Last week, Obese Chipmunk and I went to see a play called The Art of Building a Bunker. I’m writing this post because my prof promised to give me extra credit for broadcasting my opinions online and starting a critical debate. And, as good Asian who wants extra credit, I am doing just that. Actually, kidding. I’m tackling the play because it poses some questions relevant to my blog:
1) What is “cultural acceptance” and “sensitivity?”
2) How can the concept of “sensitivity” be problematic?
3) How does an Asian (or insert racial, gender, etc. identifier here) respond to offense?
I read somewhere online that Bunker is comparable to Borat. Both center around a “buffoon” character and use outrageous acts and dialogue to poke fun at stereotypes. Both are incredibly offensive. I think Bunker is more self-aware, though.
Also, I’ll sadly admit that I think Borat is funny as hell. It’s an overblown, unapologetic, and awfully up-yours romp through cultural insensitivity, Americana, sex, glamour and non-glamour. You’ve probably seen it yourself. But hey, forgive me. I grew up with an older brother who “introduced” me to American Pie, 40-Year-Old-Virgin, and a collection of phallic and yo-mama jokes you’d rather leave behind in the evil schoolyard of childhood.
Let’s get back to Bunker.The play centers around an everyman character, Elvis, who undergoes “sensitivity training” at work alongside other colleagues. Cam, the pumpkin-spice-latte-drinking boss, takes them on a metaphorical canoe across the waters that the First Nations people traversed, into a journey of self- and cultural exploring. Let’s embrace the narratives of other cultures, he says. Look, I have a spirit name; do you? Let’s not forget who ultimately colonized the First Nations, though. And that’s the contentious message of this play: how sensitive can you really be in this age of sensitivity training? Or can sensitivity and cultural awareness become a farce?
(To be fair, I don’t remember enough from the play to give an itty-bitty synopsis. Eventually, somehow, Elvis gets on Cam’s nerves. Cam makes Elvis deliver a speech, or a presentation, about his own cultural background. Elvis dons a kippah and dances to a traditional Jewish song (I’m really sorry guys, I don’t know what it is because I, too, am culturally ignorant and could do better. Please fill me in), becoming a racial stereotype. It is laughable and disturbing. And really raises questions on, of course, how far cultural sensitivity can really go.
*Disclaimer/not to spoil*: There are some pretty icky bits in this play. Elvis rubs a greasy (possibly real) chicken all over his thigh and most of his body. You have to see it to believe it.
I want to raise a more contentious issue, that is, the tendency to patronize in our culture of “cultural sensitivity.” What a mouthful. I’m essentially saying that “cultural sensitivity” has itself become a culture, and a dominant one at that. Now, I know we mean well when we go to Nepal for spiritual “awakening,” when we sample food from Chinatown, attend Caribana, and so forth, in the name of cultural awareness. But in the meantime, well-intentioned people are misled. Worse, “cultural sensitivity” has become some blanket term used to put words in the mouths of marginalized groups.
It’s okay if you don’t understand our culture.
It’s problematic, though, if you choose to remain ignorant and inflict harm.
I appreciate your desire to learn more about my culture. Actually, I would encourage it.
But please, for the love of God, don’t act like you know oh-so-much about being Asian when you’re not Asian.
And for fuck’s sake don’t act like you know the ancestral baggage, the tumultuous history, the backbreaking work, the centuries of government turmoil, the loss of traditional characters, and to this very day, the very fear of failure and loss of face that drives every Chinese person. Don’t act like you know everything about being Chinese, including its suffering.
Let’s go back to Bunker:
1) Elvis is really confused about why sensitivity training exists. For one, why does he have to uncomfortably stare at the exposed boobs of a fellow co-worker throughout the training? (This is probably a jab at slut-walk).
2) Why does he have to act like he embodies the culture of “sensitivity training?” Why does he have to make a speech about being “Jewish” in the stereotypical sense in an attempt to “educate” others?
3) Bunker really tries to dismantle “cultural sensitivity” in Cam. Even though he’s all sweet and Pumpkin-Spice-Lattey, he disregards and mocks everyone throughout the training. He’s a hypocrite who mutters “namaste” in one breath and threatens to cut wages in another because you can’t fit a stereotypical culture role.
Cam patronizes. He’s the caricature of a politically-correct white guy, dictating everyone’s cultural performances under the veneer of “cultural sensitivity.” Elvis can’t convince him that he is “Jewish” enough, and is already comfortable being a non-stereotypical Jew. But for Cam, that’s not good enough. Elvis has to make an entire speech, don a kippah, and etc. He is, in this way, marginalized once more. “Cultural sensitivity” has just dictated how he will be a “Jew.”
I’ll draw from personal experiences. As a Richmond Hill Asian I have been lucky that my upbringing was relatively tame compared to my Torontonian or Mississaugan brethren. No one called me “slant,” (except Obese Chipmunk, but we make fun of each other mercilessly). Service Ontario treats me equally (that is, poorly. “Service” is an oxymoron.) Once in awhile, an asshole waiter would inadvertently provide asshole service thinking we Chinese don’t know English and therefore don’t know anything. Or some sonofabitch would step on my toe/wedge past me/not let me through the door on the subway because I’m petite, Asian, and again, “do not know English.”
But lately, I feel like I have been subjected to what I call “inverse racism.” When someone tells me I should be offended by some racial slur or category, even though I don’t give a shit. I sit down to watch a Jacky Chan antic, complete with dragon ladies, Asian guys who can’t get sex, everyone knows kung fu, and other awful Asian stereotypes. I just want to zone out and enjoy the movie in its stupidity. Then society says: I can’t believe you’re watching this! This is so offensive! How you can tolerate this kind of racism?
Patronizing situations I’ve encountered.
1) Person A: Wow, your eyes are so oriental!
Me: Why thank you.
Person B: Wtf? Shouldn’t you be offended?
Me: Not really, I think that’s kind of funny.
2) Me, at a gathering. I’m about to crack a joke.
Me: Why did the Asian cross the road?
People: I don’t know.
Me: To give you a black eye!
Person C: That’s offensive.
So on and so forth. These are just a few examples of when I feel patronized and I wonder, who are you to talk?
Why can’t I:
1) Appreciate the stupidity of Borat and, at the same time, its boldness? (Come on, the naked wrestling match was so so awful you didn’t think it was possible.)
2) Acknowledge that Yellow Fever exists, that it’s real, and it’s here to stay? If Asian Fetish is offensive, let’s think about America Fetish, its more hidden cousin. Have you noticed that in bi-racial relations, an Asian girl will usually go for the white, not brown or black guy?
3) Encounter “racist” and “offensive topics” in the framework of satire, irony, humour, and not take them at merely face value? We should knowthat irony doesn’t always “mean” what it “says.” The same goes for Bunker and Borat.
4) Decide for myself if I am offended or not by “racial” jabs at my cultural traits, stereotypes, and so forth, instead of letting society dictate my offendedness.
Now by no means do I condone racism, gay hate, and so forth. People throughout the world actually die from these, and that’s unfortunate. This post, and my blog as a whole, does not encourage “hate speech” in any way. I just like to tease at issues of race, culture, and its representations. “Richmond Hill Asian” is ironic, because the name itself reduces me to a geography, a type, that has its own assumptions and stereotypes. At the same time, it is a way for me to critique these assumptions.
So what am I really saying? I’m saying that the cultural (in)sensitivity behind Bunker can, in fact, address the issues I contested here. Bunker is really quite insensitive.The Chinese woman can’t make the “l” sound so her name is, inarticulately, “Ro-ra.” (?) Kumar is obviously a party animal, and the man from South Africa recieves his share of crude “African” jokes. However, I did feel that the stark existentialism of the play’s end was quite abrupt, almost too sober. Yeah, I get you’re trying to expose and tease at issues behind cultural sensitivity. Elvis concludes that sensitivity training – however innocuous – doesn’t really solve the greater looming problems in life, such as war, famine, genocide, which is true, but I don’t think we can blame it for that. After all, the concept of “cultural awareness” does help us live, more happily and interconnectedly, day by day. It bridges families. Dismantles war. I can’t say much about the greater evils out there, but I’ll just, very humbly, address the (let’s just say innocent) patronizing stance that cultural sensitivity poses towards Asians like me.
Was I offended by Bunker? Yes in some parts. But it is funny, and I’ll just accept it on that level. I kind of think humour is a way to tease out uncomfortable ideas, and even the ones I brought up just now are, probably to some people, incredibly offensive. (Apologies in advance!) But Bunker’s success in being an art form… I’ll let the art critics handle that.
P.S. I was also really impressed by Lazarus’s endurance. He acted maybe 6 different characters without so much as a water break. I’m not sure if this has been done, but even if it has, I think Lazarus pulled off the characters quite well. So that was the best part of the play.
P.P.S. You should probably know that this blog “satirizes” the Asian-Canadian experience in an attempt to expose its kinks and quirks. So you know I’m not taking anything super seriously. I did open with a shout-out to Obese Chipmunk after all, another online presence who specializes in radically making fun of things.
P.P.S. And I should credit Chipmunk too because he helped me flesh out some of the ideas here. I think he coined the word “patronizing.”