Archives for posts with tag: foreignness

jamesbaldwinsketch

As some of you may know, my 2014 New Year’s Resolution has been to read at least one book without pictures every month. In January, I read Kay Larson’s Where the Heart Beats: John Cage, Zen Buddhism, and the Inner Life of Artists, which was a Christmas gift from a fellow ethnic Jew. In February, I reread Neil Postman’s Technolopoly, a book that one of my dearest friends had recommended to me back in 2003, a decade after it was written, and a book that remains relevant in 2014. In March, one of my friends from WonderRoot lent me James Baldwin’s Notes of A Native Son. I hope to continue this tradition of reading recommended books as the forces of chaos and friendship seem to putting the exact book I need to be reading into my hands.

Notes of A Native Son is largely a book about traveling. Baldwin relays his experiences exploring the United States and Europe while confronting the frustrating and rewarding struggle to understand the American identity. Baldwin’s working definition of what it means to be an American is something like an imaginary number, practical in certain cases but somewhat impossible. Unlike other noted writers who detail the American experience  like Tocqueville or Baudrillard, Baldwin is, as stated clearly in the title of the book, a native son. My own experiences as an American may appear very differently from Baldwin’s; some obvious differences relate to time, space, and race, but there is also a kinship I feel with this man from the past that stems from shared alienations as writers, expats, outsiders, and Americans. While being an American of any race in the United States can be alienating, I’d like to discuss Notes of A Native Son‘s final essay, “Stranger in the Village,” which details his experience visiting a remote Swiss village and encountering the locals who have never met a black man before. These villagers were not unaware of the existence of black people. They simply hadn’t met one before. These villagers had, however, contributed funds to “buy” some Africans- this “buy” terminology is taken from Baldwin who takes it from the villagers themselves. This practice does not involve purchasing slaves in the literal sense, but providing the monetary resources required to bring Christ into the life of an unsuspecting African. Baldwin is an eloquent critic of the church and shares his astute observations about how missionary work has impacted senses of identity for both African and African-American alike. With evangelicalism comes an unavoidable insult- before you knew me, you were hell fodder (and it’s larger implication- your entire civilization, its history and every one who lived before you, is unholy rubbish).

With this in mind, I’d like to share Baldwin’s words on the difference being the first black person that white people meet and being the first white person that black people meet. Remember that more specifically he is comparing the experience of an African-American intellectual in the 1950s visiting a rural Swiss village and a European missionary visiting a remote African village.

I thought of white men arriving for the first time in an African village, strangers there, as I am a stranger here, and tried to imagine the astounded populace touching their hair and marveling at the color of their skin. But there is a great difference between being the first white man to be seen by Africans and being the first black man to be seen by whites. The white man takes the astonishment as tribute, for he arrives to conquer and to convert the natives, whose inferiority in relation to himself is not even questioned; whereas I, without a thought of conquest, find myself among a people whose culture controls me, has even, in a sense, created me, people who have cost me more in anguish and rage than they will ever know, who yet do not even know of my existence. The astonishment with which I might have greeted them, should they have stumbled into my African village a few hundred years ago, might have rejoiced their hearts. But the astonishment with which they greet me today can only poison mine.”

I’ve never been to Africa and I don’t remember the black person I met, but there is something about this passage that relates somewhat to my own experiences. I was among the first white people that many people in China ever met and consequentially I have received the astonishment of the natives. Of course, the astonishment came with some entirely different baggage than the experience of a white missionary in Africa. Examples include the Cold War, China’s current economic status, the U.S. involvement in China’s political affairs over the past century, China’s established 5,000 years of history, the internet, John Denver, and Deng Xiaoping- the list could go on and on, but I’d rather address the similarities. As a U.S. Peace Corps volunteer drunk on the ego-swelling nectar of White Man’s Burden, I surely exhibited a sense of superiority over the Chinese people I met. Luckily my experiences offered many opportunities to embarrass myself and learn humility, but I was never free of the arrogance and elitism instilled in me by my own American background and the functioning of the larger world-system. Unlike the European missionary in Africa, I had no interest in marketing for Jesus, but I consciously desired to influence the way the people I met thought not only about the United States, but also about their own country, culture, and lives. At the invitation of the government of China, I was teaching university students, so my cultural imports were less forced than requested. Still I functioned as a propagandist for the Western ideals that I hold dear- not necessarily the ideals of the US State Department or anyone else, but the ideals that my experiences have compelled me to extoll in my daily life and as an educator. In fact, I believe my rejection of many Western ideas and acceptance of many Chinese and Marxist sentiments allowed me to make so many friends and enjoy my life there as much I did. I also arrived in China with little faith in the prejudices and condemnations by which Western society had tried to define China with during my lifetime. The irrelevance of Cold War propaganda and hefty evidence of the Chinese people’s extraordinary capabilities certainly watered down any sense of superiority that I carried with me, but I took the astonishment at tribute to rejoice my heart more often than I let the astonishment poison my heart, to borrow Baldwin’s words.

After finishing the essay, I quickly moved onto a book with pictures…

saintsss

Anxious to read Gene Luen Yang’s Boxers & Saints, I waited until my wife finished reading it as I had purchased it for her and I’d feel like a bit of heel reading it before she did. Yang made an excellent choice in choosing the Boxer Rebellion as a period in Chinese history to turn into a comic book because the Boxers believed they had magical powers and Catholics believe they are visited are saintly ghosts. In Boxers, the first volume, the Boxers have magical powers and in Saints, the second volume, stars a young girl who converts after being visited by ghost of Joan of Arc. One central theme of the text and the Boxer rebellion in general is the effect that the newly arrived European missionaries had on China. The foreigners who arrived in China at the end of the 19th century definitely arrived with a sense of superiority- not only missionaries, not only Europeans. The simultaneous import of Christianity and opium, reinforced by advanced weaponry, is a pretty strong strategy to take advantage of a trusting country and seems like an obvious plot to subjugate them. The response of local Chinese to either resist these invaders or align themselves with them is a bit of a classic dilemma- neither a particularly attractive coping mechanism, but resistance is generally regarded as more noble and collaboration is generally regarded with contempt. Yang himself is a Chinese-American Catholic, but his sympathies for the Boxers cannot be denied. By telling the story through the perspective of two different characters, Yang shows two methods to reconcile an infestation of foreigners- neither of which are ultimately successful. Yang finds subtle ways to bring perspectives to his comics, providing a noteworthy voice to women during this period both in the Red Lanterns in Boxers and in the major characters of Saints. One voice that is either absent or demonized, perhaps rightly so, is the voice of foreigner. I certainly feel more kinship with James Baldwin visiting a Swiss village in the 1950s than I do with a European soldier or American missionary arriving in late 19th Century China- it’s a bit of an apple-orange comparison, but the experience of reading both texts reminded me of two contradictory truths that fight each other to make us forget them- our experiences are similar and our experiences are different, not usually, but always at the same time- and this message, its simultaneity and inherent contradiction, is at the heart of both texts.

Post-script footnote: I think Ann Nocenti’s run on Green Arrow is one of the most under-rated chapters of DC’s New 52. She portrays Oliver Queen as one of an Ugly American while propelling the narrative and bringing our attention to misunderstandings between China and the West. I think her work is unfairly clumped in with the poor start led by Dan Jurgens and J.T. Krul. Unfortunately Jeff Lemire’s amazing work with the character will only further overshadow Nocenti’s contributions to the title.

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Eat your weiner

One of the most efficient devices employed to distinguish a character from the setting in which that character has been placed is to have that character encounter something commonplace in the setting, but alien to that character. Examples of this abound, particularly in television and film- two mediums that lend themselves too easily to intellectual laziness. When exploring the idea of time travel, this trope is particularly over-used- think Encino Man, Dark Shadows, Captain America, etc. Seeing someone from the past or future encounter the present fills the contemporary audience with some flimsy pride- “I’m so much informed about physics than Captain America because I know who Stephen Hawking is!” when a much better assessment might be who understands the work of Einstein or Feynman better. I suppose we should forgive our story-tellers for relying too frequently on this crutch as it continues to serve effectively in creating an atmosphere and pleasing the herd. In cases of time-travel, the joke is overused, but not particularly offensive. Its humor somewhat simple and too familiar, but capable of accomplishing its objective because of that simplicity and familiarity.

bananasuperboy

In addition to time travel, this device is often used to show how alien aliens are, how robotic robots are, how foreign foreigners are- to identify the outsider. In these cases, the joke can feel a bit more like bullying and certainly more ethnocentric. The relationship between comic books and cliché is important- it gives pop art its substance. In both plot and art, the comic book works from the necessity to establish identifiable types and, like other mediums of artistic expression, the comic book works best when it uses those types against themselves. Recently in the New 52, DC Comics employed this trick- not once, not twice, but thrice! (possibly more, I don’t read every DC title)

1. In Justice League International, the British hero Godiva introduces her Chinese teammate August General in Irons to the exotic food that every 20th Century American child aspired to be: hot dogs. Following the tradition of this trope, August General  in Iron is baffled by the strange item and Godiva feels like an ambassador of holy truth. This one’s pretty dumb because Chinese people love themselves some sausage. Sausage has been a part of the Chinese diet for a long time and while hot dogs were introduced more recently, they’ve been in China for more than a century and have infiltrated Chinese daily life (usually eaten on stakes rather than in buns) to such an extent that surely August General in Iron had many opportunities to eat a hot dog before joining the JLI. (pictured at top of article)

2. In Superboy, Cassie and Kon-El find themselves on a mysterious island shaped like a question mark. Like any teenager would in this situation, Cassie makes her first priority skinny-dipping and her second finding food. Superboy understands neither bathing nor eating because he’s an alien clone only months out of his test tube. Like Godiva, Wonder Girl becomes a somewhat sexualized ambassador of truth- tada! Boobs and bananas! (pictured in the middle of the article)

3. The first time in the New 52 that DC Comics employs this trick is in its flagship title Justice League, a title which must be mandatory reading for all the creators working in the DC universe as its effects are felt by the most titles. Because of both the book’s central role and its popularity, we can assume that the creative teams behind Justice League International and Superboy witnessed the most eloquent of this cliché’s employmeny in the new 52 when a young girl introduces Wonder Woman to ice cream. (pictured below)

icecreamwonderwoman

I don’t think this joke is too offensive and I certainly don’t think it’s very creative, but employed with certain consideration, the joke can be very offensive and perhaps even creative. When the joke is posited between classes and especially classes weighted by race or caste, this cheap amusement can be especially damaging- “Look at the peasant who can’t figure out which fork to use!” or more bitingly “Look at the peasant who can’t read, can’t operate a computer, can’t afford the same level of health care or education, etc.”

One variation on this theme is the immigrant humbled by the awesomeness of the United States. One example of this in the New 52 can be found in Teen Titans when the hyper-gay hyper-immigrant hyper-Latin-American hero-type Bunker first encounters Red Robin in the land of the free and home of the brave.

bunkerashillbilly

When the Other is amazed, the Hegemon is what?

No matter, the cat likes to eat both the country mouse and the city mouse.

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