Tag Archives: orientalism

A Good Bookstore Visit Is.

I spent about forty-five minutes at Moe’s the other day, and it reminded me of every single reason that I love being in bookstores (aptly as I just, by the powers vested in me as overseer of this blog, named it the #1 Bookstore in the East Bay). It’s not something I’d maybe put into words before, and it’s more than the fact that they’re filled with books, which one can subsequently purchase. It’s because a good bookstore visit is like a portal to the entire interior world.

As someone who can be kind of introverted, unadventurous, a homebody, the world can sometimes feel small. On especially hermit-y weekends it’s about the size of my apartment. (Again: small.) It’s also the size of my routine: the sidewalks that take me to work, the bus stops I wait at, the lunch spots I go to, the cubicle I somehow spend forty hours a week inside of. It’s no bigger than my regular news sources, and email, and Facebook. It’s the people I deign to see on a regular basis.

So imagine how delightful and how freeing it is to step into a space where tangential un-thought-of worlds open and explode around you, in unexpected ways. You pull a book off a shelf and it’s like you suddenly see, not just what’s on the page but everything that page implies, everything it could potentially lead to—consecutive nights of reading, long philosophical discussions, knowledge of untold unthought-of things. An entire hinted-at world. Opening and exploding.

It’s the next best thing to skydiving. Or seizing the day, the way they do in, like, pharmaceutical commercials.

At Moe’s, we spent forty-five minutes on the basement level and never even made it to the second floor (fiction). And it was still enough to inspire this blog post. Moe’s basement level—which is more like Floor negative-0.5, because it’s just a few steps down from the entrance—has a substantial music section, some children’s literature, critical theory, and a bunch of fiction that for some reason is not on the second floor (fiction).

Where to begin. There were full Wagnerian opera scores. There was loose sheet music from old Hollywood films dating from 1933. There was a two-volume set of Mozart’s letters, PUBLISHED IN 1866. ($65 for the set.) There was a multi-volume collection of Henry James works. There were children’s books from when I was a child (the self-same edition of The Secret Garden that I had/still have). There were children’s books from when my parents were children (or at least youngish: an original printing of Roald Dahl’s Fantastic Mr. Fox, 1974). There were children’s books from when really old and/or dead people were children (Folk Tales from the Far East, 1927, with illustrations).

There were compact, modest new paperbacks with stunning artwork of Ray Bradbury’s best-loved novels. There was a full shelf of Vonnegut. There were Beatles guitar fake books.

EVERYTHING ONE COULD WANT. If by “everything” you mean more than one could possibly hope to conceive of in one forty-five-minute period, what with the limitations of the human mind and all that. A finite “everything,” but subjectively, still, everything.

And you leave thinking, buzzing, full of ideas and subjects and fodder for your theories, big and small, grandiose and mundane (I like both kinds). You come away more than you were.

And I could not, conceivably, come away empty-handed in such a situation, even though I’ve been trying to limit my book purchasing in anticipation of a very big upcoming move. I left with the sheet music for “Love Songs of the Nile” from talking picture The Barbarian (for my Orientalist music collection, of course), the aforementioned Folk Tales from the Far East collected by one Charles H. Meeker (who in 1927 was apparently a high school history teacher in Florida, formerly a teacher in the Philippines—for my old book/Orientalist book collection, of course), and The Martian Chronicles.

Here’s pictures of Orientalia and otherness that I encountered on this wonderland-freaking-visit. And The Martian Chronicles.

Folk Tales from the Far East, 1927

Folk Tales from the Far East, 1927

Love Songs of the Nile sheet music, 1933

Love Songs of the Nile sheet music, 1933 (first line: “Allah — smiling on high!”

Illustration from James Fenimore Cooper's The Deerslayer

Illustration from James Fenimore Cooper’s The Deerslayer

American Indian Rhapsody sheet music

American Indian Rhapsody sheet music

Explanatory notes on American Indian Rhapsody, including where this "Indian music" came from

Explanatory notes on American Indian Rhapsody, including where this “Indian music” came from

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Acquisition.

orientalism #3: Iron Chef and Pan-Asian Exoticism

When I was a kid, I used to sometimes stay at my grandma’s house, and she would always stay up until 9 or 10pm (big-kid bedtime) watching Japanese language TV. My grandma was born in the United States to Japanese immigrants, and speaks what she calls “pidgin-Japanese” to our Japan-based relatives, but still enjoys Japanese media, as long as it has subtitles. Sometimes, when I couldn’t sleep, I would watch Japanese TV with her.

Mostly it was soap operas, set in feudal Japan. But we also watched Iron Chef. As I did, later, with my parents. Featuring Iron Chefs Sakai, Morimoto, Chen– and, of course, over-the-top master of ceremonies Chairman Kaga, who would start every episode with a montage of self-satisfied ingredient-sniffing and imperious surveyings of his game show set domain.

Watch this for classic Kaga (plus inexplicable Pirates of the Caribbean music):

Now everyone knows American media really likes to import and translate foreign TV shows and films, and the extent to which the original cultural imprint remains can vary. The Departed gets transplanted from Hong Kong to Boston. The Ring moves to Seattle with a little white girl as evil ghost and blond lady Naomi Watts as terrorized protagonist, while The Grudge stays in Japan with a Japanese woman and little boy as evil ghosts and blond lady Sarah Michelle Gellar as terrorized protagonist. In Europe/Scandinavia, Let the Right One In is redubbed Let Me In and moved to middle America, while The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo keeps the exact same Stockholm setting and story and just switches to English (with some Swedish people having British accents, and some having Swedish accents, both equally inexplicably).

But maybe I can’t compare Iron Chef USA to these transplanted movies. Maybe a better point of comparison is “Wipeout,” which re-creates the zany Japanese game show obstacle course antics of “Takeshi’s Castle.” While the Japanese game show influence is obvious, there are otherwise no representations of Japanese culture in the American show. It’s more of an opportunity for us to see people get hurt by falling off of really ridiculous, brightly-colored things. (A universal pleasure.)

Iron Chef USA, however, has kept the Japanese-ness of its origins alive in two ways. First, by employing Iron Chef Morimoto, one of the original Japanese Iron Chefs. Cool. Fine. Second, by employing Mark Dacascos as the host and “nephew” (because all Asian people are related! Is that it!!) to Chairman Kaga.

Every time I watch Iron Chef USA on Food Network, I cringe at Dacascos’ performance. His studied, self-consciously clipped “Asian” accent. His theatrical overextensions, jumping between a serene arms-at-sides position to the exaggerated arms-sweeping of secret-ingredient-announcing. The little “whoosh” sound effects that accompany the piercing glances he throws at each of the contestants before said arms-sweeping secret-ingredient-announcing.

Ted Allen peers over Chef Morimoto's shoulder on Iron Chef America.

Ted Allen peers over Chef Morimoto’s shoulder on Iron Chef America.

Before landing his Chairman Kaga Lite gig in 2005, Mark Dacascos made a career as an actor and martial artist. He appeared in Double Dragon alongside Scott Wolf (I know I was like WHOA!) and in a CSI episode as a Buddhist monk named Ananda who is a murder suspect (with that same bewildering “Asian” accent—discussed below). He is originally from Hawaii, according to Wikipedia, born to a Chinese-Filipino-Spanish father and an Irish-Japanese mother. In his own way he is pretty pan-Asian.

But as he stands there on that Iron Chef USA stage, speaking in English, surrounded by mostly white people, enacting that bizarre ritual which kicks off every show which is based on Chairman Kaga’s original routine but here feels unnatural, exploitative, and like an attempt to capture a “mysterious” Eastern vibe using this inscrutable Chairman Kaga’s nephew character, as he shoots kung-fu glances at the contestants and then says in a kung-fu voiceover voice, “Today’s… secret… ingredient… is…” and then fog machines are unleashed and the ingredient is unveiled with Kaga Lite dramatically lifting his arms like a symphony conductor via a magician pretending at the ability to levitate objects, and whatever it is—let’s say it’s oysters—he then, wide-eyed, rolling his head in a kung-fu flourish, announces in the most melodramatic, Asian-y way possible, “Ohh-OYY-sterrs!!!” And the white people stand around and clap at this silly little spectacle. Then he yells in machine-gun Japanese-style French: “ALLEZ CUISINE!” (Something Kaga did too.)

Well. And as he does all this. I cringe.

Here’s a montage of what I can only imagine is every ingredient announcement ever (click here if video doesn’t work):

First off, Mark Dacascos is Asian-American. Yet every episode, he pushes his American subjecthood down under the surface and puts on this weird throwback Oriental act. And maybe because it’s done in such earnest, and maybe additionally because there’s such a disconnect between his Asian caricature and his own, clearly American, mixed features (this shouldn’t make a difference, but just seems to call more attention to it— not to mention the palatability/marketability of a conventionally handsome American Asian with tan skin and large eyes vis-à-vis a more traditionally featured Asian man), and the knowledge that this disconnect might be much less apparent to people who live in parts of the country without any Asians, such that they’ll be like, “Asians! That’s what they’re like!”—that it all feels, you know. Offensive.

Plus, there are hardly any Asians in TV/film, period. And what often happens when they ARE there, is it’s Asian-Americans playing Asian Asians. Like they’re not from here.

People might say that this act is harmless, that it’s just an homage to the over-the-top theatricality of Japanese television, and that might be true. But when analyzing pop culture (no seriously I wish there was a job just called “pop culture analyst” and that someone would hand it to me) I tend to take a multitude of factors into account: intent, performance, reception, broader impact. What you do in your living room when you’re joking around with your friends is going to have a different reception and impact than what Mark Dacascos does on the Food Network. In effect, it is at the very least a reproduction of Orientalist tropes of “the Asian” as mysterious, impersonal, and ultimately foreign.

Note on the “Asian” accent: What I mean by this isn’t your standard Japanese, Chinese, Korean, Vietnamese et al accent. It’s more like what I referred to as the “kung-fu voiceover”: no traces of mispronounced words, all American-accented, but with a clipped, self-conscious quality that may or may not have originated in the kung fu dubbings of the 1960s and 1970s as an American voice actor’s attempt to sound “Asian” without effecting an actual accent. I have no sources to back this up. This is my impression. “Sau-SAGE!” “Pitz-a-doh!” “TO-MAY-TO!” Suffice it to say, it emphasizes a “foreignness” in the Asian figure that is divorced from any ethnic, cultural, or geographic reality.

Which is just what we need. More “Where are you froms?” More Asians-as-foreigners discourse. More Julie Chen-style desperate playing up of Asian stereotypes to a largely white audience.

For more on the above, listen to Andrew Ti’s very funny podcast from this week, about “Where are you from?” I’m already devising responses in my head to what I anticipate to be an increase in such inquiries when I move inland. (where am I from? California. where are my parents from? England, and Michigan. where are my grandparents from? England, Canada, and California. STRAW MAN MIND BLOWN.)

orientalism #2: Elephant Bar and our incurable British imperial nostalgia

I’ve been going to Elephant Bar for years. It’s the Applebee’s of pseudo-Asian food of indeterminate origin: satisfying, unspectacular, and full of families on Saturday nights. I can’t count how many times I’ve enjoyed the plain teriyaki chicken and rice dish alongside an embarrassingly fruity cocktail, chatting with friends over the noise of crying children. For whatever reason—okay, an obvious one being that there are very few places to eat in Cupertino– I keep coming back.

So it was with great surprise that, on my last visit, I stopped, looked around, and said, “Holy shit. This place is an Orientalist wonderland.”

I can’t really say why I never noticed that before. Note that this realization came after three years spent getting a graduate degree in history, in a department where Edward Said is mentioned in everyday conversation (not to mention he’s painted on the front of our freaking bookstore!) and that, particularly in my exams semester, British empire was a huge focus and whatever hypersensitivity to empire nostalgia I already had during this time was undoubtedly heightened.

elephant, elephant bar, decor, orientalism, africa

Watch out for the elephant that occasionally emerges from the stone.

The giant elephant in the front of the restaurant: well, that’s unavoidable. The animal skin prints that sweep parts of the décor—zebra, giraffe, tiger—aren’t exactly subtle either. The turn-of-the-century, slow-sweeping fans brushing back and forth along the ceiling are a nice touch. They always remind me of the Indiana Jones ride at Disneyland. On this particular visit, however, I also finally noticed the late 19th-century-style European trunks with travel stickers reading “Zanzibar” and “Timbuktu” that serve as ambient decoration over some of the booths.

elephant bar, cupertino, restaurant, pan asian

The illustrious Elephant Bar, Cupertino.

Tie all these pan-African and –Indian elements together with Elephant Bar’s commitment to serving pan-(East)Asian-infused cuisine and you have—tah dah!—an Orientalist wonderland, just like I said. It’s a campy, Disneyish mixture of the exotic with cavalier disregard for specific geographies. The trunks definitively indicate that the overarching tie-in to this mish-mash of “the Rest” (see: Niall Ferguson, below) is the pan-British Empire.

Elephant Bar is by no means the only establishment to capitalize on our collective British imperial nostalgia. There’s this colonial African-themed wedding that made headlines last year for its callous obliviousness, down to hiring black servants to fill the colonial-era black-servant-costumes. And in Victoria, British Columbia for a graduate conference about (aptly) race, I got the chance to visit the landmark Fairmont Empress hotel in downtown Victoria. Now, Victoria is a beautiful remnant of British hegemony, in some ways Britishier than Britain, still celebrating tea time and replete with Queen Victoria statue and British colonial buildings and even slightly, slightly British accents. Inside the Empress, past the gorgeous tea room that’s a must-do for tourists, across from the Authentic Native Art store, there is the absolute centerpiece of Orientalist fantasy—the Bengal Lounge.

victoria, british columbia, tourism, british empire

Fairmont Empress, front.

bengal lounge, fairmont empress, victoria, tourism, orientalism

Bengal Lounge, entrance.

victoria, british empire, british columbia, fairmont empress

Bengal Lounge, interior. See the fans?

Its name emblazoned across a gong-like hanging sign. Slow-sweeping British-in-India style fans brushing the ceiling. A complete tiger skin plastered over the fireplace. It was a place of great diversion for me and my fellow conferencers, at the same time that it was, of course, slightly horrifying. Orientalist and nostalgic to the very core.

What’s most striking to me about the brand of imperial nostalgia exemplified by Elephant Bar and the Bengal Lounge and other such places isn’t that it’s pervasive or offensive or wrong. It’s that it’s so, well, nostalgic.

I recognize and welcome it even as I conscientiously object to it. There’s something warm and familiar about the trappings of British society in the tropical jungles of India and Africa– the giant, sticker-laden trunks, the loose cotton dresses, the pith helmets. That’s because, culturally, this setting is interwoven into some of our most beloved literature and film classics and thus into our collective historical fantasy. As hard as I try, I can’t help but associate good memories with this setting, even though I never lived it, even though I recognize it as a dark time/phenomenon in the history of human and global interaction.

In The Secret Garden, Mary has spent her whole childhood in India, born to Britisher parents in the Empire’s Crown Jewel. Her neglectful socialite parents are lost in a cholera outbreak in their colonial home early on in the book, which is the reason Mary is sent to live with a distant relation on the Yorkshire moors (where she discovers the titular landscaping).

the secret garden, film, india, british empire

Mary is dressed by Indian servants.

In The Jungle Book—well, in almost any Rudyard Kipling book—we’re in deepest India. More notably for my childhood, the 1994 Disney live-action “reimagining” of the story casts a 20-year-old Mowgli against a British colonial presence which involves him falling in love with a British officer’s daughter (Lena Headey) and becoming the love rival of another officer (Cary Elwes). Notably, Indian native Mowgli is played by Chinese-American actor Jason Scott Lee.

the jungle book, film, disney, india, british empire

Mowgli protects his girl from Baloo. Has anyone stopped to ask what a bear was doing in the Indian jungle?

In Disney’s Tarzan, we’re in 19th-century Africa, where a white man orphaned by jungle cats and raised by apes is discovered by a British professor’s daughter, who he subsequently falls in love with. Tarzan is wild, raised in the primitive African jungle setting, and their romance holds undertones of the savage meeting the “civilized man.

disney, film, tarzan, africa

Tarzan’s parents attempt to protect him from the wilds.

In The Mummy, we’re in 1920s Egypt, at the time in a state of limbo regarding independence from Britain (achieved in 1922 but conditional until 1936). Swashbuckling American adventurer O’Connell and half-Egyptian love interest Evie unleash a mummy’s curse and enlist the help of memorable characters like WWI RAF veteran Winston, now a tottering hard-drinking regular at a Cairo bar, who puts his adorable pilot’s cap and goggles back on to fly them in his biplane over the dunes to the mummy’s lost city. Notably, the major Egyptian characters are played by an Israeli (Oded Fehr), a South African (Arnold Vosloo), an Indian (Erick Avari), an Irish American (Kevin J. O’Connor), and a Venezuelan (Patricia Velazquez). Non-major Egyptian characters either perish from pressurized salt booby traps or join the boils-ridden “Imhotep”-chanting mob.

the mummy, british empire, egypt, world war, orientalism

Winston being an awesome stereotype.

In Indiana Jones & the Temple of Doom, the second installment of the 1980s trilogy (let’s discount Crystal Skull, shall we?), we visit colonial India alongside the intrepid American archaeologist-adventurer. Plenty of people have already complained about the problematic racial representations in this film—mostly the centerpiece of barbaric Indian devil-worshipers who serve as the villains. It’s the 1930s, but we don’t see too many Britishers, so not a huge representation of imperial nostalgia. But definitely Orientalist.

indiana jones, temple of doom, racism, india

An awkward dinner party with the guy who played Nehru.

disneyland, indiana jones, line, temple, orientalism

The line for the Indiana Jones ride. Forever associated with the absolute enchantment it had for me when I visited it in its opening year in 4th grade.

In the Adventureland area in Disneyland, next to the Indiana Jones ride (which creates a new story for the franchise vaguely reminiscent but wholly separate from Temple of Doom), the Jungle Cruise takes you down a simulated Zambezi or Congo or somesuch to see exotic African animals and a few savage natives (all animatronic of course), proctored by humorous guides in khaki shorts. The Bazaar sells kitschy souvenirs like rain sticks and plush monkeys and safari gear. Aladdin’s Dinner Show sits next to the Enchanted Tiki Room. The former Swiss Family Robinson Treehouse now belongs to Tarzan.

joseph conrad, heart of darkness, apocalypse now

He wrote the book on empire. Not literally.

In Heart of Darkness, the reader is struck with the same fear and wonder as the narrator Marlowe as his riverboat plunges deeper and deeper into darkest Africa, as he represents a structured British civilization slowly slipping away. Strange sounds reverberate from the trees at night; mute savages lay dying in groves; animalistic fury seems to sit just beneath the surface of every native worker. Terror and madness only await the British man who ventures that deep into the continent. This terror and madness is recast into the Vietnamese jungles for Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, and, maybe a little bit (but with more of a dry heat), into Iraq for Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker.

dennis hopper, francis ford coppola, heart of darkness

Vietnam makes white people go crazy.

What does it all boil down to? Well, I suppose that British imperial nostalgia is burrowed into my very being. I was raised on the stuff, indoctrinated by 19th-century British authors and the 20th-century filmmakers who adapted their stories and the theme parks and theme restaurants who used their accoutrements as décor. I am guilty of British imperial nostalgia, even as I am critical of British empire.

This brings us to the very obvious point that, even as one is critical of empire, one cannot reject everything that occurred under empire. These were people’s lives—these were people’s lived experiences—these were generations of people, centuries of culture, centuries of innovation and production and literature and art and philosophy and knowledge.

Now don’t go all Niall Ferguson on me. Just because you accept that the cultural remnants of British empire are not completely without value (depending, of course, on how they are executed—most new recreations of empire are inherently problematic, but we’re obviously not going to disavow The Jungle Book) does not mean you promote and defend the very idea of British empire, nor promote and defend its modern-day inheritors (for Ferguson, American empire). As Ferguson so astutely points out in Empire, British empire brought plenty of “good” things to the world: liberty, Common Law, Protestantism, the English language, and team sports. Where would we be without these things? We’d probably be fine. But at the same time we don’t know what we would be. That’s the unavoidable, tragic, true point. It happened. And it forever altered the trajectory of global history. And it gave us a past to be nostalgic about, willingly or not.

I feel like, regardless of how I try to rationalize it, my British imperial nostalgia will continue to be tempered by a guilt that will, ultimately, result in an extreme ambivalence. So I won’t be boycotting Elephant Bar just yet. Empire is problematic. But empire happened.

Rudyard Kipling and Agatha Christie and British literary racism

Racism is caused by literature, famous footballer says: Blasts Agatha Christie, Rudyard Kipling for perpetuating bigotry | New York Daily News.

I subscribe to a Google alert for “racism.” It was actually just a test run for my job– I hadn’t used Google alerts before so wanted to try it, and as far as buzz words go “racism” is the gift that keeps on giving– but anyway, it’s been like four months and I haven’t turned it off.

Yesterday, after four months of almost daily reminders of the ongoing debate in Europe over racism in football, this came up. I don’t know much about European football, so I couldn’t comment on it much before, but I DO know Agatha Christie.

I think it’s a really interesting point that John Barnes brings up. Britain’s imperial, racist history can be easily found in its rich body of literature, so much of which we still know and love today. It’s the same in American literature: I regularly encounter the N-word in the pre-1960 books I read (most recently, in Henry Miller and William Faulkner) and even when it’s used by black characters or used in what might be an “authentic” manner of capturing period dialogue, it’s really uncomfortable and a constant reminder of what used to be okay, what used to be normal. (Being white.)

Kipling and Christie, as Barnes points out, both make up part of the British cultural landscape which has been complicit in horrific imperial violence and possessing of uncouth racist attitudes. They both represent a complacency of white superiority, British global supremacy, cultural chauvinism. But in that, they aren’t always so different from other writers. And the two served very different functions in British culture.

Rudyard Kipling was the poet of empire, an Anglo-Indian who celebrated British imperialism, and a Nobel Prize winner. His writing—most obviously, “The White Man’s Burden,” the poster poem for the civilizing mission—was almost activist in its stance towards the Empire, actively pro-, practically propaganda.

Take up the White Man’s burden–
Send forth the best ye breed–
Go bind your sons to exile
To serve your captives’ need;
To wait in heavy harness,
On fluttered folk and wild–
Your new-caught, sullen peoples,
Half-devil and half-child.

Oh-ho and that shit is just the first stanza. When I first came across this poem in an upper-division undergraduate class on the American Gilded Age (can’t remember, but was probably a tie-in to American empire), naïve and un-historically-informed as I was, I honestly assumed it was a work of satire, a criticism of empire as evidenced by its over-the-top, gushing profuseness. I was made to stand corrected. He’s serious as a heart attack. In effect, he’s saying, “God, it’s really hard being a white guy because we have to go all the way to these inhospitable tropical places, subdue the peoples, and then we have the responsibility to civilize them too! But in the end it’s okay, because we are so brave and selfless for doing it. Aaaaaaaand that’s the British Empire.” (musical tag!)

On the flip side of the Kipling civilizing mission is this musical number from the Disney’s 1967 The Jungle Book. But that’s for another day.

Agatha Christie, meanwhile, was not an active promoter of empire. Her treatment of race was more implicit—a complacent white superiority as well as a staunchly hobbit-like British xenophobia towards all non-British nationals—these attitudes formed the setting for her stories but were not the focus. People point most often to Ten Little N*****s, which was the original title for her famously creepy And Then There Were None. The titular minorities have no bearing on the story whatsoever except that whoever the killer is (no spoilers) keeps removing a single toy figure from the dining room each time someone else is knocked off—in the original story they were little black dolls, were then changed to Indians—the title was duly changed to Ten Little Indians (not quite as offensive) but eventually that was changed to its present And Then There Were None, the last line of the corresponding children’s poem about the N-words/Indians. (God, how disturbing would that be if there was an actual children’s poem of the N-word version! Don’t know if I want to find out.)

But it’s evident in a number of her other books as well (and she has a ridiculous catalogue which I have steadily devoured for the past 15 years but still haven’t even made a dent in). I remember a Greek character, married to a wallflower British sister, who, while charming and pleasant in speech, had a kind a furtiveness to his manner that marked him as permanently untrustworthy to the main characters (not to mention his swarthy complexion!). I can’t count how many times one of the regular witnesses who Poirot/Miss Marple/&tc interview says something to the effect of, “Well, he’s a foreigner, you know” to explain away some defect, some indefinable lack of character. And of course, there are those exotic journeys that form the basis for Murder on the Orient Express and Death on the Nile which invariably have native servants as background characters, who are invariably not-quite-trustworthy, not-quite-human. (Of course, her portrayal of the British servant class isn’t all that much better—you can trust them, at least, but they’re really stupid.)

Agatha Christie novels: devourable, perfect for traveling.

Agatha Christie’s oeuvre, as a whole, serves the function of what Edward Said describes in Culture and Imperialism: a complacent understanding of a world dominated by British imperialism, not unlike Fanny Price’s uncle and his Antiguan estate in Mansfield Park, which Said uses as evidence of empire as background, something taken for granted but simultaneously reinforced. Christie’s work also touches on empire, albeit much later in its lifetime; but, like so much literature, her work is racism as background, xenophobia as background. She wasn’t promoting it, per se, so much as refracting the cultural setting back into the mainstream and, thus, contributing to its longevity. Like most authors, really; she just wrote a whole damn lot. From short story “The Pearl of Price”:

“What is honesty?” demanded the Frenchman.  “It is a nuance, a convention.  In different countries it means different things.  An Arab is not ashamed of stealing.  He is not ashamed of lying.  With him it is from whom he steals and to whom he lies that matters.”

“That is the point of view- yes,” agreed Carver.

“Which shows the superiority of the West over the East,” said Blundell.  “When these poor creatures get education-“

So ultimately this all comes down to the age-old question of how much harm works of art and literature from different eras, eras with worldviews out-of-sync with our own to the point of offensiveness, can do to our present. I’m against the erasure of the past, so simply banning or limiting the circulation of important cultural works is out of the question. They just need to be accompanied by an education, an understanding of the historical context and how that has changed then to now. ‘Cause I swear, sometimes reading enough Agatha Christie, immersing myself in her universe, I’ll be nodding along, oh yes, he’s Turkish, he’s a scoundrel for sure.

You know who else Agatha Christie didn’t like? Hippies. But that’s another story for another time.

Here’s a good roundup of Agatha Christie moments, chiefly Orientalist. My lack of familiarity with the titles is further testament to her prolific-ness.

orientalism #1: wheel of fortune.

I usually turn off Wheel of Fortune before they can get to Fortune (you know: Wheel! Of! TV off.) and I tend to think of its guests as people not smart enough to be on Jeopardy, Wheel’s 7:00 syndicated lead-in, but every once in a while I leave it on long enough to watch Vanna walk all the way across that stage and to hear Pat introduce the first glorified Hangman puzzle of the night, and then sometimes it just stays on til the end.

The other night, when such a thing happened, one of the themes or special trips or whatever the hell they do on that show produced a particularly offensive graphic called the “Exotic Far East.” The lettering approximated bamboo and was set against some kind of rice-paddy background. And was there a gong* or does my memory insert one? After this little display of Orientalism the camera cuts to Pat Sajak (in banter, a far superior host to Alex Trebek, but he lacks Alex’s socially inept brand of charisma—my family and I like to make fun of Alex but I think we’d all be very, very sad if he left) and Pat, glib as ever, muses, “Do they call us the Exotic Far West?” Pause. “Anyway–“ and the show went on.

Asian fonts, writing, bamboo, Orientalism

This is exactly what it looks like when Asians write in English.

It was the briefest moment of lucidity in what I guess I’d call the realm of mainstream culture as opposed to what I guess I’d call the realm of cultural criticism. Words like “exotic” and “mysterious,” images like chopsticks and dragons and fortune cookies, sounds like gongs* (Andrew Ti knows what I’m talking about) remain entrenched and are the lazy man’s racist stand-in for East Asia (and, at ESPN, for Palo Alto). I both abhorred and appreciated this game-show moment because, while the graphic and segment title were annoying, for just a second, Pat shook himself as if awakening from a dream, looked around, and said, “What is happening? Where am I? Why should the East be exotic?” And then sold some vowels.

Pat, it’s appreciated, now keep on hosting your mediocre game show. Vanna, you anti-feminist icon, don’t even get me started on you.

Round-Up:
– “Community” Season 1 Episode 1: intro to Senor Chang
How to Make a Chinese or Japanese Book Cover, by James Morrison (The Society Pages)
“Message from a Nightingale” scene, The Drowsy Chaperone, 2006 Broadway musical

*Musician’s Note: The type of gong used to produce the sound that typically accompanies terrible stereotypes is called a “tamtam.” It makes a crash-like wash of noise, as opposed to the “nipple” gong which has that Zen-like (dang! now I’m doing it) low-pitched ring.