DIFFERENT WORLDS, DIFFERENT GLIMPSES – PART 1
Kuala Lumpur to Tokyo – The Asian Express
By Mathew Maavak
Mathew Maavak is a journalist from the Far East and can be contacted at [email protected]
(This is the first part of a series of commentaries based on the author’s recent travels. Since it’s commonplace to charge the West with all forms of imperialism, let’s see how the other side behaves, often)
Airports have always been a problem for me; the security checks unfailingly sparking an awareness of how hollow certain denunciations are in reality. I have been mistaken for a lot of things I am not. So inevitably, this commentary is about ethnic fallacies. Since Sept 11, we have been hearing about the Clash of Civilizations and how tectonic plates are sending shudders up the international Richter scale. If you look at a parochial newspaper in Asia – the same ones that condemn Huntington’s work - you’d discover his thesis well justified. If you find this ironic, you will have to understand Asian dichotomy – a phantasmagoria difficult for some to digest. I am Asian.
The first part of this journey went without a hitch. All new Malaysian passports can be electronically screened at the awesome Kuala Lumpur International Airport without a single hand or eye needing to examine them. It’s like punching in your card, and I am not aware of any other passport with this facility. Your identity, income tax and criminal records, are all checked within seconds. But before boarding my plane for Tokyo, I was, as usual, stopped for a closer scrutiny while Caucasian passengers were waived through. This time, I was probably mistaken for (a Muslim) from Aden or Dhaka. If I had a copy of any local daily that morning, I would, as usual, find some infantile rant about the latest, recycled Western conspiracy. This is where Asian ideals and practice find no confluence. A joke delivered in a good diction usually solves this problem, at least in Kuala Lumpur, and I was waived through for my flight to Japan.
I was looking forward to this 24-hour stop near Tokyo before boarding another plane to Forth Worth, Texas. I wanted to experience a little of Japan.
My first introduction while a tot was mixed. This was the Asian nation that could kick the backsides of the British, Americans and Russians in those famous wars of yore, and were now kicking them again with hi-tech products, consigning once-famous Western brand into oblivion. Admiration mingled with WWII horror stories. Like how Chinese babies were tossed into the air to be bayoneted when gravity exerted its fatal attraction. Of how Malay villagers made no mistake in plucking fresh coconuts for throats made hoarse by Banzai-shrieks, because, again, a gun-mounted bayonet was awaiting them below. And how Indians were duped into joining that farce called the Indian National Army, led by a Hitler ally named Subhash Chandra Bose. Many here were given a first class ticket on a Rangoon Express, infamously known as the Death Railway. Far more Asians died there than Allied PoWs. In such situations, treatment and rhetoric are rarely reconciled.
All these atrocities were done in the name of a Greater East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere. If anyone prospered it was Japan, our plundered Asian gold, our ravaged nations, later revving the engines of their economic growth. Yet, for some reason, we still blame all our ills on the West while Caucasians get the best of everything in the East, including express checkouts at airports. Asian victims of Japanese wartime atrocities need not be indemnified, hardly an Asian leader (minus those from China and the Koreas) clamor even for an apology. Jewish holocaust victims still get their cheques. Allied victims are at least remembered. A Martian might conclude that certain earthling lives are cheaper than others. Don’t blame the Martian.
The other early memory of Japan was the one parroted by the former Malaysian Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad, the one who made those famous anti-Semitic statements during the last throes of his formal rule. Since the 80s, the good doctor prescribed the “Look East Policy”, where we would cure the ills of our agrarian, backward societies with a robotochan-style revolution. But Japan kept looking west, glancing back for that cheap factory labor. Then came the reminder over our “superior” Asian Values (the 90s mantra). Former Singapore premier Lee Kuan Yew was its chief proponent. Japan is still our role model.
No one in my family suffered any cruelty at Japanese hands (we weren’t even in that region and If I am not mistaken, we let others do the fighting for us, whenever possible). So, I am not in a position to expatiate on the mechanics of reconciling horrific memories, extant scars, comfort women still alive and the genuflection of an Eastern lodestar that caused it all. Lets just say, money is a great emollient, power leads the herd, shapes its passions and manages its memory files until another polestar (China?) emerges to exhume memories for a generation quite removed. Nietzsche would have loved this Eastern drama.
Japan embodied the Asian Values of hard work, resilience, loyalty and family values. It was a bit of a lie. The Japanese, like other Asians, expend prodigious efforts at “putting up a good face” – a clue to what Asian Values really mean. The Japanese salaryman may turn up for work an hour early to demonstrate his “dedication” and may read the paper or some stupid comic the rest of the day. When the Japanese bubble burst, yet again, his productivity was revealed to be 38 percent less than his American counterpart (Time, Feb 16,1998). Other cracks in the system were also exposed. Chunks of concrete was falling on Japan’s shinkansen bullet trains– a one-time wonder of the world. We could never understand why the workaholic Japanese ‘refused to holiday,’ either. The people here still love to caricature Americans as ‘lazy and stupid’; all coz the smartest Yanks became Armani-clad shysters while the brilliant Japanese became engineers, the younger ones needing the supreme Oriental patience of tailgating duds all their work life. Now, that Nissan and other choice tech firms have been gobbled up by the Americans after the ingeniously-engineered 1997 East Asian Financial Crisis – showing where priorities lay even after Ramzi Yusef tinkered with fireworks - I wonder what the new slur is.
My flight was eventful, if you consider reading a barely known historical book, written by someone I had never heard of, to be one. One word – Stucke – would cleave to my mind –and reappear at those cynical moments throughout my travel. Others were reading as well, and if I couldn’t tell by their appearance, the printed paraphernalia were a definite give-away. They were cheap, ugly and of poor quality. There are lots of trashy novels and kinky stuff in Japan, with publications galore for every prurient taste.
These passengers didn’t talk to the gaijin on board. Most probably couldn’t.
On disembarking at Narita, I headed to find my hotel shuttle bus before a customs officer reminded me that many things worked the same way here. I was body searched while Americans swaggered through. Here are the sample questions asked by Ultraman :-
1) Are you carrying any illegal firearms? I chortled. “No”.
2) Are you carrying any illegal drugs? I could barely keep a straight face.
3) Can I examine your shoes? Sure!
The official tried his best to look stern while his hands came perilously close to regions deemed ‘private’. The same scrutiny was not reserved for my luggage. He kept asking stupid questions, not associated with linguistic limitations but more with worldly ignorance. (They didn’t sound like a legal formality either). He was irked by my frivolity. But it was the time to laugh and be merry. Yanks, who would have had a relative turkey shooting in the Marianas or Okinawa some time back, got the express checkout yet again while my Eastern role model was showing his bigoted true face again. Finally, an Alsatian ambled by, sniffed indifferently, and declared me safe to breathe Tokyo’s pristine air. Step outside and you will find Japan to be squeaky clean, a hyped, hi-tech culmination of the Meiji Restoration. There was no real restoration and the Japanese are still isolated, despite Mathew Perry’s epochal journey.
But try noticing the garbage collectors at Narita and you’d think otherwise. They are immaculate in work and attire. I have never seen such skill and efficiency in thrash collection. For once, forget the salaryman; the blue collar ethics here are impressive. Finding my bus was difficult; everyone pointed in different directions, a problem more of communications than anything else, I think. Back at the airport, I kept trying my luck at the information counter, until one lady, who spoke adequate English, helped out. The bus promptly picked me up and deposited me at a purported five star hotel. My room was neat, small and a rip-off. The Internet brochure was another lie. Too many lies swirling in Japan.
Their textbooks are still spinning ambiguous material on their military past. Conspiracy theorists should look at the role of language. English, if spoken, is poor. Pictorial images with price tags and instructions are important here; they clinch small transactions. No complicated explanations needed, just a pointed finger. How, they get the other side of every story is anybody’s guess. When your texts are mostly printed in kanji, butchery can be heroically described as ‘mobilization’. The Japanese elites are masters at filtration, right from 2,000 years of royal palace intrigues to what information is available to their people today. There are structural filters here that censor the unpalatable and translate the marketable. Obscure African motifs, the preternatural antics of Indian movie star Rajnikanth, and ideas, new and old, are all astutely borrowed for commercial gain. The filters and their masters effectively rule the society, more acutely than in the West. Linguistics barriers are effective for the elite, and in Asia this is smoothed by their generally ‘high context’ languages, where dichotomy can be buried inside heavy circumlocutions. Hints are very important. In one of W. Somerset Maugham’s stories, the author explains one way of unlocking the arcane French mindset. He recommended studying Rabelais, where a spade was called anything other than a ‘bloody shovel’. I am wondering whether this one favorite author of mine got to know any Asian language during his long travels here. He missed an emerging drama, later morphed into something called Asian Values. Here are some samples:
1) Always look good on the outside. Say the right things in public. Opinions should be zipped up.
Result: A huge chasm between the public and private spheres, especially over moods, opinion and actual practice. (I’ll recount one laughable but deniable example of this in another piece). Outbursts of rage, condemnation or moral rectitude are more likely stage-managed. Remember Hafiz al-Assad’s funeral and the mass pre-war show of support for Saddam Hussein? The other side, meaning the West, must see it. In geek parlance, this means, ‘what you see is not what you get’ (WYSINWYG).
1) Respect your elders (read more powerful). They are always right. No arguments.
Alternative: Lack of respect invites danger, often physical, sometimes mortal. Check Amnesty International’s website.
2) Honesty, truth, thrift and local customs are our prized values.
Clarification: Again, check Amnesty Online.
3) “We have all kinds of freedom, according to our cultural peculiarities.”
Meaning: It doesn’t mean anything. The “cultural” factor is the operative escape clause.
4) We have equality.
Ground reality: It is true but they are layered – one for the masses and the other for the elite. Bill Clinton’s brother and other presidential relatives would have no problems here, unless they are South Korean.
5) Hierarchy is important. Individual rights should be ‘sacrificed’ for the benefit of
society, meaning those who rule that society. Also called teamwork.
Result: Lack of genuine innovation, philosophical or technical, despite exposure to quality western education. Everything is decided for you. Even anti-Western polemics are cut-and-pasted from the writings of Western dissidents. And guess, what? Many of them have Jewish names.
6) Asian Values are inimical to the Manichean Western Values. The latter is
‘Corrupt, decadent, imperious, sleazy…’
Compare this with the decadent Western Values:
1) “You… SOB!”- Uttered by a Vietnam War veteran when draft dodger Clinton
went for a jog one day. “You Sick Bastard” – a banner alternating with draft dodger George W. Bush’s photo on dissidentsreport.com The editor Josh Kirby is still alive and kicking, I can see.
2) Clinton gets impeached (or something close to it). Blair is under siege and he is
aging by the day. Dubya is realizing he might not get re-elected. Even conmen feel the heat in winter.
Solution: Ahh, for those warm tropical paradises…
3) Dissident work still vigorous. Some tough it out, some live well. All write many
things through their outlets, their own perspectives, from their own homes. To find such people here, visit the jail.
Deduction: Freedom of speech relatively strong (as seen by Asians, in private)
4) Vile statements are allowed.
Corollary: Let the people decide.
5) Action important. More White Londoners, Romans and Americans physically
protested the current war in Iraq – an Arab/Muslim/Asian nation – than Southeast Asian citizens. Take away Indonesia, and Trafalgar Square alone dwarfs others. While this was going on, while our leaders thundered, and when CNN was televising the bombings, our multi-racial Kuala Lumpur youths were enjoying a lyrical blunderbuss at dance halls, rollicking away in front of the big screens. (I remember the laughter when a bewildered colleague recounted this scene the next day).
Conclusion: The West is decadent. Also, MTV is still best!
6) Western multinationals regularly clinch deals by greasing eager Asian palms.
They think hard before trying this stunt at home.
Inference: This is coca-colonialism (sometimes also called a Zionist conspiracy).
7) Individualism encouraged though under constant siege, especially in the US.
Result: Innovations aplenty, even from college dropouts. Rare to find techies like Bill Gates or Michael Dells in Asia. Israel, India, and Japan can be considered the major exceptions in this case.
8) Need I go on?
The contradictions, however, go on. In Japan, the amejo and kokujo consort GIs while protestors routinely chant “Yankee Go Home” outside US army bases. Widows of war heroes were once despised for being what they were – widows! The sexual antics of American soldiers arouse more passion than the statements of former defense vice minister Nishimura Shingo, who recently compared a potential homegrown nuclear deterrent to anti-rape laws. Here is the unromantic, psychopathic side of male-kind – “If there were no punishment for rape, we would all be rapists.” Or listen to the haiku of Seiichi Ota, a Liberal Democratic Party lawmaker and former Minister. “Gang rape shows the people who do it are still vigorous, and that is okay. I think that might make them close to normal” (BBC Online, June 27). The college students who did that must have felt relieved. Back in the 80s there were some lenitive ministerial words for rape victims who were told to consider themselves “flattered”, as the perpetrators found them “attractive”. Japanese women protested, Asian leaders kept quiet and there was no journalistic scoop on how Asian comfort women felt, at least not here. But mentioned the word ‘crusader’…
Plenty of rape references in Japan, but lets move on to the 1937 Rape of Nanking, where 300,000 Chinese were slaughtered. The xenophobic Governor of Tokyo Shintaro Ishihara claims the incident was fabricated by the Chinese. He regularly slights Asian residents with the slur sangokujin and championed the Great Asian Cause with Dr Mahathir in a book called The Voice of Asia: Two Leaders Discuss the Coming Century. (New Internationalist, Dec 2002). We have a glorious future to look forward to…
Despite the political and social mess, the Japanese society is still a beehive of complex, ingenious endeavors. Only here would you find a fishmonger who applies acupunctural techniques to mail ultra-fresh fish in tiny aquarium-boxes, giving some clue to the kind of information prioritized. Nothing technical escapes translation. And neither are aesthetic ones either. Challenge status quo and things change. Badmouthing the emperor might still get one shot. Some things haven’t changed in Japan.
Its hi-tech machine functions flawlessly. The pandemonium associated with international hubs like Heathrow, was missing at Narita. The local passengers had a new-wave jauntiness about them, a few were either the despised Ainu, or they more likely had their noses, eyes, and hair redone into something Caucasian, reminiscent of those hybridized characters in Japanese cartoons. So much for looking east, where the White Man’s features are prized, envied and if possible, copied.
Facial cleansers in Kuala Lumpur come with skin bleaching agents like licorice, largely sold by Western MNCs. A proud Asia prefers Eurasian (or Pan Asian) models for product promotion. I have yet to see a local ad featuring Iman or Naomi Campbell. Multinationals are smart enough to omit them in this region, though they are paid millions in the West. Bollywood, that mass generator of cinematic scatology, only parades stars with light-skinned, and some claim, Aryan, features (Some actresses rub down ghastly whiteners before shooting). Villains and extras traditionally come darker. These are the Indians who complain regularly over color discrimination everywhere, and were once known for raising all sorts of anti-Western cacophony at the UN and that fantasia called the Non-Aligned Movement. Here is where pride, innate forms of concupiscence, hypocrisy and self-righteousness can be reconciled without a hint of irony. For an added twist, talk to an African who studied in New Delhi and he might tell you what the word kalla means. Their tormentors once bitterly fumed of how Brits teased them with the same word, in English. Since they have stopped relieving themselves on British drains – a well-documented outrage once – their summer complaints have returned over kallas. Where does the neo-colonialism and imperialism crap come in? When a well-qualified Kuala Lumpur journalist shows you a picture of his daughter and unthinkingly bemoans that she is “dark”. Or another who used to condemn apartheid and, yet envy a colleague who is “so fair” (meant beautiful)? Someone from the American south, black or white, must be laughing his head off when reading this. If the KKK needs fodder to support their ideological dementia, here it is on a platter. That Indian White Dinesh D’ Souza knows this too well. You can find a lot like him from Tel Aviv to Tokyo. Racism sleeps easily with gutsy, neo-colon execrations.
In Huntington’s book, an unnamed Arab intellectual termed the Europhilic sort as the “White Man’s Nigger!” Well, Prof Akeem , tell me a country where men kill their own female relatives for getting raped by someone else to expediently “blot out the family shame”, and I might show you an American lady sitting on the throne of your country or a brother nation. Even Japan’s Kobe cows have more rights. They are well fed, given regular beer, and are constantly massaged before slaughter. Treated to music too, as the speculation goes. And we have to pay for these things? It’s definitely a Zionist, Western, Imperialistic, and neo-colon… moooooooo plot!
No wonder many Asians flee their homeland – from the tortured to the qualified. The statistics are stark. Why are blacks still going there? An Eastern paradise awaits here. The Vietnamese boat people will tell you all about it. And so will Cambodian, Myanmarese and other refugees. If you think Sangatte and the Chunnel crossings were scandalous, type out “Irene Fernandez” in the search engine, preferably at Amnesty’s website. Melaninised Bangladeshi Muslims raised an outcry when they married local Muslim women here, but less tanned Pakistanis get Malaysian passports easily. The monumental act of self-abnegation was, however, the red carpet once rolled out for Bosnian Muslims, who conveniently used their fat allowances for booze and non-halal (prohibited) food before returning to a more exciting Sarajevo. And as we all know, they are white!
The Clash of Civilisations then depends on which part of the dichotomy is played up, which ethnic card is flashed, and when. It’s dynamic, complex and phantasmagoric. It cannot pass major tests.
Next stop Texas. Lots of things bovine here.
Copyright © Mathew Maavak, 2003