Monday, March 11, 2013

The Idea of East

The idea strikes me at odd moments. It hits me now, as a pale shaft of morning light casts across the floor, to an old wooden double door with an unpainted latch leading to a crawlspace in a tiny Muslim school. Its shape, its state of decrepitude, its rough-cut and hand-adzed quality, its position beneath an eight-paned transom window of pebbled glass: all of them seem to exemplify that idea of the Asiatic.

And when I try to figure out where this idea came from, it seems to be something I had a very early acquaintance with. Some sources are obvious-- the vast, reconstructed Chinese temple at the Nelson-Atkins Museum in Kansas City comes to mind, a vast and hollow space lined with immense murals, accompanied by display cases with nephrite Buddhas, lacquered plates, celadon cups, cricket cages.

But others are more intimate and in many ways less direct-- a certain wooden drawer, an embroidered piece of silk, the opium weight shaped like a metallic rooster my parents used to put their bills under. The memories of a bourgeois childhood seem to be made up of all these tiny little marginalia, arranged in my mind so neatly, like a Joseph Cornell box.

And more mysteriously, there were whole classes of gastronomy, of music, of aroma, of image that seemed to fall under the rubric of the Oriental. As a child, the whole world seems to consist of these wholly irrational and vaguely defined gestalts, tendencies without clear origins-- a mode of thinking we can immediately revert to with the assistance of a little psilocybin, but still seeps into our adult lives. All I need to hear is a certain scale on a song playing on a distant radio, or taste the bitter, ferric flavor of water chestnuts directly out of the can, and I can trigger the gestalt of the "Eastern."

And it was a gestalt I was powerfully attracted to. On the map and on the news: Borneo and Makassar, Rangoon and Vientiane, Dien Bien Phu and Irian Jaya-- whole names that evoked a sun rising slowly over a turbid, brown river, egrets in palm trees, the morning processions of wizened monks, silhouetted against a vermilion dawn.

But of course this perception has little to do with the reality of life in Asia. And of course it holds little currency beyond childhood. Areas of Bangkok are more Californian than California, the new skyscrapers of China and the Persian Gulf states are designed by London and New York firms. Singapore, Dubai, Shanghai, Shenzhen, and Hong Kong now embody the excesses of American-style capitalism. Which of course is nothing new. There are the Greek statues being dug up in the old Buddhist kingdoms of Pakistan, and the Portuguese-inspired desserts sold on the streets of Bangkok.

True, huge numbers of adults-- distressingly, a huge number of them in Asian, European, and North American governments-- still cling to the notions of "East" and "West," but this distinction has been thoroughly and successfully demolished by any number of big-name intellectuals. We can decode the sign systems that connote "Easternness" in society and media, and demonstrate how they're crassly used to market consumer goods and politics to an unwitting public. We can chart the history of the idea of the "Oriental" and see how it was used as a pretext for racism and colonialism. Simply put, there is no East there. But the phenomenon of East is out there, even if it's unhealthy to ascribe a material truth-value to it.

It haunts me. As much as I want to move beyond the idea of East, to base my perceptions on materiality and evidence, it's hard to escape the daydreams of my seven year old self. And that's a form of dishonesty that especially annoys me, when people claim their own nostalgias to be the basis for impersonal truth.

So I try to simply be aware of the phenomenon, to recognize its existence as a phantom image, one of the narratives and myths-- some benign, some invidious-- we tell ourselves in a clawing effort to make sense of the world.

And now that I live in Asia, I can start to build a new narrative, a new story that I actually can ground in my day-to-day life, in the ordinary lives of the millions of people around me, their habits and quirks and beliefs and dreams. The veil is falling off, and I can start anew. I start with something simple and beguiling: the street outside, filled with fallen bougainvillea blossoms.