More on the Other: Can it be avoided?

On Tuesday I posted some thoughts on Otherness and how it weakens stories by forcing them into already-established language and ideas. I brought up a time in David Wong Louie’s class when everyone criticized a published story for exoticizing its Chinese subjects. But here’s the thing: that afternoon in David’s class, my voice wasn’t among those complaining. I didn’t defend the piece, but when I read it, the Othering didn’t jump out at me. I’ve had similarly neutral (or even positive) responses to other work that offends others, most notably Gone with the Wind and Memoirs of a Geisha (though I’d like to point out that I haven’t read either book since I was a teenager, and would probably respond differently to them now). On the other hand, the first time I read Guy Delisle’s graphic novel Shenzhen, about his time in that Chinese city, I could barely stand to finish it. I hated his depiction of China and Chinese people. So what’s going on here?

A brief explanation of the Other

The concept of the Other, which you might have thought about even if you’re not familiar with the term itself, refers in literature to viewing someone else (or a group to which they belong) as different from oneself, but in an intrinsic way. It’s not the same as merely observing objective differences, but rather, it creates a value judgment and an us-versus-them distinction. We’ve seen this through history, when people of different ethnicities viewed each other as lesser beings. And we see it a lot in art, whenever some individual or group is depicted as being wholly different — incomprehensibly and eternally different — from “us.”

To see someone as Other doesn’t necessarily require that we see them completely negatively, which makes things tricky: often people don’t realize that what they’re doing is harmful. I remember being in a class once, discussing racial/ethnic stereotypes. I can’t remember exactly what was under discussion, but let’s say we were talking about two historical black stereotypes: slaves as less-than-human drudges who lacked normal human needs and emotions, and slaves (and later servants) as submissive, cheery, grinning, helpful lackeys who loved singing, dancing, and laughing. A very sweet older classmate raised her hand and asked earnestly, “But isn’t that progress? Wouldn’t it be better to be seen as cheerful and nonthreatening, instead of as inhuman?” Well, perhaps — but the Other is still the Other whether it’s a “good” Other or a “bad” one, and the view is limiting to both sides. Besides obviously restricting the Othered group, it also prevents the Othering group from seeing all the individuality and diversity present in any segment of humanity (and frankly, even animals are pretty individual). I had to explain to a guy once why “I love Asian women” is an offensive remark. To spell it out fully, the comment implies that there is a single definition of what an Asian woman is like, and every Asian woman must therefore fit into that characterization. Never mind what your characterization is; never mind if it’s meant as a compliment. You’re still insulting me by assuming we are all the same and we all come from the same mold.

Back to the topic at hand

When I first read that piece in David’s class, I didn’t notice the Othering until it came up in discussion. Once it was pointed out to me, I could see that the author’s description of Chinatown definitely drew on specific notions of Chineseness.* But I didn’t see it until it was pointed out, and this made me realize to what extent I myself think of “Chinese culture” as the Other. My family celebrates Chinese holidays in a very idiosyncratic way, so when I see lion dances and firecrackers, those are Other to me, separate from what I know and understand. When I went to Chinese school (K-12, on Saturdays), so much of what I learned was foreign to me — and I’m not referring to the language — whereas it didn’t appear so for my classmates. (I’ve touched on this in a previous post.) All my life, I’ve thought of Chineseness as my family’s style versus everyone else’s, and to me everyone else’s seemed to more closely resemble the Chineseness I encountered on TV and in books (which may itself have been exoticized). So that piece’s exoticized description of Chinatown seemed realistic — because Chinatown was an Other to me. (In fact, I never set foot in a Chinatown until I was a freshman in college.)

[When we meet strangers,] we stretch to understand each other and are invigorated by the stretching.

–Anne Morrow Lindbergh, Gift from the Sea

Happily, these days I am more sensitive to Othering, in part because of experiences like the one I had in David’s class. I recognize how much we can do it unintentionally, and I think it might even be an instinctive starting point for dealing with completely  foreign people and cultures. When we meet someone who is so unlike anyone else we’ve ever encountered, our brains try to make sense of the experience, and they do this by forming generalizations. It’s natural to start putting people in boxes: “Okay, so these people do this, and they don’t like that…” It’s just what our brains do, and that’s okay — as long as we recognize what’s happening. It’s difficult and energizing to meet new people, and artists are especially stimulated by the experience. But so many times, people don’t move past that initial, general judgment, and that’s where a lot of Othering comes from.

I recognize now that when I loved Gone with the Wind, and Memoirs of a Geisha, it didn’t bother me that antebellum black Southerners or Japanese geisha were described in the way they were, because I already saw these groups as Other. I could see that GWTW was heavy-handed in its characterizations, but aside from that, I wasn’t disturbed, and was in fact fascinated at these “glimpses” into lives I knew nothing about. That these glimpses came from outside the groups, not inside, never occurred to me. And even now, when I see movies or read books about people I know nothing about, I always have to remind myself that the impressions I form are not representative of the people of wherever or whatever — and then, quite often, I try to seek out other depictions of (and especially by) the same people, to get an alternate view. After all, as Chimamanda Adichie says, the way to defeat stereotypes is to get as many stories as possible, so that the stereotype doesn’t become our only way of viewing that person or group.

There are people who believe that only a member of some group can authentically speak for that group: Asian American history should only be written by Asian Americans, for instance. I understand that, and to an extent I agree. But the whole point of fighting Othering is to recognize that we are not all the same, even if we do claim membership to the same groups, even if we do ostensibly represent the same people. My being an Asian American does not qualify me to speak for every Asian American, nor does it disqualify me to speak for anyone else. As we all know, life is so complicated, history is so complicated, even we ourselves are so complicated, that it’s simply impossible to ever assume we can know all sides of a story — even when it’s about ourselves! But we can try, and we should.

Here’s to a multiplicity of stories and a diversity of storytellers, always. Let’s raise our voices.

*By the way, though I can’t remember the author of that piece, I’m pretty sure it was one of two possibilities. Both are Chinese — or at least, they say so, but others may not, which raises other interesting questions. What qualifies someone as Chinese “enough”? Is half-Chinese enough, or is an ABC (American-born Chinese)? Enough for what? Does it matter? …but that’s a post for another time.