Playing The Pretend Game.
It's funny how the more things change, the more they stay the same. I came across this interesting article in the Telegraph that reports some recent research which casts some doubt on the long-held belief that famous explorer, Marco Polo, actually went to China. This claim is not really new - a 1995 book made similar claims - but after several centuries, Polo's discovery of the wonders of the mystical East have become somewhat exagerrated to the point that his (doubtful) exploits are seemingly given more historical significance than any actual Chinese history. Yet, much of what Polo wrote was seemingly inaccurate or second-hand information that he didn't witness himself - which I suppose makes him a bullshitter.
Not so strangely, this comes as no surprise to me. As I have written about elsewhere on this blog, anyone can make claims about Asia and its people and it is unlikely that the claims will be challenged or in any way questioned for accuracy, honesty, or truth. Generalizing and shaping the image of Asia has become the Gold Rush of the 21st century for many present-day prospective Polos who see opportunity in reinforcing the fear of, and prejudices towards Asians. Seemingly just about anyone can have a go - indifference, ignorance, or just plain old xenophobic fear makes it a sure sell. These revelations about Marco Polo simply show that this process of getting rich or famous through making stuff up (or exagerrating half-truths) about Asia has a longer history than previously thought. In fact, so successful is the endeavour, that there are even some Asians who have imitated this path to success. As one might guess, it is the Asian man who bears the brunt of this misrepresentation.
I think that it is important for Asian men in America to remember that in the modern world, the driving force behind this misrepresentation seems to be resentment and envy at any apparent succcess of Asian people. From inner city shopkeepers to higher profile sportsmen, from academic over-achievers in the Ivy League to the economic powerhouses of East Asia, the onslaught of apparently prosperous people with Asiatic faces has left the western world's certainty of its own superiority in tatters. We can know this by how mainstream America reacts to successful Asian men. So successfully have western peoples been brainwashed to believe in their inherent superiority over the Asian that many seem unable to compute the notion of a successful Asian man. Many Asian men might find that despite playing by all the rules and achieving their success fairly, their success itself is often held against them as evidence of their malevolent and inferior character - even if you are successful you must have done something sneaky or even immoral to achieve it.
For instance, let's take sports. A popular and well-loved stereotype maintains that Asian sportsmen are simply too weak to compete against their far superior western counterparts. This is why when Asian sportsmen do succeed the response can often be characterized as shrill, irrational, and panicky. The clearest example of this occurred during the 2002 soccer World Cup held in South Korea. That year the South Korean team had the best run of any Asian team before or since. Reaching the last four, they overcame such soccer powers as Spain, Portugal, and Italy, incurring the wrath of these soccer superpowers who screamed conspiracy and falsely (and in some ways ironically) accused the Koreans of cheating. The Italians even went so far as to vent their petty rage on the Korean player who scored the winning goal against them by threatening to drop him from the Italian team for whom he had been playing. More recently in boxing, Manny Pacquiao's achievements have been besmirched by insinuations of cheating through the use of performance-enhancing drugs.
Some of the most anxious outbursts of irrational xenophobia occur in connection to the economic rise of various Asian countries. Those who witnessed the rise of Japan's economic power during the 1970's and 1980's might remember the panicked hysteria it elicited amongst some western observers. According to some experts Japan's success was due to the robotic nature of the Japanese people. The Japanese were dismissed as unthinking, and unquestioning, machine-like automatons devoid of personality and individual character whose potential was therefore easily exploitable and suitable for repetitive labour. In this way, the west was able to re-assure itself that although the Japanese were prosperous, it was somehow less worthy, or legitimate than western prosperity and hence the west was still best.
The recent rise of China as a power has elicited an even more histrionic reaction. It seems that the tone of much of the China commentary is that the Chinese are sneaky, lying, thieving, cheating, monsters whose bestial racial characteristics compels them to seek to overwhelm western civilization. Underlying all of this is an apparent raging incredulity that these upstart Chinese dare to demand a prosperity for their people equal to that of Americans. Of course, the relative success of China's economy is usually put down to some kind of cheating or sneakiness on the part of the Chinese horde.
But this type of hostile resentment towards prosperous Asians isn't limited to foreign economic competitors. Here in the U.S a degree of prosperity of some sections of the Asian minority brings with it mainstream justifications for prejudice and hostility against them. Running counter to the notion of the American dream, Asian-American prosperity has been the cue that has legitimized anti-Asian vilification and mockery. Out of all immigrant and minority groups, our prosperity alone is met with hostility and even attempts to curtail it.
The common thread in all of these examples of histrionic misrepresentation is the idea that prosperity of Asian people has been achieved through some degree of dishonesty or under-handedness, and if this is not the case, such prosperity should be feared anyway because Asians are bad people. The upshot of all this is that there is no reason to trust or believe anything that is written about Asian people by self-described western experts. Given that we can be fairly certain that hysteria, fear, and an ingrained sense of hostility, clouds mainstream attitudes towards us, it seems that the only response to Asia experts is skepticism.
What all of this suggests to me is that the 19th Century western colonial ideas of the Asian man who needs to be put in his place and whose only value is as a servant, remains the filter through which western minds conceive of Asian people. Whether you are Asian born and raised in the Mississippi or the Mekong Delta makes little difference - if you are a successful Asian (and male) your prosperity is an affront not only to the stereotypes that western minds create about you to make themselves feel safe, but also shatters some very core beliefs that insist on the superiority of the Caucasian.