Monday, 30 September 2013

Writing About Asia -- Words and Prejudice

(I wrote this piece for the Hong Kong Writers Circle on-line newsletter to substitute for a panel discussion planned earlier.)

Writing about something as dynamic and diverse as Asia at this exciting juncture could be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for writers living here; but chances are most of us would miss it.

Asia is changing at an unprecedented rate, causing a historic paradigm shift yet to be understood, hence the challenge. Most people, writers included, are more comfortable with familiar patterns and hindsight than gazing into the unknown, particularly when the road to future appears chaotically revolutionary as well as hesitantly evolutionary.

When we “write about Asia”, therefore, we could be talking about a dramatically different place depending on whether it’s in the past, present, or future.

Asia is also a big place. In spite of globalisation ambitions, beyond McDonald’s and Seven-Elevens, Asia still enjoys vast diversity in terms of cultural heritage, language, tradition, values, history, religion, demography, geography, industrialisation, and economic status. A story set in China (which part? city? countryside? Hong Kong?), India, Korea, Thailand, Japan, or Afghanistan would have completely different flavours, just like the food. Generalisation is not only difficult, but also absurd.

Then there’s the question of perspective, perhaps the most crucial for a writer. 

Living in Asia doesn’t automatically give one a meaningful “inside view” if one’s observation horizon is hemmed in by cultural barriers and distorted by prejudice. These days, everyone wants to be popular and entertaining. Even great teachers and effective community leaders would face career pressure if not regarded somewhat cuddly and amusing by the average. To an English writer of whatever ethnicity, the pressure and desire to appeal to an “international” —  i.e. “Western” — audience is considerable. His angle is likely a “Western” one, with a conventional Anglo-American bias, influenced by the mainstream media. There is a tendency to see “how Asia is, or isn’t, conforming to “international” expectations”.

Let’s take for illustration something as mundane as culinary predilection. Humouring the Hindus in a narrative for not eating cows would be readily appreciated by steak loving folks. On the other hand, the same readers who savour cow meat medium-rare are expected to cringe over the thought of dogs simmering to tender perfection with garlic and veggies in fermented tofu sauce. It would take more than a zoologist to rationalise the difference; but similar “norms” can be found in many other cultural and political areas.

Things are changing fast. East is meeting West on a more interactive footing than ever. To write about Asia with insight and foresight, a writer needs not only to immerse, but also to detach from blinkered viewpoints, in order to see the full picture his or her own way. After all, up until not long ago, writers were mostly opinionated individuals who could see things differently, and put them into words.
James Tam 30 Oct 2013

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