. There are numerous articles showing that people tend to have multiple career changes in their lifetimes. In this kind of work climate, social life has also become unstable. My immigrant family epitomizes this kind of social instability – before I entered high school, I had gone to 6 different schools, and to this day I had never lived in a city for more than 4 years.

I have wondered about the appropriate reactions in interpersonal life to an unstable public and work life. Either interpersonal relationships (including intimate relationships) could offer increased stability to compensate, or they could match the instability out there and be likewise flexible. I think the latter has taken place, and all the formats in Part II are for situations when it is no longer possible to marry, have children, and live and work in one place.

I am not sure which reaction is more appropriate. I said earlier in this post that it is naïve to think that love can transcend resources, but here a part of me hopes that it might transcend social instability. Immigrants of my parents’ generation, for example, had long-distance and exclusive relationships as the norm when one partner immigrated earlier to set up life for the family. I think it is good to have someone you know you can depend on emotionally regardless of where you are or what happens to you. On the other hand, consistency also involves a lot of personal sacrifice. If I want to hold strictly to dating to find a long-term married partner, I would have to abstain from dating completely as I go around the world for advanced degrees and work, knowing that I might only stay in one place for a few years. Asking this of people also doesn’t seem quite fair, and so I have to allow for dating in the short term with less involvement and commitment. For some, this lessened involvement and commitment might involve dating other people at the same time.

Final thoughts

It has been my (female) friends who have exhibited more ethical ways of dealing with non-conventional relationships, and it is they who have saved me from being in total despair about it. First, I found that the friend who judges relationships using quality of sex isn’t too off the mark. I reconsidered her approach when I realized that while I was attracted to Partner #2 and enjoyed spending time with him, sex wasn’t that great because he was rather inconsiderate and was often unwilling to negotiate. Soon I saw the same tendencies in other aspects of our relationship as well. I do think that if a partner can be mindful of me in the throes of passion and that sex is egalitarian, it bodes well for the relationship as a whole, and so I also understand now why some people would have sex first and ask questions later.

Second, I think there is a tendency for traditionalists to believe that if a person frequently changes partners or is relaxed about sexuality, they are incapable of commitment. I have found that this is not true. I mentioned a friend in Part I who believes in open relationships. She also has tended to also seek other sexual partners when there are major problems in her main relationship. At first I thought this was unhealthy, however I also saw that having sex with other people actually enabled her to relieve pressure and then return to work on her main relationship. She might as well have gone hiking with a friend. In addition, when she found a more suitable partner than before, her tendency to seek out other partners has been less and virtually non-existent, even when the new relationship is a long-distance one. Before I thought of traditional and non-conventional approaches to relationships as mutually exclusive, however now I no longer think this way. I understand that I can still hold ideals of commitment and a long-term partnership, but I can also adopt other relationship formats as strategies until I find someone suitable, or until my own life is more settled.

Third, I have found that women tend to be quite good at compartmentalizing, perhaps due to women being more encouraged to think about their own interiority. My friends who seek multiple partners tend to not let it affect their behaviour in their main relationship or other aspects of their lives, even when they don’t turn out well. They are also able think in nuanced ways about communicating other partners to their main one if they have one, instead of seeing honesty in black and white terms. A friend has said that she tends to not tell her partner about other strictly sexual partners and does not need to know about his. However, if she sees relationship potential in someone she meets but wants to keep dating her current partner, she would find it ethical to immediately communicate this to her current partner so he could choose whether he would stay or not. This is more than what a lot of people would do when meeting others not through sex.

Accepting that oneself and others can engage in non-conventional relationships can be freeing. It enables me to make friends and keep them without prejudgement and also to cut myself some slack. Partner #3 that I mentioned in Part I is a friends with benefits situation that I will probably not pursue, but because it comes from someone who I have known for some time and think about positively, it has been an opportunity to dissociate nonconventional formats from betrayal. In addition, I also realized that in the years that we have been friends, he has been a very consistent and generous friend (and I’m not in a position yet to worry about who will help me with mundane life tasks when I’m 70). So if my goal is to have someone care for me no matter where I am, I’ve already achieved it, even if on the face of it the format doesn’t seem like it.

I also know now that accepting that oneself and others in non-conventional arrangements in no way obligates me to accept every form these relationships might take. Also, trying to accept something unsuitable for me really proves nothing. Sex doesn’t matter to me a great deal, so it would be pointless for me personally to have casual sex with someone or to have one-night stands. I also don’t feel comfortable dating someone who dates many other people, because usually I do seek high levels of involvement of people in general. I also tend to move to new places where there is not a lot of social life to occupy my time. It makes sense to find someone else who is more like this, so we are balanced. Currently, I have also managed to detach sex from love, however based on my experiences with Partner #2 and my friends, I believe that compartmentalization is necessary, and there needs to be other actions in the relationship to build trust and bonding. Someone who cannot do these things are also not suitable.

With regards to intimate relationships, on the physiological side of things we have a good system of teaching about sex early, making contraception easily available, encouraging frequent screenings for STIs, and discussing how to be have sex responsibly. I think we need more infrastructure on the emotional and interpersonal side as well to encourage deliberate, nuanced, and consistent discussion about how to responsibly conduct all kinds of relationships. To be honest, I would rather have gotten any STI (short of HIV) than some of the emotional toil and confusion I had been through. Through these 3 posts I have clarified my ideas and preferences a great deal, and hopefully they’ll also suggest an approach to others who are thinking these matters through.

A Traditionalist’s Guide to Thinking About (and Going About) Non-conventional Intimate Relationships, Part II

I. Personal experiences that have contributed to both pro- and anti- ideas

II. Different relationship formats, relationship components, and how format affects the maintenance of these components

III. Analysis of relationship formats and their principles, and thoughts about how to discuss and go about them while maximizing potential and minimizing harm


These are the formats: One-night stands, Marriage, Sex work, Dating, Open relationship, Multiple dates (w/ Group relationships, Group sex), Recurring casual sex, Friends with benefits, and Cheating.

A few caveats: These formats I discuss below reflect the relative ease or difficulty of achieving the format in its ideal (roughly in order of easier to more difficult). In its ideal, no format is better or worse than the other. This also leads to the definition of a “traditionalist” in the title – I am not a traditionalist in the sense that I believe traditional relationship formats like marriage are the best, but in the sense that I believe in using guidelines, whether pre-set or arranged cases by case, to ensure that people treat each other fairly and with consistency. From my experiences discussed in Part I, I have doubts about whether certain formats today can smoothly facilitate this. So, this post is to try and, as objectively as possible, break relationship expectations down to common components, and evaluate whether various formats can or cannot easily allow guidelines to be created and followed based on these components.

These components are not really rules; I don’t necessarily believe that there should be laws governing interpersonal life. I am also not considering the wider social ramifications of intimate relationships, because I’m not even sure there is a correlation between them. My focus is the individuals that are involved in conventional and unconventional intimate relationship and what contributes, or does not, to them treating one another with fairness, though I will go more social in the next post when I discuss the valence media attaches to them and the meaning they have for peer or family groups in the next post.

Components in intimate relationships:

1) Informed consent: the hard legal version, or a soft non-legal version that involves disclosing or failing to disclose information that would influence another’s decision to stay in the relationship.

2) Resources: both material, like money, or immaterial, like time, used to calculate components below.

3) Proportionality: an individual tends to expend resources for / ask resources of another individual (level of involvement), proportionate to the type of relationship or proportionate to how they feel about them. The feeling can be varied, such as affection, duty, sense of social status.

4) Reciprocity: of both feelings and expenditure of resources; all individuals involved tend to reciprocate one another’s feelings at roughly the same levels, and tend to contribute resources on equal levels with the others, even if these resources take different form for each.

4.5) Agreement – ie, reciprocity of opinion / information. Does the same intimate action or the same relationship label mean the same thing to all individuals involved? Does having a relationship take up equal importance for all individuals relative to the rest of their lives, and does everyone agree on what “important” entails? When this factor is at play regarding future prospects, the expression is “having expectations”.

I believe that these components are all involved for intimate relationships, whatever their format. When they all exist (or when they can be easily evaluated and deemed to exist), it would be a satisfactory relationship. When there is no informed consent or resources to spare at all, relationships tend not to happen; when proportionality and reciprocity are lacking, conflict arises. The complaint “I do X but you never do X” is a matter of reciprocity, or an issue in communication problems like, “You don’t need to yell about something like Y” is a matter of proportionality (is yelling proportional to the gravity of the issue?).

However, a satisfactory relationship doesn’t necessarily mean a happy relationship, or vice versa. The 3 relationships I listed in Part I brought me a lot of happiness in various ways but none of them were satisfactory, and so they attracted me enough for me to begin, but they tend not to last.

Formats

As mentioned, the formats and components I discuss below reflect the relative ease or difficulty of achieving the format in its ideal and no format is better or worse than the other in its ideal. I will go in the order of the most easy to achieve to the most difficult.

One-night stands

Hard informed consent is covered by laws regarding rape and sexual assault and there is a robust structure facilitating precautions taken against STIs. In casual sex, resources aren’t much of a consideration. As interaction is brief, there are also no major concerns over proportionality. The reciprocity and proportionality is based mainly if not solely on attraction; whether the criteria of attraction is present and reciprocated can be easily evaluated. Finally, most likely people who participate in sex with others they have just met understand that the meaning of intercourse is just the intercourse, and so there is unlikely to be any disagreement.

Marriage

By this I mean the conventional kind where 2 individuals establish an exclusive emotional, sexual, and life unit with informed consent. I am not dealing with marriage as a form of economic transaction or arranged marriages with non-consenting partners. Those would have criteria working in reciprocity and proportionality determined by local laws and customs that I am not qualified to assess.

Exclusiveness is to establish high reciprocity, ie it ensures that resources of each partner goes mainly to the other. There is usually a statement of great feeling to the other, and high involvement counting in all of emotional, sexual, and life events establishes a high level of proportionality to the feeling. The commitment of one’s whole life in marriage is a pre-established high reciprocity regarding the resource of time. The format of marriage demands a certain degree of reciprocity and proportionality in the first place, which is a basis for those involved to work out its details.

Some people, such as Partner #3 that I described in the previous post, believe that there is no use for the institution of marriage and that it should be abolished. I do agree that in certain (if not most) cultures, marriage can often be used to measure a person’s worth and to determine if they are “normal.” As a Chinese woman, I feel this acutely when some friends of my parents in China think that I am strange when I choose to do a PhD at 30 instead of finding a husband. Again, this gets into the territory of how intimate relationships impact social functioning, which I don’t think it does.

I believe there is no use for an institution of marriage whereby society judges the whole person based on their inclination/ability to form a highly proportional and reciprocal relationship. Maybe it made sense as a litmus test in a society where fealty to a lord or monarch ensures stability. However, I do believe that it is useful to keep marriage as a personal shorthand for those involved in it to register an agreement on their level of reciprocity and proportionality. People who know they want it and are good at it can use it as a kind of benchmark for themselves in terms of how they treat their partner. To me, marriage without institution should be like designing one’s own workout regimen with specific activities and goals to facilitate improvement. There is no publicly mandated workout regimen, but it would be a good idea to stick to the one you designed to achieve the goals you want to achieve.

Even so, I do find that marriage as an external institution to adopt might be useful to keep as well. I do think people are generally more motivated when there are others external to themselves to make them accountable when people get lazy or lose their way. So, marriage should be like your personal fitness trainer.

Sex work

There is a very clear structure for reciprocity in this as sex is exchanged for money. But if all sex workers perform the same sexual acts, why are some paid more than others?

I’m actually not being facetious. I think all prostitutes should be paid the same amount, probably quite a high amount. Previously I mentioned that marriage has clear guidelines for reciprocity and proportionality. The institution of marriage can be repressive, but as an institution outside the individuals involved in marriage, it is also easier to appeal to when proportionality and reciprocity are violated. Prostitution frequently violates reciprocity and proportionality since many cases of it occur in societies where some group (usually women) are trafficked or pressured due to the lack of resources in their daily lives. If marriage can provide external guidelines to ensure proportionality and reciprocity, then prostitution should have it too. Ie. Sex work should be legalized, with standards for the workers’ well-being, guard against exploitation and give high and equal compensation.

Dating (exclusive but short term, or as long term but not mutually involved as marriage)

This is what I had to come to terms with Partner #1 in the original post. In that case it was an issue of proportionality – we liked and admired each other very much, could empathize and open up about our deepest issues that we couldn’t with other people, and had a lot of common interests and common aspirations about our lives. It seemed, then, a chance at an lifelong partnership would be proportional to what we shared, but the environment did not allow this to happen. Had we been able to spend time together, it would have been more like a short-term marriage without the paperwork.

Dating can mean less involvement. When holding back involvement despite strong feeling to share one another’s lives, there is lower proportionality and this might be a unsatisfactory if dragged out. For example, two people who would like to buy their own home and have a child but cannot due to insufficient resources might find this frustrating.

Dating can lead to marriage with increasing involvement, or not. Previously I had believed that dating should lead to marriage, however now I realize that if there is less involvement but individuals dating can consistently maintain reciprocity selectively, then perpetual dating can be satisfactory. When people have different expectations of dating, there is a lack of reciprocity in information, for example one person believes that dating would lead to marriage, whereas the other does not. Then it becomes a problem.

Open relationships

I think people should think about aspects of relationships they value for exclusivity – sex, emotional bonding, life activities, or the expenditure of resources. I pointed out in the last post that with Partner #2, who is bisexual, I didn’t really mind him having sex with men at all. This was because sex isn’t as important to me as emotional bonding, and I do believe it is true that when men hook up, they tend to not be looking for emotional bonding or even need much time. His male partners spent a couple of hours with him and then left, and didn’t need his companionship in any form until the next time.

The biggest source of contention between older and younger generations can be that older generations are taught to increase sexual exclusivity proportional to an increase in love, but younger generations do not. I would say that sexually open relationships are fine as long as the terms are clearly negotiated so that they do not get in the way of reciprocity and proportionality in the main relationship.

Reciprocity would be most easily established if both partners had other partners outside the relationship. One of the reasons Partner #2 didn’t work out was because he dated 25 women and I dated only him. However, reciprocity can be established in other ways; for example, when one partner’s work takes up a lot of their time.

In open relationships, though, there is always the chance that what started off as a purely sexual encounter might become something else. I do believe that sex is categorically different from other interpersonal activities because it occurs when people are exposed, vulnerable, and triggers hormones that stimulate increased affection. Even when taking precautions such as not staying over, there is also no such thing as purely having sex with someone because other aspects of the person come through. This may threaten proportionality and reciprocity in the main relationship. Thus, I think open relationships are a bit problematic even after clear negotiations. This threat may be neutralized by the fact that there is reciprocity in the importance each partner attributes to their relationship, which can be demonstrated in other ways. For example, if neither cares for the relationship much, the risk of finding someone else might be high but neither care; if both cares a lot for the relationship, they would take proportional steps to minimizing the likelihood of finding someone else when sex is involved.

Dating multiple people separately

This has largely the same issues as open relationships to a greater magnitude, and requires even more negotiation of what constitutes reciprocity and proportionality for each person involved.

There is also the specific issue of compartmentalization or its failure. By “compartmentalizing,” I mean emotionally, mentally, and materially containing the effects of one event or interaction so they do not affect another event or another interaction (usually the concern is affecting another for the worse, which would usually tip proportionality or reciprocity). Solely sex outside a relationship can be compartmentalized more easily since biology are the only thing the individual needs to work against. When adding to sex with dating, so many other aspects of the person need to be contained. I mentioned that with Partner #2, for example, other women he dated would often discourage or upset him, and this frequently affected how he interacted with me.

Partner #2 was particularly bad at compartmentalizing, however I am not sure many people would be really good at it. Each aspect of our lives affect the others; a hard day at work would make most people a little short-tempered when they interact with other people afterwards. I think having stresses from work, duties to family members and friends, and then add multiple partners on top would almost certainly constitute a poor atmosphere in which to maintain proportionality and reciprocity for each partner, if it is as simple as spending enough time. Partners might choose to negotiate what needs to be compartmentalized, however this would take a lot of self-knowledge and discussion to cover everything that matters to them, which I am also not sure the majority of people are good at.

Polyamory or group relationships, however may be different if all individuals involved are all mutually involved with one another, and negotiate some sort of mutual support. I really haven’t seen an example of this around me, so I’m a little hazy as to what its strengths and pitfalls are.

Group sex can either have the same but more severe pitfalls as open relationships, or they might get resolved if they are so mutual as to constitute some kind of polyamory. Partner #2 frequently expressed his desire to have a threesome with me and another woman. I saw his problems with compartmentalizing already and refused. In addition, in an objective sense I saw that his desire for a threesome with 2 women was an expression of him wanting to master heterosexuality, which I thought was a problematic way of approaching sexuality (more on this in Part III). As I said, I had no problems with his male partners because I saw that they did not demand a lot of involvement, and Partner #2 was good at compartmentalizing them as just sex. This was a recurring male partner who I was even able to establish a rapport with.

Recurring casual sex with one partner

The reason that I put this quite far down the list is that the chance that a purely sexual encounter might become something else is increased when the sexual partner is a recurring one. If this happens, there is a high chance that a minimal reciprocity of information has been occurring, since casual sex is a relationship format that doesn’t emphasize exchanging information, and people tend not to choose casual sex partners based on similar expectations of relationships. And of course whether sex becomes something else it might not apply to both partners, which would make their relationship non-reciprocal. So, I think of casual sex as relatively difficult to maintain and have a high chance of being uneven when they are not maintained.

Partners may even interpret the act of recurring sex differently – A friend who has worked in France said that usually “the talk” about establishing exclusivity is not needed there, because most people agree that having sex repeatedly with one person means they are dating and the relationship has a high chance of being exclusive.

Friends with benefits

There seems to be different definitions to this term. Sometimes it means recurring casual sex with one person, which is above. In this separate section it means having recurring sex between two people who have been friends. To me this can be pretty problematic as it combines risks of recurring casual sex with one partner, to the same but greater issues with compartmentalizing in dating multiple people. By the latter I mean that to maintain both the friendship and the benefits, they need to be compartmentalized from one another to ensure reciprocity and proportionality in both areas.

This is also a format that I am the most hazy about, since I don’t quite understand the point of it even being its own format. If two people are friends and have a bond based on mutual understanding and share interests, and on top of that they are attracted to one another, why would that not be dating? Perhaps I just have very good friends with whom my emotional bond exceeds most other people’s bonds with their friends. Or perhaps when other people have distinguished it from dating, they define dating as exclusive, or as a commitment that eventually lead to marriage. There might also be specific considerations as to how to transition from friend to partner as opposed to from stranger to partner, and how to transition out.

Extra-marital affair (in a marriage not agreed upon to be open)

This is problematic, as the agreement about the meaning of marriage is not being reciprocated, faithfulness and most likely time and emotional resources not reciprocated. Most importantly, I find this to violate soft informed consent. The extra-marital individual and the cheating partner may both be consenting individuals, however the partner being cheated on is at a disadvantage because they most likely don’t know about it, and if they did know, would not consent to it. An objection might be that that consent only applies to the extra-marital individual and the cheating partner. However, I believe that people who get married tend to want to create one unit with their partner in some way, and believe themselves and their partner to be an exclusive unit with regards to the condition of the relationship. If the whole married unit does not give informed consent, informed consent cannot said to be given. To me this is like how a verdict cannot be passed by a jury unless all members of the jury agree on the verdict. If the partner being cheated on knows and consents, then regardless of the legal terms of the marriage, the marriage is by their subjective definition an open one and thus another matter.

There is an issue of whether cheating in a non-marital but exclusive relationship is better or the same. In terms of legality, I believe it is better, as no contract was violated, but in terms of morality, I believe it is the same.

Saying that cheating is problematic does not mean that I think all kinds of cheating are equally bad. Before I came to LA and met people with varied perspectives on dating and I was still upset about my parents’ divorce, I did think so. This was like how I was taught that all theft is bad regardless of what item was stolen. However, I have been forced to consider extenuating circumstances. For example, someone who has suffered sexual assault as a child might have been forced by their circumstances to take sex and sexuality lightly, and they might still want a life companion but have a hard time understanding why sex should be exclusive, when for them it was extremely indiscriminate. Another example might be a partner comforting a friend of theirs that they are emotionally close to, and in a state of high emotions and the lack of clear thinking, intimacy occurs without prior intent.

A Traditionalist’s Guide to Thinking About (and Going About) Non-conventional Intimate Relationships, Part I

This is going to be pretty long, so I’ll break this up into 3 posts:

I. Personal experiences that have contributed to both pro- and anti- ideas

II. Different relationship formats, relationship components, and how format affects the maintenance of these components

III. Analysis of relationship formats and their principles, and thoughts about how to discuss and go about them while maximizing potential and minimizing harm


These days there are many articles about young people who aren’t really thinking about marriage but want companionship and intimacy, and new kinds of relationships are constantly being defined (eg dating partner, casual sex). However, there seems to be a comparative dearth of reflective articles considering reservations or opposition, especially those that come from a secular perspective. Searching for “issues with casual sex,” there are a bunch of articles that point to how certain strategies weren’t suitable, but other than religious ones (ie here), there were very few that deal with concept itself.

Relationship issues is really not the usual wheelhouse on this blog. However, I increasingly feel like I need to think through my own ambivalent position with this, and sharing them has no additional cost, I suppose. I also want to share this because I get the sense that secular people can be turned off by arguments couched in religious terms. Whether being turned off is justified or not, at least I do think that religious terms might not be the most pertinent for seculars.

Anyways, I’m not a religious adherent (though I think of Buddhism as the most sensical). I am a woman around 30 from a PRC Chinese family, and mostly heterosexual. The most pertinent experiences contributing to my current thoughts were my parents’ divorce, a new crowd in LA, and a number of recent relationships where I found myself in arrangements I wasn’t entirely comfortable with.

Family

While my parents are not really traditional and gave me a lot of freedom, they also believed that marriage was important and should last, and could not teach me, for example, that casual sex was okay. My parents divorced when I was starting high school, after my father was cheating on my mother with a co-worker of his.

The divorce had two rather unpleasant effects on my worldview: the first came from the fact that the co-worker was a woman who had affairs with men in the company in exchange for completing some of her work. Thus, I started disliking things associated with female sexuality, such as makeup, fashion, etc, and also affected my perception of women in general. The second effect was that I became deeply pessimistic about relationships. Upbringing aside, I have always been the romantic and sentimental sort, so it wasn’t that I repudiated the concept of love or didn’t feel it, I just didn’t think the chances of making one work was enough to put in the effort. Also, what my father did in itself was such a betrayal of my mother and I, and had unpleasant consequences for us, that when intimacy outside of an established relationship is mentioned, I associate it with betrayal.

Until recently, my Chinese upper-middle class sense of dating involved having meals and holding hands and getting to know someone through years, perhaps even a decade. I at least saw people moving in together, but it was for the two people gradually compromising with one another until they were one unit, ending in marriage.

Friends

From high school into undergrad and a master’s degree, my immediate circle were also other Asian immigrant children, who as of now have either married the first person they dated, or never dated. I was also very studious and wasn’t really in touch with mainstream culture – the things I do follow you can see from the rest of the blog, which aren’t exactly great places for learning this kind of thing. The only time I dated for 10+ years since my parents divorce was in undergrad, and the guy broke up with me after a month of pretty chaste interaction. Given my idea of relationships at the time, the breakup made no sense, but because nothing much happened, it didn’t ultimately change my concepts.

When I got to LA to do my PhD, however, I met a department full of queers and anarchists, and moreover they were Americans who were predominantly not immigrants. My housemate is a fellow grad student. She believes in the freedom to have sex with people other than her main partner but her partner did not, leading her to hide her hookups from him. This triggered a lot of issues with my parents and bothered me a great deal. She has a new long-distance partner who is also not entirely on board with open relationships, however at least tolerates them with some discomfort.

Another example is a mutual friend who is a lesbian and hiding her sexual orientation from her parents. Although largely monogamous, she has been in threesomes, believes in having sex very early in dating, using the quality of sex as a microcosm of the relationship, and her recurring definition of a date has to involve at least kissing.

I have disagreed with and have been bothered by how my friends live their lives, especially when they are hurting someone that in my view they are supposed to care about. However neither are malicious nor vengeful; they tend to have big hearts, are very responsible to their families, friends, and school work, and also thought through their ethics (more on this in the next post). I could either believe them to be bad people, or to believe issues I have with their behaviour aren’t that much of an issue. I’ve been trying to work on the latter.

Partners

When I got to LA, enough time had lapsed since my parents’ divorce where I was ready to believe I could find someone and establish a relationship. Having not really thought about it in practical terms and being rather sheltered, it wasn’t that I disapproved of non-conventional relationships, but that I couldn’t even conceive that they existed.

For example, I didn’t really know what “friends with benefits” was til a couple of years ago. My friends here still have goals of finding an emotionally devoted companion, so I also couldn’t conceive of dating someone long-term while knowing they are incompatible. I had wanted to be single, or married and monogamous, but could not conceive of wanting to be a swinging bachelor(ette) for one’s whole life, or conceive of having an open marriage. All of these formations appeared in 3 relationships I had in the past few years.

Partner #1

The experience that emphatically started all of this shock and self-questioning was a Korean man I dated long distance (mentioned here when talking about the unexpected entanglements we still have from history). A couple of months into our interaction, he told me that he was descended from a ancient royal lineage and his parents expected him to produce pure-blooded Korean children from a legitimately married wife. So, at some point he would have to break up with me and marry a Korean woman. First, I was deeply offended by the race factor (and I couldn’t even conceive that Chinese and Koreans were different races, even if races were a thing to begin with). Second, it was hard not to think of it as an insult that I was good for the short term but not long term.

I could handle it if doubts of my long-term suitability was a result of not knowing me well, but in this case the possibility of it being long-term was close to 0% and due to a factor I couldn’t change. I didn’t think that I could be treated fairly with a predetermined verdict, nor could I act naturally with this hanging over my head. I was angry, sad, and confused, and it took me a good week to recover. The Korean man also had mental health issues, and by then he had also irrecoverably spiraled into depression. He sent an email saying he was sorry but he had no control over his issues, and I never really heard from him again. This experience has left me heartbroken to this day.

Partner #2

The second recent relationship I had was with a fellow grad student who is also an international student, but not Asian. He is bisexual and had recently ended a long-term relationship with a man, but realized he was now more attracted to women. As this was new to him, he wanted to date around, me being one partner among many. I was apprehensive about this, but felt as though I didn’t quite do justice to the Korean man because I was too concerned about the form of the relationship over the person.

The relationship lasted several months due to the following issues: first, he accepted it natural that I should be the one to “loosen up” and found my adherence to “ancient morals” incomprehensible. He also believed that he would need to have casual sex after marriage. At some point I couldn’t keep compromising, and he also felt pressured every time I brought up my discomfort with his dating practices. Second, related to the first, was that he believed that in a relationship people should look after their own interests, whereas I believed that even in casual dating there should be some effort to learn about and cater to the needs of one’s partner.

Third, his sexuality and identity were also in flux, and was often distraught when his other dates didn’t go well (eg sometimes on a weekly basis women online would accuse of him being gay in actuality, or made fun of his foreign language name). In these moments he would need my help and even showed up unannounced at my home. So, I found myself in a dilemma; I did genuinely cared about him, however I couldn’t genuinely comfort him if what I really believed was that he wouldn’t have any of these problems with insulting dates had we been monogamous. Moreover, I felt like it wasn’t fair to be his go-to person for resolving any and all of his dating issues if was just (unwillingly) only one of all his partners. Even ancient imperial concubines had it better, I thought – if I had the primary duties of a first wife, then I should also have the privileges. At the end of the relationship he revealed that he had dated 25 other women in the months that we were together (not counting the men, who actually I had no problems with).

Partner #3

Some years ago, I had a big crush on someone in one of my classes. I never said anything at the time, though we became friends, and feelings abated. He would fall into the camp of friends who have never dated, and I just assume he wasn’t interested at all. Last year we were in the same city and hung out a lot, and I started to develop feelings for him again. I asked him to stay the night, but he said that because he needed to drop off his car before morning, he could not, but would if the circumstances were different. I knew from being friends with him that he was interested in intimacy, but not in having a girlfriend or marriage, and generally believed marriage and all social categories to be constraints. I have the feeling that we are supposed to consummate this relationship next time the “circumstances” are aligned, however I would be dissatisfied with intimacy without some form of dating-like activity. If there is none, I would rather not find out the hard way by being used and then tossed aside (one thing I am sure about is that sex for the sake of release is not for me. For me, attraction is predicated upon liking the person, and sex has to contain some affection for enjoyment).

Unfortunately I don’t think this is the kind of relationship where I can be up front and ask what is supposed to happen next, since I get the impression that people involved in casual relationships are in them precisely because they don’t want the pressure of thinking about the future. In addition, asking would make me appear decidedly un-casual about it and possibly rock the boat. So, my current struggles are not only with not getting the relationship I want, but being in a form of relationship where I don’t even feel I can ask about what kind of relationship I’m getting.

And so, I found myself having to readjust again – and getting the sense that every time I’ve adjusted to a new concept, I would be met with another one beyond my new threshold of acceptance. After I had reconciled that short term relationships with one person was okay, I was faced with the demand to be in an open relationship; after I had sorted through the nuances of that (next post), I was faced with a relationship that didn’t involve dating at all. Part of me is extremely tired and I’m approaching the point of wanting to completely abstain for the rest of my life again. Before I decide to do that, I had to sort it all out here.

Into the Lifestream: Histories and Philosophies of FFVII

Part I – Personal fannish stuff
Part II – Socio-political stuff (Race and gender, Japanese history, Environmentalism)
Part III – Philosophical stuff (The Lifestream, Aerith’s way, Advent Children extensions)
(Because this WP layout has a static banner, it covers the first paragraph or so when you go to an internal link, so you need to scroll up a bit. sorry.)

One of the biggest pieces of news coming out of E3 this summer was that there will be a remake of Final Fantasy VII, and hearing this has made grown men cuss and cry in front of their children. There are 2 decade’s worth of debates on the game’s impact; while my personal reasons might be rather idiosyncratic, I also think a portion of them might be what a lot of fans find appealing when they say they were impacted by Aerith’s death, but they just haven’t articulated it the same way.

I won’t be addressing the technical aspects of gameplay or graphics advancement in the 1990s, since I don’t know enough to judge. What I’d like to focus on here are the themes and the concepts that the character, plot, and the world-building imply. I think what makes this a good story is that while it’s fantasy, it reflects Japan’s concept of itself in the world, and in the end it has a rather modest and relatable view of good and evil, which are locate in the ways we approach life and loss and the world we live in.

Having said that, though, I do think how characters as gameplay elements relate to characters as narrative elements is important to keep. Some of the later FF games have no specializations for characters and they can grow technically according to player choice. Battle system and random encounter mechanics aside, I do think that stats and specializations contribute to a sense of who the characters are. Relying on the table in Section 1.4 here on character stats, it makes sense that a character like Aerith doesn’t grow in strength as quickly as Barrett, who conversely doesn’t grow in magic as quickly as Aerith.

I. Personal stuff

I’m a big fan of FFVII but not through the typical route of “this defines my childhood.” I watched Advent Children (AC) when it first came out in 2005 with the anime club in university, without knowing anything about it. While it didn’t make much sense to me, it haunted me and I watched it up to 5 times in one semester trying to figure out why. I suppose that having had watched a lot of anime, certain dramatic devices and characterizations, such as angst, was familiar. I was also taking a Bible and Literature course at the time and wrote a response paper on Biblical themes and whether FFVII subverted them by making Sephiroth an antichrist figure (especially with the similarity of “Jenova” to “Jehovah”), and whether there was a subtext of Eastern polytheistic religions compared to Western monotheism. Later in this post I will also justify why think in the thematic scheme of things AC is absolutely necessary, even if it retconned half the characters and nothing particularly different from the game happened.

I got into gaming only in my mid-20s, as my family were relatively poor immigrants for whom entertainment in general was frivolous spending. (Advice for the next generation of parents: start ’em young. Gaming is like piano or martial arts, because it requires a very specific set of sensory-motor skills and a “language” in terms of reading what the game wants you to do. The literacy of videogames are different from other visual media like movies and so forth because there is an interface, both in the sense of the actual menus you see and also implicit conventions in what you can and cannot interact with). I played FFVII when I was teaching English in China because I had more time from not being in school myself, and I was also at a telecommunications / software engineering institution where students exercised free will over their lives for the first time by playing games all the time. They were asked to choose English names for the benefit of foreign instructors and one kid actually named himself Sephiroth. He wasn’t my student, but I found this out during a Thanksgiving event, where teachers announced “Sephiroth will be performing Pachlebel’s Canon in D on the violin.”

I guess I took this as a sign and downloaded a PC version of it, though because of my lack of gaming skills meant that I followed a textual walkthrough (from Absolute Steve, who is a great writer for this kind of guide in terms of being clear, comprehensive, and occasionally humorous). It took me a couple of months and the timer in the game clocked out long before I finished it. I didn’t feel attachment to specific characters more to the party as a group, and it got to me to the extent that when I failed to destroy one of the Weapons I actually felt like I let someone down. I did finish everything in the end, though because it too me so long, the emotional payoff at the end didn’t seem as salient. But FFVII stayed with me in a way that has influenced my personal growth; every time I’d get cocky or get overcome with guilt over something I tend to think of FFVII to get me out of it (more about this in Part III, and an excellent interview with Takahiro Sakurai, the voice actor for Cloud, sums this up perfectly towards the end). AsI go onwards with graduate education I also see in FFVII a unique and instructive Japanese approach to the world (Part II). And like most fans of the FF series the music has been a major draw; as a flute player I tend to practice a lot of FFVII tunes (my favourite being “Cloud Smiles”).

II. Socio-political stuff

Race and gender issues

I’ve seen some articles since E3 discussing what should stay in the remake and what should be changed, among them more sensitive topics such as Cloud cross-dressing, and Barrett’s behaviour and speech being racist. While Cloud cross-dressing adds a lot of humour to the game, there is concern that having it simply as a humorous element and having Cloud unmask himself as a “real man” at the end of that sequence sits uncomfortably with queer and transgender sensibilities 20 years on. Though I think even today, if you ask an average straight guy to wear a dress and infiltrate a brothel, he’ll still be uncomfortable, and men he meets in the brothel would still be uncomfortable when they find out. It might be interesting to explore the diversity of orientations if someone were to be attracted to Cloud regardless of whether he’s in disguise or not, even more interesting if a significant character were bisexual or something (oddly enough I can see Aerith being such, also Rufus).

As for the character of Barrett, I would also say that because he’s a rather complex character overall and exists in a fantasy world, I don’t think his behaviour and speech really matter all that much in the end. For Japan, who has its own rather different racial discrimination problems, I thought his character was already pretty progressive. I also don’t know how much of his speech is in translation and how much of it was written in the Japanese version already, and if the latter, whether it signifies differently in Japan (I think in Axis Powers Hetalia, world accents were represented as Japanese regional ones for the Japanese voice acting, so if Barrett has something similar going for him I’m not sure Euro-American fans have enough information to complain). What I would like to see, though, is if he’s meant to reflect a specific racial/class demographic, when the English voice acting take place, the producers would actually consult English the way it’s spoken by that demographic. I’m thinking of the Zimmerman trial where Rachel Jeantel was deemed to behave inappropriately or spoke unintelligible English when it was legitimately a different form of vernacular. Anyways, I always thought his idiosyncracies were more about class than race, and I do think it’s realistic and relatable for a person of colour on the outskirts of the world to have their prior ways of life and economies (in his case, coal) to be interrupted by new technology from urban centres.

I think some things have changed, though, and the sensibilities of a post-9/11 and post-Fukushima world need careful treading around. It might be hard to pull off heroism of eco-terrorists blowing up energy reactors now, even if the heroism is only initial and Barrett recognizes his error later on. Fukushima also makes Advent Children harder to accept, as Geostigma and orphans infected with Jenova-contaminated water is uncomfortably close to the effects of radiation exposure. I’m not sure how the writers plan on handling this sensititive topic.

Japanese history

I’m doing a doctorate in American Studies, which examines the ideas and status of people within the US and the effects of the US worldwide. One of the topics is how Asia has been impacted by the US, and another topic is what Eisenhower calls the military-industrial complex, the consequences of which I think FFVII shows in the Shinra Corporation. If this seems far fetched, a similar thread that fans have also noticed is that Japanese anime, especially pre-2000 ones, has a lot of apocalyptic scenarios involving cities getting destroyed (Evangelion and Akira, to name 2), which people tend to agree has to do with a generation growing up after the atomic bombs.

When Eisenhower came up with the term “military-industrial complex” he was referring to the conjoined interests of legislators, military leadership, and the arms industry in the US. Since industrialization in the Euro-American world, a lot of the industry was privately and not state-owned; governments and militaries would contract out arms production to these private companies, and in turn government legislation would ensure that these private companies would be able to produces armaments smoothly. In broader terms, the military-industrial can also arise from the joint effects of military and economic influence, which would be different from a strictly economic force such as foreign direct investment. Japan would be the Asian nation which has felt the effects of the US military-industrial complex the earliest, with commodore Perry and the navy opening Japan to economic development in the mid-1800s. Rationale for this on the part of the US is numerous, some of which involving needing Japan as a fueling station of sorts, and also wanting to control shipping routes to China, which was seen as a huge market. Japan industrialized quickly and even defeated Russia in modern warfare, but the US didn’t pay it much mind since it was still preoccupied with Europe. Japanese and American interests around the Pacific began to clash during WWII; the incident Americans tend to know from this is the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbour in Hawai’i. Then the US dropped the atomic bombs on Japan, leading to the withdrawal of Japan from the Pacific theatre of WWII.

Common knowledge about the US’s involvement in Japan usually ends here, and most people assume that Japan got itself back on its own feet. In the treaties after WWII Japan was forced into complete disarmament due to its encroachment on its Asian neighbours. Instead, the US stations military in Asia and the Pacific region to secure the places that Japan withdrew from (such as the Philippines and Pacific islands like Guam, as well as Korea). In addition to military presence, the US also heavily influenced (if not dictated) the direction of Japanese economic and industrial development into the 50s. Part of the result, intentional or not, was that the Japanese economy also became a military-industrial one to provide support to American engagement in the Korean War, and American influence in South Korea also created institutions to support its engagement in Vietnam. During these Cold War engagements, Japan, Hawai’i, and Thailand served as R&R stations for US soldiers on leave, which some people argue was the start of making Hawai’i into a tourist-driven economy.

I can’t draw a direct connection between Japan’s relationship to the US and Shinra, but I also think that an energy corporation with a paramilitary presence like Shinra would come uniquely from a country which has lived through national development influenced by a combined foreign military and economic force, and it would be harder for Euro-Americans in the 90s to conceive of this particular combination. This is especially salient due to the presence of Yuffie and Wutai in FFVII. Wutai’s cultural aesthetics are heavily Japanese-inflected; it was supposed to have been a strong warrior nation, but because Shinra wanted to set up a mako reactor and Wutai did not, and a war ensued that Wutai eventually lost. In addition, along with becoming a source for energy extraction, Wutai also became a resort destination for non-Wutai tourists, which Yuffie and other Wutai resistance fighters are ashamed of.

This lack of self-determination in Wutai reflects the history I have outlined above, where both Japan and Wutai have little choice but to become a proxy or service for another nation which is stronger both militarily and economically and uses the former to secure the latter. Reading Shinra as the US military-industrial complex might be stretching it, since the US didn’t explicitly carry out military-lead resource extraction; however, a number of US industries and scientists were folded into the nuclear development program during WWII (a good book just published about this is here), and it’s kind of unsettling to add the fact that the US dropped nuclear bobs on Japan to the fact that the nuclear reactors at Fukushima were designed by General Electric, which we tend to associate with benign home appliances. While the intentions of the US and of Shinra might be different, the result they have left on Japan and Wutai are not so different. Because Yuffie is the representative of this, though, the message is “safe” in that most people wouldn’t read threat in a young woman who’s annoyingly cheerful and slightly incompetent. There’s a whole area of research into why Asians like to convey messages in cute things, which I won’t get into, but recommended sources would be artist Takashi Murakami’s Superflat aesthetic (which he links to WWII here), as well as the chapter on cuteness in Sianne Ngai’s Our Aesthetic Categories: Zany, Cute, Interesting.

Environmentalism

Another issue related to the military-industrial complex is environmentalism, which is on the forefront in FFVII. Environmental activism can date back to the 60s as a major movement and isn’t particular to Japan (though it did take place around the same time as civil right and anti-war movements). An excellent academic book that touches on this (and readable for laypeople / Japanese pop culture fans) is Anne Allison’s Millennial Monsters: Japanese Toys and the Global Imagination. Allison argues that Japanese popular culture reflects the social conditions and aspirations that Japan has lived through post-war; one of the effects of industrialization is that areas of untouched nature shrunk, and thus many Japanese people feel a great deal of nostalgia for a natural or pastoral landscape (as a Canadian person, I was amused to learn that Japanese people really like Anne of Green Gables and are the largest group of foreign tourists to Prince Edward Island, which they apparently see as an image of what Japan had been). Allison spends a great deal of time talking about Pokemon; she writes that Tajiri, the creator of Pokemon, borrowed from his childhood experiences of catching insects and fish in his town and tries to recreate this experience of nature as playground, albeit a fantastical natural ecosystem of “monsters.” Allison doesn’t discuss this, but a more sober and ambivalent work in Japanese popular culture regarding the loss of nature would be Princess Mononoke. It’s also no accident that these works emerge in the 80s and 90s, which is when the generation born after WWII in Japan had matured into adults. Thus, while the environmentalism presented in FFVII seems to be a universal issue, it’s also very specific to the Japanese.

III. Philosophical stuff

Another rather Japanese-specific theme in FFVII that gets into philosophical territory is that “nature” in FFVII is not simply a material existence but a spiritual one, and is fundamentally no different from human beings. Hippies and esoteric beliefs aside, most people living in the Euro-American world would see nature as a resource (energy, raw materials) or as a setting for human activity and enjoyment (leisure, beauty, being in touch with ourselves). If we “respect” nature it’s more that we need to survive sustainably rather than for nature’s own sake, or when we fail to predict or control nature, disasters happen and we are humbled. If we “return to nature” upon our deaths, it is decomposition on a material level of the body, which we have in common with the natural world. Judeo-Christian-Islamic thinking has influenced most of us to think that human beings are exceptional for having souls, while beings of “nature” lacks it, even if we are not all religious adherents. The Lifestream in FFVII is a very different world view, where human beings are not exceptional, and everything returns to the Lifestream; thus, everything has some degree of soul, if that’s still the right word for it. Thus it also makes sense that Aerith’s flowers grow best in a church.

The Lifestream and good and evil

Because of this underlying spiritual element to FFVII, I think there are two parallel but linked frameworks of good and evil in FFVII. On the one hand, there is the familiar good and evil of an adventure story where Cloud and his friends, as the heroes, save the world from villains, which are both Sephiroth and Shinra. But what makes Sephiroth and Shinra the villains? And while Cloud is flawed, what makes him good, and what makes Aerith good? I think the other framework of good and evil is whether one acts according to the Lifestream or not. Two attributes of the Lifestream is that a) it is a continuous cycle where, in due time, everything on the planet dissolves into and b) in the flow, everything is broken up, remixed, and appears in a different form. The opposite of these would be a) taking something out of circulation and b) persisting in one form that does not distintegrate or recombine. In terms of nature and environmentalism, this would be plastic in a landfill. In the case of FFVII, it’s true that Sephiroth has killed innocent people, but I think his evil has more to do with being bent on continuing Jenova’s takeover of the planet, which directly affects the Lifestream; and Shinra Company’s evil is that they process the energy of the Lifestream into mako and use it up without replenishing it (an interesting article here argues that Shinra represents capitalism). Sephiroth is also guilty of this; in AC he explains that his aim is to spread his influence with the remnants of Geostigma victims, take over the planet that way, and use the planet to sail somewhere else to find another planet. This is definitely not sustainability either.

These are concrete ways that the Lifestream is affected, however there are more abstract versions of the two attributes. As life attitudes, the attributes of the Lifestream would translate to moving on when it is necessary to do so, and being flexible about what one needs to be. Here is also the reason I think Aerith is such a compelling character, and why Cloud is at first Sephiroth’s shadow but manages to be his own person. This is also where I think Advent Children shows a quite different manifestation of the same theme, a side which is important to consider.

Aerith’s way

In their own extremes, Sephiroth represents stagnation and self-absorption, and Shinra represents waste, while I think what makes Aerith “good” is that she lives her way according to the Lifestream and something like the “middle way,” and through her Cloud learns to do so as well.  This is also why I think it makes sense that Sephiroth reappears in Advent Children, since he is so bent on revenge and world domination that he does not allow his consciousness to dissolve in the Lifestream when it should. Near the end of FFVII, there is a discussion on Cid’s airship regarding whether Aerith planned to sacrifice herself, or whether she planned on returning to her friends (When Sephiroth tricks Cloud into giving one of his avatars the Black Materia to summon Meteor, Aerith leaves the party and goes to the city of the Ancients to summon Holy with her White Materia). The conversation ended on a note that leans towards the latter, but one wonders why, if she didn’t plan to sacrifice herself, did she leave alone and didn’t ask for help.

It’s debateable whether Aerith needed to die to save the world. She could have finished summoning Holy, and if Sephiroth’s power prevents it from taking effect, the party would have finished off Sephiroth in the Northern Crater, and Meteor would have stopped. However, it might be the case that even if events had unfolded this way, the party wouldn’t defeat Sephiroth in time and the Meteor would still be on its trajectory. There are different ways of interpreting the scene at the end of FFVII where the Lifestream rises up to counteract Meteor. It’s possible that the Lifestream would have done this anyways if the Meteor got too close (which is what Marlene describes in Advent Children), however since there is a shot of Aerith’s face in the glow of the Lifestream at the end, and in AC her voice seems to emanate from water, I prefer to think that Aerith was the one that instigated the Lifestream from within to counteract Meteor, and she could not have done this while alive. It’s not that she would have known when Sephiroth kills her that she needed to be dead, either; it’s just that she does what she can while alive, and also does what she can after death as well. This is in line with the attributes of the Lifestream, which is that she accepts what happens to her, moves on and takes on another form, which both is and isn’t Aerith, and makes it work.

Cloud also learns to do this by the end; on the airship he says that they all need to let go of Aerith’s memory; as he and Tifa are hanging from a cliff in the Northern Crater after defeating Sephiroth, he says that he is beginning to understand what the Promised Land is, and he could meet “her” (Aerith) there. Perhaps the Promised Land is the Lifestream and they will all “meet” Aerith upon death as everything recombines; perhaps it’s a place of mind where he understands that she is with them but in another form. Hopefully players also understand this by the end, know that hacking the game to keep playing her character rather defeats the purpose of the game’s thematic development, and most likely Aerith wouldn’t want that to happen. I remember reading fan confusion regarding the intention with her death, with the producer Kitase saying that the developers wished to reflect the meaninglessness and suddenness of death in real life (against the trope of sacrificial deaths in popular media, where sacrifice or love is usually a clear-cut meaning); on the other hand, resurrecting Aerith would take away the meaning of her death. I think what he means is that there is no inherent meaning in Aerith’s death, but her death is meaningful for the emotional and intellectual struggles of Cloud, the party, and the player as they come to terms with it. Paradoxically, one of the ways of making meaning of her death is to accept that it has no meaning to death; if this seems nihilistic, her death has no meaning because it’s a non-event, and she is not really gone, and you can meet her in the Promised Land.

Cloud takes quite a long while to get there though. If Aerith goes with the flow of the Lifestream and accepts that she dies and takes another form, Sephiroth and Cloud are too wrapped up in maintaining their self-image, to their detriment and the detriment of others around them. Sephiroth, for his part, goes on his rampage after discovering that his status as an elite SOLDIER was due to being experimented on by Shinra and Hojo, and strives for revenge and to continue Jenova’s supposed legacy of taking over the world (This second goal never made particular sense to me, since going from “Jenova was meant to take over the world millenia ago” and “I have Jenova cells” to “I must take over the world” seems quite a leap, and my only explanation is mako and Jenova-induced mental instability on Sephiroth’s part, as well as a slightly hamfisted way of introducing the theme of legacies). Cloud is so invested in being a member of SOLDIER that he adopts Zack’s memories as his own and deludes himself and everyone else into thinking that he had been in SOLDIER. Even as a boy, as he explains to Tifa when they are in the Lifestream, he told himself that he was superior to the other children when all he wanted was to be included. And of course, when Hojo reveals that he had experimented on a series of beings (?) in an attempt to create Sephiroth clones, Cloud begs Hojo to give him a number so that he has something to latch onto for his identity. After Tifa helps him to piece things together in the Lifestream, he accepts that he isn’t who he thought he was, and that’s all right, since the party together, with the memory of Aerith, will do what needs to be done.

Advent Children extensions

In Advent Children, though, there exists the opposite problem, where Cloud, presumably coming down from the high of defeating Sephiroth, no longer knows who he is at all, nor do the people who used to live in Midgar. This is the opposite extreme to what Cloud manages to conquer in the game, which is overweening pride; in AC he falls into despair. Geostigma infects people who have lost their will to live, and what looks to be acute Geostigma attacks occur during moments of despair or doubt, such as when Denzel first accidentally calls Tifa and tells her that he doesn’t know what to do with his family dead and home gone, and in midst of crying suffers an attack and passes out. Rufus is correct in saying that Sephiroth, by holding onto himself in the Lifestream, is responsible for Geostigma; his malevolence in the Lifestream overpowers those who let themselves go. Cloud, especially, isolates himself when he’s ill with Geostigma; this would be taking himself out of circulation in social terms. Cloud and other Midgar denizen’s issues in AC also show that while Aerith goes with the flow of the Lifestream, this doesn’t mean that she lacks direction or personal integrity. Whereas Tifa tends to hold back, Aerith acts; in addition to going to the City of the Ancients by herself, one detail I remember in particular is from recruiting Vincent. After Vincent explains that he decided to sequester himself in the Nibelheim mansion due to his inability to save Lucrecia, Aerith responds, “So you decided to punish yourself by sleeping? That’s kinda weird.” Aerith would (and does) disapprove of the way Cloud is behaving in AC, though at the end she acknowledges that he’s grown up a bit more.

I think the events of AC makes sense; heroes don’t save the world and live happily after. Sometimes overcoming a catastrophe means there are still pieces to pick up, which might call on different skills and attitudes from the catastrophe itself. There needs to be a medium between arrogance and despair, between action and waiting, between identity and adaptive flexibility, and finding a way of taking on someone’s legacy without becoming a puppet, which is what Sephiroth accuses Cloud of being. I find that the conflict of AC is more internal than in the game, though because it’s a CG movie it needs to show off visual aesthetics with visible antagonists. Oddly enough, in AC it’s Rufus who becomes the most erudite advocate for a healthy attitude, when he tells Kadaj that it wouldn’t matter if Sephiroth were to return; the cycle of the Lifestream means that history might repeat itself, and any number of Jenovas and Sephiroths would not stop those connected to the Lifestream from living as life mandates.

To put FFVII in context, I think that perhaps Japan, with their pride and ambitions during WWII and quick fall into defeat and surrender, particularly needed these popular culture texts to think through what it means to find a middle way. In the context of Japanese society, I suppose I also understand why Advent Children in the 2000s is tackling despair as the problem as opposed to pride in the FFVII game; the pressures of the education system, plus the recent 1997 Asian Financial Crisis and poor employment, likely gave rise to a lot of young people not knowing what they should be doing with their lives and with some becoming hikikomori in extreme cases.

However, I understand the golden age of Japanese popular culture to be in the 90s, when creators were really trying to grapple with the history of their country and what it means to live life to its fullest potential. Since then, I’m rather disappointed to see tropes recycled a lot without much substance behind them, and also Japan’s national branding project in the 2000s (the Cool Japan cultural policy) means that Japanese popular culture may be more devoted of its global image to non-Japanese, whereas self-searching is perhaps put on the backburner. With a new FFVII remake, I hope that it would carry forwards the social and philosophical ruminations of the original game and AC, and even be thematically different from the game so as to continue to reflect what Japan is internally going through today. Regardless, as a major fan of FFVII, I’m looking forward to what the reunion might bring.

Charlie Hebdo and The Interview: Uses and Abuses of Free Speech and the Unmasking of God

“I’m a satirist, so I’ve got boxing gloves on if the person is worthy of satire. But I’m not an assassin.” – Stephen Colbert

“There’s a horror movie called Alien? That’s really offensive – no wonder everyone keeps invading you.” – Twelfth Doctor

—-

From last year until now, the world has been struggling over a series of incidents regarding media representations: first, The Interview was pushed back, revised, and then nearly cancelled due to threats to Columbia, Sony Pictures and theatres over the depiction of the assassination of Kim Jong-un; second, satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in France was attacked by terrorists in response to publishing caricatures of the Prophet Mohammed, in which 11 staff members were killed. In both of these incidents, a Western agency created satirical representations, then non-Western society protested over their representations as offensive, and then the Western content producers protested in return that their representations were justified based on good intentions and free speech/creative expression.

As a fairly pacifist human being and one that does work and research in the arts, I do not condone any kind of attack on creators of an image, however offensive this image may be. However, in discussing this matter with others, I have repeatedly defended the objections of North Korea and of Islamic fundamentalists, and repeatedly found myself on the wrong side of the argument; this post is a means of sorting out and justifying why I think the way I do. One thread in my thinking is related to what we call “free speech,” and the other is linked to representation and divinity.

Organizing these thoughts might start with what seems to be contrasting definitions on concepts we take for granted, and also different weights given to these definition: what is a “representation,” what is an “attack” (figurative or literal, or what is figurative or literal violence), and what is “satire.” There are also different stages to these controversies; of the incidents themselves, there is the stage in which a Western representation takes place, another stage where retaliation takes place, and another stage where protests against these retaliations take place; behind the event itself, there is the long history of global politics.

Working backwards, I believe protests over retaliation on the part of terrorists and North Korea has to do with the sense that their reactions are incommensurate with the representations they find offensive (accepting for a moment that finding them offensive is justified). A justifiable reaction might be also in the realm of representation or in the discursive realm, eg publishing a column protesting The Interview or perhaps a fatwa against caricatures might seem to be responding with a commensurate retaliation (even if the logic behind it seems silly to Westerners), whereas hacking and a terrorist strike aren’t. These “extreme” forms of retaliation are incommensurate because they are material rather than discursive; they cost lives and interfere with livelihoods. Cue the sticks and stones childhood rhyme – words and pictures don’t hurt but sticks and stones do.

Going more theoretical here to cite theorist Jean Baudrillard, there are iconoclasts and iconolators. Iconoclasts object to representations of the divine, because any human imagining of the perfection of divinity or associated figures would be a profanity. Putting aside any debates on whether it’s RIGHT to think this way, it is at least clear that fundamentalists of a number of religions are iconoclast, and they steadfastly proclaim themselves as such. On the other hand, it seems that the Western world is confused about whether it wants to be iconoclasts or iconolators. We believe that representations matter; social groups advocate for better and more authentic representations of marginalized groups, and the childhood rhyme is no longer tenable in school management – psychological bullying hurt as much as physical bullying. Personally, as someone who has done illustration work and researches comics, I have to admit that my Western, Humanities scholar self has a sense of perverse pride that in the The Interview and Charlie Hebdo incidents, representations matter so much. However, while we advocate for how representations matter, we also seem to get bewildered and angry when another community thinks they matter more than we do. Representations matter, but if you’re willing to kill and die over representations, then you’re clearly insane.

In the Western liberal scheme of representations, while we might not believe there is much of a relationship between a representation and the actual thing, it’s not the case that we believe all representations are immaterial or should not have material effects. What, after all, is the end goal of increased and better representations for marginalized groups and stopping psychological bullying among children? It is so that children grow up confident and assured and with psychological resources for better lives. Or that marginalized groups do not run up against a wall of prejudice and can get better jobs and education and better lives, perhaps have lives in the first place (thinking of Ferguson). Even if some Westerners believe that young Black men are more disruptive and tend more towards criminal behaviour, I don’t think we would disagree that persistent media representation of young Black men as criminal at least contributes to increased targeting by police and hence disrupt lives if not cost lives. So, if representations are a matter of life and death, then we should also not argue that, at least on a theoretical level, it is wrong for certain iconoclast religious fundamentalists to be willing to kill and die over representations.

Onto the second thread, which is free speech. Again, as a person working in and around the arts, and as someone who will usually defend fan work over copyright, I believe that society needs both an ideologically generative and economically lucrative structure to protect creativity and “immaterial” labour. On the other hand, in terms of a debate we have had internally to the West, there is the tension between free speech and hate speech, which are part of the convulsions France is currently undergoing. An article from NPR states that hate speech and blasphemy are different under French law. I am not sure about the logic behind this, but it seems that if religion is integral to someone’s identity as their ethnicity (I suppose in certain Pan-Islamic contexts it is more important than ethnicity), and if objecting to someone’s ethnicity is hate speech, it doesn’t make sense that objecting to someone’s religion isn’t. I suppose there is still the sense that the racial/biological part of one’s ethnicity is in some ways innate, and can’t be helped, whereas religion has ideas that one has agency to renounce. But if a religion is the only system of knowledge and truth that you know, and it has structured your life from the day you were born, it’s not so easily to step outside it.

Another argument I have heard in protest against Islamic fundamentalism is that the world needs a system of checks and balances, and no group should be exempt from criticism. Outsiders to the group under consideration should also not fear for their safety due to their critiques. I also do believe that aspirations of a ruling class to be fair and generous towards everyone else usually fails as people tend to protect their own interests, and hence a system of checks and balances needs to be able to function so different elements of a society can critique each other without impunity. However, to me this system of checks and balances has not been actualized, and it is as a lofty and unrealistic goal as noblesse oblige. Checks and balances assumes that each party can have their voices equally heard, and to have their stakes equally measured, otherwise disproportionate power means that there is no checks and balance. And there is no global equality. Regardless of whether the US being engaged in the Middle East was a justified action after 9/11, the UN security council expressed reservations about interventions; the US as a disproportionately strong world power was able to say it would act alone. This is not something that most countries or communities in the world can do. Due to historical colonization of Asia, Africa, and South America, nations in these locations do not have as much political or economic leverage as Western countries, thus they disproportionately have their concerns infringed upon while being disproportionately unable to influence world powers. For example, the term “banana republic” originally referred to Honduras, which could not exercise its sovereignty against American businesses who wanted to grow bananas cheaply there. Most colonized countries have not bounced back from this state of being. There are certain international laws in place to prevent exploitation, however historical legacies are not so easily overcome.

In this context of unequal power, what “satire” is needs to be seriously considered. The famous example would be Jonathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal, where he satirized England’s encroachment on Ireland by suggesting that taken to the extreme, the English might like to eat Irish babies. Satire does not exist in an abstract world where each cultural work has the same weight as other cultural works, but a tool of the weak against the strong when no outright critique is possible. In Swift’s case, objecting to the English directly would have resulted in retribution, so satire was criticism disguised as a fable, where on the denotative level there is no criticism, just absurdity. I would argue that if the power dynamics were reversed, it would no longer be satire, but ridicule and psychological bullying. It is true that the average French journalist doesn’t have as much power as the average terrorist (sorry, “the average terrorist” sounds kind of…wrong), however on a global scale I would argue that France and French media command more attention and has more power to shape international decisions than religious fundamentalist teachings and “extremist” policies, which tend to terrorize a local context. Also, if Swift was trying to reveal British atrocities, I’m not sure what the staff at Charlie Hebdo meant to reveal – or at least the throughline between Mohammed being humanized and current extremist policies isn’t clear enough to me from a caricature to be satire. It would take a long exposition about traditions of veneration in Islam, the impact of rigid or literal interpretations of divine texts, and perhaps a statement on the choice to deliberately tackle image-making to move beyond ridicule.

In addition, perhaps specifically related to the Charlie Hebdo incident, the audience matters. I do not know the readership of Charlie Hebdo, but I understand that this magazine has always critiqued French society, and perhaps its satire has revealed to citizens machinations in French politics and enlightened them to make better social decisions. Thus, I am assuming that most of their audience are not Islamic fundamentalists or doubting Muslim followers who are trying to embrace secularism. In which case, if the caricatures are meant to be satire, I am not sure what kind of social change the cartoonists were trying to accomplish. After similar incidents they should know that Islamic believers won’t respond well to caricatures of Mohammed, and probably won’t renounce their fundamentalism after seeing these caricatures. If their audience are other liberal middle class Frenchmen, with the cartoons they are already preaching to the converted (sorry for the religious metaphor there). Thus, the caricatures are not so much socially-motivated satire as an ingroup joke ridiculing those who are already outsiders. From this point of view, this issue isn’t a free speech or hate speech issue on an abstract level at all, but pragmatically a bad allocation of artistic resources.

The Interview is a similar case and perhaps enlightening in terms of caricatoonists’ thought processes. In The Interview, two American journalists set out to prove to the people of North Korea that Kim Jong-un is not a god, but human. In parallel, one way of thinking about caricatures of Mohammed is that by making him ridiculous, cartoonists are stripping him of his divinity and making him human. Both of these stripping away of divinity is supposed to lead to some kind of secular or democratic liberation, as people would be able to see through a lie.

What is interesting is that Dave and Aaron are enacting what the terrorists enacted in real life, which is attack a representation to shut it down. There are three facets of difference: First, the material routed through representations or the material straight up: The Interview is fiction, whereas the terrorist attack on Charlie Hebdo is a real world occurrence. Second, in the case of Kim Jong-un, the representation and the crafter of the representation are the same figure, Kim Jong-un, whereas in the case of caricatures of Muhammad, the representation and its crafters are different entities. The last facet of difference is Rogen and Goldberg are attacking and taking down a representation of god and showing there is nothing behind it, whereas the terrorists are attacking and taking down a representation of god to preserve the divinity behind it.

These differences are significant, but at a conceptual level both parties were acting under very similar logic. Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg can conceive of making Kim Jong-un fall but cannot put it into practice, and so created a representation that they hope will achieve similar real world effects in the long run, whereas the terrorists were different in that they were willing and able to commit real world actions directly. With the second point, a Western liberal question might be to ask why not just attack the images instead of killing the people who created it. In The Interview, Aaron protests against killing Kim Jong-un because another dictator would just be set up in its place, ie it doesn’t really solve the root of the problem. It actually does – conveniently for Dave and Aaron, they can kill two birds with one stone and kill the image of god and the dictator who crafted him in one go, whereas the terrorists don’t have that convenience. The same logic might apply in the terrorists’ mind – just protesting verbally that images are offensive falls on deaf ears and more images would be made; might as well kill all the cartoonists and root out the problem. Third, as I’ve discussed earlier, both the film producers and Al-Qaeda are iconoclasts, just different kinds.

One point this post is aiming for is that for all of lofty Western values, in practice strategies don’t necessarily operate on different grounds than terrorists. Another point is that in the West we need to work out exactly what we believe representations are and what they’re meant to accomplish, and acknowledge some kind of internationally-accepted limit, that’s just as important, I think, as a UN security council. As a subset of this, we need to be clear about what satire is meant to accomplish.

Third, we also need to assess what it means to unmask god. If we are so keen to destroy the image of god of another community and show him to be human, we should also accept that another community might be rather keen to destroy the images we make of their god. Also, regarding allocations of artistic resources: if a terrorist attack doesn’t convince the Western world that they’re wrong in drawing caricatures of the divine and just deeply offends everyone, how would a movie showing a terrorist attack on a man people think is god going to change anything instead of deeply offending everyone? Finally, if we unmask god, what do we put in his place? Do we take a boat off into the sunrise with the dog we rescued? Do we try to become god? How do we teach a community who has lived with god that God is dead and we have killed him?

The Personal and Political, Chains of Oppression, and Afterlives of Empire (Or, how Commodore Perry can still destroy relationships today)

“If there must be trouble, let it be in my day, that my child may have peace.”
– Thomas Paine, from The American Crisis (1776)

“I am not a prisoner of history. I should not seek there for the meaning of my destiny.”
– Frantz Fanon, from Black Skins, White Masks (1952, 1967)


Contents

Terminology

Introduction

Part I: British colonialism, Irish immigration policies; global development and migration, US sovereignty, Chinese Communism (Parents)

Part II: American immigration policies, White supremacy, Asian machismo; Chinese imperial tribute system, American opening of Japan, Japanese colonialism, Korean nationalism (Lovers)

Concluding remarks: Survival, forgiveness, and poetic justice

This post will be less like the last one on Doctor Who (Part II of that will be written some day, I promise), more like the one before that on interracial dating, where I am discussing social issues through the lens of personal experience. Again, feel free to skip the drama and tortured ranting. If you are prepared to wade through this, I suggest reading it over a few sittings with frequent bathroom breaks.

The main issue is “Afterlives of empire.” (phrase stolen from an academic conference last year.) Imperialism being one powerful state imposing themselves on a weaker one or incorporating it, primarily for the former’s benefit (often economic), though helping the weaker state might be part of the justification. The “afterlives” is that imperialism creates disruptions on a massive scale, but not only at the moment of what we would think of as an imperial intervention but for a long time afterwards. For example, the continuing conflict between Israel and Palestine can be seen as an afterlife of Great Britain imperialist designs stoking competing claims to overlapping territories (British influences in the region is one among a huge number of influences and I probably got it wrong – let me know).

The second issue is “chains of oppression,” which is that victims tend to become oppressors, passing down suffering in one form or another. I first encountered this in Asian American studies – Maxine Hong Kingston’s book The Woman Warrior was criticized by some Chinese American male authors for showing Chinese men as misogynist, which they feared would confirm mainstream stereotypes against Asians as culturally backward. The chain of oppression here being that mainstream American culture denigrates Asians as a whole; in response to this kind of denigration, Chinese American men want to keep the concerns of Chinese American women silent so as to project a better image, and thus become oppressors in their own regard.

The third issue, which also undergirds this whole thought process, is “the personal is political,” and the flipside of this, which is that the public and private are intermeshed. I am still slightly unclear about the distinction between the two pairs. As far as I’ve worked it out, the public being private seems to be a descriptive criticism against the idea that men are public actors and women are private, domestic actors and that the public matters more. For example, housewives doing housework and raising children seem to be private activities that never affected world politics, but men being able to fulfill public obligations relies on having domestic obligations taken care of by women. Or, domestic violence against women isn’t just a problem within the household, but reflects wider social inequalities. On the other hand, the personal being political is an articulation against this from the private to the public, where seemingly small, personal acts can be political statements, or if enough people do it together at any given time, constitutes political mobilization. I am thinking of protestors against the killing of Trayvon Martin dressed in hoodies and carrying Skittles, which are acts of personal comportment but has political significance in-context (here are a couple of good blog post explaining these dynamics: http://mindthegapuk.wordpress.com/2008/01/27/the-personal-is-political/; http://www.gavison.com/a2657-feminism-and-the-public-private-distinction).

Additional key terms are in bold.

I will be looking at how imperialisms have created chains of oppression that still have personal effects, and discuss whether and how living differently might be an intervention against said effects. Of course, if we are talking about car bombs in the West Bank, it’s easy to see how history and global conflicts can affect one’s daily life. But these effects are not all just life-and-death situations; they can be more mundane, but still painful. In addition, these effects reach beyond the embattled territory, ethnic group, or social class that we usually think of as being negatively affected by historical events. As a middle-class Chinese-Canadian graduate student living in the US, I have never really thought of my life as being negatively impacted by past imperialisms, so if I am, chances are a lot of other people are unknowingly impacted as well.

Importantly, my explanations of the impact have either been in very nebulous terms, like it was just bad luck, or in very specific terms, like that the people around me failed to make the right decisions. However, recently I have found that a socio-historical explanation to be a better middle ground, and helps me to forgive. In addition, as I will get to at the end, recognizing that we are impacted by imperialism means that we must also recognize that we might be passing down the effects of imperialism in some way. So, while the analysis here extends from very personal events, it might help someone out there better re-evaluate their own life by taking into account social and historical forces.

I. British colonialism, Irish immigration policies; global development and migration, US sovereignty, Chinese Communism (Parents)

The major reason that I am a socially awkward and inward-orienting person, I think, is that I didn’t have a stable childhood. I didn’t stay in one school for more than 2 years until high school, and I didn’t live in a household with the same family member composition for more than 2.5 years at a time, until started living alone in university. Often these relocations were between great distances and to vastly different cultures.

Skip the biographical details

My life so far: I was born in Beijing and was shunted back and forth between maternal and paternal grandparents, who lived in different cities, until I was 7, with infancy, kindergarten, preschool and the first year of elementary school alternating between Beijing and Harbin. My parents went to Galway, Ireland to do their PhD degrees when I was an infant, and I joined then when I was 7 (this was awful, see next paragraph). At 8 my mother went to Ottawa, Canada, and I joined her at 9, first going to an inner-city elementary school and then, when my father joined us, to a school in the suburbs. When I was living in Ottawa with my father, my mother went back to Ireland and also went to Belgium (where I stayed for a summer), and then had to go to Quebec. My father thought she was having an affair with someone (she wasn’t) and so dealt with this and her constant absence by having an affair for real. Word got back to my mother and they divorced. I went with my mother to Vancouver, where we moved twice more (though thankfully not changing schools – I absolutely refused, and when my mother wanted to move to Calgary I also absolutely refused), the final move being moving in with her boyfriend. Then I went off to undergrad in Toronto, MA in Hamilton, taught English in China for 2 years (in Nanning and Chongqing), then came to LA for my PhD, where I am now. Since undergrad, my mother lived in PEI in Atlantic Canada for several years (I spent undergrad summers there) and then went back to China, whereas my father went to China and then came back to North America, first in Seattle and the Bay area, then Vancouver. He tried to get a job a few years ago in the US but for reasons I will elaborate on later, got a lifetime deportation.

Living in Ireland was terrible; at that time the country was ignorant of the outside world, and I know that my parents were labeled as Asian refugees and exploited at their part-time jobs; my mother worked as an acupuncturist but was paid less than minimum wage. We shared a house with three other elderly single people, one of whom at first refused to let my mother use the kitchen because he believed that she carried something that would contaminate his food. When reasoning didn’t work, she rectified this situation by exploding and literally turning the table one day during dinner. At school the other children’s only understanding of Asia was martial arts, so I regularly got beaten up. Because I was starting to learn English I couldn’t even verbally defend myself, I fought back, and teachers accused me of bullying the other children, and I couldn’t defend myself with the teachers either. I loved the inner-city school in Ottawa that I went to after Ireland because it was all immigrants and working class kids and I was never bullied, but the school in the suburbs was pretty bad again.

Home life wasn’t satisfactory either; my parents showed me a great deal of affection and taught me many things, but they never took care of me before and didn’t quite know how to be parents. While I wouldn’t say I was abused, I was punished severely and in weird ways (one way, which I am certain is Communist-derived, was to make me write an essay on how I’d been bad, sign a contract saying that unless I rectified my behaviour I would be turned out to beg on the streets, and then I was kicked out of the house without my key to drive the point home). Also because I often lived with just one parent who was still technically in school, I had to shoulder a lot of domestic responsibilities at a young age. I had to go grocery shopping by myself and make full dinners by 4th grade, and thought this was unfair. Finally, what annoyed me the most in my teenage years was that my mother would often make me do things according to her value system, which was often antithetical to mine. For example, if we stayed at a hotel that offered breakfast, she would tell me to take extra food from the hotel for our lunch; I thought this was like stealing. Through other relocations and family fractures, literature and other cultural works made better companions than family or peers because they were portable and consistent, and made no unreasonable demands. So throughout my childhood and teenage years I delved deeper into art and literature, and became more and more anti-social.

Due to being anti-social and from what happened to my parents, I also came to avoid romantic relationships. I blamed my father for his distrust and being irresponsible towards my mother and I, and blamed my mother for dragging us around the world for her career, for not being sensitive to my father’s dissatisfaction with our family life, and especially for being absent in my early years. I often felt like I was adopted. The only way to ensure that I don’t repeat their mistakes, I thought (and still think, to a certain extent), is to avoid romance and a potential family of my own altogether. And, paradoxically, I came to continue the pattern of relocating every once in a while – I could have not gone to China to teach English, and I could have stayed in Canada for my PhD, but I didn’t. The psychology major side of me thinks that maybe I feel like I don’t deserve a stable life, or I’m afraid that I would mess up a stable life, or something.

My parents also blame themselves for the same things, and more. I was born 2 months premature because my mother’s health and academic pressures meant she actually couldn’t sustain a pregnancy for the full term. Despite my health and intellectual faculties being all right, I am psychologically more fragile than average, prone to depression and anxiety. So, my mother blames herself for the same things even before I was born and for “not giving me a healthy brain.” She also blames herself for leaving me with my grandparents where I inevitably learned their thought patterns; my maternal grandparents, at least, are a bundle of neuroses and paranoia from being targeted and exiled during the Cultural Revolution (more on this in a bit). My father blames my mother for being a bad mother, and blames himself for not providing a good male role model in my teenage years, which he believes resulted in me hating men. Recently he told me that it would be okay if I was a lesbian as long as I find somebody – for a Chinese parent to say that, even pretty liberal ones like my parents, they’d have to be pretty desperate.

*

In the past few years, my parents have been trying to make up for this, especially my mother. In reverse-parallel, instead of continuing to blame them, I have come to realize that they are not so much at fault (again, especially my mother). Most of this came from my humanities and social sciences education which showed me that my experiences weren’t all that unique, and also showed me the social forces that have similarly affected others.

a. global development and migration, US sovereignty, Chinese Communism

One instance last fall was that I was a TA for a class on immigration to the US, and we talked about push and pull factors for migration. Specifically, we read an article about Latina domestic workers in the US, who leave their own children behind, and send remittances back home and miss their children terribly. However, due to the income gap between the US and Mexico, and sometimes irresponsible husbands, they can’t stay behind to take care of their children if the family as a whole is to survive. Many of my students from China, Hong Kong, or Taiwan also experienced a childhood similar to mine. Part of the discussion for that week was that while Latina domestic workers and the parents of my students, and my parents, do not belong to the same ethnicity or class, they are actually caught up in the same forces. The obvious analysis is that Mexico and China during the 80s and 90s were a lot less “developed” than the West, had fewer job opportunities, and paid lower wages, so this prompts both Latinos and people like my parents to move, but similarities go deeper than this.

One similarity between the Latinas and my parents is the kinds of jobs they were required to do outside their country (more pull factors), which sounds nonsensical, as the Latinas described in the article are domestic workers and my parents are professionals in science and tech. However both of these kinds of labour are what Western countries required of different foreign populations at the time; Latina domestic workers are pulled into the US because US women work their own jobs and can afford to pay them. Similarly, North America needed professional labour like software engineering (my father) and medical research (my mother), and it is a fact that Canada emphasized professional visas during the time my parents immigrated. Correspondingly, push factors between Latina domestic worker and my parents are also comparable. China was just opening up economically under Deng Xiaoping at the time, and aimed to develop like the West and encouraged more students to choose technical professions.

The US has been imposing itself on Mexico even more directly than it has on China; for the immigration class we learned about the Mexican-American war, but more importantly something like NAFTA, in which the US and Canada benefit by more by having lower tariffs for importing good from Mexico and cheaper labour from Mexico, whereas it seems like the Mexican economy is increasingly geared towards supplying what the US and Canada needs (eg maquiladoras), rather than to strengthen its own infrastructure. So, through TAing for that class, at least the point was driven home to me that larger social forces prompts migration, and sometimes the same larger forces prompts vastly different trajectories of migration, and I can’t blame my parents as if it was just their personal decision to move. In addition, while I did always recognize that there is a gender double standard, the stories about the Latina domestic workers really made me appreciate that it was unfair that my father and I blamed my mother for devoting a lot of time to her career.

There are also similarities between Mexican migration to the US and my family in the case where my father got deported. When we think of deportations in the US, usually deportation of illegal Mexicans come to mind, a clear case being the bit of national hysteria in 2010 that Mexican farm workers were taking American jobs. Whether Obama is deporting more people than previous presidents is debated, but it seems to be the case. Anyways, during the economic recession, my father lost his job in Canada but found one in the US. He had been working temporarily as a security guard in Canada and his uniform was in his car. He did not put this job on his resume as the resume was for a computer engineering job, and he was advised by a career counselor that a security guard job on his resume would make it look bad. After getting the job in the US and entering the US again, his car was searched and he was questioned about the discrepancy between the uniform he had in his car, and the absence of this job on his resume, and was accused of falsifying his documents. My father never talked about this – these details I got from my grandmother and my dad’s girlfriend. They believed that he argued with the CBP officers, and got a lifetime deportation both for what they charged him with and for being uncooperative. During the time my father was deported, there was a report circulating in the Canadian media that an undergrad student who went to the US as a volunteer group to plant trees was turned away at the border, where CBP officers accused her of taking jobs away from Americans.

The US needing labour like Latina domestic workers or Silicon Valley technicians has a similar negative flipside, which is that the US has no qualms about abruptly cutting off these sources of labour if its own labour force is threatened. One can argue that of course a nation has to protect its own labour force first, and that is national sovereignty; however, it could do so through means that were less harsh and more systematic and transparent. Eg, if the federal government wanted to decrease immigration during the recession, and said so publicly, this would give lobbyists and interest groups space to deliberate and perhaps figure out ways in which both the domestic labor force and immigrant workers could both benefit, or at least ways where immigrant and migrant labourers would not be shouldering a disproportionate part of the burden of the recession just because they don’t happen to be Americans. In this case the US seemed to have tried to sidestep criticism by curbing immigration unofficially and only through repressive enforcement, in a way that immigrants can’t even appeal. In terms of my personal life, of course I am in no way as unfortunate as children who are left orphans in the US because their parents get abruptly deported, but I exist along the same continuum in that while I study in the US, my father can never come to visit me.

Finally, China as the sending country for my parents’ migrations means that I can’t let it off the hook either. If the Qing dynasty in China wasn’t so self-absorbed and better able to respond to demands for reform, and each successive government / warlord / cabal were able to put the nation’s interests truly at heart, China would have sorted out national development issues more efficiently and long before this, instead of scrambling to do so in the end of the 20th century. However, I also see China’s opening up being due to the West pushing free markets and ideas of what a modern society should be onto China, which China ultimately had to buy into if it is to exist in an interstate world system (Wallerstein alert! and I still haven’t watched Nixon in China and I really want to). Extreme political regimes might be seen as a country’s domestic problem, however I do believe that any extreme political system is a reaction to foreign intrusion. Not to excuse the Nazis, but I think historians generally agree now that the treaties hammered out at the Paris Peace Conference after WWI were overly stringent on Germany and contributed to Fascism taking hold. In the Chinese context, something like Communism setting back economic development for decades can be seen as the evils of Communism or China’s own incompetence, however the country was really a mess from 8 foreign nations all poaching bits of China in the beginning of the 20th century, Japanese invasions in WWII, and instability on the Republican side of things, so it’s no wonder Communism seemed to present a better solution. This can be seen as decades removed from my life, however I did mention that my grandparents are paranoid and neurotic from being targeted in the Cultural Revolution. The reason they were in Harbin, which is practically Siberia, is because they were exiled after criticizing the government as a part of the Hundred Flowers Campaign. Consequently, they both have anxiety disorders and take high doses of Valium, and get irrationally fearful about daily life events; my mother can’t even make a phone call to a friend without my grandparents whispering warnings that the friend might be a spy. I’m sure some of these mental issues were passed down to my mother, and in turn got passed down to me, so my mother’s self-blame that she failed to give me a healthy brain isn’t exactly her fault. My grandparents were also kept away from home a lot of the time when my mother was young, so I think that might have contributed to her believing that not being around to take care of me wasn’t anything out of the ordinary.

b. British imperialism and Irish immigration policies

“Act of Union”
– Seamus Heaney, from North (1975)

I
To-night, a first movement, a pulse,
As if the rain in bogland gathered head
To slip and flood: a bog-burst,
A gash breaking open the ferny bed.
Your back is a firm line of eastern coast
And arms and legs are thrown
Beyond your gradual hills. I caress
The heaving province where our past has grown.
I am the tall kingdom over your shoulder
That you would neither cajole nor ignore.
Conquest is a lie. I grow older
Conceding your half-independent shore
Within whose borders now my legacy
Culminates inexorably.

II
And I am still imperially
Male, leaving you with pain,
The rending process in the colony,
The battering ram, the boom burst from within.
The act sprouted an obstinate fifth column
Whose stance is growing unilateral.
His heart beneath your heart is a wardrum
Mustering force. His parasitical
And ignorant little fists already
Beat at your borders and I know they’re cocked
At me across the water. No treaty
I foresee will salve completely your tracked
And stretchmarked body, the big pain
That leaves you raw, like opened ground, again

Another sore spot I held was that it was fine if my parents moved for career opportunities, but this didn’t mean that I had to be left behind in China as an infant, or that we had to move to Ireland of all places and then had to leave there too. One consolation from my immigration class is that it made sense for serial migration to occur, which is that one capable head of household to go somewhere first and set things up, and this happened to be my mother. Again with the gender double standard, if it had been my father maybe there wouldn’t have been as much resentment between them. In terms of why it took years for me to go to Ireland, my mother explained to me that they would actually have liked to stay in Ireland but Ireland had a zero-immigration policy at the time, and pretty much kicked us out, so we had to go to Canada. She also explained that she had tried to get a visa for me to go to Ireland on many occasions but my visa was denied every time until I was 7; apparently even a visitor’s visa application was rejected at some point. Again part of the zero-immigration policy. From my studies on American immigration restrictions, I know that one strategy of ensuring that immigrants don’t settle is to not families come and “breed more of their kind”; during the railroad building days in the US, Chinese men were welcome but not Chinese women (more on the effects of this in Part II). Ireland was doing the same thing.

So, instead of blaming my parents, I could blame Ireland. My mother still does; recently she had to contact the university she studied at in Galway for documentation of her PhD, and called me afterwards in tears because the registrar was rude to her, and this brought back all her memories of discrimination there, and said that she really wanted to go on a shooting rampage through the country. However over the last summer, I also realized that Ireland wasn’t entirely to blame, either.

Last summer I revisited the works of Seamus Heaney, an Irish poet and the winner of the Nobel Prize (sadly, he passed away at the end of summer). I had read his poetry in high school English class, and it didn’t register to me at the time as anything relevant to my life, especially not the ones where he imagines how bog people (like the Tollund man) came to be. This time I was drawn to his poems about the relationship between England and Ireland and the effects of British imperialism there, like “Requiem for the Croppies,” “England’s Difficulty,” and especially “Act of Union,” the poem opening this section. It is rendered as England speaking to Ireland as a male perpetrator of rape towards a female victim. I hadn’t taken History in high school but I knew that England and Ireland had always had an embattled relationship, with Ireland partitioned between North and South in 1921; British loyalism and Protestantism had a strong presence in the North but the South were mostly Irish nationalists and Catholics. These groups clashed over the course of a few decades; when I was living there, the fighting was still going on in Northern Ireland, and girls my age were pelted with rocks in the streets. I remember in 2nd grade, the teacher made an emotional announcement that a cease-fire had been reached; I know that a few years after my family left, Great Britain and Ireland signed the Good Friday Agreement. Still, most of this knowledge was just an intellectual understanding, not personally relevant.

Re-reading Heaney’s poems really changed my intellectual understanding to an emotional, sympathetic understanding, and I saw the larger picture. While Ireland made sure I could never be Irish, oddly enough I would have align myself with Irish nationalists, because making Ireland whole again sooner would have been a first step in its healing, and thus speed its eventual opening up to foreigners like my family. When I look at a map of England and Ireland, I am always a little indignant that Northern Ireland is a different colour from the rest of it. So, I understand that the zero-immigration policy was part of a defense mechanism from a country that had been under attack and threats of political and cultural erasure for centuries, and it makes sense that its first priority was self-preservation. At a ground level, the ignorance of children at school and of adults that my parents met were a by-product of the country preoccupied more with their own political upheavals and maintaining itself culturally, which is also part of self-preservation. Ireland has changed its policies since then; I recently met a Chinese student in LA who went to Ireland as a part of a specific Ireland to China student exchange program. I suppose it was still bad luck that my family went to Ireland when it was not ready to receive foreigners, but if I need someone to blame I would have to blame it on centuries of British imperialism that prompted Ireland to make the choices it made. Or, to go back even further, Great Britain existed in a highly competitive European interstate system, so it had to be strong to survive, I suppose, so in the end blame fizzles out.

II. American immigration policies, White supremacy, Asian machismo; Chinese imperial tribute system, American opening of Japan, Japanese colonialism, Korean nationalism (Lovers)

Everywhere in the world
the roving Yankee
takes his pleasure and his profit,
indifferent to all risks.
He drops anchor
at random…
Milk punch or whiskey?
…He drops anchor
at random
till a sudden squall wrecks
the ship, hawsers rigging and all…
He’s not satisfied with life
unless he makes his own
the flowers of every shore.

– Pinkerton, in Puccini’s Madama Butterfly (1904)

In the post on interracial dating I have already discussed a bit about how choice of partner has political significances – for example, my Vietnamese house mate who grew up in a Black neighbourhood in Oakland refuses to date White men because she feels like White men tend to have unacknowledged privileges and tend to not be aware of how history has impacted people of other ethnicities. I also discussed how a classmate who is Black wanted to date me and how this could be seen as a small but politically significant gesture of understanding between two ethnicities that usually have nothing to do with each other. Part II is similar but the sad flipside of these examples, which is that social and historical forces can overwhelm these personal acts of solidarity.

Skip the biographical details

I was in a brief romantic relationship from December of last year until this January. While it was brief, and it was almost entirely long-distance (with me being in LA and he in Hong Kong), it gave me a lot to think about. The man I was with is Korean, and two relevant points derive from this. One, his family is descended from royalty from the Silla dynasty, and he is the oldest male of his generation. To continue his family’s royal legacy he must marry a Korean woman and produce pure-blooded Korean children, and pass down thousand-year-old genealogical records down to the next generation. This seems archaic and pointless and even he has said this is archaic and pointless, but he has to shoulder this responsibility, and this has been a burden on him. As I am not Korean, this means that the relationship will have to end at some point, and he point-blank told me this. Two, less significant for altering the course of my life but equally theoretically significant, he said at one point that he has had sex with White women (apparently in Korean it’s called “riding the white horse”). Apparently, this is seen as an achievement among Korean men, and he also sees this as a point of pride. The implication, I suppose, being that since I am not White, a relationship with me doesn’t carry the social prestige of having a relationship with a White woman.

My friends and family who have seen me through the ups and downs of this relationship have largely laid the blame on him as being ideologically weak for going along with a tradition he doesn’t agree with; additionally, my more ethnically conscious friends who grudgingly understand why he needs to settle down with a Korean woman are furious that he seems to be buying into a structure of White supremacy, where compared to White women, I am somehow lacking. Going into a relationship knowing it will end, and having the problem be my race, was difficult at both emotional and moral/intellectual levels. I took some time to think about whether to continue the relationship or not, and importantly whether I could still be a good partner with this hanging over my head. While I ultimately decided that I could, he said he also needed to think. Some time later told me that long-standing psychological issues (which have their roots in family issues) arose on his end while I was deliberating, and so he could not maintain a romantic relationship. He also cut off contact completely, and 7000 miles of ocean isn’t conducive to trying to negotiate if one party does this. I was devastated and always will be to a certain extent; however, since I have the benefits of insight from figuring out the socio-historical factors that contributed to my unstable childhood, this situation also merits similar insights.

*

a. American immigration policies, Asian masculinities

The whole thing about White women didn’t contribute to the end of the relationship but it still hurt, and prompted me to think about race and gender structures and specifically the problems with Asian masculinities. Historically, Asian exclusion in the US meant that Asian men couldn’t bring their families, and women were not allowed in so as to guard against producing families, though some prostitutes were – I believe the justification was that unless the working men had a sexual outlet somewhere, they’d channel that towards disobedience and rioting. Anti-miscegenation laws meant that Asian men weren’t allowed to marry White women, and as “aliens ineligible for citizenship,” any White woman who married an Asian man would have her citizenship revoked. Since only men could own property and vote and such, marrying a non-citizen pretty much meant no livelihood and civil and social participation. Due to the smaller stature of Asian men, and that earlier Chinese immigrant men had long hair, plus getting shunted off into businesses like laundry and restaurants, meant that Asian men were seen as effeminate and not “real men.” On the other hand, because early on the few Chinese women were let into the US only as prostitutes, this generated a sense that all Asian women had some special, deviant form of sexuality; additionally, American military interventions in Asia put American servicemen in contact with local women, many contacts being in the context of sex work. There is also the idea that Asian men treat women badly and that Asia is poor and so White men can save Asian women, but because Asian women are used to being treated badly they will be happy with little and be submissive partners. In contrast to Asian men seen as not being men, Asian women are seen as overly feminine and hypersexualized. Plus the whole Madam Butterfly thing where Asian women are supposed to be more loyal and self-sacrificing, possibly because of her inferiority complex as Asian and not White drives her to devote herself to a man of a superior race, possibly because her strong cultural traditions make her fully committed. If I’m missing any historical influences please let me know.

Anyways, both stereotypes against Asian men and women gave rise to the idea that it is fine for a White man to be with an Asian woman but it is out of the ordinary for an Asian man to be with a White woman. Among Asians, this created the gender double standard that an Asian woman who dates a White man is a race traitor, whereas an Asian man who dates a White woman is heroic for challenging the status quo. In terms of the Korean man I was with, this situation triggers opposing reactions in me; as an Asian person and to be crude, I would say good for him for challenging the racist status quo and having sex with White women; however as a woman, I would say he seems to be using a fellow woman, regardless of race, to bolster his sense of masculinity, especially if/since they weren’t long relationships but just casual sex. And, as I stated, since I am not a White woman this somehow places me beneath White women. In this case, because gender and race are both implicated, oddly enough challenging the status quo ends up buying into it. Asian men who have relationships with White women seem to be going against White supremacy, which historically disallowed unions between Asian men and White women. However, in choosing White women over Asian women, Asian men would be repeating White supremacy.

Similar to my opening example of what chains of oppression are, in this case White supremacy has targeted Asians, but then Asian men, in trying to work against White supremacy, end up becoming oppressors again by devaluing Asian women. A similar pattern also contributed to my parents’ marriage not working out, though in their case there was no White woman in the picture. But because my mother was always more career-oriented and successful, I think my father felt like his masculinity was being compromised, and so he blamed her for not being a good wife and mother. I have been angry about how fraught Asian masculinities have played out in my own life in both cases, but after thinking through the historical forces that affected how Asian men respond, I have to say that I am disappointed but not necessarily angry. I especially understand that this is not just an issue in America. In a Chinese context, Communism insisted on gender equality, however I don’t think it really rooted out traditional Chinese gender hierarchies. So with Communism slipping into capitalism during the time my parents grew into adults, I think my father would like to say he advocates for gender equality but still subscribes to the idea that gender roles should be clear cut; also, in a modern capitalist society, he is disappointed that my mother succeeded as the driving force behind our family when he was unable to be. Korea has been encroached upon by the US (more on this below), where the US is often depicted as a masculine saviour of feminine nations in need of rescue. In addition, modern development has vastly restructures social relations, and so Korean men may tend to feel like they have lost their collective national masculinity. It is unfortunate that they react to this by encouraging each other to have sex with White women, and I am sorry that someone I otherwise respect for his ideas buys into this, but I can see where it comes from.

As for my decision to keep going with the relationship, I do worry that I am repeating the stereotype of Asian women as Madam Butterfly kind of figures. Personally, my decision is partly due to what I mentioned in Part I, that my parents were in different ways irresponsible to each other. If I do stumble into a relationship, I want to maintain a relationship to the best of my ability, even if I come away with little. But the synopsis for Madama Butterfly on Wiki reads: “She is a 15-year-old Japanese girl whom he is marrying for convenience, since he [Pinkerton, the American officer] intends to leave her once he finds a proper American wife.” In my case, it would have been that I am a Chinese woman he is dating until he finds a proper Korean wife, though I don’t think it was for “convenience.” Anyways, Pinkerton goes back to the US for 3 years and Butterfly waits despite the advice of those around her, and when Pinkerton comes back with his American wife, Butterfly kills herself.

I was thinking that maybe I am even worse than Butterfly, since she doesn’t know for a fact that Pinkerton abandoned her, whereas I would have gone into the relationship with the knowledge that one day I would be. Also, even now that the relationship is over, I find myself wondering whether I should wait for his psychological issues to lift, and I suppose that being similar to Butterfly, waiting with no word across the Pacific, isn’t any comfort. I’m obviously not going to kill myself over this, but preoccupation with this has led to a lack of concentration for other matters, which has led to minor accidents. In the worst of my distress I found myself thinking that it was rather pathetic that Butterfly at least actively kills herself, whereas if I do manage to kill myself it would only be by accident. The fact that in my life the man is Asian and not White, I think, doesn’t change the fact that I might be reinforcing stereotypes of Asian women. I am not sure how to balance responsibility towards others with something like the need to address historical stereotypes, or personal dignity, and in this way I am in a reciprocal but same position as Asian men. This will continue to bother me.

b. Colonialisms and nationalism

I suppose in terms of the Korean man I was with, both White women and I are in the same boat in that we were both temporary. The direct cause of the ending of the relationship are personal issues, but I see Korean nationalism as a factor in what happened. Or, I suppose a more specific term would be ethnonationalism, where the nation is defined as being the point of identification for a specific race and culture to the exclusion of other races or culture. There are similar cases to mine; one of my mother’s co-workers in China dated a Korean woman for the last 8 years, but her parents adamantly refuses to let her marry a non-Korean, and made her break up with him. This is also most definitely a race and ethnicity issue and not a class issue. My parents would be uncomfortable with me dating a Black man, but mostly because they believe that Black people are predominantly “lower class,” or that African American culture somehow evolved to hold lower class values. So, if a Black person I date fits into my parents’ idea of what a nice upper-middle class gentleman is supposed to be like, they’d actually have very few objections. When my mother was telling me the story of her colleague, she kept on emphasizing that he comes from a good family and has a PhD and a great job, as a way of saying that his race is the only grounds for objection. Another example of nationalism is what I pointed out in the post about the animated series Hetalia, where the South Korean National Assembly concluded that the way Korea was depicted is equivalent to a criminal act, and banned the series. This act has baffled fans in the West who couldn’t understand why Korea is so nationalist.

In my relationship I see a repeat of Ireland, which is that I am again running up against the reactionary tendencies of a smaller country that it has developed as a coping mechanism due to being historically trampled on by larger imperial neighbours (and it seems like I’m again running up against the exclusionary policies of the southern half of a partitioned country. Either there are indeed weird patterns in my life or I have apophenia). Arguably Korea has been worse off than Ireland; geographically Ireland is isolated from the rest of continental Europe, and while there was Norman presence in Ireland, largely it was only Great Britain that sought to take advantage of it. Korea, however, is in the middle of Russia, Japan, China, and more recently among the US’s transpacific designs. During the Korean War, Korea was partitioned with the USSR plus China and the US taking respectively North and South. There is still American military, not the mention economic, presence in South Korea – popular culture references to this appear in the movie The Host, as well as a controversy last year over anti-American songs from the Korean pop star Psy. In ancient times Korea was a buffer zone between Japan and China and got alternately invaded by China and Japan (eg Hideyoshi invaded en route to China in the late 1500s) or sucked into the Chinese imperial tribute system. In the tribute system, the Emperor of China is the only person who can call himself “emperor,” sees China as a superior leader that should govern other territories, and demands tribute or payment in return. I think historians have generally seen it as a economic structure rather than a political one, and usually imperial China didn’t interfere too much with local politics elsewhere as long as they got their tribute. However, Korea being part of the tribute system means that China technically had say over Korean royal succession, which I find bitterly ironic for my case (and the dynasty the Korean man is descended from also had alliances with China’s Tang dynasty at the time, which I also find bitterly ironic). Anyways, in the 20th century Korea was under Japanese annexation with language and culture suppressed, a large number of historical cultural artefacts plundered, and in WWII Korean men were drafted while women were abducted en masse as “comfort women” and forced to work in military brothels. Also, from the Korean war with American military presence in South Korea, there is a sense that White men are taking up Korean women (Nora Okja Keller wrote 2 novels on both of these issues, and here is more information about Korean prostitutes for US soldiers). Given this kind of history, Korean nationalism isn’t all that surprising. Just as I understand Ireland for its seemingly extreme procedures for self-preservation, I also understand that Korea is in a similar position.

As a woman, the atrocity of comfort women makes me especially ill. While the abduction of women as prostitutes is part of military and political imperialism, I think it also has an afterlife separate from military and political affairs. A history of political and economic encroachments might make a small country emphasize political sovereignty and economic development, however something like the abduction of women as prostitutes, or having foreign (US) soldiers stay in your country while buying the women of your country as prostitutes, would affect what the country sees as appropriate structures of intimacy and kinship. In addition, from a History book we recently read for class (Race for Empire, by Takashi Fujitani), I learned that under Japanese colonialism, there was a lot of propaganda trying to make Japanese and Koreans form family units so as to assimilate Koreans faster. The theory of biopower would be useful to explain this. Michel Foucault (a theorist / social and political philosopher that American Studies tend to refer to a lot) defines biopower as a nation-state using all kinds of processes to manage the bodies of individuals and to manage populations (populations here being a group of individuals sharing some biological similarity, eg the census asking for gender gives the state an idea of the male and female populations in the country).

Foucault’s theories about power in general are important because he goes beyond defining power as a force that has negative impacts and shows that power operates just as much where it has positive impacts. In biopower specifically, something like historical US anti-miscegenation laws prohibiting interracial marriages has essentially the same kind of reasoning behind it as giving pregnant women and mothers in the US today maternity leave – in the first case, a threat to a population (America, defined then as White) is to be forestalled, in the second a contribution to a population (American) is to be promoted. What this (seemingly crazy) kind of thinking allows us to see is that it very well may be that in every case of positive biopower exercised upon a population, someone is the negative target and excluded from this population. In the case of American women given maternity leave, while Americans are no longer defined only as White and it seems like this benefits everybody, women like undocumented Mexican mothers would not be getting maternity leave because the US does not want to support more “illegal” Mexican children. While this seems like common sense, as in of course if they’re illegal we don’t want their children either, it’s precisely by limiting breeding that no more illegals are produced, and this regulation of bodies and what they do is biopower in action. In the case of Korea, the response to decades and centuries of outside imperialism is to go beyond ethnonationalism in the cultural sphere to biopower, where social discourses set the goal of Korean racial purity (much like earlier US anti-miscegenation laws). In turn this dictates appropriate unions of intimacy and what kinds of bodies are produced to further the nation.

In addition, in light of the removal of historical artefacts and Japan’s and later the US’s encroachments on Korea, it also makes sense that Korean people today would believe they bear extra responsibility for preserving the historical legacies they have left. A friend of mine in political science was exasperated on my behalf and said that nations need to move with the times, however I do think that if a nation emphasizes a seemingly archaic and pointless tradition, or even a graver tendency like biopower, this tradition must have a social function even if it doesn’t have a utilitarian function. Again, just my bad luck to date a Korean man while the country is still recovering from various imperial interventions, and it was his bad luck to be born at this specific cultural time and into a family who has extra incentive to maintain their historical legacy.

However, I have also been re-thinking Japanese colonialism. After all, during the Tokugawa period Japan didn’t really bother anyone else despite having domestic and economic and production issues, but then Westerners, most notably America and Commodore Perry, came along and forced Japan to open to foreigners. And it looks like Perry was a part of the Mexican-American war and the War of 1812 – this goes to show how far American imperialism can stretch. Specifically, the American idea of manifest destiny meant that the US believed that it was destined to and responsible for spreading its civilization through North America. This prompted the wars with Mexico to acquire the American West, and once it reached the Pacific, manifest destiny pushed onwards to Asia. Like the Chinese decision to open economically, which affected the careers of my parents, Japan’s opening up was due to Western intrusion and demands for resources and markets – the Convention of Kanagawa and subsequent treaties established economic and trade concessions for the US. Japan’s 20th century designs to unify Asia and to create colonies like in Korea came from the model of Western imperialism and colonialism, and Japan believed that to survive among the world powers it must emulate them. I am the last person who would absolve Japan of its atrocities, however I do believe that Japan is in the middle of another chain of oppression, with American imperialism and Western free market ideology again at the top. And in this case, perhaps, understanding is not necessary to excuse. I suppose I should hold these forces responsible for why my last relationship didn’t work out, just like in figuring out the forces behind my childhood instability leads me to ultimately hold British Imperialism responsible. Well, that was a productive Valentine’s day weekend.

Concluding remarks: Survival, forgiveness, and poetic justice

“After such knowledge, what forgiveness?”
— T. S. Eliot

If I sound like a crazy person for saying that it’s American free market ideology that messed up my love life, then yes and no, it is what I am saying and it also isn’t. Yes: from an American Studies perspective, which focuses on the negative aspects of American social, political, and cultural decisions, yes, American free market ideology messed up my love life; this is the afterlife of empire. In addition, imperialism goes on. Everyone living in the US today is potentially a Commodore Perry, operating through a common sense structure of bettering their own life and the status of their nation at the expense of others. As I said to my Business Administration students in the immigration class, as future CEOs of their companies, they might prioritize higher profits over granting benefits and time off for their employees who are also mothers. In turn, those mothers might need to hire Latina domestic workers, and so the separation of Latin American families may get perpetuated; my students also exist in a chain of causality. No: sounding like a crazy person is part of the point. I doubt Commodore Perry could be aware that opening Japan would trigger a chain of oppression that would result in war, Japanese colonialism in Asia, vehement Korean nationalism, continuing international conflict, and less significantly, a Chinese-Canadian woman having her heart broken 150 years later. Of course, there are plenty of intermediaries in this chain to make the next person miserable. From a non-American Studies lay person point of view, the take away conclusion is that responsibility is not invested in those immediate to us but distributed across history, and institutions, and collective consciousness beyond the control of individuals. Those immediate to us are easier to reach with blame, that’s all. I can no more fault the Korean man I dated and his family for operating in a structure of Korean self-preservation than I can fault Commodore Perry.

A broader question remains, though, which is how much responsibility we can attribute to individuals and collectives in the chain of oppression. On the one hand I want to say that we are all individually responsible for not passing down oppression to the next chain. In this formulation, Ireland should not have adopted a zero-immigration policy regardless of the fighting in the North and the history of British imperialism; instead of staying in Ireland, my parents should have gone back to China so they could have stability and be responsible to each other, and me; China should have tried to make Communism work instead of caving to free market ideology, or it should have sorted itself during the Qing dynasty. The US should have granted Asians an equitable place in society if it needed their labour, and Asian and Asian American men should not put their masculinity before behaving ethically towards all women. Japan should not have tried to emulate Western imperialism despite being forced to open its ports; Korea should not over-insist on racial purity and cultural preservation even if Japan and the US has encroached on both; the Korean man’s family should realize that their family traditions can potentially impact his happiness and not expect him to carry it forwards. And one day he will be faced with the choice of asking his own children to continue this legacy or not. These sentiments are encapsulated in the quotation from Tom Paine at the beginning, and this quotation is actually one of his favourites. I never got to ask him about it, but I can guess that feeling the chain of oppression weighing on him is why he is drawn to Paine’s statement.

However, I also believe that holding everyone responsible, especially those in the lower sections of the chain, is an unreasonable demand. I have had arguments with my classmates in American Studies about this. They rightly believe in taking action against oppression instead of compromising or allowing oppression to change oneself. However once I brought up something I learned in a Canadian Literature context, which is that Margaret Atwood has argued that all CanLit has something to do with the theme of survival. I have repeatedly characterized Ireland and Korea as adopting policies of self-preservation – to me this is the politics of survival, which might have to take priority over recognizing that oneself or one’s country can potentially be an oppressor. This would be like a social or national version of the psychologist Maslow’s theory of a hierarchy of needs, where an individual needs food and shelter before self-actualization. With this insight, I also revised my view of my mother’s values (eg taking extra food from hotels). I still don’t agree with a lot of the values she held, and she has changed to not hold those values either, but we both realize that those values comes from survival. Growing up with poverty in China meant that to ensure survival people often needed to take maximum advantage of what little they were offered, and unfortunately this informs patterns of thought and behaviour that persist long after the conditions that led to these behaviours have changed. My paternal grandmother is even worse – she is getting subsidized housing and a monthly pension from the Canadian government, however she still constantly goes to the food bank because the food there is free. 10 years ago I would have been angry at her, but I understand that this just comes from having so little for most of her life that she can’t change it. My dad’s girlfriend, who thankfully does not torture herself over these things, told me quite practically that we cannot change my grandmother’s behaviour, but the least we could do is to make sure she doesn’t eat anything from the food bank that is already expired.

Maybe a slightly schizophrenic way of thinking is in order – we need to each live to recognize whether we might be one in a chain of oppression and do our best not to pass it down, but we also need to forgive others – and ourselves – if we cannot achieve this. I forgive my parents, and given my understanding of the social and historical forces around both them and me, I’m uncomfortable saying that I could even “forgive” them like it was in my right or power to do so. I have explained my thoughts to my parents and told them I no longer blame them, and I think they also no longer blame themselves. As for my recent relationship, there are two entities that I need to “forgive,” one being the Korean man himself, and less obviously, Korean women. Pettiness can overtake me sometimes; for a few days after being told that not being Korean was a problem, I couldn’t stand the sight of Korean girls on campus, since each of them automatically had a better chance of being with the Korean man than me by virtue of their birth. I have already discussed how emphasizing racial purity in Korea can be an example of biopower. Here I would add that seeing that biopower always operates through both positives and negatives at once would mean we also see that a) there is no positive application of biopower without the negative, and vice versa; b) both those negative and positively impacted by biopower are victims of power, even if those positively impacted seem to have more privilege. In the structure of Korean ethnonationalism, I am the victim of the negative exercise of biopower since I am deemed unfit to reproduce; however Korean women are the targets of the positive exercise of biopower, saddled with the extra burden to reproduce. So, Korean women might have romantic privilege over me in this case, however this does not mean they are in a vertical relationship to me and passing down oppression onto me; we exist horizontally in the same boat (sorry for the mixed metaphor), just on different ends of the boat.

As for the Korean man himself, I can’t assume his psychological issues are a direct result of his family pressures, but I’m pretty sure these are a part of it. So, historical forces do not only impact his choice of a partner but may also affect his mental health in general. Thus, all of his relationships are affected, and sadly especially his relationship with himself. In turn, I am affected twice over; historical forces have precluded me from a long-term romantic relationship with him, and then when I reconciled myself to this, their impact on his mental health excluded me from even being his friend. I could be angry at him about this, and friends have generally taken me not being angry as a sign of weakness or that I am deluded as to his character, or something along those lines. However, I have reached an understanding that is helping me cope: he is like Korea and Ireland on a smaller scale,and needs to withdraw to ensure self-preservation. Again, if I have any right to forgive, I forgive him too.

I am even more uncomfortable saying I am in a position to forgive him, because I believe I’ve passed my chain of oppression onto him as well. Maybe my mother is right that living with my neurotic grandparents shaped my thinking. But, I think as a teenager, I had a period of obsessively thinking of all the factors that contributed to my parents getting divorced, and I think this developed into a general cognitive tendency to dwell on things and overthinking them (this post being a case in point). The Korean man once said to me that he has a lot of baggage, and I replied that my heart was big enough. When I lamented to my mother that I can no longer offer him support as someone close to him, her way of making me feel better was to say that given my tendency to make a big deal of things in this manner, I would probably end up increasing his burden instead of lightening it, so it’s not really his loss. I resisted this idea for a while, but realized that it may very well be that seeing me so distraught about the impending ending to the relationship made him realize that I indeed could not share his burdens, and he put the blame on himself and his issues so as to preserve my self-esteem.

Even if this was not the case, if I were a better-adjusted and secure person without all the (various imperialism-chain-induced) baggage from childhood, I might have been able to more quickly shrug off the prospect of the relationship ending, and I would have been here for him when any psychological issues manifested. I suppose how we pass down oppression can be both actively doing something oppressive or failing to do something supportive. Japan modernizing and trying to establish an empire in Asia would be an active way of passing down oppression, whereas my anxieties getting in the way of supporting someone dear to me would be passing down oppression by failing to act. I told a friend that I wanted to make up for avoiding relationships in the past by not holding back with this one, and that I would rather cross the line than commit sins of omission. However at the crucial moment I did not act; it looks like I committed sins of omission anyways, and my heart wasn’t big enough after all. So, in the end, I can only hope that I am forgiven, and I am still working on forgiving myself.

Two things have been hard to work through in the process of self-forgiveness: one is precisely what my mother accused me of, that is overthinking. I have always taken my ability and willingness to engage with complexity as a positive trait, despite being told that most people just want to find a partner or friend who is “light.” Gendered notions aside (where a grave man who thinks deeply is attractive but a grave woman who thinks deeply might not be), this situation made me realize that engaging with complexity does slide too easily into making things a bit deal, and potentially hurt those around me. I am still wondering whether I can turn this kind of thinking on for something like my PhD program, but turn it off everywhere else.

Two, as a subset of overthinking, I have lived in the belief that I am never simply me but rather a product of historical and social forces, and therefore my personal is political. This sentiment is actually the kernel of Frantz Fanon’s quotation at the beginning. Fanon was a Black psychiatrist and philosopher who studied in France and lived in Algeria, which had been a French colony. On the face of it, the quotations sounds like he just wants to live as a free individual of the present day and forget about history, but in the context of his writings, it means the exact opposite. Fanon believed that the history of subjugation and the psychological damage it has caused Black people should be confronted, analyzed, and rectified if true self-determination is to be reached; destiny is not in history but in working through the problems presented by historical oppressions. I have always aligned myself with this. As I was obsessing earlier about the similarities between me and Madam Butterfly, centuries of East-West relations and race and gender hierarchies operate behind whom I choose as a romantic partner and how I behave. It is hard for me not to see the matrix of historical and social forces that operate around us, and I expect this awareness of others. This is why I am the most annoyed by the historical amnesia of other Chinese people whose only goal is to make money and enjoy life.

However, in interacting with the Korean man, I have come to realize that perhaps the personal being political is not necessarily a good thing. My personal being political is largely self-imposed. No one determined from before I was born that my nation’s history must find survival in my bloodline, that my worth as a person depends on marrying a Chinese man and producing pure-blooded Chinese children. I could leave my PhD and do a regular 9 to 5 job and never think about all this again, but the Korean man does not have this privilege. To phrase it in terms of the personal being political, the Korean man’s personal is predetermined to be political and he has no say in the matter; thus, it is the result of oppression in the form of ethnonationalism and biopower. Also, along with the realization that my sense of social and historical responsibility is self-imposed, I realized that I am privileged to live a life that is already to a large extent not determined by history and politics. Going from this, since I am in a privileged position, I have no right to expect that other people take up history, since I really have no idea what it’s like to really live with its burdens. In an email I wrote to the Korean man, I wondered why he just doesn’t limit himself to dating Korean women, since that would spare someone like me, and potentially himself, distress. In light of my realizations, though, it would be unfair to demand that he pass up a chance of being happy with someone, even for a short while, just so he could fulfill a nationally pre-determined life trajectory. Someone like the Korean man might only be able to take Fanon’s statement at face value, and run from history; someone like me has no right to judge, and even less to add to his burdens. Even if analyzing centuries of imperialisms helps me to come to terms with events in my own life, he doesn’t need to be reminded of any of it.

I am not ready to give up on the personal being political just yet, though. Despite what I just said about how overanalyzing history might not help everyone, I do hope that the Korean man will be able to see how history has put him in the position he is in; and, while the demands that he settle down with a Korean woman and produce pure-blooded children is outdated, it is not so unreasonable given everything his country has been through. In short, I hope he forgives his family, his society, and history in general. This might lead him to accept his position and make the most of it; his happiness and his reponsibilities are not mutually exclusive.

As for myself, perhaps I need to take on extra social and historical responsibility because I now recognize that there are people who are really not in a position to do so, and as I have tried to show, it helps with forgiveness. I want to end on a positive note, which is why my relationship with the Korean man is so significant to me for social and historical reasons. Although my relationship with the Black classmate didn’t work out last year, I derived from it a new standard, which is that relationships I have should not just be about two people; it should have some larger social or symbolic significance. As I have said, in that case it was bridging two ethnicities that don’t want to have anything to do with each other. In the case of the Korean man, the larger social significance relates to the historical events in Asia that I have described. As someone who is in Asian American studies and who has been taught that coalition among various Asians in the US has been a heroic way of combating discrimination, it saddens me that Asian countries all hate each other for various reasons.

Unfortunately inter-Asian solidarity is a long way off. No one likes Japan for what it did in WWII and its continuing denial of WWII atrocities; in January, PM Shinzo Abe visited the shrines to pay respect to WWII casualties, including war criminals, which triggered waves of outrage from China and both Koreas. South Korea holds a grudge against China for imperialism in ancient times and for participation in the Korean War, and China has even recently launched “research projects” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Northeast_Project) that suggest that certain Korean territories should belong to China. Japan sees itself as more civilized than other Asians and sees itself as aligned with the West (John Lie’s book, Multiethnic Japan, shows how Japan has disavowed connections with other Asian ethnicities). China is still sunk into Sino-centrism and believes that it is fountainhead of all Asian culture, and that its own culture is somehow more valid, which causes resentment. It is also passing down a chain of oppression by citing “national humiliation” from foreign encroachments in the beginning of the 20th century as a reason it needs to “self strengthen,” screwing up its own populations in the process and encroaching on smaller neighbours like the Philippines and Vietnam. Finally, right before I told my father that the Korean man and I were going to try a relationship, he sent me an article saying that recent historical research in China has uncovered that most of the soldiers who committed atrocities during the Rape of Nanking were Koreans; I took this to be a bad omen. Anyways, I don’t know if this is true or not, but I do know that Japan drafted Korean men and sent them to other parts of Asia as part of the Japanese imperial army (described in Takashi Fujitani, Race for Empire). In terms of a chain of oppression, I have a twisted understanding of why soldiers in this miserable position might be the most cruel – they couldn’t react against their oppressors, so their only outlet would be to make someone else just as miserable.

I spent enough of my childhood in China to have absorbed some vehement anti-Japanese rhetoric, however I do recognize that anti-Japanese rhetoric is often used by the Chinese government to mask its own failings. I don’t approve of certain US policies or Western imperialism and I don’t approve of how the Chinese and Japanese governments are running their countries foreign policy-wise (I don’t know enough about South Korea to say), and I am very invested in inter-Asian solidarity at a personal level to counteract both Western imperialism and the failings of each individual Asian government.

What I saw in my relationship with the Korean man, other than personal reasons like sharing greater understanding than with almost everyone else I know, was that this was a small act of solidarity in light of the historical conflicts in Asia and the mutual hatred still going on. At the start of our relationship Kim Jong-un had his uncle Jang Sung-taek executed, and there was media speculations that maybe Kim Jong-un would be mad and power-hungry enough to attack South Korea. Since technically China is still backing North Korea, I joked to a friend that if China helped invade South Korea then then we would have to break up. Then I explained that actually if that happened, it would be extra incentive to stay together, as a small measure to counteract international conflict. The personal doesn’t seem that political, it is true; but just like the argument that if everyone in the world diligently recycles, the environment might improve a bit because of it, then if every Asian person became friends and family with another Asian of a different country, maybe there would be less ignorance, lesser tendencies to buy into propaganda, greater tendencies to admit past wrongdoing, and greater tendencies to forgive.

In addition, when I decided that I could continue the relationship, one consideration was Chinese imperialism and its tribute system in ancient times (crazy person / overthinking alert). My mother told me about the colleague who dated a Korean woman for 8 years as a warning of what would happen to me, that I would “give my best years” to someone who ultimately would leave me. I thought about it and came to terms with it, because this is an element of the personal being political. I believe karma and that poetic justice exists in life, and both of these are continuous between individuals and the societies they live in. That is, I believe that both the virtues and the sins of a society are visited upon the individuals of that society, and that these individuals should both reap the rewards of their society’s virtues and bear responsibility to address the sins their society has committed. Eg. I consider myself Canadian, so along with benefiting from a free k-12 education and a subsidized public university education, I also accept that a First Nations student might have lower grades than me and still get into a university that I can’t get into, because that is addressing Canada’s past sins (whether affirmative action is the best way to address past sins is another topic entirely).

I still consider myself Chinese, so if historically China has relegated Korea to tributary status, possibly interfered with its succession, and is even now pushes its boundaries, then maybe it’s some kind of distilled karma, or poetic justice, that I do end up “giving the best years of my life” to a Korean man. This would be true especially since he is so burdened by the demands of his family and society, which I understand are the result of all these historical processes I have described. Even if the relationship is temporary and the end inevitable, it would still mean that I would be helping to delay the culmination of the effects of various colonialisms and nationalisms on a personal level, and I might have helped him heal from the toll these historical processes have taken (not to mention him helping me heal from the tolls historical processes have had on me). Sadly, I arrived at this conclusion a few days too late, and ultimately I didn’t need to and didn’t get to give him anything. Given the distance and silence on his end I don’t think I ever will. A large part of why the ending of the relationship devastates me so much is because I am unable to make an intervention in historical inequalities and ongoing social conflicts by having this relationship (and if I sound too academic and abstract, yes, I am saddened by the end of the relationship for normal, personal reasons too).

My house mate jokingly asked if I would ever date another Korean man, and I said that on the contrary, I might keep dating Korean men until something works out. I wouldn’t go that far, but I will carry forward the awareness that my life and social/political/historical issues are connected. As with the overthinking, this could be a good thing or a bad thing; I am taking a course on Transpacific history right now, and my university is running a film series titled “Transpacific Intimacies.” Because I linked my life to broader historical forces, sometimes class discussions and emails telling me about the films can trigger hours of gloom that my own transpacific relationship didn’t work out. It also doesn’t help that the class is in a conference room in the East Asian Library, which constantly reminds me that East Asians should be counting on their similarities, but in my life it didn’t work out. Anyways, I hope that with the insight I have worked out through this post, the gloom will eventually turn into an incentive to dedicate myself to my studies; certainly a lot of the concepts I am learning is helping me come to terms with misfortune, and I haven’t even touched on how my other more philosophy-based class is helping me think about interpersonal relationships in general. And with the personal being political, I can make an academic intervention where I failed to make a personal one.

Doctor Who and Ethnicity, Part I: Race and the cultural embeddedness of Science Fiction

At the end of May, there was a controversy surrounding British television series Doctor Who, due to the impending publication of a collection of academic essays titled Doctor Who and Race.  Since the volume is out now, I expect the issue to open up again.

This controversy brought out a lot of things I have been turning over in my head since I started watching the revived Doctor Who.  Anyways, the press picked up on essays in the collection that describe Doctor Who as propagating British imperialism, being dismissive of Black characters, and demeans cultures that are not industrially developed. Fans of Doctor Who got offended, and the BBC defended itself by saying that Doctor Who is especially committed to colour-blind casting and depicting all of humanity (and since this is a science fiction show, all potential life forms) as equal. The editors of the collection responded to this controversy by reminded fans and the media that not all the essays are critical of Doctor Who.

This Part I will deal with analysis of the episodes’ representations of race and ethnicity, as well as representations of British culture, especially British ideas of tea and Asians. The controversy also has a few instructive lessons on science fiction, media in a global context, and the relationship of academics to everyday life, especially popular culture, and that will wait til Part II (I wanted to post all of it together, but seeing as the essay collection is published already, posting asap on the issue seems important. And also it will cut down the length). Here I will discuss what I have seen of Doctor Who (henceforth DW) but will also briefly talk about a couple more scifi shows: Fringe, Firefly, and, uh, Doraemon, just to put things into non-Western perspective. Most of it will be about race and ethnicity, but some of it will be about gender, sexuality, and cultural consciousness in general, because constructs of race and gender and sexuality are part of cultural consciousness.

This post is NOT meant to be a summary or review of the essay collection, and it was written without having read any of the essays in the collection. Rather, this is what I might have written if I were a contributor to the collection, as a way to think through the issue on my own before reading about other people’s opinions. I’m sure many points below have already been touched on in the essays, and I don’t claim to have thought of them first or anything. Actually many of the issues of Doctor Who and race have already been debated in the media, just not the the extent that they have recently with the publication of Doctor Who and Race.

Contents:

Bit of a pre-amble on the issue, and on scifi, below

I. Black characters in Doctor Who: Martha Jones, Mickey Smith, and recent minor characters

II. Cultural embeddedness: British culture and conceptions of Asia (plus a bit on Fringe, Firefly, and Doraemon at the end)

(Sorry, no underlining or italicising for titles as per MLA guidelines. My browser crashed several times trying to post this so I’ll neglect the unimportant stuff.)

Similar issues of scifi and race have already come up in relation to Battlestar Galactica (my post here), whose themes involved race and ethnicity more directly than Doctor Who. However, Doctor Who is a children’s show, which means that the BBC, academics and fans might all be more invested in its representations. It is more an educational tool that might make children more or less tolerant of aliens, whether they be the extra-terrestrial type or the resident immigrant type. I think it is not difficult to see the former as an allegory for the latter in scifi. Science fiction (speculative fiction in general) can do something that general fiction can’t, which is allegorize current earth-bound ethnic relations with an expanded universe of humans, aliens, cyborgs, etc, a context in which the immediate practical interests of one ethnic group (usually ours) can be set aside so as to better deliberate morality (also usually ours). Hence, scifi is a great place for self-reflexivity without people getting angry and defensive. As for the distinction between scifi and fantasy and which one has potential to do this better, I’m not equipped to answer this, though comments are as always welcome.  So first off, I’m re-iterating that scifi shows like Doctor Who and controversies they might generate are very important and should not be brushed off as the purview of a few nerds or a few academics angrily punching at their keyboards. Though, in the spirit of self-reflexivity, I’m a nerd and an aspiring academic, so my estimation of the importance of Doctor Who and its controversies might be an over-estimation. More on that later.

One last thing:  I believe that the essay collection deals with both the older run of DW and the revived one starting 2005. That might have been where some of the confusion arose that lead to controversy – the 1960s had different takes on identity constructs like race, and academics who were critiquing those older series might have been reported by the press as critiquing DW in general. I’ve only watched the revived one, so I will be evaluating what I think of that one. Although, after the latest season finale, “The Name of the Doctor,” I was in DW withdrawal and tried watching the very first episode. In this episode, the first Doctor compares the Susan’s teachers’ incomprehension of the TARDIS to “savages” who cannot understand a train. So, I stopped watching.

I. Black characters in Doctor Who: Martha Jones, Mickey Smith, and recent minor characters

As with most controversies (eg controversies about Hetalia, here), I can see this issue of Doctor Who and race both ways, that is I can find a number of examples which support BBC’s statement that DW is colour-blind and committed to ethnic equity, and on the other hand I can also find a number of examples that support the academics’ analysis that DW is imperialist and Black characters are not treated with respect. And because I’m Asian I can find examples of Asian characters that land on both sides of the argument. And aliens. Here goes.

As BBC states, Martha Jones and Mickey Smith. Martha is definitely a good example of where DW handles race pretty well. As a character, she is knowledgeable med school student, resourceful companion to the Doctor, and I would say a resilient and wise woman at the end of her journey, recognizing that her life cannot always revolve around the Doctor (especially since he doesn’t return her affections), continuing work for UNIT and helping to save the universe at the end of Season 4.  I don’t think she is a stereotype of Black women, especially since she isn’t particularly sexualized. At least I don’t see it – Rose and Martha, and more recently Amy, all had their fair share of revealing outfits and not. Donna is slightly older and temps at offices, so she’s out of the comparison.

Parts of the story that happens around Martha are also well-handled. One alternative to putting up ethnic stereotypes in the media is to put up ethnic minorities who are “just ordinary people” or characters who obviously go against the established stereotype, eg a Chinese person who’s not good at math, or an affluent, meek, and law-abiding African American. However this approach has also been criticised because at times it does run against realism. In the case of math it’s not so important, but the argument is that an affluent, meek and law-abiding (let’s abbreviate this set of traits “AMLA” for now) African American eclipses thousands of African Americans who live in poverty, develop resourceful solutions to survive, and have the law constantly on their backs, through no fault of their own, a social situation that the AMLA African American character seems to have transcended through the American favourite of pulling himself up by his bootstraps or somehow achieved without explanation. Anyways, the point of that detour was that sometime characters are not stereotypes but they can still be problematic if they totally ignore race or the realities of ethnic inequality.

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This issue has come up for the 2-parter “Daleks in Manhattan” and “Evolution of the Daleks” (S03E4-5)where the charismatic leader of the 1930s New York destitutes living in Central Park’s Hooverville is an African American man named Solomon (above). I remember reading praise for his character, but with someone commenting that realistically an African American man during those hard  times would hardly have been elected leader. Personally I agreed with this one – he would probably have been seen as competition by the White working class and chased out of Hooverville. But anyways, the response to this criticism was that a scifi show that puts Daleks in Manhattan in the 1920s hardly needs to follow historical accuracy on other fronts. I can also see the point of this argument – why only speculate about the future in scifi? Though, since the two episodes also focuses on how the Daleks can potentially change their racist doctrine, there could be a corresponding change/development in the human community going from intolerance of an African American leader to an acceptance. That would probably have made the episodes too complicated, so settling on humans already achieving ethnic equality is probably the next best thing.

Anyways, with Martha in DW, she manages to go against stereotypes of Black women and her part in the story generates race-related situations or at least anecdotes. A favourite would be the 2-parter story “Human Nature” and “Family of Blood” (S03E8 and 9), where Martha is posing as a servant for the human-ized Doctor as they stay in a boarding school in 1913, hiding from aliens hunting the Doctor, who are tracking him by sensing his Time Lord essence. Martha faces outright racism and dismissal from the students at the school and other staff (one nasty student asking her how she can tell if anything’s clean with dark skin, the matron telling her that a woman can never be a doctor, and even if one day they can, “hardly one of your colour”), and the townspeople (the war veteran at the community dance event telling her to use the servants’ entrance). The general tone of these episodes is that the matron’s understanding is limited despite her good intentions otherwise, and the boys can be just plain evil, and children should not be like them. Aside from these two episodes, as a fan I loved how she was the Dark Lady of Shakespeare’s sonnets (though Sonnet 18’s dedicated not to the Dark Lady but actually the Fair Youth, but never mind), but with an accompanying facepalm from both her and Doctor that Shakespeare’s names for her (Blackamoor, Ethiop girl, Queen of the Afric) are “political correctness gone mad” (S03E02). For me this would teach children a far more subtle lesson than “negative stereotypes are bad.” It also potentially teaches children that even positive stereotypes are bad and that trying too hard to make up for stereotypes with political correctness can also derail.

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On the other hand, I think there are also problems with Martha’s character. To be fair, she is not defined by her unrequited love for the Doctor, and it is understandable that he has just lost Rose, however I was still uncomfortable that a non-White female character spending a lot of time onscreen pining after a White man, which is what the Doctor looks like even if he’s not human. This visuality makes a difference:  during “The Shakespeare Code,” when Martha is concerned that she might be carted off as a slave because she’s Black, the Doctor responds first with incomprehension and then “and I’m not even human. Just walk around like you would any other place. It works for me” (image above) This seems to be logical except that the Doctor can walk around with the privilege of a white man because he looks like one, but his attitude that his strategies of passing would work for Martha is rather presumptuous. To make an extreme argument, it’s almost having your cake and eating it too – having a certain degree of otherness to the Doctor to suggest that the show is tolerant towards otherness, without actually having to address otherness because people don’t perceive him as other. Granted,” The Shakespeare Code”‘s main theme is about the power of words and stories, which I find well conveyed, however it does seem implausible that Martha could walk around Elizabethan England without getting harassed. After all, Othello is the “Moor” of Venice, not London, and if I remember my undergrad Shakespeare classes,  Italy’s place in the Elizabethan English imagination was kind of an exotic hodgepodge that was exotic precisely because it wasn’t like England. Also, I understand that the Doctor’s first reaction of confusion might be to mirror young audiences’ surprise about slavery if they don’t know about it already, but for the Doctor, who has observed and participated in all of human history, to not know about the slave trade is also implausible. This issue could have been taken care of by the Doctor recognizing that Martha’s skin colour poses a danger to her and then using a perception filter on her so that people around them won’t really recognize that she’s Black. This won’t even impact how Shakespeare sees her, since he could see through the psychic paper’s trick.

And then there’s Mickey. Some people believe that the first Black companion is not Martha but Mickey, so he has that going for him. However I have a feeling that the “dismissal attitudes towards Black companions” that the press says that the academics have seen in DW might be about Mickey, because the Doctor is really not very nice to him to start with. For example, in the pilot episode “Rose,” the 9th Doctor doesn’t seem to really care whether Mickey’s been killed by the Nesteen consciousness or not, and when Rose finds him alive and runs to help him, the Doctor sort of rolls his eyes. Though the Doctor sort of has a dismissal attitude of 20th and 21st century humanity in general (“these stupid little people have just learned how to walk”), he especially likes to, well,  to use British English, to take the mickey out of Mickey. In S02E03, as the Doctor, Rose, and Mickey investigate a school for producing record student results, Mickey stumbles into a closet full of vacuum-packed rats and screams, and the Doctor accuses him of screaming like a 10-year old girl with pigtails (don’t even know why that’s relevant). Anyways, at first Mickey’s character is, as he puts it, the tin dog of the group (a reference to him having a supporting role like the robotic dog K-9, in the same episode), and in S0S04, when Rose objects to the Doctor wanting to keep a horse that has stumbled into a spaceship, the Doctor replies, “I let you keep Mickey.” So Mickey is likened to a tin dog and then a pet horse.

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Moreover, his character is often the one providing comic relief, for example in S02S04, while Mickey, Rose and the Doctor are on a spaceship, we see Mickey through the ship’s cameras where his face is distorted to look comical. Rose: “You’re not keeping the horse!” Doctor: “I let you keep Mickey.”.  Since there is a long history of Black characters used as comic relief (or, in other words, laughing at Black people), such as blackface minstrelsy, Mickey as comic relief is just repeating a stereotype. Incidentally, I learned just last year that the character of Mickey Mouse has roots in blackface minstrelsy, which explains the white part of his face around his features. I’m pretty sure the Doctor calls Mickey “Mickey Mouse” at some point, and the writer, actors, and production team on that episode probably had no idea about Mickey Mouse’s origins. Anyways that just makes Mickey’s representation in Doctor Who a little worse.  He does comes to his own in Season 2, staying on to clean up the mess of the cybermen, and again at the end of Season 4, so arguably the earlier quips about his uselessness are in place to accentuate his later character development. However, arguably you can have character development without the characters being a laughingstock the begin with, examples being Rose and Martha. Again, Donna’s sort of out of comparison because Catherine Tate is a comedian to start with .

Also, returning to a problem of romance similar with Martha, he’s basically a Black man losing a girl to a White man. Not only that –  at the end he ends up with Martha, and despite Jack Harkness’s sexual flexibility covering all genders and all life-forms, we don’t even get any interracial couples at the end. Personally I feel that his relationship with Martha came out of nowhere – we see Jack, Mickey and Martha walking off, and the next time we see Mickey and Martha they’re married. Granted that as both ex-companions and experience fighting hostile aliens, they have a lot in common, however I can’t see their personalities meshing and there was no development in this regard. I suppose an argument is that BBC left it up to fanfiction writers.

Another argument would be that the show needed comic relief, and since you can’t laugh at main characters like Rose or the Doctor, you go to the next-of-kin and laugh at Rose’s boyfriend Mickey and at her mother Jackie. And Jackie is White, so it’s not like the show only uses Black characters as comic relief. And the BBC just happened to cast a Black actor as Rose’s boyfriend. And Martha’s unrequited love for the Doctor isn’t because she’s Black and he’s “White” but he would behave in that way to any companion that came after Rose, and the BBC just happened to cast a Black actress as Martha. I understand that this might really be the case, however this might reveal a problem about colour-blind casting. Similar to the problem of race neutrality not reflecting or making up for real world ethnic inequalities, colour-blind casting can be a problem if it really is blind. Colour-blind casting, meaning that casting directors don’t consciously slot actors into ethnic stereotypes, implies that things will come out balanced. However, decisions can be unconscious and require colour consciousness to balance them out. What if the casting directors, influenced by a history of Black characters as comic relief,  unconsciously chose Noel Clarke as “best” for the role of Mickey because he was Black? I’m not saying that’s the case, I’m just taking issue with the BBC’s implication that colour-blind casting is a solution to ethnic problems in casting.

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And starting in the 5th season with Steven Moffat as the showrunner, there aren’t any significant recurring characters of non-White races, however a few minor characters can be important to comment on. First, in the second episode of Season 5 we have a future Queen of England, “Liz 10,” who is played by Sophie Okonedo (above). Since the wedding between Prince William and Kate Middleton just went by last year, there were some comments that for the first time, someone in the British royal family was marrying a “commoner.”  Liz 10’s possibly mixed-race character implies that at some point in the future, someone in the royal family marries a Black person. Since the aristocracy of Great Britain does not have any non-White individuals at present, this hypothetical future Black person would probably be a “commoner” as well.  I’m not sure that the child audiences of DW would necessarily grasp this, but personally I thought this was a bold move to make.

The other three Black characters I can think of off the top of my head, though, don’t necessarily make any imaginative interventions of this sort. First would be Colonel Manton in the Season 6 mid-season finale (S06E07), “A Good Man Goes to War.” I actually thought that Danny Sapani did a wonderful job at giving Colonel Manton a commanding and dignified demeanor, especially how he restores order among his soldiers after the Doctor sets them against each other, however that comes to nothing as he’s on the “wrong side” (fighting against the 11th Doctor) and the Doctor goes on a rare angry rant about how he wants Colonel Manton to be known as “Colonel Runaway” in the future. Then there’s River Song’s previous incarnation, Mels, played by Nina Toussaint-White. There was a lot of praise from the press about how Touissant-White brought life and energy to her character, and I agree, however I’m bothered by the association between her character and crime and misbehaviour, basically all through her childhood, mouthing off to teachers, stealing cars, etc, with Amy needing to get her out of jail at one point (below). Going back to the Russell T. Davis era, I was thinking of the Black family in S02E11, “Fear Her,” where mother isn’t exactly sorry that her husband has died because he was abusive to both her and their daughter, and part of the story is the daughter trying to move on from the fear of her father. I understand that River Song was brainwashed and trained to become a psychopath so she could kill the Doctor one day, however it is at this kind of juncture that colour-blind casting needs to be actively rethought. Toussaint-White is a powerful actress and great for a pre-Doctor River Song, and colour-blind casting would cast her instead of casting a White person (which would maintain continuity with River Song). However, do we want to cast a Black actor as a teenage psychopath, when Black people are already associated with crime? Similarly,  for “Fear Her,” do we want to associate Black people with domestic violence and dysfunctional families? To me Colonel Manton and teenage Melody Pond are instances where the Black actors performed wonderfully in their roles, but were limited by how their roles were written, and I don’t know what the writers were thinking of in “Fear Her.”

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Leaving race aside for a moment – I also think that there is a problem with gender in Doctor Who, despite the inclusion of strong women like River Song and Martha Jones. It seems that people who fail to be “the best of humanity” have often been women in recent years, and not because they were indecisive or passive. For example, Harriet Jones, who blew up the Sycorax even though they were retreating (Christmas Special between seasons 1 and 2), Ambrose who murders a Silurian soldier (who was also female, while Ambrose’s father and husband were sort of the hapless sort), and Miranda, who sparks conflict with the Flesh in S06E5-6. While many of the minor male characters were just hapless, these women seem to be portrayed as failed humans precisely because they were too opinionated and too ready to act. Also, I’m still not sure about Amy’s character. Despite being feisty and strong-willed, she often doesn’t actually contribute to solving the problem. This bothers me, but I haven’t thought about this as much as I thought about race and ethnicity.

II. Cultural embeddedness: British culture and conceptions of Asia (plus a bit on Fringe, Firefly, and Doraemon at the end)

Another complaint from the essay collection was not necessarily about race per se, but about how Doctor Who situates itself relative to culture. Something about the Doctor loving cricket being an indication of the show’s British imperialist tendencies? Again, the book just being released means I’m not sure exactly how the argument goes.

Cricket doesn’t show up a lot in the revived series, however tea certainly comes up a lot as a signature of British culture. Something like this is what makes DW a very British scifi show, because even though Americans drink tea, it’s not such a part of American culture that it needs to be repeatedly mentioned, even to laugh at it. To be fair, in whatever context cricket came up, tea comes up ironically as a way to laugh at how British people seem to think that tea is the solution to all physical and psychological ailments. For example, Rose’s mother brings tea on board the TARDIS during the Christmas special, while the new 10th Doctor is still unconscious from regeneration. Mickey comments, “Tea. We’re having a picnic while the world’s coming to an end. That’s very British.” However tea ends up being exactly what the Doctor needs to regain consciousness, so its therapeutic value seems to be restored at the end of the episode. This contributes to the same issue mentioned earlier, that the Doctor is non-human but this total otherness is gotten around by his appearance being that of a White man. In this case, while his biology is non-human, this is gotten around by him actually needing tea, making him more like “us,” or more like the British. Especially since that the Time Lords are life-forms superior to humans (technologically, of course, but also cognitively, in that they can sort of see all of space-time laid out before them, and also biologically, having 2 hearts and able to cheat death a certain number of times by regenerating), basically in having tea being what the Doctor needs is having a part of British culture being validated by a superior alien culture. If Cricket is associated with British imperialism, I can’t think of any current food component more embroiled in imperialism and colonialism than tea. Maybe coffee, or tobacco. Or bananas… or cotton…well actually a ton of things, which is actually quite telling of how Western culture has gotten to where it has. Anyways, why tea is so British isn’t interrogated, just that Time Lords need it too and it does have therapeutic value despite jokes being made about it.

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Another time that tea comes up in the Moffat era is in S06E11, where the Doctor, Amy and Rory are pulled into a maze-like place that looks like an 80s hotel, with other people trapped inside. One of them is Rita, who seems to be a medical school student or a nurse, and who identifies as Muslim. First of all, I really do like her as a character and I think audiences are meant to, as when the Doctor seems to evaluate her as a potentially more resourceful companion than Amy and tells Amy jokingly that she’s fired. Her identity as a Muslim is also handled well, as when the Doctor guesses that she’s Muslim, she jokes, “Don’t be frightened.” Her strong Muslim faith is also figured strongly in the plot, as it helps her accept her demise in a dignified manner (I suppose, though, her faith is what gets her killed, though every kind of faith gets people killed in that episode, so it’s not like the story was hinting that being a Muslim would make someone especially in danger of getting killed). Anyways, as everyone is running around confused and terrified of a minotaur-like creature, Rita offers to help everyone calm down with tea, and also says that “I’m British. It’s how we cope with trauma” (above). I find this slightly at odds with her identifying as a Muslim. Obviously I’m not saying that Muslim people don’t or aren’t supposed to like tea, and I’m also not saying that there can’t be hybrid identities. However I find it a bit of a mystery why a devout young Muslim woman would necessarily subscribe to the specifically British culture around tea. If she thinks that the hotel is Jahannem (something like Hell in Islam) and her faith is powerful, why would tea still be what she uses to cope with trauma? Or, in other words, tea seems like a universalizing component of British culture in this episode, again without interrogating its associations with imperialism and colonialism.

To return to Shakespeare for a moment, it’s obvious to see that the literary figures featured in Doctor Who are often the canonized White people, such as Shakespeare and Charles Dickens. I suppose Agatha Christie was a good choice as a woman writer of genre literature, but we’ll never see the Doctor and his companion visiting, like, Salman Rushdie or something.

Otherwise, in general I do find the new Doctor Who rather Britain-centric (though one thing I find more accessible about the Steven Moffat era is that it focuses less on Britain ), and this comes up when it makes quips about Americans. I’m all for people making quips about Americans in other media because so much of global media is controlled by Americans, but anyways. First, during the same Christmas special with all the going-ons about tea, the Sycorax are on the verge of invading Earth and Harriet Jones, prime minister of Great Britain, gets a call from the president of the US saying he wants to take command of the situation, which she responds to with “He’s not my boss, and he’s certainly not turning this into a war.” In the first episode of Season 6, where the Doctor lands in President Nixon’s office but is confident that he won’t be shot, River Song  runs out of the TARDIS to remind him that “They’re Americans!” The implication is that Americans are a violent culture and the British are not. However, given Harriet Jones’s actions at the end of the episode, where she orders Torchwood to fire on the Sycorax ship when it is retreating, puts this into doubt. Of course, the Doctor disapproves of her actions, and the audience is meant to as well. However there remains something of the tragic hero in Harriet Jones, as her decision to fire on the Sycorax ship comes from the conclusion that humanity needs to show the universe that it can defend itself, even without the Doctor, which in of itself is a valid conclusion. She also sacrifices herself to defend Earth from the Daleks at the end of Season 4. Given the quips about American tendencies for violence in DW, Harriet Jones’s actions are represented as a  personal failing rather than a cultural one. However, given real life situations like Tony Blair buddying up with Bush for military action in Iraq, it’s pretty obvious that one human culture, especially those in industrialized Western societies,  isn’t significantly more pacifist than another culture. Maybe Canadians. Anyway, an extreme argument could be that DW is erasing a history of British violence by displacing it onto Americans, while rationalizing it as needing to teach children about pacifism.

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Personally I wouldn’t go so far, but what disturbs me more is how Harriet Jones assumes that she could speak for Earth, if the President of the US is not fit for this job. When the Sycorax asks for the leader of Earth, she steps forward, despite 1/3 of all of Earth’s population being hypnotized (more or less) by the Sycorax. When she is teleported onto the Sycorax ship, she is given the choice of having the 1/3 of the human race kill themselves or having 1/2 sold into slavery (above). All through this process, there was nothing like “Earth doesn’t work this way” or “I need to consult the leaders of other countries first.” Saying so wouldn’t even have changed the plot, as Rose and the Doctor are also teleported onto the ship soon after and the Doctor takes over the situation. In addition, Harriet Jones characterizes the Guinevere I space probe as  “This country’s limitless ambition, British workmanship sailing out there among the stars,” and I have a feeling that the audience is suppose to agree at this point.  To me this is still the remnants of British imperialism at work – the space probe can be seen as a 21st-century equivalent of ships from Europe in the “Age of Discovery” in the 15th and 16th centuries. And if it finds any alien life forms, Britain will speak for Earth, thank you kindly.  Thankfully DW isn’t like this all through the other seasons, though. In S05E09, when miners in Whales stumble upon a civilization of Silurians under the Earth’s crust (Silurians are evolved from lizard species in prehistoric ages rather than from mammals like humans were, and went into hibernation because they believed that an asteroid was going to destroy Earth), the Doctor says that he doesn’t represent humanity but Amy Pond and Nasreen Chaudhry are good representatives to bargain with the Silurians about how to potentially share the Earth. It was nice to see that while saving the Earth multiple times, the Doctor here doesn’t presume that he could represent human interests. (As a way to apply this scifi story to current events: as of writing this, we are still in the midst of the Edward Snowden issue. Apparently one of the arguments against him was that it was unconstitutional for random 29-year-olds to decide what national secrets to reveal, but supporters of Snowden argue that the American Constitution ensures that lone dissenters still need to be heard even if they are average folk.) This doesn’t mean that everything’s right with this episode, though. Amy’s solution for sharing the Earth was to ask the Silurians to live in areas that are uninhabitable for humans. While I’m sure the Silurians have terraforming technology or something along those lines, Amy’s assumption that they could survive in those places humans can’t is strange, especially since the underground environment resembles a rain forest. More importantly for race and ethnicity though, asking the pre-existing Silurians to live in the Sahara Desert it sounds disturbingly like exploiting the land’s resources while herding Native North Americans onto reservations. Being British, perhaps the Doctor Who team didn’t pick up on this similarity.

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Going back to race and ethnicity, though, it is interesting to see that the representation of race and ethnicity in DW is also very embedded in British specificity when we look at how different Asians are represented. First of all, while there are more South Asians (including an Indian Space Agency in “Dinosaurs on a Spaceship” (S07E02), Torchwood scientist Rajesh Singh in the finale episodes of the 2nd season, Solana in S04E02, the housekeeper Miss Chandrakala in S04E07, Nasreen Chaudhry in S05E8-9, and perhaps also Rita in S06E11 and Martha’s colleague in S03E01) there are very few East Asians. I can only think of 3 characters in all 7 seasons of the new DW, which is Toshiko Sato from Torchwood before Torchwood was a show (in  S01E04), Lorna Bucket in S06E07 , Alexei in S07E06. Lorna Bucket is a soldier in the army of the Church in the future (which is something I often wonder how Christian critics of Doctor Who would handle), and she looks mixed race and the character isn’t from Earth, so that was a nice inclusion. However, Alexei is a computer tech guy, and Toshiko is a lab technician, which seem to be instances of rather stereotypical casting.  I’m not necessarily criticising the lack of East Asian characters, not yet anyway, because to me they are just indicative that Britain understands Asia differently from Americans. In North America, if one says that someone is Asian, the listener would most likely think of East Asians first. However, Great Britain used to hold imperial power in South Asia, and India, Pakistan and Bangladesh are still a part of the Commonwealth, with and so South Asians might be more familiar to the average White British person than East Asians. (However, from a quick look at a poll reported on Wikipedia’s page on England, there has been an increased number of Chinese immigrants.) Leaving aside DW for a moment, I remember reading The Grey King (by Susan Cooper, published in 1975 and set in Wales) in elementary school and feeling very glad that a character criticizes some children for calling new South Asian immigrants “Pakis.” So, without a lot of knowledge on the issue, I’m going to tentatively say that the representaion of South Asians in British media is, if not decent, at least prevalent.

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The relative distance of East Asia to Britain does become a problem, however, in an episode like S04E10, “Turn Left.” In this episode, the Doctor takes Donna to a planet ostensibly inhabited by future descendants of Asians, most likely Chinese (above), where Donna gets her fortune told. However the fortune teller actually sics a giant beetle-like creature onto Donna to eat away at her past. I found this episode rather offensive to East Asians for multiple reasons. First is the architecture of the planet – it is supposed to be a society of the future, however it looks like China in the 1600s (there’s even one extra with a queue). This represent a common complaint about non-Western cultures in scifi, which is that while Western cultures are imagined as continuing to develop technologically, non-Western cultures are imagined to be distinct only by virtue of their traditions, and hence even in the future they look traditional. Another point related to this is that the brief street scenes in the episode show Donna and the Doctor being offered various foods and items from merchants in charts. Basically, in addition to the inability to represent Asian-specific modernity (and futurity), this episode also shows the inability to imagine Asian culture as something other than a tourist economy offering stuff to White visitors, which is probably what tourists in Asia see, Or the inability to imagine an Asian society that doesn’t look like a Chinatown, which has developed a tourist economy for sustenance. Third, the whole fortune telling thing recreates the figure of the mysterious and inscrutable Asian, again based on some sort of tradition, plus a dose of threat as the fortune teller is trying to prey on Donna (below – and this is the fortune teller’s expression for most of her appearances. Another example of good acting but limited by the part).  Fourth, speaking characters all speak with an accent. The TARDIS translation matrix translates Latin into English without a Latin accent in S04E02, “The Fires of Pompeii,” so I’m not sure why an “Asian” accent remains in “Turn Left.” And that Pompeii family is made out to resemble a contemporary generic Western family too, with the husband going for class mobility and buying big art to show for it, a slightly emo teenage son, sibling rivalry, etc. No such similarities for Asians.

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This was just one episode in Doctor Who, however I see this kind of representation of East Asians elsewhere. In Sherlock, also run by Steven Moffat (together with Mark Gatiss), the second episode of the first season had Chinese tea sets in the British Museum, mysterious symbols related to international underground trafficking, and Chinese acrobats/ninjas/triad members who perform cruel and unusual means of torture on Watson’s girlfriend. Despite the Sherlock series being very smart, the thoughtlessness of Asian representation in this episode dumbed it down ideologically. Similarly, in the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (also called LXG, and I mean the comic by Alan Moore, who is British, not the movie, which was Americanized in part by the addition of Tom Sawyer), a large portion of the first volume had to do with Chinese underground activity in the limehouse district of Victorian London, plus an appearance by Fu Manchu. Given the more complex and sensitive treatment of Jekyll/Hyde in the comic and the expanded role of Mina Murray, I was especially annoyed that Fu Manchu wasn’t really altered form his character in the novels and remained a villain played straight, out to take over the British empire. Possibly fuelling anti-immigration debates in England, don’t you think?  This seems to be an inherited image of Chinese people that is particular to the British.

In fact, this idea of Victorian-era Chinese criminals in Limehouse is also in Doctor Who, just not in the episodes. Apparently the character of Jenny Flint, feisty Victorian-era  Cockney girl and accomplice and romantic partner to Madam Vastra, met Madam Vastra while Vastra was saving her from Chinese gangsters (this is from The Brilliant Book 2012, which I read on the DW Wiki). This was the most disappointing instance of bad representation in Doctor Who for me, because I love Jenny and Vastra as a couple, especially since the production team was pushing queer inter-species romance with them (Vastra is a Silurian). Race was even brought up for Vastra and Jenny – in “A Good Man Goes to War,” Vastra quips that mammals all look the same to her, which offends Jenny, and Vastra apologizes. To me this is like addressing stupid comments like “All Asians look the same.” The back story of how Jenny and Vastra meet is disappointing because the they really do seem to be an example of how Doctor Who can transcend conventions related to race and sexuality, until it relies on vilifying Chinese people to bring the two together.

I’m not saying that Americans have a better understanding of East Asians or that it hasn’t had Fu Manchu ideas about Chinese people, but because of the history of indentured labourers, internment, and Asians in particularly professions, America has different stereotypes of East Asians. In addition, because there are more East Asians in America than in Britain, plus having a history of activism around representation, typecasting, and the like, I can’t see an episode like the 2nd one of Sherlock being released without protests or petitions. American television might be slightly better at representing ethnicities because of this, for example Asian characters in Grey’s Anatomy (though I remember reading an essay that said Sandra Oh’s character is the stereotype of the overly technical Asian doctor whereas other White doctors were more spontaneous), Lost having  Kwon Jin-soo and Kwon Sun-hwa. Sadly, two American scifi series I actually watched every episode of didn’t have many Asians in them either, which are Firefly and Fringe. For Firefly this is especially annoying as China is supposed to be one of two world powers. Anyways, obviously this series is very American because its premise is what would happen if revolutionary fighters lost something like the War of Independence, with the good guys still fighting for personal agency and political self-rule.

For Fringe, my main complaint isn’t the lack of recurring Asian characters, but the weird optimism that the show ended on, which I attribute to its American cultural locus. I know it was a rushed ending and the fifth season barely made it on air, but it contradicts what the characters ought to have learned from everything that came before. Anyways, in Fringe, the premise of all the problems is that the fringe scientist Walter Bishop upsets two whole parallel universes because he crossed between them to save his son. At the end of the show, he takes a boy into the future to wipe out the Observers, who are vastly intelligent but emotionless people that humanity develops into some time in the future, which come back to the present day to invade humanity. For me, Walter and everyone else should have learned about the butterfly effect by now, which is that trying to fix a problem could potentially create a larger one, and one should not play God. Hence, I don’t know why it didn’t occur to anyone that trying to wipe out the Observers could potentially create an even bigger problem. The reason I feel that this is very American is that this seems to be how America as a nation operates – it continues trying to right wrongs all over the world even though it has been faced with disasters in the past such as the Vietnam War. America as a nation that continues hoping that it could be the hero, and so the ending of Fringe is with the Fringe team not heeding the lessons of the past and going off to help humanity and be heroes.

One might ask, which adventure story does not end on continuing resistance against domination and heroic optimism? This question does have a point. However, for example The Water Margin, one of the 4 Chinese classics, actually has rebels co-operating with the government to put down other rebels and all rebellions mostly put down by the end. Although I haven’t read any academic articles about this, I do believe that one reason this story is propagated by the Communist government is that it both lauds resistance against corrupt bureaucracies, which the Communists in China began as, and simultaneously lauds the ability of a government to pacify rebellion by using rebellion wisely and staying in power that way, which is what the Chinese government is trying to do. The lesson from this example is not that the Communist party is wrong in promoting literature this way (although I do think it is), but that every culture promotes certain values in literature and often within the culture itself, audiences take those values for granted. Although they might appear to be universal, the values promoted in scifi shows like Fringe and Firefly are very American.

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From these examples (plus the Hollywood adaptation of LXG adding Tom Sawyer) it is obvious that science fiction is very much embedded in the culture in which they are created. Just another non-Western example to make my point – if Chinese people are villains in Doctor Who and Sherlock, then American are the villains in Doraemon. In the story about Nobuta finding a fossil of a dinosaur egg and hatching it with Doraemon’s time-reversing technology, the evil dinosaur poachers who are after  his dinosaur are portrayed to look like bandits from American Westerns. Just like how the DW episode “Turn Left” establishes an future Asian/Chinese culture based on visual cues without saying what Earthian culture it derives from (lol, since there’s a New New York, is this supposed to be New Beijing?), Doraemon also establishes a future culture that resembles Americans without saying they are Americans. So, I’m not sure whether the essay collection on Doctor Who and Race will cover this, but if Doctor Who is racist, it is not just racist but racist in a very British sense.

That’s all for now. I would like to read the collection before posting Part II, so hopefully I can find a copy and get to Part II soon.