Looking for Trouble

Recently, I was commissioned to write a profile on an erhu musician from mainland China for an American publication. It seemed pretty straightforward, and I’d done lots of pieces like this before, so I just wrote the thing, deleted the extra three thousand words of digressions about Qing Dynasty opium addiction and syphilis, and sent in the piece.

I’m pretty easy when it comes to edits, but I was really taken aback when I got the comments back from the editor, who is a nice liberal. Instead of a profile, she said that she wanted to see a critique of China. She wanted me to explore Chinese xenophobia–because I mentioned that the erhu was looked down on ONE THOUSAND YEARS AGO as a barbarian instrument. (It hasn’t been looked down on in a hundred years, at least.) She wanted me to look for anti-Western and nationalistic critics of the erhu musician, who played a fusion of Western and Chinese music. (Nope, Chinese people are the opposite, they’ve been brainwashed to think Western music is great because it’s “modern.”) She assumed that Chinese classical music was male-dominated and wanted me to explore that. (Music conservatories, who produce most of China’s virtuosos, usually have more female graduates and it’s been like that for over thirty years.) She wanted me to dig up controversy around the erhu. THE ERHU, for fuck’s sake, the same instrument that old people play in parks to scare off rats and pigeons.

photo credit: Joe Mabel (license)

My first reaction was a series of “JESUS CHRIST”s (which my toddler ended up learning, by the way. If you see a two-year-old shaking his head and hissing “JESUS CHRIST” through clenched teeth, that’s my kid). Then I thought maybe I was being biased, and I searched through the Internet for any erhu scandals, but the top controversies I could find were: an impassioned argument about the merits of wearing jeans while playing the erhu, a dude whining about how his teacher insulted him by saying that he looks like he’s pulling a duck’s neck when he plays erhu, and the most controversial one of all, this one dude who proposed that overweight people should not play the erhu because their stomachs would get in the way. This statement led to a flurry of outraged comments from other posters, which led the original poster to remark, “The intensity of your replies leads me to believe that the statistics regarding China’s obesity rate are true.”

But none of this was the kind of controversy she wanted. I shouldn’t have been surprised because this is the kind of shit that the West wants to read about China and Asia, in general. People in the West want to read shit like [ERHU MUSICIAN] PLAYS EAST-WEST FUSION MUSIC AS SECRET MESSAGE ASKING FOR ASYLUM FROM OPPRESSIVE COMMUNIST REGIME. [ERHU MUSICIAN] PLAYS UNTIL FINGERS BLEED BECAUSE OF PRESSURE TO PERFORM BY ASSHOLE TEACHER–oh wait, that’s Whiplash. Actually, considering that I was asked to twist another erhu musician’s quote about valuing the Chineseness of the erhu into an anti-progress and anti-experimentalism rant, it’s like I’m being asked to write the unholy combination of a white feminist Whiplash and La La Land (thanks to Doretta for seeing the La La-ness).

This isn’t the first or only time something like this has happened. On a forum for writers not too long ago, there was a call for someone to write an article on an Asian American chick’s experiences in China, and they specifically requested that the writer focus on the following:

a) China is a racist, shitty place because the subject didn’t feel welcomed for being Chinese (yeah, dig the entitlement) when she went there. Yes, because the US is amazing and wonderful and inclusive.

b) China is sexist because the chick’s brother–WHO GREW UP IN THE US–is sexist.

corollary to b): China is full of abusers because the chick’s brother hit her. Okay, maybe I’m just a backwards Third Worlder, but if your brother hits you once, that’s not abuse, that’s an excuse to fucking kick his ass. I remember once I was at a Filipino friend’s birthday party when her drunk uncle threw a cup of water at her mom (his sister), and her mom leapt across the room and pummeled her uncle straight up like Luffy’s Gatling Gun attack.

They were rolling on the floor, overturning the furniture, her grandma got into the act and slapped their bodies indiscriminately with a slipper while yelling at them that hitting was wrong. It was my first MMA fight, and I’ll never forget it.

c) China is dirty and gross. And of course, the US always provides clean water and wonderful, organically grown and locally sourced food for its residents.

I commented that this was racist, and another Asian American chick whitesplained to me on behalf of white people that they just wanted nuance. That’s how racist liberals protect themselves, you know. They want NUANCE. They want CRITICAL PERSPECTIVES. But only if it’s the kind of nuance or critical perspective they approve of.

Western publications love it when you criticize Asian parents for being abusive and blame Asian culture, but you aren’t allowed to explain the context behind the abuse: the generations of Asians who were born between 1900 to 1960 endured wars, revolutions, famine, danger, extreme poverty, and colonization. Many of them have PTSD, even if they won’t admit it, and that’s why they act so fucked up. But nope, you’re not allowed to humanize older Asian people. They must all be traditional and backwards and evil with no individual histories.

I think this is why Alex Tizon’s article in The Atlantic damning his family for exploiting a woman was published; it let white people fulfill their fantasies by portraying “traditional” Asian cultures as backwards and abusive when it’s really the story of one particularly shitty family framed through Tizon’s internalized racism and self-loathing. I’m not kidding, dudes, he wrote an entire book about how ashamed he felt to be Filipino. I’m sure a lot of liberals really enjoyed reading it.

I try not to be angry whenever I have to deal with this shit. I think like, what do I care what Westerners say about China or Asia when I got real problems, but then I think of what Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie said in her TED talk: “Power is the ability not just to tell the story of another person, but to make it the definitive story of that person.”

And that is what is happening right now. Even though they think they’re so progressive, liberals–not just white ones, a lot of Asian ones are complicit too–only want to tell one story. And when they do that, they’re removing my humanity and my ability to speak for myself. And those Asians who only support this narrative because they want to distance themselves from being Asian and become second-class whites are too stupid to realize that they’ll also be dehumanized.

The truth is more than one story, as Chimamanda says. But for all of its so-called freedom of speech, the West is determined to drown out all other stories. If you say anything that challenges the West’s perception of itself as a leader and arbiter of what is right and moral, you’re labeled a brainwashed nationalist. You’re allowed to criticize non-Western cultures as much as you like, but just try to criticize democrazy (typo and it stays) and see how far freedom of speech gets you.

There is an invisible censorship in the West, and it’s worse than any censorship anywhere else because people think it doesn’t exist. It’s the censorship that always humanizes white serial killers but turns twelve-year-old black boys into hulking monsters. It’s the censorship that steals the voices and cultures of indigenous people. It’s the censorship that refuses to let Asian people be happy being Asian. It’s the censorship that makes people think only the West (and people who have/want privilege in it) has objectivity when it comes to stories, when it’s so obvious it’s not true. Like K’Naan said: “Until the lion learns to speak, the tales of hunting will be weak.”

Don’t get me wrong: I think that it’s important for Asians to cast a critical eye on our own cultures because we’ve done fucked up a lot. But this kind of censorship makes it hard not to be defensive, and when you’re defensive, you end up making excuses for shit you shouldn’t be excusing. What a waste of time.

I don’t really know how to end this except to say that at The Unpublishables, we will tell more than one story. And below is one of them. I hope you take the time to listen.

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