“Where are you from” and other questions

In the U.S., ‘Where are you from’ can be a loaded question. It took me a while to realize this. It could range  from : a) genuine curiosity about your origins b) ignorance  about who you are  OR c) An arrogant assumption that you are an ‘outsider,’ even if you are more ‘native’ than the person who asked you this question. The question also is an exercise of power – especially when the question is posed to someone who seems ( apparently, at least) is member of an ethnic or racial minority group. Roger Shimomura’s talk at the National Portrait Gallery last night brought to fore this question. As someone who is interested in ethnic identity issues, I was curious to hear what Shimomura had to say.

Shimomura Crossing the Delaware. Photo credit : rshim.com
Shimomura Crossing the Delaware. Photo credit : rshim.com
photo credit : rshim.com
photo credit : rshim.com

Shimomura is an artist who spent his early childhood in a Japanese internment camp and this experience, more than any other seems to have shaped his thinking. As a consummate collector, he seems to have collected not only items – which he introduced us to – but also experiences, both pleasant and unpleasant. The paraphrenalia that he collected, ranging from salt and pepper shakers to miniature shoes and also mannequins, one of which adorned his bathroom all seemed to introduce us to the mind of an eccentric artist; who is not afraid of being ‘himself.’

Shimomura recounted several anecdotes but one stood out in my memory. This involved a stranger approaching him in Lawrence, Kansas and asking him ‘Where are you from,’ to which he replied ‘Seattle.’ Not to be undone by this innocuous answer, the stranger again asked him ‘No! That is not I meant, what I meant was, ‘Where are your parents from.” To this query, Shimomura replied ‘Seattle’ again, given that his parents were second generation Japanese-Americans and he was a ‘Naesae’ Japanese, a third-generation one. His grand-mother arrived to the U.S. in the beginning of the twentieth century, as a ‘picture’ bride and she, more than anyone seems to have instilled in him the need for documenting one’s identity and personal narrative. Speaking of the line of questioning of this stranger, Shimomura pointed out that no matter how long one lives in the U.S., sometimes, one is always  a stranger – particularly, if one is a minority – or Asian American in his case. This persistent ‘othering’ is a phenomenon that seems to be at the heart of his work.Whether it is kicking the mickey-mouse characters or donning the Superman suit, Shimomura’s art has it all.

All of his work seems to challenge our stereotypes of what it means to be an Asian, an American and also how one can break away from this ‘framing.’ While he did not talk much about how one can move away from such framing, that is imposed by others; he did allude to the exoticization of one’s identity and the need to challenge it. One example he offered is that of ‘Yellow Rat Bastard,‘ brand of clothing. This slang term was used during WWII to refer to the Japanese, at the height of suspicion about Japanese-Americans’ loyalty to America. This term has stuck and it is surprising that the most avid consumers of this brand of clothing in NYC are Japanese tourists, mused Shimomura. Ironic? Perhaps so, or is it just that racism, when made to appear ‘cool’ seems to take on life of its own.

One of the more subversive one of his paintings is titled ‘Shimomura crossing the Delaware,’ based on George Washington’s famous crossing the river. Speaking of the original painting of the founding father, Shimomora asked “How might American history have been different, if it was the Japanese who were founding fathers of the U.S. or if those accompanying Washington were Japanese?”.

Shimomora’s oeuvre seems to have a strong message of battling stereotypes. Whether it is the plays/ performances based on his grandmom’s diaries or his own art-work that is very strongly reminiscent of Andy Warhol – improvizational, eclectic and very pop culture inspired, this artist forces us to re-look at the images and stereotypes that we hold in our minds.

I came away with a few ideas and a better appreciation for the Japanese-American experience and also a more nuanced understanding of what identity really means. As an immigrant myself and also as the husband of a first-generation Mexican-American woman, ideas of ethnicity and identity are constantly making the rounds in my mind. Shimomora added a dash of color and style to these perspectives and I am glad we went to his talk. More importantly, I will perhaps stop asking ‘Where are you from,’ unless it is absolutely necessary. That question, as I learnt last night, carries more power than we realize.

Should we all be Cosmopolitans Now?

The idea of being a ‘Cosmopolitan’ or a citizen of the world is not new and one can trace its emergence as a philosophy to the Stoics, who lived during the second and third century B.C. The most famous of them is Marcus Aurelius, whose Meditations has become a classic. The idea of not belonging to one place and embracing the universe as one is the crux of this way of thinking and one is inclined to ask: With globalization, is this the way the world is moving, and should we all be cosmopolitans now? Kwame Anthony Appaiah surely thinks so, and articulates his ideas in his book Cosmopolitanism, Ethics in a World of Strangers.c

Cosmopolitanism has many fans, but there are critics too. The opposing forces that faces a cosmopolitan way of life are the parochial ones: Nationalism, tribalism and any identity that seeks to be all consuming and dominant. This notion aspires to a ‘cultural purity’ that is an oxymoron, Appaiah argues. “The odds are that, culturally speaking, you already live in a cosmopolitan life, enriched by literature, art, and film that come from many places and that contains influences from many more” .While this is true and a valid argument, it is also true that cosmopolitanism could end up becoming another generalizing and universalizing principle, that could potentially ignore the ‘particularisms’ as Clifford Geertz, the Anthropologist would say. These particularisms are what make us unique and in their absence, we would be devoid of any identity. The other word for this is cultural relativism and one that seeks to honor each tradition on its own terms. While Appaiah acknowledges its value, he fears that this could lead to a world that is not ‘shared’ by all. This could lead to more divisiveness than is needed, in his view.

So, why is this notion of Cosmopolitanism important, one may ask? The simple answer is that because there is no other choice, at least for many, around the world, who are constantly bombarded with messages, media, ways of thinking and living that are alien to their ‘local’ traditions. Either we all cloister ourselves in our own ‘world’ and refuse to acknowledge or respect the ‘other’ whatever that may be, or we can open up our world and minds and recognize that the ‘other’s’ way of life, language, culture are valid and as human as we are. This gives life to the statement that the stoic playwright Terentius Afer made “I am human: nothing human is alien to me.” Appaiah draws out various analogies from his own life and that from history to demonstrate that cultural relativism, the belief that each one of us is so unique that we are best left undisturbed, is patently false. Further, Appaiah elaborates the tension between positivism and value laden worldviews.Positivism has its limits, he argues, because it can lead to particularism and a fixation with ‘rationality.’ What if the other person doesn’t speak in rational terms? How do we deal with this?

This is where values enter, points out Appaiah and one would have to agree that values can have a universalizing spirit. Who doesn’t believe in feeding the hungry and sheltering the homeless – we may differ in the means for doing this, but most of us would agree that these are good things that we should all aspire for. “Folktales, drama, opera, novels, short stories: every human civilization has ways to reveal to us values we had not previously recognized or undermine our own commitments to values that we had settled into. Armed with these terms, fortified with a shared language of value, we can often guide one another, in the cosmopolitan spirit, to shared responses; and when we cannot agree, the understanding that shaped our responses are shaped by some of the same vocabulary can make it easier to agree to disagree.” While this call for focusing on the positives in the narratives and values is all fine and good, what happens when there are clashing narratives and values that pit one against the other? While Appaiah does offer a critique of the ‘counter-cosmopolitan’ narrative of the radicals – Al-Qaeda and other totalitarian systems such as Communism etc. it comes across as too being too essentialist. For instance, in his critique of the concept of the Ummah, or universal brotherhood of Islam, Appaiah takes into account only how the radical Muslims frame it and misuse this concept to ‘other’, while ignoring the equally powerful Ummah that a Sufi or mainstream Sunni conceptualizes. What about the notion of Vasudaiva kutumbam, among the Hindus – that translates as ‘The whole world is a family.’ This is a big weakness of his argument and it is glaringly obvious that while he builds up the war cry, he doesn’t deliver the goods in this particular regard and ends up making a generalization, that ends up in an essentialism that could potentially be seen as carelessness.

As regards how to negotiate among warring factions, Appaiah, does not help us much in this regard, other than by saying that we must converse with one another. But the question still remains: What if people are not willing to even do that? What value system should one adopt? Should we all force everyone to adopt ‘universal principles’? While this seems like a plausible argument, the question still remains: who determines what is universal and why should everyone accept them as such? The differentiation between universalism and cosmopolitanism is that, in the latter, there is a recognition of differences and also the only criterion needed to be a ‘cosmopolitan’ is to recognize the other and have the ability to converse and deal with them. It does not necessarily mean that we adopt the views of the other, as a Universalist would demand. This difference is crucial and one that makes all the difference between ‘cultural hegemony’ and ‘respectful cultural dialogue’.

The biggest counter force to this sort of ecumenical thinking comes from ideologies such as nationalism that seek to set boundaries, both real and imagined. While these are often based on linguistic, nationalistic and other imaginaries, that are a product of historical and economic or imperialistic forces, their manifestation is real. How can one deny that American exceptionalism is not real? Or for that matter that the way Canada defines itself is in some way in opposition to what America is not. This tendency to ‘other’ those who don’t belong is part of our psyche and is deeply ingrained. Appaiah acknowledges that we began as small tribes, living in hunter-gathering type communities and this has shaped the way we think and feel about those who belong and those who don’t.

There are some problems with Cosmopolitanism too, including the very foundational one: Who can afford to be one? Can all of us be cosmpolitans? The simple answer seems to be: No. Being a cosmopolitan requires time, effort, money and not to mention access to certain levels of societal resources that are unfortunately not available to all. While we may be exposed to cultures, languages and food from other countries at a superficial level, to be a true embedded cosmopolitan requires traveling to those places, interacting with people who are not like us and living their lives, from their perspectives. This, I would argue is an expensive proposition. Especially if one is not lucky to live in a heterogeneous society. As Gramsci would say, cultural notions are unfortunately defined by the ruling classes and in this sense, the bottom rung of any society can only aspire to be cosmopolitan, in practical terms. This is a practical constraint that I see for this way of thinking and living. But despite this, cosmopolitanism is a compelling and enticing way of thinking and living, one that can make us bigger people, than we are, already.