Friday, January 25, 2008

On being in the Cool Crowd

I'm wryly contemplating my recent selection as a representative of "creative cool chinese."

Chinese I certainly am, and I've had a good stab at being creative recently, but cool? I've never been cool. I was the nerdy girl in school who thought wearing white fluorescent rimmed cokebottle glasses would make me look distinctive. (I was right, but not in the manner I intended.) According to my nearest and dearest I couldn't talk in street slang if I tried. I recently had teenagers crack up when I accidentally said "fuck". I'm the kind of person who can get lost in a two-bedroom flat, who trips over my feet, and who can never find anything I was using two seconds ago. "Cool" has never be an appropriate adjective for me.

However, here I am being marketed as the last word in Asian funkiness, speaking at Te Papa (our national museum cum art gallery cum amusement park), no less. It's a rare honour and one I'm not sure I deserve... but good on 'em for featuring a poet!

All of this is a preamble for my main rant, on what constitutes "coolness" and why being "Chinese" would be cool anyway. Being Chinese was something that I never, until relatively recently, felt very cool about. (I can trace my turn of feelings back 7 years to when I was working in the UK. I bought and wore a T-shirt that proclaimed, "ORIENTAL BABE".) When I was a kid growing up in NZ I mainly tried to convince myself that I was more white than yellow, hated my parents for insisting that we associate with good Chinese kids, despised them for believing in the supremacy of the Chinese race (I'm not saying that only one side was wrong here) and tried to blend in with my friends as much as possible. Interestingly, a snapshot circa 1994 showed that my friends came in all colours - but all of us identified as "Kiwi" and bristled at any attempt to differentiate between us. I used to insist that I was "colourblind".

Fast forward to now and it's clear that I'm still as obsessed with my ethnicity as I pretended I wasn't, all those years ago. Much of my writing has been to soothe my own psyche - no longer as wounded as it once was, but still a deep hole seething with unanswered questions. Who the hell am I, anyway? Am I or am I not a typical case? Do I even have the right to speak out for "Asians"? Are people actually interested, or is it for them more like peering into a glass case and going, "ah. interesting."?

But despite the cynicism that comes so easily to me, I really think that people (if you can use that term to homogenise individuals) are starting to be interested, and not just because we look different, might know about exotic things like feng shui, ancestors and incense, or have a reputation for being good in bed. I think people are looking at us and using what we put forth as a way to answer their own questions about who they are and where they come from. In fact, weirdly enough I'm now getting waves of "yellow envy" from my white friends, who feel that sometimes they too would like to come from a distinctively different culture with strong roots in history and tradition.

Which brings me to the question of cultural maturity. For any migrant group, the younger generation who have grown up in the new country fight against the older generation, which is trying to honour the traditions of the original country. There's a lot of repression, misunderstanding and frustration which goes on. The new generation has to establish its right to be seen as a new cultural group with affiliations to both the old and the new.

Slowly, it develops a language to express that new culture. The artists - actors, writers, dancers, filmmakers and others - are usually the first to use the language. But initially, it's a limited vocab, full of stereotypes from both inside and outside the culture. Take the example of Chinese ghosts for example, or of all Chinese being martial arts experts. It's all too easy to fall into the trap of what people expect you to write about. And it's easy to feel gagged by your own people, who after centuries of being misrepresented as villains only want a "positive" image of their community projected.

When these artists finally break free of this cultural typecasting (and it's not so much a storming of the barricades as a slow chipping away at the eggshell), they start to explore other aspects of their identity, and eventually, move away from "cultural" talk altogether. Ideally you wouldn't be able to tell what culture a writer or artist comes from - their work has become "mainstream". And that, perhaps ironically, marks when a culture has finally come of age.

1 comment:

Lillian said...

I feel the same way about being more "proud" of being Chinese/Asian now.
Maybe as a kid, would rather blend in and not get picked on for being 'different', but now that I'm working (sort of... doing a phd with scholarship), there's a lot of people where I am from all different places around the world. Althought I was mostly grown up in NZ, I would say I was from Taiwan, and talk about Taiwan and Chinese cultures/festivals.
Also people now more envy of people able to speak more than one language (ease of travel, ease of going for job in different country, ease of understanding more people in the world) and more of: able to speak Mandarin, with the rise of economy in China.
I could go on, but this is getting kinda long.