Posts tagged as:

ability to be oblivious

Apparently many of my friends from my “real life” LOVE The Help. Love it. They are telling people on Facebook to “GO SEE THE HELP. RUN. NOT WALK!” including a dear dear friend who studied and wrote about Apartheid in South Africa. As I ponder how much I should share my perspectives with her at the risk of hurting her feelings and alienating her, I re-read my post from January 20. 2010, and nope, my view has not changed. Since the movie adaptation is receiving rave reviews all over and I have not seen my Anglo-Saxon lady friends so enthusiastic about a movie with an African American lead since The Blind Side (yes please argue why the African American characters are at most CO-lead, and you’ll be right in my book), I feel compelled to share this post from almost 2 years ago again.

Or, actually, skip this post entirely and go read My Brown Baby‘s post “I Was the Help —- and My Experience Taught to Dream Big“. If you have been reading my blog and liking what you have been reading, I have a feeling that you are going to appreciate very very much what Denene Millner, the autohor, has to say about the book, the movie and the reception of it. Peace out.


REPOSTED from January 20, 2010

I probably don’t need to publish this post on my blog. It is not appealing. It is not good writing. It will not make you laugh out loud. It is not even a proper rant. Besides, it is friggin’ long – I am amazed at how much I tapped out on my iPhod, and tedious. I am not even making any coherent argument, not to mention grammatical errors! Run-on sentences! totally exposing myself as a feeble-minded person. Even the title spells “MEH”.

That being said, I feel this pathological need to be on the record, I guess. Since I have been treating this blog as my diary, I want everything that comes out of my head to be on here. So, sorry about this… mental puke…

I brought the book, The Help, by Kathryn Stockett with me on my flight back home last December. I have had the whole flight between IAD and Narita to ponder on this book. I won’t even attempt at writing a review since I am really not qualified to do so. And at any rate, there are already more than 1,400 reviews on Furthermore, all the book reviewers in the major news outlets have done so and waxed poetic on this book, with one of them comparing The Help to To Kill A Mocking Bird.* I will just make a list of things that I have been chewing on. By Tap Tap Tap on my iPhone (without a SIM) and therefore heavy editing involved thereafter.

Spoiler alert: If you are thinking of reading this book, you should skip this. I will also be 100% honest with myself, which means I will be contradictory, at times nonsensical, and possibly offending, especially if you love the book.

Confession first: I enjoyed reading this book tremendously. Cliché, yes. Truth is: it IS a page turner. For me. From the moment when I opened it in August when I first received it, I could not completely put Aibileen out of my head until the Christmas week, when I finally had time to sit down and read the book in long stretches.

The stories are riveting. The voices are, as much as I hate using this word because it is often confused with “stereotypical”, or at the very least “archetypal”, the voices sound to me “authentic”. That is, when I was reading it, when I was caught up in the drama of the story that was being expertly told, when I was kept in suspense as to the safety of the women, when I was hoping with clenched fists and a racing hear that they would triumph over evil and that justice would be done. Well, justice be done to a certain extent, in the strict confines of the story-telling.

Now I ask myself: How many Southerners do I know? None.

Do I know any African American domestic help? Nope.

What do I know about Southern dialects and accents? Not a thing.

So what do I know about whether the book is “authentic” or not? Hasn’t this always been the gripe I have against books like Memoirs of a Geisha? That a fiction novel, on account of its main characters being of a non-white race, is evaluated and praised for delivering an “authentic” portrayal. Do we even care whether Dan Brown’s characters are authentic or not?

Damn the identity politics theories I read, classes I took.

I cannot help, in the back of my mind, though I immensely enjoyed the stories of these women, that a white woman took possession of the black women’s stories twice, especially after I read Kathryn Stockett’s personal note at the end of the book: like Skeeter in the story, Stockett wrote the black women’s stories and gained wild success.

I understand the above statement reeks of identity politics, but I cannot help the gnawing feelings in the back of my head.

What bothers me even more is Skeeter’s cajoling, forcing almost, these women into telling her their stories because she was told that she needed to write something that nobody had ever written before in order to get into the publishing world. Throughout I was extremely uncomfortable with her motive: next to the all too real risk to the black women’s lives, her motif seems so trivial. Selfish even. What is the potential downside for her engagement in this feat? None too serious really. And indeed, there was a happy ending for Skeeter. But for Minnie and Aibileen the future remained uncertain.

Although I do wish something horrible would happen to the wrong-doers and was a bit let down when it didn’t, I do applaud the author for not cheapening the story by taking the easy way out. They are still in the mid 1960s in Mississippi and it is not like they are going to all of a sudden find true equality by the end of the book. I need to give the author props for not providing her White readers with an easy cathartic way to assuage the white guilt. “The villain that caused such misery is dead/appropriately punished, all is well in the universe. Now get on with your merry life.”

As I mentioned, the book received gleaming reviews. From White book reviewers. This could be racist on my part, and certainly identity politics at its worst as some might say, nevertheless, I feel I NEED TO know how an African American reader may feel about this book. NOT because a white woman from a privileged family in the South wrote this book, but because, again, despite my immense enjoyment of this book, and yes indeed I feel guilty for liking this book when I started wondering how my friends back in my graduate study classes would have said about this book, I cannot ignore the conflation of the tropes: 1. the White heroine being rescued, or finding self-realization, through Black folks around her that she does not socialize with, 2. Black people, unable to help or save themselves, being rescued by a White person.

I imagine this book already optioned by a movie studio. Or soon will be. Anyway you look at it, it IS going to be a great vehicle for some of the outstanding African American actresses, and god only knows how hard it is for a good script with a strong minority character lead to make it all the way to some head honcho’s desk. I do hope that the script and the actor that portrays Leroy would breathe some more life into him rather than the one-dimensional wife-beater. When in doubt, we reach for the things we share as women: abusive husbands, cheating boyfriends, sexist Chauvinistic patriarchs. In that process, our men are further demonized. Joy Luck Club immediately comes to mind. I can’t watch that movie without cringing. Not a single man in that movie is worthy of loving. Is it why it was accepted by the white mainstream audience? “Poor Asian women. They are so much better off over here. Away from their men.”

When The Blind Side came out, and the Internet was all abuzz about what a feel good movie it was, it immediately raised the mental red flag for me. “Feel good” means, to me, “Not for you. You are probably not the target audience/reader. Stay home. Otherwise you won’t feel good.”

I asked an African American columnist whether she planned to see the movie,

“No. We don’t consider that movie an attractive idea.” She said coyly.

* The surest way to incite heated debate against the worth of any book is to compare it to the beloved To Kill a Mocking Bird… So if you hate someone, yeah, go ahead and compare them to Harper Lee.


Now that the fever towards the book and the movie has died down, hopefully, I feel it is safe to explain why I cannot bring myself to pick up this ever-popular book. And really, it is not like there were not a pile of books in my house waiting for me to finish, and that War and Peace I for some inexplicable reason requested two Christmases ago is still staring at me accusingly every time I scurry past the bookshelf.

Simply stated: I am tired. How come the dark-skinned, exotic, “mystic” in the third world never spouts any wisdom for me? Or women who look like me? I want an easy piece of wisdom that would help me reach my A-HA moment at the snap of a finger. Or at least get me a hot piece of ass like Javier Bardem goddammit!

I’ll let someone a lot more eloquent summarize the inner struggle I feel whenever I come across scenarios as portrayed in Eat Pray Love.

[These movies that rely on such a trope] don’t teach you anything new about Asia or the Middle East. They rely instead on the stereotype that the East is someplace timeless, otherworldly, incomprehensible, waiting to be discovered by Westerners in search of self.

Now, nobody’s protesting Eat Pray Love, or saying that you should. After all, it’s kinder, gentler and subtler than Aladdin.

But it operates with the same Orientalist repertoire. It may not warrant protest, but its proximity to Orientalist tropes should make you think twice.

By Mia Mask on NPR


There is also something quite personal: Elizabeth Gilbert’s Bali is different from the one I visited. In 1992. Or 1991. I’ve only retained very fuzzy memories of my trip to Bali. In all honesty, after all these years, they could only be fairly categorized as impressions by now.

I was very tanned and therefore I was constantly mistaken as one of the locals by the Western tourists (since NO locals would have mistaken me as one of their own. We don’t all look alike. By “we” I mean “Asians”…) The locals however did mistake me for someone from the Indonesian mainland since quite a significant* percentage of Indonesians were (are) of Chinese descent. My friend who has much paler complexion however was mistaken for Japanese. It suffices to say that all this made an excellent Comedy of Errors in which we were constantly propositioned by men of different races and national origins, and in which men, as I was surprised to find out, expected us to be grateful for the attention. Some more than the others…

Of course Bali was (is) gorgeous and spectacular as every single tourism brochure says it is. And I am not saying that it is different from any other region that relies  on tourism for the majority of its revenue. What I remember most, however, and you all know I am crazy so please feel free to ignore what I have to say and stay with the tourism brochures and/or Gilbert’s book, was…

Disclaimer: My father was a tour guide and a travel agent, my mother, a hotel maid. I have always felt ambivalent towards tourism and therefore my perspectives when traveling are always “unnecessarily” skewed.

My impressions from my trip probably had more to do with who I was than the actual locale. It is highly likely that I would have felt the same way towards some other popular tourist destination…

The vendors, mostly children, swarming the van our local tour guides drove us around in, calling out, “One dollar. One dollar.”

Our determination to bargain the price down as we were instructed so we were not taken for fools.

The shame I felt afterwards when I remembered how little one dollar meant to me in comparison.

The cottage we stayed in which was located in the midst of a local village an hour or so away from the main tourist area.

People’s stares and curious expressions because they could not easily identify me and thus conveniently label me when our local tour guides showed us around (and off?) to their friends and families.

One guy from the village decided to climb up the coconut tree to procure fresh coconuts for us and was ridiculed mercilessly by his friends for trying to impress the ladies. We all had a good laugh.

The sight of women bathing on the side of the road which was as natural as the stream that ran along the road.**

The disappearance of familiarity exhibited by our local tour guides with whom I thought we had become friends as soon as we arrived in the “city”.

The puzzlement at our friends’ refusal to join us for lunch in the city. And further puzzlement at their decision to say “Yes” to the same restaurant but “No” to the same table.

Their apparent discomfort when we were approaching the fancy upscale hotel in which a Taiwanese tour guide we met on our flight to Bali managed to finagle a room for us.

Their abrupt decision to not help us carry our suitcases into the hotel. Their sudden movement to take out our luggages and leave them by the van as the hotel bellboys materialized. Our failure to say a proper goodbye with our extended hands that were not taken as they quickly got into the van and drove off as if to say, “We don’t belong here.”

My inability to enjoy the fancy surroundings as what happened outside the hotel kept on being reenacted inside my overactive brains.

The casual comment by the Taiwanese tour guide about how easy it was to access the red light district: someone would come pick you up on a moped. My being surprised and immediately not-so-surprised. My sadness as I remembered what it was like in the village less than an hour away.

The two young Japanese men who offered to videotape my friend and me and focused the entire minute on breasts and asses.***

My much, much later realization that there was (is) a “myth” of the prevalence of gigolos in Bali. My remembering the smirks when we were paraded around, and my attempt to dismiss it.

My first encounter with Westerners (other than bars and pubs in Taipei) and my not-so-positive impressions of the loud, obnoxious, drunk males late at night on the “strip”.

My first experience of being mistaken for a “local” and the complexity it entailed when trying to get a vendor to serve us in a night market populated by Western tourists.

My first suspicion that there was something off about how I was treated by “foreigners” even before I learned of colonialism, globalization, Orientalism and the fact that “exotic” does not just apply to flowers and animals.


It could be that I am simply jealous. I am jealous of Gilbert’s privileged freedom to be oblivious.



* By “Significant” I mean the classic case of 1% of people controlling N% of the wealth which has resulted in conflicts and outright violence in the recent past.

** I struggled with whether to include this since I worry that this may further add to the stereotype of exoticism. But it serves as a stark contrast to what I witnessed later in the city and therefore I’ve made the conscious decision to include it, despite the potential downside.

*** Yes. We were naive idiots.


The comment by Justin from Here where I Have Landed on my earlier post Things I Missed echoed my experience and feeling:

… when I tell people that I wasn’t born here, and that I came here to go to college, they’re consistently surprised, “What? But your English is so good!” like it’s completely unnatural that I can string my words together cohesively and not say “Engrish”.

I won’t lie. I have always prided myself on my “good English”. It is a skill that I have mastered on my own and therefore I believe I have earned the right to be proud of it. You know, the same way you’d be proud of your ability to speak, say, French just like the natives. Many many years ago, while I was working on my dissertation which focused on Asian Americans (both American-born and immigrants of Asian descent), I noticed and was troubled by the gap created by the (in)ability to command “good English”. Those who cannot communicate well in English are perceived as foreign, bizarre, lacking in humanity. People tend to write them off as “There is little, if not nothing, in common between us”. Stupid even. (Talking louder and slower. You know what I mean…)

<<Digression: Of course, interestingly, the above does not seem to apply to someone who speaks only French, or German. Or Spanish, depending on what the person looks like.>>

Against my advisor’s strong protest, I insisted on ending my dissertation with a rather personal essay because I believe in presenting a story from as many valid perspectives as possible, especially by people who somehow cannot “speak for themselves”, even if doing so might have negated some of the theorization I was trying to accomplish through my thesis. Since it’s been eating me alive how only 5 people have read my dissertation which represented 5 years of my life, I am going to share an abridged version of the last chapter of my dissertation here on this soapbox (aka my blog). After all, recycling is good for the earth.



The field for one’s ethnographic study is full of ‘surprises’ and ‘exceptions.’ Every time I theorized a statement or a performative moment, something else would come up that threw my analysis off balance. My theories and analyses cannot account for all individual occurrences. There is always the ‘unexpected’ that makes me think more, that makes me care more. Such is the story of Zhang, a Chinese musician who works frequently with the local theatres.

Zhang came from Mainland China. He had been studying and working in Beijing for almost forty years before he came to the United States in 1993. Zhang has to work at five jobs just to make ends meet. Other than the occasional gigs for performance and composing, he also works at a Chinese restaurant for six hours every day, and he works as a masseur/accupressurist. When Zhang was hired to perform at dinner parties and in Chinese restaurants, by the Chinese standard, it was a fall from grace. He was the master musician in China, and now in the United States he has to peddle his music in front of dinner guests who pay no attention to his existence, let alone his art.

Zhang has tremendous difficulty adjusting to life here because he knows little English, and he has neither the time nor energy to learn a foreign language. He told me that when he gets a job offer, he asks people to send him information in writing. He then looks up new words in the dictionary and only in this way does he know when and where he is supposed to show up and what, to perform. The day before the performance, he has to drive to the place, like a drill, to make sure he knows the directions. When he works with the local theatres, he needs an interpreter to help him understand what their needs are and what the performance is about. People have neither the time nor the funds to translate the whole script for him. A lot of times he has to go home and look up most of the words in the script one by one. He told me he has never had an actual conversation with people in those theatres he works with because he can’t.

“Then why don’t you go back?” I could imagine people asking him.  So I did, and he explained,

“The material life is not as good for me in this country because I was provided with an apartment and a nice salary when I was in China, as ‘First Class Composer.’  In contrast, I have to work several jobs here just to pay my rent. I can’t function normally here because I don’t have an adequate command of English. I can’t even answer the phone myself… But what makes me stay is the liberation I feel here. The freedom to create music in my own way. Nobody can tell me what to do or what not to do.”

Zhang, like many artists, would like to believe in the universality of art. He needs to believe his artistic creation can be shared by all people, and his art can bridge the differences and bring out the commonalities between people.  However, this kind of theorization does not help Zhang’s situation. The discrepancy between his belief and his reality in the United States is painfully obvious.

The language barrier looms large.

Learning English somehow has become the primary goal of Zhang’s life in the United States, a goal he does not expect to achieve because he has to work most of the time in order to survive. With his limited English, he can find work that pays only the minimum wage. A vicious cycle was started as soon as he landed here.

Zhang surmises his own predicament, “I am crippled because I don’t understand English. There is no way I can get out of this bind with my limited command of English.”

It is curious how little has been theorized about the English language as an important factor in building “Asian American”  communities/identities and, at the same time, marginalizing the non-English speaking population. There are practical and urgent issues of immigrant subjectivity regarding language skills and economic class. Just because they do not speak English does not mean their subjectivities do not exist. Nevertheless, the boundaries set up by language barriers are real and difficult to cross despite all the talks of figurative boundary-crossing. It was luck that I happen to be a native Chinese speaker, that I could talk to Zhang and, as much as I dislike this term, ‘speak for’ him.

Towards the end of our interview, I asked Zhang the question I ask every one of my interviewees: “Where is home? Is it here in the United States or is it China?” Zhang was greatly affected by this question. The tears welled up in his eyes. I was stunned. I was not prepared to deal with this situation. A great sense of guilt overwhelmed me. Here I was, in a noisy and crowded Chinese restaurant, facing a 60-year-old Chinese man in tears. I made him cry. I felt as though I had made my father cry in public.

“I am sorry.” I did not know what else to say. “I am sorry.” My voice sounded helpless. Impotent. There is nothing I could do. And there I was, with a perfect “ethnographic” subject — one with a heart-wrenching story. One who is obviously a victim of national boundaries and political upheaval and cultural alienation and economic inequality. One who cannot speak for himself in the United States. I did not know what to do but say over and over again, “I am sorry.”

Wiping his eyes, Zhang said, “It’s not your fault. It’s just that nobody has ever asked me this question all these years when I am here. Home? Exactly. Where is home for me? I think I was brought here by Fate. Fate made me come here and stay… I don’t have friends here. I don’t have anybody that I can talk ‘heart to heart.’ In China, I have buddies. Here, nobody.”

When scholars analyze and document hardships that immigrants have to go through, they forget to mention loneliness. Right after I turned off my tape recorder, Zhang sighed and said, “You know, I have been here for so long and nobody has ever bothered to ask me that question. THAT is America.” He fell into a silence.


Trouble Maker? You talking to me?

January 21, 2010 no manual for parenting

Sometimes I wonder whether the teachers talk about the parents amongst themselves. I would probably be known as “Trouble Maker”. My favorite moment was when I confronted approached the principal at the Thanksgiving Feast: “Could I safely assume that the headpieces the children are wearing are ‘turkeys’ and not ‘head dresses’?” I used the quotation […]


Wanker Wednesday: My problems with “The Help”

January 20, 2010 imho is just a polite way to say I know you don't give a hoot what I think but I'm going to say it anyway

I probably don’t need to publish this post on my blog. It is not appealing. It is not good writing. It will not make you laugh out loud. It is not even a proper rant. Besides, it is friggin’ long – I am amazed at how much I tapped out on my iPhod, and tedious. […]


Social Networking

November 17, 2009 mark my word: twitter will doom us all

A dear friend of mine passed this comment on Social Networking along to me from none other than the always brilliant Non Sequitur cartoon. She received it from her doting partner whose eyes could not have rolled any further when my friend and I were comparing our notes on using Twitter… I found myself more […]


Got Pigtail? Ugh. Halloween Costume Conundrum

October 31, 2009 imho is just a polite way to say I know you don't give a hoot what I think but I'm going to say it anyway

Every Halloween, we saw news reports and editorial comments on offensive costumes du jour.  What I call Halloween Costume Conundrum. HCC. This year, the HCC award went to Illegal Alien: It was such a brouhaha partly because, in my opinion, it was sold through Target’s website.  Target, the one mega store that does not seem […]


“Mid American” by Ed Paschke in 1969. Strangely resonating…

October 25, 2009 a picture is worth a thousand words

This painting was by Ed Paschke in 1969. 40 years ago. It is on exhibit at the new modern wing of the Art Institute of Chicago. For some unknown reason, I found it sad and strangely resonating when I saw it for the first time. And till this day, I am haunted by it. “The […]


“What are you?” OMG, a form I could fill out wihout having to choose!

October 11, 2009 imho is just a polite way to say I know you don't give a hoot what I think but I'm going to say it anyway

My children are, in the common lingo, “mixed”.  Or, if they want to be hip when they grow up and get into identity politics, they can call themselves Hapa, or, indeed, whatever the hack they want.  If they want to call themselves a mutt, the way Prez. Obama did, fine with me too. But despite […]


“A Class Divided”: Powerful experiment on how Racism can be learned, and in 15 minutes

September 23, 2009 this i believe

Some of you may know about this already, since this Frontline documentary was first aired in 1985. I have only heard about the “Blue-eyed vs. Brown-eyed” experiment done by a daring 3rd-grade teacher, but I have never actually seen the documentary until today.  Through Twitter, of course.  There is something to be said about the […]