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Sitting on a plane a couple of hours out from Sydney. I've just finished reading "My English Name" by R.S. Benedict (Fantasy and Science Fiction May/June 2017), and wanted to rave about it a bit. The little note at the start of the story explains that it's drawn from the author's three years of working as an English teacher in China. It has that particularity that gives a fictional setting its power - the details that tell you the author really knows this place, these people. Benedict draws on both the interaction between Western culture and Chinese culture and between Westerners and Chinese people in a story that's about passing - as human, as straight, as gay, as white. I think the title may be drawn from the adoption of an English name by Asian immigrants, as English-speakers, typically monoglots, can't get our mouths around Asian phonemes; but the story's main character and narrator isn't even human, and works hard to pass as an Englishman. This mimicry is reflected all around the narrator in the Chinese culture he negotiates, from the designer knock-off scarf which helps hide his true self, to the use of bribery to gain fake qualifications, to the "rent-a-whitey gigs" he takes that reminded me uncomfortably of accounts that the only qualification you really need to teach English in Korea is whiteness.

The bribery in particular reminded me of the relentless corruption in Ha Jin's short stories, of the pressure on gay men and lesbians in China to marry (described in Benjamin Law's Gaysia) and of the obligation to "pass" as a Chinese citizen with the correct political opinions (I was struck by this in watching the reality show "Takes a Real Man" - the would-be soldiers must pass political tests as well as tests of their actual military skill). Now that brings me to something that's been preying on my mind since it happened. I have a side Tumblr, aegyopoisoned, in which I stash images of my favourite Kpop idols. It's an unremarkable blog with few followers - there must be tens of thousands like it. However, last April, I made a rather oddly written posting (I'll just bet I was hypomanic at the time) in which I confessed my worries about fetishing Korean and/or Asian people and culture as a result of Kpop's sex appeal. I was bewildered by yesterday morning's hate mail ("kill urself" is not as clear a message as it may seem) until we got home from the airport and I was able to locate a series of outraged responses.* In writing a much clearer response this morning I've worked through those concerns to some extent. (Now I just have to worry about the fact that my boys are half my age :).

Almost the first word of Korean I ever learned was 막내 maknae - the youngest person in a family or group. Taemin, my bias - that is, the Kpop idol I most swingeingly desire - is the maknae of the boy band SHINee, and this was the first fact I learned about him. It was also my first glimpse of Korean culture - specifically, the strict hierarchy by age, gender, and position which modern Koreans have inherited from their neo-Confucian forebears. When I learned the word maknae, I literally couldn't find Korea on a map. Now I have some grasp of the language and a rough idea of Korea's two thousand year-plus history, ancient and modern. I knew nothing of the Korean War, or the Opium Wars, or anything about the Suez Canal. I have a shelf overflowing with unread books on the Koreas and China. Sex was the starting point, not the be-all and end-all of my interest.

In recent years I've been reading SF by Chinese authors in translation - short stories, and of course Liu Cixin's mind-snapping, Hugo-winning Three-Body Problem trilogy. (I'm extremely keen to read Korean SF, but haven't found much.) R.S. Benedict's story is told by a Westerner, about being a Westerner in China - an outsider's POV, but an intimate engagement with the culture: her portrait of China is a matter-of-fact, sometimes unflattering one, but it's authentic. In adding Korean settings and characters to my own SF, I'm acutely aware that I'm a 외국인 waegukin, a foreigner, whose contact with Korea is mediated through, erm, the media - I don't have Benedict's first-hand experience. What's more culture (the West in general and Australia in particular) has a history with Asian peoples - colonialism, racism against immigrants, yellowface - which gives me complex responsibilities. My viewpoint characters, therefore, must also be waegukin, and my research as careful and accurate as I can make it.**

* "Why are you so proud of fetishization"?"asked a young white woman whose Tumblr proudly proclaims "Jonghyun is my dad", which may indicate I haven't absolutely cornered the fetish market. (She's also a fellow Lay fan. I'll bet she saw that awful Jackie Chan film too, just because he was in it.)

** I'd love to write something set in historical times, which would make including a Western character more difficult - but I have years of reading to do before I'll know enough to pull that off.

Date: 2017-06-18 12:10 pm (UTC)
hnpcc: (Default)
From: [personal profile] hnpcc
"Jonghyun is my dad" is just... I seriously don't know where to begin on that one. Different, certainly.


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