How do you write Asia?
I used to think in essentialised terms – East, West. I internalised the cultural self-representation imposed by friendly well-meaning white Australians living 45 minutes from Pauline Hanson’s electorate. They only wanted to be better versions of themselves. They wanted my help. And, raised as I am, to always help, to always be there for others, to spot someone’s lack and fill it with all of me without reciprocity, I helped. I filled in their blanks, and became blank myself.
This is anyhow a consequence of creating homes in other places. As human beings we can be either attracted to the foreign, or shy away from it. Anglophone migrants from Asian countries reach the West and realise they are now socially defined by the very ethnicity they distanced themselves from. Western expats feeling incapacitated by their socioeconomic structure, exoticise the East and see it as a place of opportunity. Their own lack of particularity – of being white, Western, the emblem of everything Asia replicates and aspires to – might cause a discovery of a newer sense of self while confronting the falseness of Asian stereotypes. Both these kinds, have somehow travelled to a mirage that may have crashed into opaque incomprehension, waiting to be made sense of. The shock can make one leave the body and live in the head, taking time out from reality until it is safe again.
I believe such writers owe it to themselves, and to their art, to be self-aware of origins and audience. A writer has a particular relationship with his/her environment, the same way they’d have a relationship with the characters they create on the page. As Edwin Thumboo puts it, there’s an ecosystem at work around the writer – one that consists of multiple literary traditions, as well as linguistic and aesthetic preoccupations – things that ultimately influence creative output.
As such, a writer’s responsibility surrounding their question of Asia is no different from their responsibility to any other aspect of their craft – to approach it with respect, integrity, and a commitment to a truth they see. This is regardless of the writer’s own ethnicity or skin colour, or their initial motivations on approaching questions of Asia in their writing.
My own preoccupations now involve my move to Hong Kong. Here, I have to seclude and self-orientalise to write, and when I step outside I am exposed to its artificiality. I am now no longer of the East, and I am strangely rebuilding a new mirage of Australia. The binaries have collapsed. If I have to make statements of self, now, it is really constructed from fragments, that I can only really say make up something human, and nothing less.
In such a situation, Asia itself is now a construct. It is a place and a state and a morality and a movement. It flows and fixates and I can now mutate it in my head to fit my craft and analysis. Now that I live in it, I am now freed of it, and so I have no qualms handing it over to others.