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stereotypes

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 Amazon.com. 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.

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It is Thursday (and actually soon will be Friday…) Yes, I am cheating again by backdating my post. But it IS Wednesday somewhere in the world, right? Oh. Who cares. It is a WTF post by me when I’ve got my WTF glasses on. (Yeah, this line is for you my Wicked Kitchen Lady…) So WTF ANYTIME… FTW!

We received a Christmas card from a high school friend of my husband’s. The address label on the envelop was one of those personalized family labels with the faces that are supposed to represent each member in the family.

Get your family labels here! Personalized to fit your family!

Our friends are of Asian descent, and therefore the figures on the address label all have black hair, and it does remind us of them: with the appropriate hair styles. To my surprise, my husband was interested in getting a set for us.

“Maybe for next Christmas?” He emailed me with the link.

Don’t you just love how they add things to your list with a nice question like that?

Fine. I thought. It could be cute. Naturally I was already wondering how we were going to represent our multiracial family. Perhaps I could get some message out with each letter I mail. Represent! I thought. Things could get very interesting. I thought. Little did I know that it was going to be VERY INTERESTING alright.

I browsed through the site, looked at the samples, and clicked on ORDER:

Choose your head and hair style here: Male and female heads

They do have a wide selection for heads/hair styles. At this point, my kids became curious in this project and they were getting excited, impatiently waiting for their turn to choose their own faces.

“Oh oh oh. Choose this one!”

“No. Mom looks more like this one!”

Finally we (i.e. the kids) settled on a hair style for me.

So many heads, so little time... to make my decision I mean...

By selecting the head style, we were then shown a variety (i.e. THREE) of different skin tones and many hair colors to choose from.

So many hair colors to choose from! Should I go with my natural color or my highlighted color?

“Mom, pick the Dark Brown Hair. That looks more like you.” My oldest said.

“Mom, I am not sure what you should choose for your skin color. That one is too light, and that one is too dark.” My youngest said. He is a man of 100% honesty.

I was relieved that the instruction gave me the permission to select “Fair Skin” for myself, since I consider my complexion to be “tan”. I thought I’d go with Black Hair and Tan Skin because I did not want people to mistake me for a non-Asian person. However, my hair has not been BLACK BLACK for almost a decade: I discovered highlights many years ago and baby, let me tell you: I ain’t gonna go back. Fine. She looks too happy anyway. What I need really is a scowling face. I went with the kids’ suggestions.

Here comes the WTF moment. The first WTF moment…

(The following is a “dramatized” version of the screen I saw at the initial WTF moment. I went through the ordering process just so I could grab a screenshot to show you, my friends. You are welcome)

My jaw dropped. Add-on Features. “Asian eyes” is one of the 3 add-on features offered by the company. Along with Glasses and Santa Hat.

Asian Eyes. One of the only 3 add-on features. Me so honored.

“What the…?!” I stopped myself short. The kids looked at me, then looked at each other.

“Mom. You should check ‘Asian Eyes’ because you are Asian.” Mr. Monk, my youngest, said. With all honesty.

“Shut up.” My oldest chastised his brother.

“Hmmm. Honey, do you know that they offer ‘Asian Eyes’ as an Add-On Feature?! Next to Santa Hat and Glasses?!” I hollered at husband.

“Mom. What do the, eh, Asian Eyes look like?” My oldest asked. Now fully invested in this new development as well.

So we searched high and low on the website, and we finally found it. Ta da!

WTF Moment Numéro deux

Seriously. Do those eyes even belong to a human?

“What the heck is this? Voldemort?!” I was so startled by the unreality of it I burst out laughing.

My oldest was indignant. “That is so racist!”

“What is racist?” My youngest asked. But fortunately, immediately, “Those don’t look like your eyes. You should just use the black dots.”

I laughed even harder when I saw the labels for kids: “Have your kids feel special!”

Asian eyes, what? for the straight A kids? (Yes yes, I know, yet another stereotype...)

Oh, little Jennifer is going to feel special alright… When she is shown to be some evil spirit, creepy imbecile, or wicked mastermind with no pupils.

CODA: I am not trying to read too much into this. I am sure the company does this out of good intentions. What kind of idiot would want to set out to offend paying customers, right? They are trying so hard to operate in this multi-cultural, multi-racial, complex and wonderful world that the United States of America has become. But seriously, dude? Those “Asian Eyes” are beyond creepy. They gave me nightmares. I was wondering why you stopped there? Why didn’t you include an Add-on feature for Coolie Hat? (Ok. Ok. I can’t help it!…)

Asian eyes? Take that!

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Warning: This post should be filed under “Psychotic Ranting and Anonymous Foaming”, a category available from NaBloPoMo, (Thank you to whoever was wise enough to create this category…) in which I whine about stereotypes that caught me by surprise.  Please feel free to ignore me when I am behaving like a rabid dog.  Come back when I am normal, or normal by my standard.

The thing about reading a fiction is that a good book sucks you in, lures you to identify with the protagonist, even more so if it is from the first person point of view.  Most fictions have an underlying universal theme: family, betrayal, love, hate, loss, reunion, found happiness, redemption,  self-discovery, at least the successful ones do.

I went into the library in search of a good book to read. I do this by browsing the book shelves and see what strikes my fancy. Like many things I do in life, I trust it to chance. Serendipity. I love the sound of it, more so since I learned how to spell it correctly.

I came across a book by one Jonanthan Tropper, This Is Where I Leave You.  The front flap promises a “riotously funny, emotionally raw novel about love, marriage, divorce, family, and the ties that bind — whether we like it or not.”  Wonderful! Besides, this book apparently was being adapted into a feature film from Warner Brothers Studios. Even better! This way I can just read the book and skip the movie: since we all know, as a rule, the original books are infinitely better than the adapted films, right? (Except Marvel heroes movies of course. IMO.)

So imagine me, a universal reader, Everyman (Or, Everyperson if you want to be all PC about it…), following along the storyline. Everyperson, moi, going merrily down the road with the narrator who just lost his father and whose family is not mourning/coping properly, (Ok, so not so merrily after all. Sorry, my bad), I thought, “Dysfunctional family,” yup, we all have one of those.  But wait.  Hmm. The author could have lightened up on some of the cliché phrases and expressions, but that is not a good reason to put down a book once you started it. Or… is it?

Then on Page 11, BOOM! it came. Out of nowhere.  The Chinese showed up.

My landlords are the Lees, an inscrutable, middle-aged Chinese couple who live in a state of perpetual silence.  I have never heard them speak.  He performs acupuncture in the living room; she sweeps the sidewalk thrice daily with a handmade straw broom that looks like a theater prop. I wake up and fall asleep to the whisper of her frantic bristles on the pavement. Beyond that, they don’t seem to exist, and I often wonder why they bothered immigrating. Surely there were plenty of pinched nerves and dust in China.

Really!?!

<I am going to take a breath. In the mean time, please watch “Really with Seth and Amy” on SNL>

I am back. Here are the thoughts that went (are going) through my mushroom-cloud head:

  1. Maybe this book was written in the 1960s before the Civil Rights Movement.  Or maybe it was published in the late 20th century since you know, we were oh so unenlightened back then.  (Nope. It was published August 2009…)
  2. Maybe the narrator is what they call an “unreliable narrator”,  like John Dowell in The Good Soldier, Frederick Clegg in The Collector, and even Humbert Humbert in Lolita.
  3. I can’t really “demand” authors to start censoring themselves on the basis of Political Correctness.
  4. I guess all that “identifying with the narrator” was for naught. I am the “inscrutable” Chinese. Wow. Imagine that!

Anna May Wong in "Daughter of the Dragon"

Well, Mr. Tropper, this is where you left me befuddled and where I leave YOU! On Page 11…

Sax Rohmer published the Fu Manchu novels in 1913. Wasn’t that like, hmm, almost a century ago?

And, really? Just because someone does not talk to you, all of a sudden, they are inscrutable?  Maybe they just don’t like you because you are living in THEIR basement.

Is it because of our eyes?  So small, you can’t see “into our souls”?

Manga Eyes Real Life

Oh, and news flash: The whole inscrutable Chinese thing? MEGA TROPE! Done to death since the 1870’s.

Until you also think the French with their obsession with wine and cheese, the Italian with their obsession with impeccable fashion style even when they are just sitting inside their own house, and the Germans with their inherent love for logics and orders, and all the FOREIGN languages they speak with, are also inscrutable, don’t call ME inscrutable.

And if you are keeping the landlords in the movie, I dare you to make them inscrutable. No, seriously. More jobs for Asian (Asian American) actors.  I support my kind.  I can’t wait to see it.

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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

Tweet 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 […]

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“We will not become what we mean to you”

August 29, 2009 a picture is worth a thousand words

Tweet This is yet another picture I took of the art works that resonated with me when we went through the new Modern Wing at the Art Institute of Chicago. “We will not become what we mean to you.” I think about that sentence often ever since… “I’m interested in how identities are constructed, how […]

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Anna May Wong in “Daughter of the Dragon”

August 29, 2009 a picture is worth a thousand words

Tweet Anna May Wong in “Daughter of the Dragon”, originally uploaded by The Absence of Alternatives. There is so much theorizing and critique one can do based on this one image, I don’t even know where to start… Or, if you don’t mind, I find it hilarious.  Is it a sign that we have come […]

Live squid is not part of the standard diet in China, or Asia for that matter

August 13, 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

Tweet Once in a while I get all riled up with my mouth foaming like a rabid dog. My irrational anger especially loves a good target of Stereotype Mongers and Exoticism Panderers. This is that kind of moment. PMS. Whatever. The target of my rant today is this book: Lost on Planet China: The Strange […]

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