I have a few observations about Asia, and living here and also traveling to nations other than Singapore. I have been mulling them over on this trip alone as I have no one to talk to (except everyone I meet, and it’ll astonish you to know I am a friendly, chatty person. Well, the friendly might surprise you if you think of me as a harpy swooping to scourge my foes with a whip of venom. In truth I smile at strangers, and it took me some little time living in NYC before I could repress the drive to meet with my gaze every person I pass, a practice that actually impedes walking in Savannah, as one frequently knows the person and cannot, under any circumstance, walk past them without speaking briefly. My children think I am “scary,” a not unadulterated good character reference. By this they mean I have a mean glare on me, but that’s part of a mother’s job. If you can’t get somebody to stop fooling around just by looking at them sideways, you have failed to cultivate your maternal powers.) I have been loath to commit them—these ideas you forgot I was talking about just now—to pixels because I feel they are disorganized and perhaps it is not even possible to unwind the tangled skein. However, you are always kind in accepting my scattered thoughts as continuous writing and thus encouraged I will proceed.
African-American culture is one of America’s leading exports. It continuously astonishes me that a people so important should be materially impoverished. Indonesian men use the clothing style of black Americans as a model, and you can see many an improbably white baseball cap canted on the head of a guy smoking cloves and lounging by a row of scooters. Improbable because the alley is filthy. (I am also always amazed when I see, emerging from what really can only be called a hovel, an Indonesian schoolgirl, long shining braids looped with white ribbons at her ears, her school uniform shirt cleaner than a rain washed sky, the white shirt like a lambent cloud. How do the mothers do it?) There is also Indonesian rap music, with whole radio stations devoted to it. As why should there not be, but I am jarred by the ubiquity.
In America there is a stereotype than Asian men in general are feminized and less sexually vital as men. There is sometimes a feeling within the Asian-American community that they are “losing” “their” women to white (and less so, black) Americans. This is borne out in the asymmetry of dating, in which Asian women are paired up with white men much more so than the reverse. In actual Asia this is a nonsensical read of a man or a group of men. There’s no one else to be manly other than themselves. However, the sight of a reed-thin girl with black hair to her waist walking arm-in-arm with a fat white man whose redness of face suggests incipient alcoholism annoys Asian men here in Asia, and western women in Asia also. I myself often think, “dude you are punching way above your weight class here. You brought a knife to a gun fight; why are you sauntering off victor, beprized?”
Obviously different cultures have divergent modes of manliness. Korean guys who’ve had some work done, wearing BB cream, are manly as hell. They look great, too; one always wishes women should be freed of elaborate beauty requirements, but if instead men will be forced to endure them also, the equality produced by pushing in this direction generates lots of hot straight guys and so can’t be all bad. (The stereotype that gay men put more effort into their appearance is problematic, but not entirely false—the male gaze demands conformity to its desires wherever it lands. My brother once won somebody $20 at a party. A group approached and asked if he were gay or straight. The question, they hastened to add, was the subject of a wager on whether the best-looking, best-dressed man at any given party must be gay. The majority supported the premise. Obviously this was flattering; I like to think my brother’s fashion sense was informed by his mom and sisters, who are all waaaaay into vintage cool stuff and overdressing for every occasion.)
It interests me what young Asian men look like when they want to look “hard.” At my gate in Singapore there was a group of obviously Indonesian travelers, mostly guys but young women and a few babies in tow. The guys were trying to look tough, and succeeded. A glare that rejects the advances of another’s lightly touching eye—this is a male thing everywhere. “What are you looking at?” It’s a truculent cast of face. It’s also interesting for me to be afraid of men when the men are basically my height or not much taller. In America men in general are bigger than me, so if I walk by a bunch of dudes lounging with an active show of hostility part of the fear I have rests in all these guys being so obviously able to kick my ass. But a slender Indonesian guy whose 5’7” could also totally kick my ass. As to why I fear them I am just afraid of men generally; the world would have to shift on its axis for me to unlearn being afraid so late in life. Anyway, this is disorganized but hopefully not useless…
Oh, I remember I wanted to talk about one last thing. Fu Manchu. As a kid I read the collected work of Sax Rohmer many times over. My father had a set bound in black and a golden spiderweb shared the spine with the gilt letters of the title. The main impact on my life they had was to lead me to be deeply disappointed in hash when I first smoked it at 13 (I first smoked pot when I was nine which is insane to me now, but it seemed like a good idea at the time. My friend and I could just raid our parents’ stash—and if everybody was smoking weed all day long it must be fun, right? Here I will tell you an unknown fact that I’ve verified with the only other people able to talk about the matter accurately: pot does not effect you when you’re a little kid. Alcohol will get you drunk no problem, but you can smoke all the joints you want and for real nothing will happen. Sometimes I think this is because being a child is like being stoned all the time: music trips you out, you like to lie on the grass watching pillbugs scurry about and periodically pick them up to watch them fold into a tight circle of grey segments, etc. But watch out: you’re going to be 13 or so and you will suddenly be blazed and way not expecting it. I have a troubled course when I consider advice to my children in these matters.) My dad straight-up warned me about the disappointment of hash when I first read the books, but it wasn’t enough. What has always proved satisfactory is the wail of the muezzin at the call to prayer. When I hear it sung out, plangent, and look up to see the Southern Cross I feel perfectly alienated in just the way I wished to bring about when, as a child, I dreamed of going to the tropics. Sax Rohmer told me of the sudden fall of night, so early and swift and invariant through the year, like someone pulled on an old string depending from a light on the ceiling. He was right. I am daily satisfied by the sunset. The dawn comes up like thunder, too, and late enough for everyone else to see it, but I am asleep until 10 or 11 and in any case the dawn is my most hated time of day. I associate it only with the end of night, the panes of glass in the window showing grey, the day used up and burned out.