A Week in Culture: Wesley Yang, Writer
January 19, 2011 | by Wesley Yang
11:45 A.M. The excerpt of Amy Chua’s parenting memoir Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother was an exquisite embarrassment for everyone who read it. The editors at The Wall Street Journal extracted all the most inflammatory material from Chua’s odd book and successfully unleashed another one of those unedifying pseudo-controversies about upper-middle-class American mores that the press lives to generate. The children of Asian Americans took to various online forums to bewail the trauma inflicted on them by mothers like Chua, or to declare their filial gratitude toward the sacrifices made their parents on their behalf. Suddenly, the model minority and its travails had become momentarily relevant to the larger culture, through the cartoon figure that Chua inadvertently made of herself—berating her daughter and refusing her bathroom breaks until she had mastered a tricky passage on the piano. A dignified, nonhysterical account of our peculiar sufferings untethered to the American upper middle class’s Ivy League fixation and (richly justified) fear of national decline remains elusive.
12:00 P.M. The essay immediately called to mind a passage from Junichiro Tanizaki’s great novella A Portrait of Shunkin. In this passage, the narrator reminisces about the cruelty and abuse that were an unquestioned part of the pedagogic methods of a less enlightened age still within living memory.
Then there is the case of Yoshida Tamajiro of the Bunraku Theater. Once, during his apprenticeship, while he was helping his master Tamazo manipulate a puppet hero in rehearsing a climactic capture scene, he was unable to perfect a certain movement of the legs for which he was responsible. Suddenly, his angry teacher shouted “Fool!” and, snatching up a puppet sword (one with a real blade), gave him a sharp blow on the back of the head. To this day he bears the scar of it. And Tamazo himself, who struck Tamajiro, once had his head split open when his own teacher struck him with a puppet. He begged his teacher for the broken-off, splintered legs of the puppet, which were crimson with his blood, and then wrapped them in silk floss and stored them away in a plain wooden box, such as is used for the ashes of the dead. Now and then he took the legs out and paid obeisance to them, as if he were worshipping the spirit of his dead mother. “Except for that beating,” he would say with tears in his eyes, “I might have spent my whole life as a run-of-the-mill performer.”
Perhaps the passage appealed to something atavistically Asian in me, or merely recapitulated the pleasure one derived from the training scenes at the Shaolin Temple from Saturday afternoon kung-fu movies.
In his youth, the late Osumi-dayu used to be called a plodder, since he often seemed slow to learn. His teacher was Toyozawa Dambei, known as “the Great Dambei.” One sweltering night in midsummer, while Osumi was taking a lesson at Dambei’s house, he stumbled over a few lines in the scene he was chanting. Again and again he repeated the passage, but as hard as he tried he could not satisfy Dambei, who prudently put up a mosquito net and retired within it to listen. While the mosquitoes fed on him, Osumi went on repeating it, hundreds and hundreds of times, till the early summer dawn began to light up the room, and even his teacher seemed to have tired and fallen asleep. Nevertheless, with the persistence of a true plodder, Osumi kept on chanting the passage as vigorously as ever, determined not to stop until it had been approved. Finally Dambei’s voice came from the mosquito net: “You have it.” He had listened intently all night long.
2:00 P.M. I revisit a passage in Native Speaker, Korean American author Chang-Rae Lee’s debut novel, in which Lee evokes the peculiar alienation experienced by the model minority.
I am an amiable man. I can be most personable, if not charming, and whatever I possess in this life is more or less the result of a talent I have for making you feel good about yourself when you are with me. In this sense, I am not a seducer. I am hardly seen. I won’t speak untruths to you, I won’t pass easy compliments or odious offerings of flattery. I make do with on-hand materials, what I can chip out of you, your natural ore. Then I fuel the fire of your most secret vanity.
The gentle backstabber portrayed here is familiar to every grade schooler who knows the joke about the smiling Chinese waiter who informs his guest that he is Chinese, that he has played a joke: He has gone pee-pee in your Coke.
7:45 A.M. I look around my room and take stock of my possessions. Bare cream walls, four Ikea Billy bookshelves of pressed chipboard—three of them white, one of them black—with the cardboard back hanging precariously by extruded nails. A black HON filing cabinet purchased on eBay. Eleven liquor boxes of unpacked books stacked on the tops of the shelves: Georgi Vodka, Hennessy Privilege, Columbia Winery. A desk in a grotesque orange veneer with one side constantly slipping out, requiring a periodic succession of quick sideways hammer-fist blows to hold it in place, trash-picked off the corner of Clinton and Park Avenues. A long framed mirror purchased at the Brooklyn Flea that makes the faces it reflects appear stretched out in a baleful agony, like figures in an El Greco. A dresser in the cheapest marmalade veneer extant with shelves that sit crooked in their rolling slats, imperfectly controlled by knobs whose naked screws, between the knobs and the shelves, are visible. The dresser was donated to me by means of a Facebook status update—not the least of the many valuable things I have acquired through social networking.
These are the material surroundings of the child of Korean immigrants who has deviated from the script.
8:30 A.M. I have a rather smart full-size bed with a sleek headboard in a handsome walnut veneer with enclosed sliding compartments on either side. It once belonged to my elder brother in his childhood, and has belonged to me ever since. On December 21, I purchased a year-old foam Ikea Sultan Fangebo mattress delivered to me by my friend M. for the “friend rate” of $60, replacing the stained and sagging twenty-five-year-old mattress that accompanied the bed from my home in New Providence, New Jersey, to Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey, and a half-dozen apartments in the Middlesex-Somerset County area—including shared apartments in Milltown, Spotswood, Highland Park, North Brunswick, and New Brunswick.
The bed would accompany me to the old mansion in Jersey City, from whose eastward facing window I watched the Twin Towers crumble, and finally, two years ago, to the Clinton Hill section of Brooklyn, where I live now (though I have lately been claiming my neighborhood, just at the border of Clinton Hill and Bedford Stuyvesant, a block and a half away from Choice Market, to be Bed-Stuy). On that piece of ruined foam, left by the side of our building a month ago, I learned everything I was afraid to ask about sex—and I was afraid to ask anything. My new mattress is clean and dedicated to work and sleep. It is from this mattress that I am writing these words.
2:50 P.M. From Carl Schmitt’s Political Theology: “There exists no norm that is applicable to chaos.”
4:30 P.M. The Leopard. I went to Film Forum to watch Visconti’s adaptation of The Leopard with A. and M. The latter slept through most of the film, and A. slept through about thirty-five minutes in the middle. I stayed awake through its entirety (three hours and fifteen minutes), though also assailed by nearly unbearable drowsiness. A. tried to read us a crucial Wikipedia entry from her iPhone about Garibaldi and the unification of Italy, but the previews started. The Leopard was ravishingly gorgeous and not at all cheap, and the final interminable scene at the ball, with all the women in their dresses fanning themselves, and a death-haunted Burt Lancaster wilting in the heat, was both a torment and a controlled ecstasy. The film, about the arrival of the vulgar, cunning middle-class usurpers who will dominate the modern world, and the sullen compromises their aristocratic betters will make to preserve themselves in privilege, is neither angry nor elegaic. It is astringent and cynical and cool, about the beauty of dopey resignation (and of Claudia Cardinale), and it released us into the night ailing and world weary.
9:35 A.M. From Legalism, by Judith Shklar: “A sin is not just an injury to another person. It is a rejection of God.”
10:45 A.M. Shopping for guitars online.
I neglected to list the three beautiful things I have in my bedroom: a Fender Stratocaster; a Gibson SG; a Fender TC-90 with P-90s. I have joined the company of ruddy middle-aged white males who have displaced their early passion for blues, country, and rock-and-roll music onto a fetish for the acquisition of its instruments, thus grotesquely inflating the market for decades-old mass-manufactured products.
On Web forums such as the Telecaster Discussion Page and Harmony Central, these men engage in endless debates about the tonal properties of different woods, bridges, saddles, finishes, and pickups and post digital images of their latest acquisitions to the expressions of envy and admiration of their peers. I’ve never quite mustered the nerve to participate in these peerless nerdfests, but I lurk and soak up the wisdom that is freely shared there. I feel obscurely connected to a community of people—many of whom play electric guitars in “worship” settings—with whom I would not otherwise have anything to say. I too know the compulsive frenzy known as Guitar Acquisition Syndrome. I am in its clutches even as we speak.
3:00 P.M. From Legacy of Ashes by Timothy Weiner: “The CIA found itself manipulated by crooked friends, duped by communist foes, and at the mercy of money-hungry exiles fabricating intelligence.”
Wesley Yang is a writer living in New York City. Check back tomorrow for the second installment of his culture diary.