‘Dead white guys,’ Asian style

‘Dead white guys,’ Asian style July 10, 2017

Stock photo from Pexels - CC0
Stock photo from Pexels – CC0

Among Sam Rocha’s essays in Tell Them Something Beautiful, one of the ones that most resonates with me is titled ‘Dead White Guys,’ a revision of a 2012 piece he had put into First Things. In it, Sam recounts his relationship to the philosophical and literary canon of ‘dead white guys,’ some of whom are still alive. He says that when he was in high school and college, he worked really hard to read a bunch of these guys, and (descending into lawyer drama speak) the ‘record’ shows that he ‘left Franciscan University of Steubenville with a solid foundation in the Western canon, Franciscan thought, and personalist phenomenology’ (TTSB, p. 94). Then, when he did his master’s in education, he ‘learned how awful St Augustine (a North African) was, and what a waste of time it was to read books by white, European men’ (an insight culled from Marx and Weber, of course), and then got into critical race theory, where he ‘learned – again, primarily from white men – what a wretched thing the Western canon was and how disempowered I had been at the hands of Homer, Augustine, and Dante.’

And then the kicker: ‘Learning the very thing I once took for the path to socio-political empowerment had been a total waste of time, they explained. I’d sinned and was in need of redemption. I was a miserable Mexican wretch who needed to wallow in the mud of historic injustice to be cleansed from too many bubble baths with Don Quixote’ (TTSB, p. 95).

Sam hates it when I see him and his work as a mirror for myself, and I tried my darnedest to break it in my review of his book. I admit that when I read this passage, and when I’ve heard him talk about it in public (once even with tears in his eyes), I felt that he was speaking about me too. Both of us, I thought, had once thought that being educated in the thought of dead white men would be the ticket to respectability. For us people of color, it is like what the Cantonese say: we feel we are constantly being dragged around by our noses by the gweilo, the gringo. Maybe this is why Sam hates the mirror; maybe I see myself in Sam’s stories because it’s the white man who sees himself in us and wants us to have his issues, all of them, but especially the self-hating masturbatory paralysis.

When I smash the mirror that people of color hold up to each other because we think it’s solidarity, I find that Sam and I am really not the same, similar though our tastes in food and books and jokes about white people may be. Unlike Sam, I never thought that the literature and philosophy and poetry of the ‘West,’ whatever that is, was a) particularly western or b) a ticket to ‘socio-political empowerment.’ In some ways, I knew that it would make me poor.


In many ways, my experience with the ‘western canon’ is completely unlike Sam’s.

I got into this literature because I thought the stories sounded cool, and in time, I found that knowing them made me feel more interesting than all the market-driven morons (see Sam’s book) that I met in Chinese evangelical churches – you know, the ones where the parents are like software engineers and the kids are moving from school district to school district to get into those preppy public schools with U.C. credits (I lived in California) where they could take AP classes and get 4.5 GPAs and write amazing personal statements about how their lives were like a rubik’s cube (true story). If Sam thought that he was going to go up the institutional ladder because of his reading, I always imagined (and probably rightly so) I’d get on top of it in spite of being into this stuff.

I was five when I first heard of what I came to call the classics. We had a friend from Vancouver, which really meant she was from Hong Kong, called Ruth. She said that she was ruthless. Ruth came to visit us in Fremont, California, and while on yet another boring shopping mall trip with my mom (I think we were looking at women’s shoes), Ruth told me this amazing story about how these guys had made a machine to journey to the center of the earth. But isn’t it hot down there? I asked.

Yes, she said.

Because it’s dei-yok 地獄, I retorted, casually referencing the Cantonese term for hell, which my mom and dad had taught me during family devotions, which were the best because we did skits at home.

No, she said, it’s the real centre of the earth.

–But that’s where地獄 is, right?

No, this one was real, she confirmed.

Ruth didn’t tell me that she was talking about Jules Verne, or that Verne had written the other stories she told me about making a submarine to go around the earth underwater or going around the world in eighty days in a hot air balloon, for that matter. She let me find out for myself when I came across the Great Illustrated Classics series a few years later while flipping through Encyclopedia Brown and Newberry Award winners on my teachers’ bookshelves. At the time, I just thought they were cool stories, which were way better to hear about than silently following my mom around the women’s shoe section. She was ruthless indeed.

I liked most of the classics that I read in the Great Illustrated Classics series, except for David Copperfield, which I found completely unintelligible (it has since become my favourite Dickens novel). From them, I also gained a reputation for reading very quickly, although my secret was that a 200-page book in that particular series was only really 100 pages when you consider that every other page is an illustration. But that series was my first exposure to what I took to be the classics then, which was anything written before the year 1900. I especially liked The Three Musketeers, but I felt sorry for Milady when they cut off her head (the illustration haunts me to this day).

It was quite a startling discovery for me to discover that these picture books weren’t the classics, per se. I found a book in my fourth grade teachers’ library that sat alongside some other interesting texts, which my Filipino friend Edison had devoured before and heartily recommended in an oral book report: From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs Basil E FrankweilerThe Ear, the Eye, and the Arm, a bunch of Encyclopedia Brown mysteries (I found Harriet the Spy very boring, though). The book I discovered was Pinocchio, and I thought it would be a cinch, except it wasn’t. A curious designation also sat at the very bottom of the cover; it read ‘Complete and Unabridged.’

Two thoughts came into my mind. The first, if this was true, was that Disney’s was perhaps not ‘complete,’ which I could live with, because cartoons. But the second was that I didn’t know where this ‘una-bridge’ was. Was it an actual bridge? Where was it? Was it metaphorical? Did it refer, for example, to the book’s binding – for example, that it had taken one bridge to hold all of these sheafs of pages together?

I summoned the courage to ask a sixth grader at the Chinese church, who was pretty much an adult in my eyes because he would be going to junior high soon. He didn’t know what I was talking about, but eventually, he got the sense that I had said something like ‘abridged.’ He told me that that meant that the book had been shortened, maybe. I soon discovered at the factory outlets in Gilroy and Vacaville that my parents and their Chinese friends liked to go to that there were a bunch of these kinds of ‘complete and unabridged’ books for sale at, like, Book Warehouse, for two dollars a piece, Wordsworth edition. They were long. Just as I had been deceived by Ruthless, so was the case now: I had not been reading classics all along, because the factory outlet Wordsworth Classics were long, and they were complete, and they were unabridged.

The Chinese church sixth grader soon told me more things about long books: some of them don’t have ‘complete and unabridged’ on them, but they are classics nevertheless. When he said that, I immediately thought of some long books some of the big junior-high-or-soon-to-be kids read. They had this big weird looking word TOLKIEN on their spines. I asked him what that meant. He was like, Oh, the Hobbit? Yeah, you should read that. But I’m reading Ayn Rand right now. That was a term that also shook fear into my little fourth grade heart. I had seen the Ayn Rand books too. They were long, and probably complete and unabridged too.

I eventually found The Hobbit in my school library. I probably got through fifteen pages of it and couldn’t make heads or tales of it. It felt the same way that I had felt when I had found in my teacher’s library this book called The Silver Chair. It looked like it could have been interesting, but I didn’t know what a par-LEE-a-ment of owls was, so it lost me. I also didn’t know how to pronounce Eustace.

Fortunately, for me, the Chinese girl in my fifth grade class that everybody told me I should have a crush on (so I tried to; she was the one who did the ribbon dance thing) told me to give that C.S. Lewis guy another try. She said that maybe The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe might be a better place to start; even she liked it,she said, even though it was really obviously Christian (she was Buddhist, whatever that means). I ended up liking it too (adding to the ‘Justin likes [redacted girl’s name]’ rumors); it had pictures, and unlike Eustace, it was way easier to pronounce Peter, Susan, Edmund, Lucy, and even Tumnus, although I did not know what Turkish Delight was. Eventually, I got through the whole series, mostly because the Chinese girl let me borrow books from the rest of the series. I even gave The Hobbit another go; because of this, I now know who invented Golf. I couldn’t get through The Fellowship of the Ring until sixth grade, though – the pipeweed lost me – but on a church retreat (with Chinese people), I spent four hours on a couch completely absorbed in the journey to Rivendell, then to Mordor, and when I got back, I went to Fremont Public Library on Stevenson to get The Two Towers; the librarian said I had good taste (I was like, whatever). I never got around to Ayn Rand, but I did end up buying a whole bunch of books from the factory outlet over the years and reading them – Dickens, Austen, Verne, Dumas, and even the original Ben HurDavid Copperfield eventually won me over; I had a crush on Agnes Wickfield (and still do, to some extent).

It never occurred to me that I was hooked on ‘western’ literature, or that the classics were different genres, or that long books could be trashy (I have also read Terry Goodkind, and I cannot deny that Stephen Lawhead influences my practice of Anglican and Byzantine Christianities to this day). In some ways, I didn’t even see the difference between these stories of heroes and ghosts and spirits and women and men and justice and love as very different from the stories that my grandpa used to read to me with his Shanghainese accent, mostly from Journey to the West 西遊記 – or the stories I learned in Chinese school from the Three Kingdoms 三國演義 or the Mulan 木蘭 poem my mom made me memorize in the car. Maybe it’s because they were part of the assortment of books in my teachers’ libraries, or even at the public library where some of these ‘classics’ were next to the did-you-know book where I learned that Bruce Lee died in Betty Ting Pei’s apartment under mysterious and scandalous circumstances. All I know is that reading this stuff was what I spent my time doing, which is why I ended up writing novels myself in high school (pretty trashy stuff, actually; I still have the drafts). My Chinese friends, however, were obsessed with getting into college, which meant that they had to do Kumon and play six instruments and win piano competitions and play sports. I stayed at home and wrote unpublishable trashy novels, although I did play two instruments (piano and trumpet). I tell my wife that I am a good kisser now because I played brass.

Nobody ever told me that I shouldn’t be reading this stuff – or shouldn’t be listening to classical music, or learning European history, or all that. I did get a sense at the Catholic high school that maybe my idea of ‘classics’ wasn’t broad enough; one of the first books we read in freshman honors English was Oedipus Rex, and when Mr Krantz put that book on our desks and asked us to read the first few pages and write a reflection, I didn’t know that I’d be getting a background to Freud. Krantz even told us after a while; it meant nothing to me. But nobody ever said that we shouldn’t be reading dead white men; it was more like Sophocles and Juan Rulfo and Naguib Mahfouz and Albert Camus and Toni Morrison and James Joyce should just be part of the same canon.

To be honest, I don’t think I even got the sense that what I still called the ‘classics’ were bad even in college. We read Edward Said pretty early on, but the text was taken from Culture and Imperialism, and Said was an English prof, so there were loads of references to ‘classics’ there. I got a better sense of what modernity was, but the more that we were taught how Descartes and the Western Christian made the world mechanistic because Lynn White said so (laugh all you want, philosophy bros), the more I started writing papers accusing all those Western Christians of not being orthodox because they weren’t into persons and love – and I was an evangelical. Eventually in my PhD, I started reading Milbank and Taylor as sort of an insurgent theologian within the discipline of geography, and when they asked me during my comprehensive exams what all my thoughts on Western modernity and secularization had to do with the Chinese Christians I had planned on studying, I told them that it’s not like these are worlds apart. There is such a thing as colonization, duh.

As postcolonial scholars themselves say, you can’t turn back the clock on colonization. It happened, and not only did Asia, Latin America, Africa, and Eastern Europe get drawn into the international division of labor with Europe as the core and the rest as the periphery, but also the colonies were drawn into the culture of western modernity. There’s a debate that I am invested in within academia over what are called Asian modernities, how to theorize the emergence of the modern (the technocratic, the secular, the nation-state, ideology, science fiction) in Asia, and I am convinced that it’s not easy to untangle that as an ‘alternative modernity’ (as the anthropologists Aihwa Ong and Donald Nonini put it). We who trace our lineage to the rest are inexorably tied to the ‘West’ through a complicated, violent, oppressive, and yet difficult-to-judge history. There’s no separating what’s western and what’s the rest. The story is all jumbled up.


I say all this now partly because I promised a Polish Dominican friar recently – in fact, the same one who spoke the words of the Holy Spirit that John Paul II said over Warsaw over me when I was chrismated –  that I’d do up a little post about Donald Trump’s Poland speech, which is all about defending the West, which has made all the people-of-color liberals and their self-proclaimed white allies go up in arms about the West and white supremacy, which has made all the white conservatives go up in arms about the culture wars that were supposed to have ended two decades ago.

As I began writing and thinking about that – and thinking about all the other academic stuff I’m working on – I found that I have a lot to get out of my system about the ‘West’ and my relationship to its literature, philosophy, arts, culture, and all the things. Maybe it’s because I spent last week writing about my Cantoneseness, maybe it’s because I wrote that review of Sam’s book, or maybe it’s none of the things, but I don’t think I’m going to get around to 45’s Poland speech until later, if ever. If I don’t, I’ll go to confession for lying.

But the thing is that I never thought I’d get this far. Many of my very successful friends in the Chinese church did manage to translate their 4.5 GPAs and very marketable extracurricular activities into lucrative jobs. I, on the other hand, became obsessed with the Chinese church itself and wound up tying my mixed-up colonial-with-benefits canon into an analyses of secularization in Cantonese Protestant engagements with Pacific Rim civil societies. For this, I have struggled and even paid an economic price (my doctoral supervisor once called it voluntary poverty, but I’d like to add that there are involuntary consequences too), and however superior I felt to them in high school, now they’re the ones who can afford to see opera and travel and read books. All I could afford to do was to become Eastern Catholic and start a blog.

The thing, though, is that I think the West, construct though it might be, has a lot more to do with all of us people of color and historically colonized people than we like to admit. Because it’s in our history – even in mine as Cantonese – we have the right to say something about it. But to do so is not to speak with sophistication. Speaking outside of the technocracy and secular normativities – indeed, to speak with what Gary Okihiro calls the creolized accent of the colonized about the house that white people thought they built – is hardly respectable; it is crass at the wrong points, vulgar at the wrong moments, and liable to slips of tongue and etiquette and pronunciation.

On such premises, let me proceed.

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