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?

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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.

 

“I love diversity. Can I have your phone number?”: Interracial illegibility, legibility, and culturism

On a scale of 1 to 10, rate the men above on their respectability.

On a scale of 1 to 10, rate the men above on their respectability.

A rather surprising year so far. I have never been popular or socially adept, especially not where romance is concerned, and therefore I’m always surprised when someone (especially someone operating in the range of sanity*) finds me attractive and want to pursue a relationship. Recently I’ve been even more surprised that African American men can find me attractive. This seems like a weird thing to be surprised about, and I suppose it is, but the questions I have to ask myself now are why am I surprised and what did I expect? Do my personal background (as opposed to my ethnic /cultural background) justify my surprise? I’ve thought of myself as fairly open-minded and un-racist, but does my surprise mean that I do hold certain limited and limiting stereotypes of race and ethnicity? If so, is it too late to change these ideas and how?

In this post I am trying to be as honest as I can about race and racism, and there might be some content readers might find offensive. Also, it is going to be more personal than my other posts, and I put it here instead of in the journal blog (ideogrammatica) because my experiences recently might say something about wider social issues. But this is not going to be me at my analytical best, so please skip this if you don’t like tortured ranting.

(A note on terminology: This is still an academic post, dammit! I will being using both “Black” and “African American.” For example, Chinese people have stereotypes of Black people without really caring about whether they’re African Americans or not, and in that context I’ll be using “Black.”And if I want to highlight physical appearance.  If I want to foreground something socio-cultural specific to North America, I’ll be using “African American.” That includes Canada too. Sorry. I tried to use “Asian North American” in my MA thesis and in the end it just irritated the word count. And I tend to capitalize words like Black and White if using them for race and ethnicity to highlight that it’s a loaded word and not just a colour.)

I. Where’s an Asian girl gonna find a place to stay? Chinese attitudes towards Black people

To frontload identity categories, I am a Chinese-Canadian woman in my mind-twenties doing a PhD in University of Southern California, LA.  I live close to Leitmert Park and Crenshaw in LA, which is an area with a predominantly African American population.   I would like to live in a neighbourhood of Asians but that would only be for the food, and I’m close enough to Koreantown so I can take care of that easily. And there’s really nothing about living with White people that appeals to me – they’re everywhere already, so why bother?

Before I moved here, I was warned not to because it wasn’t safe, but it didn’t seem any more dangerous than any other part around South Central LA, and I wanted to within biking distance to campus. The previous family I stayed with briefly before I moved here lived in a predominantly Latino neighbourhood, and when they have other Chinese students asking about safety they usually say “Mexicans aren’t unruly at all. They’re very family-oriented,” implying  that they’re culturally close to Asians (My dad would chip in “and they’re afraid they’d be deported”).  Anyway, while I didn’t actively seek out an African American neighbourhood, it doesn’t bother me either. Basically what race my neighbours are don’t factor at all into where I decide to live. (But for living in the same house, I’d rather live with Chinese people, and I’m renting from Chinese people now even though they don’t live here. Chinese renters tend not to ask for references and credit checks, which makes my life a lot easier. Plus  I do things like boil a  smelly vat of Chinese herbal medicine every other day, shower at night as opposed to in the morning, and other life habits that are hard to explain to people who don’t know about them.)

My parents have not been happy about where I live, because they’d rather I live with Chinese people or White people, and I had to send them photos of my street to prove that I didn’t live in a ghetto. In our graduate seminars on ethnicity, I think we read someone as saying that blaming Asians for being racist exacerbate the problem of ethnic division and plays into White supremacy. I understand that Asian Americans who have live in North America for generations alongside other ethnic groups may not be racist, but I’ve always agreed that at least post-1965 Chinese immigrants, and Chinese people in China,  are quite racist and it would be a poor decision to turn a blind eye to this. When I was teaching English in China, another native Chinese English teacher said she went on an exchange to a country in Africa and liked it there better than in China, and the way she was explaining it was “You’d think Black people are dirty, but they’re really not. The dorms were really clean with only 3 or 4 people sharing them, not like us cramming 8 students into tiny rooms.” While she herself is probably not racist, the way she talks implies that she understands most of Chinese people as being racist.

My neighbours in this duplex are a couple of Chinese-Canadians. Now, in terms of ethnic consciousness, my neighbours are quite interesting, but about one of their friends first. Their friend is what you might call an FOB, a Chinese student who just came to America. I’ve met him twice and each time he complains about how unsafe he feels in the neighbourhood and how disturbed he is whensomeone on the street asked him for change. Once he arrived before my neighbours were home, and he refused to wait in the car because he felt like he was in danger, and wanted to wait in my side of the house. I let him but wasn’t impressed. Anyways, about the neighbours. I assumed that because they live here they aren’t racist towards Black people, and when I saw them interact with our neighbours I didn’t detect any racism either. However, when speaking to me in Chinese they often make pejorative remarks about Black people, for example calling our neighbours “老黑” (lao hei, lit. “old black,” after linguistic formula in Chinese of “Old + X(usually a last name)” as a casual way to refer to adult male friends). Once, the electricity went out in the neighbourhood while they went grocery shopping, and came back and reported to me that “all the Black people are walking around the streets like gorillas.” I sort of don’t know what to make of my neighbours. Their speech is racist but their actions are not, which is probably better than their speech being not racist and their actions being racist. I’ve decided that they aren’t racist, just very very politically incorrect.

When I just came to LA, I was involved as a witness in a police incident where a White young man who had some kind of paranoid psychological disorder (he looked like he was homeless) called the police on a Black commuter (he was pretty young and looked like a college student) in the subway station, which I wrote about here. What I first saw was the White man harassing the Black man, and I left to take a bus assuming they could handle it, but after the bus didn’t arrive I went down to the subway again, and by this time the Black man was handcuffed and sitting in a corner. This being LA and me being in Ethnic Studies, I stuck around to give testimony. Anyways, I’ve tended to think of myself as being not racist and politically correct at the same time, but recent events have made me wonder.

II. Is illegibity racism or just ignorance? Especially in Romance

I wasn’t going to write about interracial issues at all if not for recent events. One is that a few weeks ago, an African American classmate wanted to date me (more on this later). Over the weekend I went to get a haircut, and the first barber shop I stopped at refused to do it because they said they didn’t know how to cut hair like mine. Then, today a man started talking to me in lineup of the checkout in what I thought was an overly intimate way. “I love diversity,” he proclaimed, and I said I did too, hence I’m not living in Monterey Park (where post-1965 Chinese immigrants gather). I don’t remember what he said in between, but he tried to lean in close and speak in my ear, and touched my arm, and all sorts of things that a reserved Chinese Canadian like myself thought a breach of my personal space. He then proceeded to ask for my phone number (after “Would you like to communicate?”), which I didn’t want to give him. His excuse was pretty good though – I already said I was sort of new to the neighbourhood, and he offered a chance for me to learn about the neighbourhood. I actually DO want to communicate with him but I don’t want to “communicate” with him. In the end I partially caved and gave him my email, which I hope would make any communication between us of a strictly ethnographic nature. He asked me to wait for him while he was checking out his groceries after me, which I declined, and left.

(Oh, and in between him trying to pick me up, a middle-aged woman in line saw bok choy in my groceries and asked me how to cook them, so I was trying to have two intercultural conversations at once, trying to convince one correspondent that I was a cultural insider for Chinese cooking and trying to convince the other that I wasn’t interested in him, and trying to pay for my groceries and use the supermarket member’s card. It was a very good exercise in mental multitasking.)

When I first moved here, another Black man on the Subway showed me how to stand my bike so it wouldn’t roll around, and also proceeded to ask for my number. Men on the street would call me “Mama,” which I STILL don’t understand, either linguistically or otherwise. As I mentioned in my last post, I haven’t spent a great deal of time around Black people, and hence I don’t understand African American culture very well. I left China when I was 7 years old and went to Galway, Ireland for 2 years, and the whole city probably had only 1 Black person. I know that there were only about 3 Chinese families at that time. The only time I had extensive contact with Black people was for the first year I moved  to Canada, where I went to an inner city elementary school in Ottawa. But my parents quickly moved into the suburbs, which was pretty White. I went to high school in Vancouver in a school that was composed of 50% East Asians, 30% South Asians, and 19% White, and 1% Black or Latino, and I lived in a South Asian neighbourhood. In undergrad, I went to the University of Toronto but in the Scarborough campus,  which was also filled with East, Southeast and South Asians, and students with Middle Eastern backgrounds. More Black students, but still not many, and being an English major and hanging out with the Anime Club didn’t put me in touch with many Black students either. I can tell you how a Muslim man might wear his turban and beard differently from a Sikh man, but I don’t know the difference between various kinds of hiphop music. This lack of awareness of African American culture is exacerbated by my parents being Chinese “intelligentsia,” meaning oftentimes they subscribe to European high culture (classical music, ballet, oil painting, Victorian novels etc) as the ideal. My parents are divorced, and my mother only dates White men.

I’d like to think that my limited experience with Black people hasn’t made me racist, but just that African Americans people and I aren’t mutually legible; we just don’t overlap culturally or fall on each other’s radars. When the first barber shop I stopped by refused to cut my hair, I didn’t think it was discrimination and I wasn’t offended. For me it made sense that he wouldn’t cut my hair, and I thought it was hilarious. I did find another barber, though after I got home from the second barber I found, my housemate proclaimed “They cut your hair like a Black person!” – Which they did (hard to describe…sort of helmet-like and really short at the back, something Chinese barbers have been refusing to do), but weirdly enough the barber also cut my bangs really straight, probably as a last-ditch effort to Asianize my hair. We joked that it was a mixed-race haircut. Also, the first time I went out with my classmate, we ran into an African American man whose car ran out of gas and needed someone to help him get his car from the street into the parking lot. I thought that it would be impolite to stand by while they pushed, so I also helped. Interestingly, after the car was in the lot, the owner clasped my classmate’s hand and said, “Thanks, brother,” but didn’t acknowledge my presence at all. I wasn’t offended from being ignored, but just thought that the guy didn’t know how to thank an Asian girl in this kind of situation and defaulted to saying nothing.

And so I do not understand why African American men would find me attractive. If Western culture (including Black people living in the West) has an idea of Asian women’s attractiveness, I doubt my appearance and comportment are aligned with it. From what I understand, it’s mostly Lotus Blossom or Dragon Lady, in other words either a demure, pretty/cute, and childlike Asian girl or a exotic Asian femme fatale. On the other hand,  I usually have very short hair, and wear jeans and sneakers and leather jackets, and get mistaken for a man on a regular basis. I do this to upset stereotypes of Asian women, and also in defiance of a bunch of narrow-minded boys in high school who thought I was transsexual and wanted to beat me up for it. Basically, with this getup and my reserved attitude in front of people I don’t know well, I don’t see how any man would find me attractive, period. Maybe if they were slightly gay.

The classmate who wanted to go out with me explained that perhaps African American women tend to be more masculine, so me being more masculine than other Asian women actually makes me more legible for African American men. I suppose in a stereotypical sense, African American women tend to be tougher and more outspoken than Asian women are (I don’t think this true though), and if those are “masculine” qualities, I guess African American women are more masculine. However in terms of stereotype, I would think that African American women are more hypersexualized than Asian women. (Actually I never understood why there’s a stereotype of Asian women as hypersexualized. Maybe it’s my post-1965 Chinese  consciousness, but I always thought that if there’s a stereotype of Asian sexuality, Asians of both genders ought to be desexualized. Maybe it’s the Chinese Communist education thinking.) But anyway, what I’m still puzzled about is that while African American women can be seen as more masculine and I am legible in this framework, African American women are also seen as sexualized, where I am not legible at all. As I said, my dress and deportment get me mistaken for a man a lot. I am taller than the stereotype of Asian women, and this might be too much information, but I’m rather flat-chested, and even if I have wide hips compared to most Asian women, they’re evidently not wide enough to prevent people from thinking I’m a man. Basically, I don’t present myself as being sexualized in any way, so I can’t see how African American men would find me attractive just based on me being masculine. And the people who have hit on me are emphatically not gay either.

An interesting response from my classmate is that he has a different set of standards for the attractiveness of Black women and Asian women, but they also work across each other; he said something like a Black woman who is small and skinny and an Asian woman who is curvy would also register as interesting to him.  I think he’s in a good place in terms of interracial legibility, but I’m still confused about what’s been happening around me, and there are two possibilities that I can think of. Apart from my classmate, who’s very culturally aware and also very aware of Asia, other African American men who hit on me either see past my masculine deportment and still map stereotypes of Asian women onto me, or they just don’t think about any ethnic stereotypes and find me attractive anyway. Somehow I have difficulty believing the latter, because I’m just not very attractive; I’m small-featured and plain, and frankly for the past few years I’ve had terrible skin and look like a zombie sometimes. Do let me know if you think there are other possibilities besides the two.

III. Back to theoretical stuff and angsting about status of my soul

I mentioned that I didn’t think I was racist, just that I don’t understand. But I am beginning to wonder about this. A question: if the guy who tried to pick me up at the supermarket wasn’t Black, would I still be as offended? I think I would still be offended. After all, my discomfort with invading what I think of as my personal space and being pushy about “communication” is not a discomfort that he was Black, but it’s a set of behaviour that I don’t find appealing. There have been Black people I find attractive, as opposed to my mother, who, when I told her that someone likes me who is Black, sort of freaked out and then said something like “Maybe some Black people can be attractive too.”

But this is where it gets sticky with race/ethnicity/culture. It’s something I’ve been thinking about for a long time, ever since the post on commercials featuring multicultural consumers. I can analyse my attitude as: I am not racist as long as the person in question behaves a certain way. This seems to be fine, however what counts as “proper behaviour” is often prescribed by White people, and the argument that X racialized group is “uncivillized” has been just as destructive, if not more destructive, than arguments that X group looks different. Another issue is the level of intimacy. I have asked a friend about this, and her response is that if you can work or be friends with people of other ethnicities, but you don’t necessarily want to pursue a romantic relationship with them, this doesn’t count as racist because people naturally want to find a partner who is culturally similar.

I think cultural similarity is very very important for compatibility in the long run, but I also think that friends and co-workers are usually in contexts where there are certain social prescriptions against certain social behaviours, and hence cultural differences aren’t as readily apparent. And also, I do believe that certain ethnicities (along with gender and class etc) have certain cultural attributes (at this point in time, given cultural formation through history) that makes them behave a certain way, even if there is no inherent differences between races that are tied to their biology. For example, I just got a new housemate, who moved away after her old landlady refused to turn down her TV, causing my new housemate a lot of difficulties sleeping. Since she left without fulfilling the term of the lease, the landlady understandably was upset. However the landlady  yelled at her and harassed her constantly. I never met her but I once called her an “bitter old White woman” as a joke, and my housemate corrected me and said she was Black, and “If she was White, she wouldn’t have gotten into my face like that. She’d sue my pants off in court.” (My housemate is definitely not racist – she’s an activist on behalf of ethnic minorities and is doing her PhD on interethnic solidarity). Anyways, racism is always racism about behaviour, like the “uncivillized” argument, so if we discriminate based on behaviour and culture, to me that’s practically the same as discriminating based on race, just couching it in a slightly politically correct manner. It might be even worse, because then there is pressure to ethnic minorities with different cultural behaviours to change to be a yuppie or hipster or something like that.

In my post on multiculturalism in commercials, I said this was “culturist.” All races are fine now, but you all need to behave in a certain way. This is problematic, for example the argument in France that Muslim women should not wear head coverings because they have to conform to Western feminist notions of what it means to be “free.” I understand this culturist expectation is wrong, however in finding a romantic partner, I don’t think I can get over it. I am not someone who can date on attraction alone – I have to take into account compatibility with culture and values. And certain behaviours I just find unattractive, for example when men are too hypermasculine or crude, or when they try to touch me in a cashier line up. I don’t necessarily think that refinement is necessary (Maybe it is? childhood upbringing with classical music and oil painting and Victorian novels etc…), but a certain degree of restraint and respectability seems important. And I have a feeling that respectability, probably tied to upwards mobility, is more important to certain ethnicities than others, so that if I choose a romantic partner with respectability as a parameter I will be discriminating based on race/ethnicity by association.

Maybe I just have to resign myself to being “culturist.” But I think in a certain way I might also be racist. After studying psychology in undergrad and taking methods courses in how to get around people’s cognitive defences, and reading about the implicit association test (IAT) for racism (good explanation here), I have devised one about race and culture, which is the images at the top (Of course, if this was a real psych test, the images would have to be controlled for size, quality, facial expression, camera angle, colours, etc, perhaps with other ethnicities, and we’d also need to figure out whether to give all of them to one person or only give them 1 to rule against the possibility they’d catch on to what the test was measuring. All this nit-picking deception is the reason I ultimately didn’t go into psychology). My hypothesis is that the average response from Asians and White people would rate the Black businessman at a lower rating of respectability than the Asian one, and the Asian rapper as more respectable than the Black one. Unfortunately, I think that if I were given this test out of the blue, I would also give a similar response. What such test results imply is that people feel that the bar for respectability is higher for a Black person, that they need to work harder to get to the same rating. While this response shows that people do not believe that respectability is a biological fact but it can be changed, somehow Black people still start “lower” and it’s almost the same as saying they are somehow inherently less respectable than people of other ethnicities.

This kind of test is also applicable to attractiveness. My mother conceded that “Maybe some Black people can be attractive too,” but this doesn’t mean a lot. There isn’t a pan-racial and objective scale of attractiveness, but I have a feeling that if there was one, a White man at an attractiveness of 5 would register as attractive to my mother whereas a Black man would only register as attractive if his rating was 10. As for what I would answer to a survey like this, I have no idea. I think I still find other East Asians more attractive than any other race.

So, what to do about being a racist/culturist? I think increased exposure works for racism, because chances are the experiences one encounters will be much better than the negative stereotype one holds. I’ve noticed exposure working for me. When I first went to Toronto for undergrad, and also when I got to LA after spending 2 years in China (with a stopover in Vancouver), I was afraid that I was racist because I always seemed to be more alert if I saw Black people. But I think I was just visually not used to Black people, because this went away after a week or so. Similarly, when I first got back to Vancouver from China, looking at White people scared me (even though proportionally  there weren’t that many White people in Vancouver to begin with…). This also went away, but I think it took less time for me to readjust my visual schemas for White people than for Black people, perhaps because White people are everywhere in the media and many of my colleagues in China were White.

I’m not sure increased exposure works for culture or behaviours that one doesn’t like. Rationally I understand that certain behaviours do not reflect the morality of the person in question, but I still don’t want someone to get touchy-feely at the checkout. People behaving what I consider to be crudely makes me revolted, even if I understand that they are good people. For example, I find many of my peers use swear words a lot more than I do and do it quite casually. I know that it doesn’t mean they are bad people, but talking to someone who says the F word a lot still makes me uncomfortable.  In this case, increased exposure would just make me more revolted. Increased positive exposure to people of other races can cancel out negative stereotypes because new cognitive schemas replace the stereotypes and co-exist with racialized appearance, but you can’t get “good” behaviour to co-exist with “bad” behaviour and still have the former replace the latter. Something needs to happen to change cultural and behavioural expectations, and I have a feeling this can’t be changed very easily because it depends on how people are brought up. For example, Chinese men like to spit a lot in public, and my grandfather also did this until my mother talked him out of it. He’s a very careful and respectable otherwise, having worked as a middle school principal and a journalist and written vast treatise on the origins of Chinese medicine, but in a Chinese upbringing for his time, being very educated and proper didn’t conflict with spitting on sidewalks, whereas for me those things would be mutually exclusive.

Do let me know how to get over being a culturist.

___________________________________________

*There was a guy in high school who had some social dysfunction issues (not sure what he had, but he had difficulty completing his sentences and tended to stalk and frighten people), and then there was a guy in university who’s slightly antisocial, in that he had no understanding of social norms.

Asian Stereotypes in The Big Bang Theory and The Boondocks: The inability of television to multitask with subalterns

I focused my master’s degree thesis on writing about Asian American comics presenting Asian popular culture as a way of ameliorating the image of Asians and Asian Americans, and in the years since, I have started to hope that this is a trend that exist in popular culture more generally. After getting into both The Boondocks and The Big Bang Theory, I have started to notice that even if one cultural group that has been dumped on (African Americans, nerds) is being shown in a positive light, usually the show still needs another group to dump on, and interestingly enough this alternate group tends to be Asians (1). I’m particularly disappointed in The Boondocks – after starting my PhD in American Studies and Ethnicity and learning about studies on inter-ethnic solidarity in America, I have to admit that I don’t really see this happening in popular culture. Basically, whether it’s the Indian character Rajesh Koothrapali in The Big Bang Theory or representations of China and Chinese people in The Boondocks, they are rendered pathetic, evil, or both even as nerds and African Americans get some positive spotlight. (The Big Bang Theory first; if you like, jump to The Boondocks).

The Big Bang Theory

Raj apartment

Raj interrogated by FBI agent, and getting nervous.

Briefly, The Big Bang Theory is about four physics nerds at Caltech and their everyday lives, which involves a routine of work and nerdy hobbies interspersed with lusting after girls (most of whom they can’t get, though at the time of this posting, 3/4 have more or less stable relationships with women). As a nerd who likes games and comics and scifi (even if I don’t get the physics), I have been happy that the Big Bang Theory has sustained itself as a mainstream sitcom. I do find myself getting mixed reactions at the show as a sitcom though – should I be happy that nerds get some TV exposure as relatively more complex main characters, or should I be unhappy that they are the objects of ridicule? I understand, though, that this is a property of the sitcom – the ability to laugh at a figure of fear and loathing may lessen these feelings towards that figure, and so along with laughter the show is able to sneak in nuances that the audience might not be ready to receive otherwise (a good book on this is Darrell Hamamoto’s Nervous Laughter). So, while I feel ambivalent about nerds being featured on a sitcom, I understand that as a sitcom it might need ambivalence to further its point.

However, I believe that a sitcom about nerds doesn’t need to laugh at other cultures to further its point.  First of all, the show dumps a lot on North Koreans, from Leonard’s ex-girlfriend Joyce Kim, who turned out to be a North Korean spy (S3E22), to Dennis Kim, the North Korean prodigy who Sheldon is nervous about in Season 1. It is interesting that they are both named “Kim.” Kim is a common last name in Korean, however purposefully naming two unrelated characters Kim in a work of fiction either betrays an absolute disregard in telling Asians apart, or an attempt to convey their relationship to the current North Korean regime, or both.  Also, since the setting is Caltech (greater Los Angeles area), if there are Koreans on a show about nerds, the most plausible population to include would be the vast Korean American population in LA, however the show doesn’t mention these Korean Americans at all and resorts to North Korean nemeses.

But I want to focus on Rajesh Koothrapali. I can accept that as a recent arrival to the US, Rajesh has difficulties mastering North American popular culture (this is one reason I want to study popular culture academically, because his problem is also my mine, and I think it has real consequences). His faux-pas, such in the S06E11 Christmas episode where he inadvertently speaks sexual innuendos during a game of Dungeons and Dragons, is plausible and I can accept laughing at that as a part of a sitcom. However, there are other aspects of his representation that I find extraneous to the main idea of the show and also troubling / offensive. First, the consistent association of Rajesh with Indian tradition. In his apartment (helpful images and descriptions here): he has a tapestry on his bedroom door, and the cushions with “Indian accents.” As a Chinese person, I can’t speak for Indians, but a young Chinese physics nerd in Rajesh’s situation would most likely not have brush calligraphy or something hanging on his bedroom wall. Even in China this hypothetical young Chinese man would not have calligraphy hanging on his wall.  There’s definitely nothing wrong with tradition or the decorative aesthetics of Asian traditional cultures, but in mainstream media Asians have a tendency to be associated culturally with their traditions only, as if Asians consisted of a rich cultural past but no present and no future. And if they have a present and a future, it’s most likely going to be a Western one. Bollywood and popular culture of South Asia is mentioned but this is often to laugh at it, for example when Howard does an imitation of Rajesh doing drunken Bollywood dancing after getting a the magazine “Bombay Badonkadonks” (video here). The made-up magazine is meant to sound silly and does not reference any real magazine, and we don’t see Rajesh dancing, only Howard doing an imitation of him with the goal of ridiculing him.

Next is the question of Rajesh’s sexuality.  Before Howard married Bernadette, there were numerous jokes that Howard and Rajesh were like a married couple, with Rajesh often in the role of a woman in the relationship (helpful video here with some of the key moments). For example, S3E06, where Rajesh loses his Patang fighter kite due to Howard chasing after a girl during a competition, Howard tries to make up for it by buying Rajesh a new kite, to which Rajesh says “Buying me something pretty isn’t going to make our problem go away.” In this scene, Howard is clearly playing the stereotypical male part who tries to placate his romantic interest with gifts, whereas Rajesh is playing the stereotypical female part who insists on emotional understanding. I am not arguing for a throwback idea of gender roles where men have to be “manly,” whatever that means. However, there is a tendency to believe that Asian men are less masculine than men of other ethnicities, and the depiction of Rajesh contributes to this tendency. In addition, while it can be argued his feminization comes from the nerd stereotype and not the Asian stereotype, as it progresses to Season 6, Rajesh is the only person who doesn’t have a stable romantic relationship (correction: As of Feb 2013, it seems he has a shot with Lucy). In studies of ethnicity, we have talked about “intersectionality” a lot. This is when categories of identity, for example ethnicity, class, and gender, while each having an effect on how a person is treated in society, can have greater / different consequences when compounded together. A classic example is that in a workplace setting, being Black or being a woman means less chances at job promotion, so being a Black woman means even less of a chance at promotion (I think Kimberlee Crenshaw wrote this? But I can’t find it anywhere). Rajesh seems to be an example of how being Asian and being a nerd compounded on each other makes him even more feminized than the rest of the main characters. As he says when “creating a scene” at the end of S5E19, even if he gets a girlfriend, he will be known as the guy who did so after Sheldon.

Finally, somewhat related to the first, are digs at India and the fact that Rajesh is not a “real American.” This is the category that I find the most offensive. In S4E9, Howard’s comment about an Indian version of the board game Monopoly goes thus: “Indian Monopoly’s just like regular, except the money’s in Rupees, instead of hotels you build call centers, and when you pick a chance card, you might die of dysentery.” As if building call centres is India’s own economic initiative, rather than due to Western companies outsourcing and seeking cheap labour. And after all the SARS and H1N1 problems, the last thing audience need to think about Asia is that it’s the origin if the world’s epidemics. Although Howard ends with “FYI, that was racist,” this doesn’t really ameliorate what he said before. The humour is with the insult towards India, and the rational afterword doesn’t cancel the humour. However, the most troubling episode (S4E7)is when the FBI investigates Howard’s friends to find out of Howard is fit to join the Defense Department. Rajesh feels so nervous about his legal status in America that he tries all kinds of antics to prove that he is American (video here), such as singing  “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee.” He doesn’t get the whole song, and the humour in this scene is that first he is not a real American and second he fails at pretending to be one. While his claim that part of his reason for loving America is the “rampant obesity” can be a critique of America,  a foreigner in the US being afraid of the consequences of being foreign should not be a laughingstock. This is the concern of survival for many people in the US, whether they are here legally or not. I have family who was deported from the US based on insignificant reasons (and believe me, my family falls squarely under the model minority stereotype; they won’t even report a crime, much less commit one), and I myself have been interrogated for hours upon crossing the border. This part of the episode made me feel slightly ill. Gene Yang, creator of the award-winning graphic novel American Born Chinese, said in an interview that the stereotypical character of Chin-kee isn’t supposed to an outright figure of humour: “He’s meant to come off the page and slap you in the face. If you’re laughing at him, I want you to do so with a knot in your stomach and a dry throat.” In American Born Chinese, this works; Chin-kee is represented in such an overboard manner that he is definitely a satirical figure meant to mock the ridiculousness of the stereotypes, especially since the end of the graphic novel reveals that he is a disguise. However, Rajesh is realistic enough that he may not be read as a satirical figure, and the laughter in the background of  this episode invites an outright laughter at his distress. As a nerd, I really enjoy watching The Big Bang Theory, but as an Asian nerd, sometimes I’m not exactly on board.

The Boondocks

I have been thinking about the figure of Rajesh for a while now, but what made me finally put finger to keyboard on Asian stereotypes is an episode of The Boondocks. Briefly, The Boondocks is a cartoon, based on a comic strip series, which explore the social issues of race through a Black family, the Freemans, living in a White suburb. The tone of the show is aligned with its central character, Huey Freeman, who is a mature, intellectually complex and politically conscious 12-year old, who must deal with Grandad’s lack of concern towards socio-political issues, his younger brother Riley’s blind adoration of all African American popular culture, the ignorance of their White neighbours (and larger society as a whole), and what he sees as an unmotivated and misled generation of African Americans. I started watching this series because my formative teenage years were spent in Vancouver, which is inundated by Chinese people, and I feel that I need to understand the popular cultures of other ethnicities. Not really having a good in-road to African American pop culture (I confess that I don’t like the sound of rap and hiphop, or any popular music, for that matter – my family grew up with Tchaikovsky and Debussy and the like. I’m not judging popular music to be “base” and classical European music to be an epitome of culture; as a student of pop culture, I actually think the reverse. But due to my upbringing I don’t find pleasure in popular music and I don’t understand its aesthetics), I decided that a cartoon is probably the best place to start, especially since the creator, Aaron McGruder, has sometimes described it as an anime. So far I have enjoyed it, since not many cartoons (or any fictional series, for that matter), tries to handle social commentary about ethnicity.

Some of the ambivalence I feel about The Big Bang Theory I also feel about The Boondocks, though I didn’t expect the cartoon to be so critical of African American culture. I cannot judge whether the criticisms are true, for example the attacks on BET for purposefully trying to make African Americans stupid, but if the audience is not African American, the show might perpetuate stereotypes of African Americans as stupid. But anyway, I’m not going to discuss this matter since it’s not something I know much about. I want to discuss how the series represents Asians, with a focus on S3E04, “The Red Ball.” I had hoped that being influenced formally by anime, the series would exhibit thematically a confluence of concerns of people of colour, and by and large, I was disappointed. Thematically, the series cites Asia mostly in terms of martial arts, with the character of Bushido Brown as an epitome of cultural fusion in this regard, as evidenced by his name. I could argue that The Boondocks stereotypes Asians by reducing them to martial arts figures, but compared to what happens in “The Red Ball,” the “Asia-martial arts” association in The Boondocks is less significant.

Boondocks 2.0stinkmeaner

Stinkmeaner looking up at Satan (presumably)

The first episode where alarm bells came on was the Season 2 episode “Stinkmeaner Strikes Back.” A neighbourhood terror, Colonel Stinkmeaner, had been accidentally killed by Granddad in Season 1, and in this episode, he trains in Hell and comes back to take revenge on Granddad. There is a sequence showing Stinkmeaner training in Hell. Given that the series focuses on martial arts a lot and has beautiful fight sequences, I can accept that Stinkmeaner training in Hell would involve martial arts. However, what I don’t understand is why Hell has Chinese architecture, or why Satan (I’m assuming it’s Satan) is wearing traditional Chinese clothing. Stinkmeaner can be said to have no racial/ethnic politics –  that is, he’s not like Uncle Ruckus, who has internalized White supremacy and hates everything Black, but rather Stinkmeaner is mean towards everyone – so arguably, his evil has no racial implications. But I read martial arts in The Boondocks as providing a kind of agency, a set of skills that Huey, and to a certain extent Riley, can use to metaphorically fight the system.  For a body of skills that for Huey represents agency and mastery is made evil by Stinkmeaner and then associated with being Chinese is problematic and does have racial consequences.  After all, it’s not made clear what cultural influences Huey’s martial arts draws from, whereas Stinkmeaner’s martial arts is directly tied to both Satan and China in a visual move where Hell and Chinese culture are bizarrely conflated.

Anyways, more disturbing is the Season 3 episode, “The Red Ball.” The premise is that Ed Wuncler, the corporate magnate who has the town under his thumb, is getting ready for an annual kickball tournament with the team sponsored by his rival, the Chinese businessman Mr. Long Do (the “Wushung /Woodcrest Junior/Senior Harmonious Kickball Tournament), and to win, he forces Huey to join as the star player, despite Huey’s reservations. Like the move in The Big Bang Theory, where it is North Koreans represented in the show instead of Korean Americans,  “The Red Ball” features people who are nationally and ethnically Chinese while we don’t see any Chinese Americans in the show at all. So, first of all, Asians are again rendered as perpetual foreigners.

Arguably, this show targets Ed Wuncler and his exploitative capitalism. His betting all his banks and everyone’s accounts and the Freemans’ house on the tournament is a critique of his shady business practices, but right after he admits this, he says “You think I’m bad, just wait till the Chinese take away all the freedoms you enjoy –  freedom to complain, freedom to have as many offspring and assault rifles as you like, the freedom to surf the Internet for pornography of your choice.” Okay, the pornography thing is a critique of “freedom” conceived in the West as being really not as big of a deal as we’d like to think, but what this statement boils down to is that no matter how crappy the American system is, it’s a lot better than the Chinese one, so be grateful. Despite the premise being the 12-year old Huey militating against both members of his own community and the White majority for structural changes, the message this episode is totally antithetical to the spirit of the show.

Boondocks 3.03.14

This episode also precludes any sympathy for Chinese people. Huey, after seeing the Chinese team play, agrees to play, even if he’s not playing to defeat them for Wuncler. Mr. Long Do’s granddaughter Ming, who is the team’s captain, then feeds Huey a sob story about how she was plucked from a young age to train in kickball for the Chinese state, and that if she lost she would be sent to a prison camp for athletes who have failed their country. At this point the episode goes into a series of montages: a woman forced to perform on the balance beam while rabid wolves circle beneath her if she falls off, a man doing a foul shot with prison guards pointing guns at his head, and a man jumping hurdles where the hurdles are replaced by rows of spikes. Ming tells Huey that she also longs to walk away from the game, however she is not so lucky to have that choice, because she doesn’t live in America. Another shot for how we should be grateful for America. And later we learn that this story is entirely untrue, that she made it up purposefully to make Huey underperform. Despite Ming’s story of the prison camp being a lie, the visuals of this sequence still reinforces the idea that China has cruel and unusual forms of punishment , especially since China’s issues with human rights is circulating in the popular sentiment. Also, while reinforcing this, the episode also suggests that even if the average Chinese person suffers from the Chinese system, they are not to be given any sympathy, because their complaints are a part of a duplicitous strategy to undermine American ascendency.

Boondocks 3.03.18

Jazmine (left) and Sarah (right). Sorry captions are mutated by a language setting on my computer.

Most disturbing of all is the finale of the game, where the two teams are tied, and the Woodcrest side of the crowd is rooting for their team. This would just be a “rooting for our team” spirit with no nationalist or racial undertones, except the song that everyone is singing is “America the Beautiful.” We see Tom Dubois’s family singing in the foreground, and more spectators in the background, including ostensibly an African American, and of course the kickball team consists of African Americans like Tom himself and Grandad. Later there is also a scene of American flags waving among the spectators. Never mind that Tom’s wife Sarah is an advocate on behalf of civil rights; never mind that his mixed race daughter Jazmine often feels that he doesn’t fit in; never mind that Huey has spent his life trying to change racial inequalities in American society; when it’s up against the Chinese, Americans of all other ethnicities and backgrounds are a part of America the beautiful. Right after the song ends, Huey pitches Ming in a Dragonball-esque confrontation, suggesting that Huey is the embodiment of all the patriotic American sentiments displayed earlier by the audience.  I’m frankly disappointed in Huey for tagging Ming with the ball even after her ankle and his arm are broken, or disappointed with the episode’s writers for shoehorning Huey into this role. It would be more in Huey’s character, and the spirit of the show, for him to at least realise in the last moment that he’s playing into Wuncler’s schemes. This episode had potential for examining how two children of colour, Ming and Huey, become tools in petty games of transnational capital, but instead it boils down to a message of forgetting American racial inequalties to defeat a common Chinese enemy. I’m not even going to count all the times variants of the phrase “yellow motherfuckers” popped up.

The theoretical underpinnings of this post largely came from a book we read as a part of an Asian American Studies directed reading course last term, which is Jasbir Puar’s Terrorist Assemblages: Homonationalism in Queer Times. In this book, her argument is that the increasing liberal attitude in America towards queerness and homosexuality is due to a need to bring together American citizens after 9/11 to face the new villain, which is the terrorist. The argument tuned me to the fact that just because one group who has been discriminated against is now accepted, it doesn’t necessarily mean that all the problems with discrimination are fixed, because frequently it just means they’re not as much of a threat relative to some new group. Of course, this dynamics doesn’t apply only to different sets of groups, like queer Americans and Middle Eastern terrorists, but also work within one large set. Even as Asian Americans are ostensibly the model minority and bringing capital to America, I think The Big Bang Theory and The Boondocks show a latent distrust and fear towards Asians.

Sorry if the second half of this post made no sense. I wrote it right after I drank a concoction of gin and chocolate milk, which for some reason seemed like a good idea at the time. Anyways, as Riley would say, haters gonna hate, and I realize that I might be sounding like a hysterical academic in this post, so I want to end on a positive note. The Big Bang Theory and The Boondocks are really quite good shows otherwise. Especially The Boondocks – the episode on Obama’s election was a lot more nuanced than I thought it would be, as I was expecting a cartoon about African Americans to be unreservedly jubilant about Obama. And also well done is the “The Booty Warrior” episode where Tom finally gets some character development, and where Huey gives a graduate-level definition of the prison-industrial complex (I cheered out loud when I was watching that part). I’m really looking forward to the next season. As for The Big Bang Theory, the best moments that ameliorate some of racism that Raj faces is when he does an American accent. It’s hard to say why those moments are funny, but they’re absolutely hilarious. I think at a basic level, it’s suggesting that Raj’s Indian accent isn’t a shortcoming that he wants to overcome, like a stereotypical English learner would, but rather, his Indian accent is something he consciously chooses against sounding like an American. I’m looking forward to the book by Shilpa Davé, Indian Accents: Brown Voice and Racial Performance in American TV and Film, and I’m hoping Raj is in there somewhere. Also, I noticed on Wikipedia that originally the role was supposed to be Indian American until Kunal Nayyar was cast, and because he was  “so Indian” the character also became as is. Not sure how we can say how much of Raj is the writers and now much is Nayyar’s being “so Indian,” but  that’s something to look into. Here’s to hoping that Raj’s relationship with Lucy works out.

(1)

Also, when I taught comparative film as an English course in China, I was really annoyed that in The Departed, which is a remake of the Hong Kong film Infernal Affairs, Chinese terrorists replaced Thai drug dealers as villains. Not that I wanted Thais to remain drug dealers –  that’s a stereotype Cantonese media needs to deal with. But in a remake of a Chinese film, it seems making Chinese people villains is a poor move.

Strategy vs. Sportsmanship

Not a week into the Olympics and we hit a scandal. Women’s badminton doubles from China, Korea and Indonesia were disqualified for losing on purpose. Normally I don’t really post about sports, since it’s not something I’m too invested in, but I am worried that this will advance/confirm the idea of “Asians are cheaters” (another thing being  Chinese swimmer Ye Shiwen being suspected of doping), or that “those communists are privileging the group over the individual again.”

Wang and Yu played to lose so that they could avoid playing another Chinese team, and were disqualified for being “unsportsmanlike.” I argue that the idea of what being “a sportsman” constitutes is a little problematic because it’s based on the idea of individual effort leading to individual success*, and actually that’s at odds with the structure of the Olympics. The Olympics is not entirely about individual achievement. Athletes are representing their country, and the medal count each day is a list of countries and their medals, not a list of people who have won medals. In addition, the nomenclature of these athlete-representatives is “Team [country name],” meaning that each athlete represents a team, which in turn represents their country. Allowing one team of a country to lose to give another team of the same country a chance to win is based on a consideration of how best to make the country pull forward, which seems to be in line with what the Olympics are implicitly emphasizing. Also, success aside, while doing one’s best is important, I don’t think this principle trumps the principle of self-sacrifice and putting others before yourself.

The pressure to punish someone was heavy, and I the motives for punishing someone ought to be examined. First of all, the audience response from thousands of spectators makes inaction impossible. However, I feel like the majority of the audience has at least an inkling of “I object to this because I’m not getting my money’s worth” in addition to the more noble “I object to this because it’s not sportsmanlike,” as evidenced by articles saying that there will be no refunds. The punishments to the athletes, in this case, caves to a kind of consumer logic. Frankly I think this proves that the Olympics are totally already unsportsmanlike – each athlete has trained extremely hard and endured hardships, yes, but the Olympics themselves have become first and foremost an entertainment spectacle. If what I just said was false, then the Paralympics ought to draw more supporters, yet for most people the Olympics take precedence because it’s just more exciting to watch. Frankly, I think some of the spectators who were angry ought to disqualify themselves as fans. Also, the athletes were the ones performing and the ones who were visible, not the referees or the organizers who set up the round robin system, and I think that’s partially why they ended up being targeted the hardest in the media, essentially being placed on the sacrificial altar because it’s harder to punish anyone else.

I actually hope this controversy doesn’t die down soon. At the basics, the competition system needs to be reconsidered, and more broadly, I think the Olympic organizers, spectators, referees, athletes and governing bodies all reconsider what the Olympics are really about, and if it’s to include the world, to include different cultural definitions of winning and success.

 

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* not to mention, individual effort based on individual success, from a starting point presumed to be equal.  Except there’s a long road before the starting line and it’s hard to see if that’s equal or not. Apparently part of the 70-minute waiting time Shin Lam, the South Korean athlete fencing in epee, had to endure as the judges debated their decision was because her referee didn’t have enough money on hand to submit an appeal.

One Man’s Battle: The Unappreciated Depth of Feng Xiaogang’s Assembly

For a literature course at the Chinese University I’m crrently teaching at, I decided to make the course about Chinese and American blockbuster movies instead. For the genre of War dramas, I put Saving Private Ryan for the American film and Feng Xiaogang’s Assembly (集结号, lit. “assembly signal”) for the Chinese one. While reading up on Assembly, I got the impression that most Western reviewers didn’t really get the point of the film, and especially when they compare it to Saving Private Ryan, they feel that Assembly is lacking. Most reviews seem to laud the technical aspect of the film and praise the heroism of its characters, but are uncomfortable with what they believe is yet another propaganda film saying how wonderful it would be to sacrifice yourself for the Communist government. Actually, I think the message of the film is exactly the opposite, and that the film techniques from Saving Private Ryan is used in a more compelling way.

Assembly was released in 2007 and apparently it was very popular in China, earning a hundred and eighty million RMB after running in the theatres for a few months (Baidu). Feng Xiaogang is also a very established filmmaker, though usually his focus has been dramas involving people in everyday life, like Cell Phone and If You Are the One, and most recently noted on an international scale, Aftershock. There are some things about Feng’s filmmaking that I personally aren’t used to, like the pacing [1] – for example, it’s not a Western storytelling pattern to have a climactic battle 1/3 of the way through the movie and spend the rest of the movie on character digging up a coal mine, but this is a cultural difference that I can’t count against him. Anyway, the story of Assembly is that Gu Zidi, an illiterate commander of a People’s Liberation Army Company, decides to fight to the last man during a battle against the Kuomingtang’s superior forces at an old abandoned mining site; he is the sole survivor, and spends the rest of his life trying to find a place for himself in a post-war China and prove that his company did in fact fight to the last man and didn’t desert or defect. The story pivots on the call to assembly, from the main forces behind them, that would tell his company to retreat, which his superior commander tells him to listen for (they had no radios for communication, by the way – the PLA was rather poor). Due to a blast from an enemy tank close to Gu, he couldn’t hear anything for a while, and while some of his soldiers say they heard the call to assembly, others say they didn’t. Since he is the commander, the decision rests with him, and he decides to stay.

One thing I agree with most reviewers on is that there is displays of heroism and personal growth during war represented in Assembly. Since I had it compared to Saving Private Ryan, I showed students the way Upham in SPR was too afraid to intervene in the knife fight between Mellish and a Nazi soldier, leading to Mellish’s death, and then at the end where Upham shoots “Steamboat Willie” at point blank range for reuniting with his fellow Nazi soldiers and helping to get Captain Miller killed.

Wang Jincun emerging from the trenches to shoot at a tank

Similarly, in Assembly, Gu Zidi picks up a timid man called Wang Jincun as his political commissar (the man in charge of administration and ideology in a PLA company), who at first couldn’t even look at a dead body (33:20), but in the end saw so many of his comrades die that he risks his life shooting at a tank (50:30) and agrees to blow himself up along with the mine (1:53:15).  So, in terms of identifying Assembly as a war movie that glorifies heroism and sacrifice, I don’t disagree.

What Western reviews of the film concentrate on is limited to just this heroism, and refer to it as conventionally following better war films or criticising it as being part of Communist propaganda. Perry Lam’s review in Muse apparently says that the filmmakers put “bad faith and naiveté” in “the value of unquestioning obedience to authority and sacrifice as the highest manifestation of patriotism” (can’t get at original article, only Wikipedia entry for this source). The best praise other reviews seem to offer is along the lines of, China has finally decided to show each individual small human being instead of the power of the masses, like Kozo’s review on LoveHKfilm.com, saying that the human element is the focus, but “there’s nothing complex or challenging here.” The review on Twitch was at best an apologist for the film, saying “Every nation has its war stories, and the way these stories are told are as varied as the nations from which they originate. Thus, to criticize Assembly for not addressing specific political issues is to hold the film to a standard to which few films are held.”

I believe that Assembly does exactly what the Twitch review says it doesn’t, which is that it does address political issues. While it does glorify heroism and sacrifice, if that was its only focus it should have ended after an hour. As I said in comments on the pacing of Assembly, the climactic battle starts 30 minutes into the film and then ends halfway through, and the rest is about Gu trying to prove his company’s heroism. After the battle, the audience is given a title card saying that all of the 9th company died except for Gu; then the next scene is Gu in an infirmary for POWs, wearing clothes belonging to KMT soldiers that he stole, and having the infirmary administration threatening to kick him out because they can’t verify his identity. It turns out later that no one can confirm his company’s existence because shortly after the battle at the mine, massive personnel changes took place, and no one can prove how his company died because their bodies were never found. Their families received less compensation for being MIA (vs. KIA), and are suspected to have deserted. He rejoins the army and is sent to North Korea. There he saves the life of his commanding officer, Zhao Erdou, who in return helps him track down his company; he also runs into Wang Jincun’s widow, who heard that Wang was executed by his superiors, and joins him to clear his name.

The second half of the movie is important because it’s not about heroism and sacrifice on the battlefield, but persistence and resolve in dealing with inconsistency, insincerity and bureaucracy on the part of the leadership.

Looking at this as a still picture now, the chair actually looks like it’s going to go into Mao’s face.

The first kick in the teeth is in the infirmary, when an officer tells him that he’s met many men about Gu’s age who pretend to be soldiers so that they could get cheat the military for benefits (1:02:30). Then, when Zhao finally arranges a meeting with the party officials (1:30:40), they return to questioning Gu’s identity, accusing him of possibly being captured by the KMT before the PLA found him and hence possibly a traitor, when Gu has explained that he took a dead KMT soldier’s clothing because he was cold. The meeting ends with Gu throwing a chair at the Party official(!)What was worst started off as good news. The Party finally finds traces of the 9th company, the bugler who was supposed to be the one who blue the assembly call, now working as a groundskeeper in a memorial cemetery. He tells Gu the truth – the call to assembly was never sounded, because their overall commander decided to let Gu’s company sacrifice themselves while they retreated. So the situation was two disasters multiplied; Gu and the good nature of his company was taken advantage of on the battlefield without him knowing, and then the Party refused to acknowledge their sacrifice. In the end, Gu returns to the mine, which is completely covered, and takes it upon himself to dig up his company’s bodies. An official tells him to write letters to his superiors (1:40:55), but he says “I’ve already written nine.”

Full sentence: “Their parents gave them all names…how did they become nameless men?”

Perhaps the scene that best shows the predicament of those who sacrificed themselves is a scene of a makeshift gravesite of nameless soldiers, each with a piece of wood above their graves marked “nameless hero” (1:21:00). Alone, it speaks to the horrors of war, where soldiers die and cannot be identified and of course there are such sites in any war-torn country. But as a film, this scene can be compared to the neat rows of the Normandy gravesite shown in Saving Private Ryan, where Ryan, as an old man, can still identify the gravestone of Captain Miller. What comes from this comparison is not just that the soldiers in Assembly have not been identified, but in context of what has happened to Gu, perhaps the country didn’t care enough to identify them. After all, the whole basis of Saving Private Ryan is…saving Private Ryan, which was an edict issued by the Secretary of State. In Assembly the equivalent organization took decades just to ascertain that Gu’s company were indeed not deserters. Maybe it’s because I’m Chinese and not American, but when I watched Saving Private Ryan, I did admire the soldiers and felt very upset on their behalf, but I not to the extent about what was happening to Gu Zidi. Also, the film makes it clear that Gu is not alone. When Gu returns to the site of the battle after returning from North Korea, the PLA is handing out compensation to the local families who had lost soldiers in the battle (1:14:50). In a seemingly arbitrary fashion, the PLA officer lists one man as KIA and gives his family 700 jin (weight measurement, about 500g) of rice, but then lists several men as MIA and only gives their families 200, despite protests from the crowd. To reinforce this point, a soldier tells Gu over a meal how unfair it is that two soldiers who died with his brother were identified as KIA but his brother wasn’t. For me, this makes the film compelling, because it shows the kind of arbitrary decisions that the average Chinese citizen has to put up with on a daily basis. This I think is the point of the movie, and the first half of the film was just to establish the sacrifice of Gu and his company, so that the betrayal of the Party is that much worse in the second half.

Another criticism from Western reviews, which is mostly Lam’s Muse review about the technical expertise being sophisticated while the ideology was hamfisted, I also take issue with. A lot of people compare Assembly to Saving Private Ryan, and I can see why; SPR shows many sequences filmed in a very in-situ manner, such as making the camera shake as it follows Captain Miller up the beach in Normandy, or cutting off the sound when he is witnessing the beach landing massacre, and at the end again when a tank fires at him beside the bridge he is defending. SPR was revolutionary because it is about “one man,” and not necessarily Ryan; it is about the personal, subjective experiences of soldiers on the battlefield, and taking this humble position paradoxically but successfully makes it more heroic than if it was trying to tout abstract patriotic truths. The cinematography and the sound editing reflect this; the camera does not try to establish what is “true” in war, but instead it of often takes the point of view of a soldier, and implies that this limited perspective is all we can know about what happened. This is what you should have seen if you followed Captain Miller; this is what Captain Miller would have actually heard after the tank fired. The objective truth of the moment is that there is sound in the world, but Miller’s subjective truth is that he can’t hear anything. Thus, the film is unified in its message and execution, and therefore it is successful.

The audience can see similar techniques in Assembly, especially when a shell renders Gu temporarily deaf, and the audience cannot hear anything either, aligning them with Gu’s experiences. While these techniques are also present in Assembly, they are far from derivative because they carry a strong political message that is extremely relevant to Chinese society and politics. In SPR, the subjectivity of the film techniques establishes a general idea that individuals cannot pin down something as big and complex as war, much less pin any truth on war (eg. the justice of sending men to die to rescue one man is questioned but never conclusively answered). In Assembly, the idea is a lot more specific. The one-party system in China has essentially asserted for many years the idea that what the Party dictates is the absolute truth, and of course this is an extremely arrogant assertion. The story of Assembly already shows one man struggling against the Party, and his complaint is essentially that his personal knowledge of his company’s sacrifice doesn’t fit in with the party’s official truth. In this way, all the film techniques on the side of subjectivity in this film implicitly supports Gu over the Party. At the end of the film, Zhao manages to locate the commissar of the main forces and the Party acknowledges that the 9th company died as heroes, however what is interesting is that Gu, who has spend months digging by himself in the mine by now, no longer seems to have public approval as his goal. When he hears the news, his response is, “My brothers, why can’t I find you? Come out for a breath of air” (1:50:40).

The film ends with the bodies being discovered years later during a reservoir construction, and there is a ceremony honouring the 9th company. At the end of the ceremony, the bugler, who is also present, is asked to sound the bugle call. The impression I personally get from the ending is not that the Party is wonderful in doing justice to Gu Zidi and his soldiers, but almost a “too little, too late” kind of feeling. If the assembly call had been actually blown during the battle, i.e. if the 9th company hadn’t been treated like insignificant sacrifices, , then Gu’s life would have been significantly better. A quotation taken from Feng on Baidu says that “This film is not meant to explore themes like the value and meaning of sacrifice and so forth, but personally, it’s a story about a wronged hero who has to endure an eternity of being misunderstood” [2, link]. Also from the Baidu website is a summary of how critics in China have reviewed the film, and one prevailing idea is that “this is a movie for anyone who feels they have been treated unfairly” (link to section). Given my last 5 posts about the state of China, this is practically the whole population. Here is a page on a Baidu page (link)sort of like Yahoo! Answers, and the question was “What do you think about the film Assembly? / We need to respect history…” and the answer with 18 more approvals is “I’ve watched Assembly, and the Party’s unreliable” (the two phrases actually rhymes in Chinese, making the remark humorous in a flippant sort of way). The response to this comment is “I see this comrade has got the point, thanks everyone.” I think the lack of faith in the Communist Party is one reason this film is popular in China. Contrary to Western reviews, it’s not because this film has a safe and happy message, but that it is borderline radical and speaks to buried radical feelings that Chinese citizens have. I especially wanted to get his posted on June 4, which helps reinforce the point of the film. After all, on this day, university students who wanted to make China better died. Even worse than Gu Zidi, the Party not only refused to acknowledge their sacrifice, and then them and their families as criminals, but was the ones who issued the order to kill them in the first place.

Lastly, I hope western reviewers stop looking at Chinese media in a unilateral way and label everything as propaganda. This is unfair to the filmmakers who are in fact risking their careers and trying to get their message across at all, and also unfair to the citizens, who are clearly not cultural dupes.

Notes:

[1]one thing I noticed from watching Chinese movies is that Chinese cinema and drama aren’t affected by Aristotle’s three Unities (action, time, and place) as Western drama and cinema are. I can’t say this is a failing – it’s just a cultural difference that I’m not used to. Western audiences expect movies and stories that follow Freytag’s Pyramid with tight sequence and a climax 4/5 of the way through, but that’s just one storytelling mode.
Time-wise, Chinese movies sometimes talk about a series of events happening over a long time, to the point where the audience feels like they’re watching 20-minute episodes in a miniseries. Action-wise, they also sometimes bring in seemingly pointless characters that seem to do nothing to advance the main plot (this is especially true if you’re watching an adaptation of one of the 4 Chinese classics, like Three Kingdoms or The Water Margin. I couldn’t stand watching The Water Margin especially, because there would be 3 episodes on one character in the beginning, and just when I thought he was the main character, there were 20 episodes about other characters, and then by episode 23 we went back to the first character and I’d already forgotten who he was, and he was one of the main characters after all). Assembly has this trait – Wang’s widow seems to serve no function, and she gets married with Zhao Erdou after no character development on their part. Though I suppose thematically she’s another person wronged by the government, indirectly.

[2] 这部影片并非为了探讨牺牲的价值和意义这种形而上的主题,在自己的心目中,这就是一个在漫长的岁月中不被人理解的“英雄受了委屈的故事”