When I see how trendy Asian shit is, I sometimes rue that I’m as ethical as I am. With my psychological background and a rudimentary knowledge of Taiwanese culture, I could be making bank, yo, if I appropriated my own history. That brings up an interesting question–can someone appropriate their own culture? I think so. I am Taiwanese by heritage, yes, but I was born and raised in Minnesota. I like to say I’m as exotic as lutefisk, but now I’ll add that I’m not as bland. However, I do look like an Asian person*, so with a little spin and ingenuity, I could sell myself as an Asian mystic to the gullible masses. I watched as feng shui swept the country. I see turban-swathed people in white practicing yoga. Martial arts are all the rage, and I actually know one of them!
Imagine. I can name myself Guan Yin after the Chinese goddess of mercy and love, or Kali after the Hindu goddess of death and liberation. Yes, she’s Indian, but do you really think Americans will know or care? I have a yin-yang tattoo as a pendant on my upper right arm, and its band is made of flames and waves (of water). I have a lotus blossom engulfed in flames tattoo on my left breast, and a representation of Kali in flames (yes, I have a thing for fire, and all four of my tats have flames) above my belly button. I can plait my waist-length hair or have two Princess Leia buns on top of my head. I can speak in pidgin English and bow periodically to my clients. I would wear white voluminous robes or a cheongsam, and I’d have the jade symbol for fortune dangling from a red thread around my neck.
I would talk in short sentences, filled with pithy observations about nature. “You must be as a bird flies–light on your wings with the wind behind you.” It doesn’t make any sense, of course, but that would just add to the mystery. Americans love Asian mystical shit, which has always bemused and amused me. I was reading at an Asian event many years ago. The theme was sex and sexuality, and there were many interesting pieces. Once the reading was over, it was open mic, and a white guy walked up to the microphone and said that he didn’t understand why we had talked about sex when there were so many wonderful spiritual things in the East. He talked about his Korean girlfriend (ugh) who said American Asians didn’t know if they were Asian or American, and then he read a nauseating piece of the mystical East. You can imagine how that went over, and several of my co-readers lined up to angrily respond. Me, I could only marvel at the gall of a mediocre white dude who had no qualms telling a room full of Asians what they should think is important about their own goddamn culture.
I’ve had people ask me why I get so upset about this particular stereotype. “Minna, being thought of as spiritual is a good thing!” The reason it irks me so is because it still reduces Asians to one-note caricatures rather than real people. It also strips away the earthiness of Asians, which is one reason we had decided to have a reading about sex and sexuality. Asian women are fetishized and Asian men are emasculated in this culture. The dragon lady/concubine versus the geeky IT nerd who can’t get any. Focusing exclusively on the spirituality of Asians effectively neuters an entire continent. It’s the same with gushing about how smart Asians are–it ignores the reality which is that at least for East Asians (which is what most people think of when they think of Asians at all), most of them came to attend grad school, which means the smartest of the smartest. Believe me, there are plenty of ignorant and stupid people in Asia, not to mention adulterers, cheaters, scammers, murderers, etc. Asian people are just as complex and complicated as are Westerners, so this fixation by Americans on the mystical East is both funny and irritating.
Still. I can use it to my advantage. I can be a sort of Asian spiritual adviser. I already evoked the ghost of my great-great-great-great (counts and again adds one more great) Auntie Cherry Blossom in my POOG post about hypothyroidism, so I can rouse her from her eternal slumber once again to aid me in my madcap Asian adventures. She’s a high-level spirit who gives sage and blunt advice, as interpreted by me, of course. I’m sure she’d be delighted in helping me scam naive Americans, er, dole out spiritual words of wisdom to the millions of
Americans who seek advice and comfort as long as I give her a cut of the profits. Hey, those Mahjongg debts aren’t going to pay for themselves, you know. I bet I could charge $100 an hour or more to impart gems such as, “You must balance your work and your home life as do the heavens and the earth.” Or, “Look to your honorable ancestors for the wisdom of ancient times.” I can make up any shit I want and attribute it to my culture, and who is going to challenge me?
I would set up a shrine with pictures of my ancestors** and incense burners on the shrine. I would instruct my hapless victims, er, clients to bow three times to the shrine. Why three? Because that’s what my ancestors told me was proper, that’s why! Damn. I could get into this. My every word being hung upon and treated like gold. I can see why it might be intoxicating. I could create a bastardized martial arts based on the taiji I know. I’ll call it Tai Chi-POW! (exclamation point included), and it’ll be focused on how you can harness your chi in order to fulfill your potential. Is that possible? Who knows and who cares?
I joked with my taiji teacher that if I ever did embark on an adventure like this to exploit my Asian background, I wouldn’t mention her because I wouldn’t want to besmirch her good name. She laughed and said she knew I was too moral to be worried about that. She’s right, damn it, but would it be wrong to capitalize on my Asian culture in a nonexploitative way? Like, I could teach a simplified version of taiji to beginners, and it would be beneficial. However, I don’t think I’m ready to teach yet, even if it were something I was interested in doing. I do some tutoring in class from time to time, and I’m good at it with most people. I have an innate ability to know what teaching method works with each person, and I’m much more patience as a tutor than I normally am. However, being a tutor is far easier than being a teacher, obviously, in part because I’m doing it under the watchful eye of my teacher. Teaching someone one posture is vastly different than teaching the whole system.
Currently, I’m teaching myself the left side of the Solo Form, and it’s frustrating as hell. I taught myself te left side of the Sword Form fairly easily, but I’m struggling with the left side of the Solo Form. I feel that if I were to try to teach taiji to other people, it would be like teaching myself the left side of the Solo Form.
The darker side of my brain won’t let me stop thinking about different ways I can bilk gullible Americans with an inscrutable Asian caricature. I once said to my brother that our family could be great at lawbreaking because we’re all highly intelligent and have an amalgamation of skills that would lend themselves nicely to committing nefarious deeds. I feel the same way with Asian trends. I have the knowledge to cash in on it, and why the hell not? If I’m not actively harming anyone, who cares if I make a little cash off my heritage?
Unfortunately, I do. More to the point, I don’t actually want to do it, however much I joke about it. It’s so prevalent on my mind for an entirely different reason–I’m frustrated that tired old stereotypes about Asians refuse to die. We’re in the the year 2017, and people still want a Mr. Miyagi of their own. I’m not inscrutable, and I’m not going to tell anyone to wax on, wax off. I don’t care if you can catch flies with your chopsticks, and my English is probably better than yours. Asian history is rich with spirituality, yes, but that’s not the only thing in our storied past. My taiji teacher has told us stories about how the masters in our lineage have been challenged by competitors who wanted to prove they were better than the masters. She also told us a story about a Liu He Ba Fa master who sucker punched a Bagua Zhang master as they shook hands because the former thought the latter would be a wuss.
My point? Even high-level martial arts practitioners are human and do things for base reasons. It’s folly to expect that just because someone has elevated themselves in one aspect, it means they’ve transcended human desires. My bottom line on Asians: We’re human beings with more in common with Westerners than differences, and it’s not doing anyone any favors by focusing on only one aspect of Asian culture.
I’ve joked that I’m going to stream myself sitting on my couch with my cat to see how many views I could get, but it’s not totally a joke. I’d like demystify Asians for Westerners, and what better way than to watch me drink a cup of tea–wait, better make it coffee– and playing video games or watching sports or talking about politics? I’m not saying that there isn’t something to be learned from Asian spiritualism because of course there is; I’m saying there’s so much more to us than just that. It would be nice if we could be viewed as whole human beings, rather than just gurus and swamis.
*Because I am one!
**Stock photos of old Asian people.