Sunday, February 28, 2010

To Borrow A Leaf from Shakesville

Because Ottens continues to be a dipshit:

I feel compelled to tell you this:

I am not offended

I am contemptuous.

Contemptuous of the fact that you choose to dismiss the very real harm these attitudes propagate on very real people. Contemptuous that you think your entertainment is so much more important than the daily discrimination people who look like me face. Contemptuous of the fact that you think your intent to mean no disrespect actually matters in the face of the hurt you cause. Contemptuous that you insist on defending what we, members of the affected marginalized groups, have said, time and again, is a really harmful idea.

"Offended" isn't the word. Try "angry". Try "baffled". Try "unsurprised at racism". (And able-ism, hey ho!)

But most of all, contemptuous.

Gallimaufry Station: A Take on Multi-Culturalism

Note: I started this post back in November, so some of the ideas are kind of dated.

Lately, I've been considering what "multi-culturalism" means, whether it's in fiction or in everyday life. I find that whenever discussions of multiculturalism comes up, it's very much like talking about racism, in the "we shouldn't discriminate against each other on the basis of culture! We should be free to share what we have, no matter what!" sort of way that erases actual concerns about the concept.

It was only while reading Buck Godot, Zap Gun for Hire, by Phil Foglio that I started to put my finger on why I'm starting to really doubt whether it actually exists in real life, and why, in discussions about multiculturalism around people who aren't really knowledgeable about issues surrounding race and privilege, I always find myself uneasy, despite their good intentions. (Aside, you know, from believing that the road to Hell is paved with good intentions and all...)

There is a setting in Buck Godot, called Gallimaufry station, and I'll let its description speak for itself:
The Gallimaufry is only one of a number of trading and communication foci maintained by the Prime Movers. There are almost a hundred such within our galaxy alone.

What makes it rather confusing at first is that these organizations do not have any fixed boundaries and, indeed, there are some trading centers that have dozens of separate trading centers nestled deep within their sphere of influence.

When discussing matters of race, the concept "colourblind" comes up a great deal - a concept where people ignore the racial identity of others. It's a nice concept in theory, but in practical application, leads to aversive racism, micro aggressions, and other such ill effects. We'll also put aside the fact that when you ignore someone's race, you are possibly ignoring a huge part of their identity.

When discussing multiculturalism, though, a similar theme emerges, and it runs like this - "people shouldn't be possessive of their cultural items." "After all, cultural exchanges happen all the time." "Complaining about cultural appropriation is just resisting the inevitable." And with the implied, "I don't like it when I catch shit for  wearing / using  / doing something that doesn't belong to my culture." Add a large dose of "but XYZ cultural item is so cool, it should be spread around and used by everybody!" Which culminates in an air of "I don't care what you, minority individual who is still systemically disadvantaged, think about the usage of these cultural makers."

 Firstly, we need to analyze the concept, and to begin, we must ask, "what constitutes a culture?"


Now, I'm no cultural critic / theorist / anthropologist / sociologist, just a blogger who reads too little of too much. Your opinions on what culture constitutes may vary, depending on your understanding of it and your own cultural context. Mine is that of Malaysia, which is purportedly multi-cultural, and it's got enough angst issues for it to show. Feel free to debate.

The term "culture" is, as with the concepts of race and gender, a construct. Unlike race and gender, it doesn't necessarily have a biological basis, but it can. For example, the Chinese and Japanese cultures, similar in many ways, yet different, do not have a biological basis. There's a geographical basis for the similarities, historical basis for the differences, maybe.

Now, there are cultures which have grown in response to a movement, such as Deaf Culture. I'm not knowledgeable enough to speak about this, but I imagine this would be an example of a culture that has grown out of a biological basis.

No matter the basis, cultures have a function: to bring communities together. On an abstract level, cultures provide rules, value systems, ethical guidelines for the community to adhere to so that it remains a cohesive whole within which its members find solidarity. On another level, cultures have rituals, traditions, sacred days. These bring people together as well, and also serve the purpose of delineating a hierarchy of sorts within the society.

On a concrete level, a culture is manifested in practices, language, clothing, architecture, designs - all of which provide clues as to its origins. If I walk down the street and I hear someone speaking Malay or Chinese, there is a chance that we both belong to / originate from the same community.

Cultures are not solid, unchanging things. They are not stable in meaning or form. They are constantly in flux, reacting to changes in environment, societal values, so on, so forth. The concept of culture permeates us all - none of us grow up in a cultural vacuum; to do so is to grow up lacking social skills needed to survive. At the same time, culture permeating us all means we internalize messages that may conflict with values not our own.

Do we grok so far? Yes? No? It's okay if you don't, 'cos I ain't an expert either.

What's a Multicultural Space?

Looking at the term "multiculturalism," the basis of the term, really, is [multiple] + [culture].

Technically, this means, that within a given geographical region, there will be groups of people. Each group will have cultural markers which identify them as different. Distinct from others. Part of a specific cultural group. Theoretically, this could happen, except you know, Fear of the Unknown and Hatred of the Other, which means most of us are pre-disposed to thinking that our own group is So Much Better than the Other's, and either try to nullify, subjugate, or annihilate the other cultures.

These days, it's not so overt - instead, we take the cultural markers of the Other and trivialize them, turning them into capitalist ventures, into consumer products and services that we can sell. (I know some of you are going to bring up the discussion on "but those folks do that in their own countries!" so here you go, a discussion which touches on that, have fun.) This quote about the open-house policy of Gallimaufry embassies quite nicely delineates the problem with the theory that if we all just shared stuff, we'd get along:
The theory is that through an informal 'getting to know each other' process, bonds of acceptance, tolerance and friendship will result despite 'official' policy. And a lovely theory it is.

The wise tourist, however, will keep in mind that there have been numerous wars caused by flash photography, littering, attempting to take ambassadors home as souvenirs, and "excessive breathing of our air" - Fleetztrow's Guide to the Gallimaufry 
Most of us don't live in multi-cultural spaces - what we get are spaces where there's a dominant culture, with little pockets of other cultures. We like to think we live in multi-cultural spaces because it gives us an air of cosmopolitanism. But as I said, in reality, we live in mono-cultural spaces that shunts minority spaces into, at worst, ghettos or, at best, tourist spaces. Think "the projects" versus "Chinatown".Why are these spaces separate from general spaces? Why are they specific?

Like the issue of race, most of us are blind to the fact that despite bad experiences, some of us are more privileged than others. (Please do not make the mistake of conflating "privilege" with "luxury". Privilege means that between myself and, say, a poor person taking a test, I am likely to be better off, because my middle-class background affords me the means to study for this test.)

When most people imagine multiculturalism, they're usually imagining a space where the exchange of cultural markers is easy and free, done without censure. (Oddly enough, most of them tend to be the same people who really dislike the idea of communism/socialism.) Because (as with the communist/socialist ideology) most people tend to imagine multiculturalism as a melting pot where everyone is free to mix with each other and general identifiers are stripped, re-distributing cultural artefacts, no matter which shelf or jar you're from.

This isn't multiculturalism. Mixed long enough, everyone becomes the same flavour. That's homogenization.

Here's some more info on Gallimaufry Station, which is quite resonant with our topic here.
This paradox is resolved when we remember that these are primarily organizations dedicated to promoting communications, and the vast majority of sentients cannot directly communicate with each other. Some species operate on different time lines, or are out of phase with the four dimensions we can perceive, are too small or too large or, if they had to acknowledge us, they would have to kill us. So even when an atomic matrix life form that feeds off the microwave hum left over from the Big Bang and excretes time lines is in the same solar system with your typical silicon-based life form that eats rocks and excretes hydrogen, communication between the two may be close to impossible.
We are all different peoples. Different is not bad. Sameness isn't bad either. There's nothing wrong with separate groups. Nor is there anything wrong with separate individuality.

What's wrong is when we don't realize the inequalities between these different groups, and presume a sameness which does not exist. What is awkward is when you try to treat me the exact same as you would another person, without acknowledging that I might find your approach offensive or hurtful. Or, when I ask you to acknowledge it, you get defensive and say, "my XYZ friend wouldn't have minded" - I'm not your XYZ friend.

My God, you people might say. How can these people co-exist?
Luckily it's not really a problem, because they usually don't have anything to talk about. Or so it appears, right up until said atomic matrix life form begins a simple operation to make the local sun go nova in order to harvest neutrinos and, to their surprise, are vigorously opposed by those gritty little creatures clinging to the orbiting rocks who have had to start throwing anti-matter around to get their attention. Things usually deteriorate from there. Thus one of the most important functions of the Prime Movers is to coordinate operations between these various races.

This helps prevent unscheduled supernovas, black holes, inversions, atomic shift rifts, shiftspace collapse, chrono-synclastic infundibula and quasars.
We can't have a completely mixed boiling pot, or even a nice salad of leafy veggies with tomatoes, avocadoes, and anything else you feel like having in a salad, or, in my case, yee sang, for a simple reason: people and the items which we give significance to as identity markers aren't the least bit comparable to leafy vegetables and other such ingredients. We're not vegetables and we're not unmoving, unthinking ingredients in a pot - we're people, with minds that can grow and chance and learn and, unfortunately, pass judgement.

Station Gallimaufry is fortunate in that it has an active moderator in the form of the omnipotent Prime Movers, who are there to make sure things don't get completely out of hand. We don't have that luxury.

But why do we insist, then, on these spaces where we live with the Other?
Happily, most races realize that since there are more of "Them" throwing ideas around than there are of "Us", you tend to get more out of it than you brought into it. This is a universal concept that appeals to everybody.
This is an ideal. Technically, this is true. We are stronger and more creative when we have more people involved in discussion. That's why exclusion is so bad - we miss out on different perspectives that could offer us better solutions when we exclude people who are different. And that is why inclusionary language is so important, because it promotes multiple sets of people and communities to become part of the conversation.

It's a little ironic I'm synthesizing this idea from inspiration in a comic where the main character is a white man, and a setting which relies heavily on aliens as Other (although there is a nice mix of humans too), but this is what optimism and idea-sharing is all about.

I don't actually know how to end this post, so I'm just going to stop here with a recommendation to read Buck Godot, which has its problems, but is still a pretty fun read if you have nothing else to do on a lazy afternoon.

Friday, February 26, 2010

Ally Issues: When in Danger

Part of anti-oppression work is speaking out against it when we see it. It means pointing it out, and calling it out for what it is. It means, as much as possible, stepping in and intervening if we are capable. It means coming up with ways to prevent oppression in the first place (which often entails an attitude-change on the scale of epic). 

And of course, part of the problem tends to be saviour tropes. Most of us involved in media analysis are aware of the "white saviour" complex. It's the kind of fantasy that gets played out very often - who doesn't want to be the hero that steps in to save the day? The hero does something remarkably brave, above and beyond what is asked of them, and is deeply respected for it as a result? 

I personally don't think this narrative is limited only to white people. In fact, I think many of us have these moments where we think of what we would do, or should have done, in certain situations, which would give us such pwnage points that our lives are raised to the level of Epic Awesome. Even I would to do heroic things. I would like to save people, put my life at risk, throw myself into the fray, play significant roles in missions prevent apocalypses. I'm not arrogant enough to think I'm so special, I'm the only one having such fantasies. 

Come on, this is why comics and Mary Sues are so popular. 

The thing about it is that, it never really works out in real life, does it? Not everyone instinctually has that courage in them to stand up to horrible things. From what I can tell in my limited experience, the dream to stand up and face horrible horrible things is a dream of the privileged who likely will never have to.

So the other night, I had this pretty terrifying dream in which I had to rescue a friend from this guy who lived in a penthouse apartment. He was, as I recall, a Very Dangerous Person, not-incidentally white, and sneaking to his place was hard enough. One of his henchmen, an Asian guy, decided to help me, for reasons I didn't question, but felt (you know how in these dreams, you always feel these sorts of things), that it would was of solidarity since I was Asian. So, while we were searching the penthouse for a way to help my friend, the Very Dangerous Person came home.

I was passed off as a hired prostitute, but while Very Dangerous Person allowed the subterfuge to let me leave, he clearly didn't buy it. I walked past him feeling extremely nervous, and behind me, he had started becoming verbally and emotionally abusive, the kind of yelling one hears from a jealous, possessive bully of a boss, who also assaults, sexually.

So when I finally closed the front door of the apartment, I wasn't surprised to hear beatings and screaming. Although I can't remember the exact words, I know they were words of abuse, reminding my ally of his place. I also know they were word of hateful bigotry, because he was denigrating the choice of me as sexual partner, and my ally should be grateful he wasn't sullied by lower classes.

If I had been in lucid dreaming, I would have probably tried to do something heroic, to turn around and go back inside to get my ally out. He didn't deserve it. But he was screaming so loudly, so desperately and he was in so much pain, I was paralyzed outside the door, and too scared to go back in, because the chances of having a gun pulled on me, or having that same violence dealt to me, was really high.

So I went downstairs, terrified, and at the front desk of the building, I demanded the porters at reception why didn't they do anything, couldn't they hear what was going on? And no one met my eye. And I was still too afraid to go back upstairs.

I woke up utterly uncomfortable, wondering why I didn't do anything, asking myself what I could have done. I'd never had a nightmare before which left me feeling residual helplessness like that.

And most uncomfortable of all is the realization, that I am so damn lucky to only have to contemplate it, rather than live it.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Turning Away From Religion: Of Shrines, Temples, and Paying Respects

Ordinarily, every year in celebration of the Lunar New Year, my family hies off to a temple to pray before carrying on with other festivities. This would mean a lot of standing around whilst one or two family members got joss sticks, lit them, and brought it back to the others who would usually be waiting outside the temple, so they could pray without actually venturing into the smokey air. 

My mother raised me on regular worship of the Goddess of Mercy, although this was usually framed as asking the goddess to bless us so we would get good grades in the school year. Her religiousity is the practical kind which only bugs the gods when she really needs something answered.

When I joined the school's Buddhist Association, my main religion was Theravadan Buddhism. I was pretty good at being Buddhist, it seemed: I attended the weekly meetings and never missed one except once or twice a year; I sang the hymns well; I memorized the chants. Every Wesak Day was spent at the temple, helping with selling flowers or joss sticks and taking donations. (We used coupons when I was a kid. When the temple moved from being house-based to being an actual structure of its own, we just switched to actual money.)

I grew away from Theravadan Buddhism. I found flaws in the stories. I disliked the fact that Gautama Buddha, who was supposed to be so wise and perfect and had already achieved enlightenment, still had to have Ananda persuade him to allow women become nuns. Not only that, but the philosophy of detachment rang false to me, because I was so wracked with pain from depression that already detached me from the world and made me feel no happier.

I tried other religions, even if I didn't become part of the religious communities. When I returned home to Malaysia, it was never around a time when my family would go to the temple, unless my mother wanted to consult the sam sai shuui, an astrologer of sorts. (On one memorable occasion, my mother demanded to know if there was something wrong she had done in a past life that I was so callous towards her to the extent of unrepentently moving across the world just to be away from her. She didn't want to end up like her mother-in-law, who was so estranged from my younger aunt, the latter didn't bother attending the funeral. I sometimes think she forgot that I could understand Cantonese, which is a nicer assumption that she purposefully wanted me to feel rotten.)

However, even as I can't buy into purposefully organized religions, there is something I can't help but do everytime I pass a shrine, or temple: pause and pay my respects.

There isn't anything particularly religious about this gesture on my part that I'm aware of. Partly because I also have these brief moments where I stop before a giant tree, or natural landscape I'm in awe of, and contemplate it. Animism runs really strongly in Malaysia, or at least, it used to, and my father taught me, as he took me on various treks, that before we relieved ourselves in the forests, we had to ask permission first. It's a matter of showing respect for the spirits that have been there in the forest for far longer than we have been around.

However, I also do this in places of worship, and some very old buildings, so it's not just nature which elicits this sort of reaction from me. As irrational as it seems, and I like to think I have a scientific mind, because romantic minds are so tiresome at times, I find such gestures satisfy some code of honour in me, even as the act of acknowledging something I don't understand occasionally makes me feel frightened. I'm afraid of the dark and certain places for this same reason.

The thing about it is that I don't find this to be a bad thing. In fact, I rather think that it's healthy to have such respect for certain spaces that we refrain from doing whatever we want to it, which in turn, prevents us from exploiting a place. Unfortunately, it very easily translates into fear, and we know fear is one of the main causes for overreactionary bullshit.

When I returned home to Malaysia this year, I found myself bowing at various shrines I saw, even ones that are now defunct. It was both instinctual and purposeful. I never quite get how long to bow, or when to bow, or how to hold my hands together, and sometimes I think it even depends on who and what I'm bowing to. I don't know all the idols I bow to (the only one I'm familiar with, after all, is the Goddess of Mercy.)

It's comforting and it's something I have done only in Malaysia so far, perhaps because I find it to be a cultural expression, rather than a religious expression. I find a spiritual connection, even, when I have done it on a regular basis. But I don't do it in Canada, because Canada has few shrines, and even the old places don't have auras that I'm familiar with.

When I was younger, I had a very strange question asked of me: who do you pray to? Because different Chinese folks, we pray to different gods. I always said Kuan Yin, but now that I think about it, I don't actually pray so much as I pay my respects to her, acknowledge her presence. Is that what the concept of prayer is? In my understanding, prayer tends to involve a direct line to the gods, talking to deities, sometimes even requests. It doesn't quite wash with me.

As time goes by, the religiousity of my family dips. It means we don't go to the temple as often, when once, going to Old Town Petaling Jaya and praying at a little temple there was a Sunday thing (followed by lunch at our favourite chicken rice store). The temple is now doubling as a chiropractor's, which is a sign of the times that the old sifu cannot afford to look after the house on his own anymore.

And although I'm not religious, and I don't have much faith in deities, I find that... sad. 

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Quintessentially Chinese? / Review: Hua Mulan

I first talked about Hua Mulan here. Unfortunately, by the time I got home, Hua Mulan was off the screens (because movies have notoriously short running periods here), but the DVD was out! So I hunkered down with my father, a family friend, my mom, and I had a box of tissues in front of me, because I knew I was going to need some.

And I was right! I will try to cut down on spoilers as much as possible, and will reference the 1964 Shaw Brother's production of Lady General Hua Mulan for comparison purposes besides the Disney version.

As Mulan's story usually starts, there's a call for soldiers. The Hua family has no sons, and Mulan's father is ailing, but he feels that he has to go, because for generations, the Hua family has been known to be great fighters. Mulan herself is an excellent fighter, having been taught by her father, one of the greatest warriors of his generation, but as a woman, she isn't allowed to be part of the army. Nonetheless, she takes her father's armor anyway, and goes off to war. There's even a brief flashback where a young Mulan, played by Xu Jiao, kicks ass, protecting her friend Xiaohu.

 (We last saw Xu Jiao as Dicky Chow in Stephen Chow's CJ7, which is why I was confused greatly when I caught CJ7 a little after watching Hua Mulan. Sorry, Hollywood, what was it about not being able to find Asian child actors who can do martial arts? If Xu Jiao was a little older, I think she'd be perfect for A:TLA's Azula.) 

Mulan arrives at camp, where her friend, Xiaohu (translated into "Tiger" in subtitles), played by Jaycee Chan, helps her in hiding her identity, although there is a hilarious moment where Mulan is almost discovered by Wentai, a fellow soldier, and Xiaohu just wants to go back to sleep when she tries to ask him for advice.

The movie is, at heart, about people. Jingle Ma focuses, of course, on Mulan's development into a great general, who must learn to make sacrifices and let go of specific emotional attachments. Her friendship with Wentai is clearly coded as one that, given a chance, could and should bloom into romance, but their love can go no further because of the circumstances they are in. Zhao Wei's portrayal of Mulan's emotional trials in facing the horrors of war is moving, punctuated with Chen Kun's Wentai who fades into the background as general so he can watch Mulan bloom to her greatest potential. Mulan herself has trouble growing into her role - she must learn how to kill, must learn how to watch her comrades die, must learn how to stand on her own as commander of an army. The result is a fascinating character study, even as it is at times palpably painful to watch.

Wentai, played by Chen Kun, as best friend, closest companion, mentor, and love interest, is no less a developed character, beginning as a teasing soldier who tries to get to know his fellow soldiers, clearly a strong officer, but with a compassionate heart that, deep down inside, hates killing. He recognizes very quickly the potential in Mulan, even when he discovers that she's a woman, and puts aside his own opportunities for accomplishments in order for Mulan to get over her attachment to him and grow independent of his companionship. One might ask, why doesn't Wentai make a move on Mulan, since he knows her true identity and is clearly in a position of power to do so? Couple of reasons: Wentai is clearly mindful of the dangers of attachment during a war. Already burdened with the duty of ensuring families are notified of their sons' deaths, Wentai has seen more violence than he cares to. When he admits to Mulan early on, "I couldn't even kill a rabbit," she observes, "you didn't want to." 

Also, Chen Kun is a total hottie, and seeing as there is apparently a huge dearth of Asian masculinity in Western media, here is a picture that illustrates how utterly handsome Chen Kun is as Wentai:


The side characters are not neglected either - a few soldiers who start as Mulan's tent mates are portraited as various men who have left family and fiance's behind. Xiaohu's initial resentment towards his sparring partner becomes a deep friendship that climaxes in a moving scene that illustrates the spirit of self-sacrifice, steadfast loyalty even when facing death in a pointless war, and the recognition of both. Even in death, the soldiers are not forgotten, as depicted by Mulan and Wentai washing the name tags of soldiers and hanging them to dry, so that the name tags can be sent back to the soldiers' families. 

The Rouran, nomadic raiders that the Wei Kingdom are fighting, are also sympathetic, although there is a clear antagonist in Modu, who is clearly not the leader the Rouran want to have. Modu is foiled by his half-sister, who is never given a name and is only referred to as the Princess of Rouran, yet is portrayed as having deep sensitivity and wanting to seek common ground with the Wei. (There is also, inexplicably, a white dude, Vitas, a Russian singer, who plays a former slave to the Rouran and stays with the tribe out of affection and loyalty.)

The political ramifications of being a figure of authourity, as embodied by Wentai and the Rouran Princess, is something that is very rarely noted in most Western love stories about royalty, but is always, painfully drawn out in Chinese movies. The theme of duty over self, of the greater good over personal happiness, adds pathos to the love between Mulan and Wentai, yet lends itself to a satisfying end to the war as Mulan encourages the Rouran princess to step up and help end the war.

As I mentioned in my earlier post, the love between Mulan and Wentai is clearly not sexualized - they fight side by side, but never kiss. The closest they ever get is when Wentai sleeps next to her while taking care of her during a fever, feeding her his own blood as they have run out of supplies. Even then, the love they have for each other shines through as something that drives them both to make the sacrifices which will ultimately keep them apart but will also achieve their mutual goal: the end of the war. In a Hollywood movie, the couple will kiss and makeout for several minutes. In this quintessentially Chinese movie, Mulan asks the man she loves and who loves her, "If I must die on the battlefield, will you go with me?" and he replies, very simply, "Yes." This is a resilient kind of love, in which one does not demand sacrifice from the other, but in which both, strong character unto themselves, stand together to face battle.

All in all, Hua Mulan was every bit as satisfying as I had hoped it would be. The acting is excellent. The plot, while not new, is moving and stirring to the dormant Asian in me. Jingle Ma forces the audience to acknowledge the devastation that war deals on the human spirit, whilst reinforcing the hope and illustrating the strength of the soldiers who have to go through it. Powerful, painful, loving and sad, this Hua Mulan portrayal will be in the annals of great historical fiction. 

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Happy Lunar New Year!

Today is the Lunar New Year. I apologize for the radio silence - I've been spending time with my family and friends, plus, I haven't had the energy to rant about stuff.

So, I want to wish everyone a happy Lunar New Year! Gong xi fa cai! Kong hey fatt choy! Keong hee wa sai! Kong hee wa sai! 

That's the same greeting in four Chinese dialects. Feel free to leave the way you wish others a Happy New year in comments!