Aren’t we proud of the ease in which we accept other cultures and ethnicities into our society and their practices into our own lives? We send our children to karate lessons. Our dentists want to be Jewish in order to tell the jokes*. How does the saying go—everyone is Irish on St. Patrick’s day? I wouldn’t be where I am today spiritually without the help of my yoga teacher and guru, Chad Myers (Thanks, Chad!). We are one happy American melting pot sitting around a table at Pei-Wei, a non-denominational Asian restaurant, which is great because I love pad Thai and Katie loves Orange Chicken— our dining-out oriental style problems are forever solved (and believe me this was a problem).
* I often confuse “Seinfeld” with reality, which may or may not be a psychological disorder.
Yet, the problem that remains unsolved is our appetite for multiculturalism according to our own tastes. No fish sauce please. No canola oil. No chicken. No egg. We are sufferers of a Burger Kingnik’s paradigm and Jenny Boully’s essay, “A Short Essay on Being” tastes so strange, because suddenly having it your way doesn’t taste so good. It tastes like glass from the mirror I am forced to see myself in. I see an idiot (always, but now for different reasons) and how did I get here?
Boully’s Thai-ness asks of her silence, which often translates into foolishness. In the “enlightened” courts of Brooklyn and Austin, she plays/accepts/welcomes her role as “fool.” Like Shakespeare’s fools, Jenny Boully is a subtle agent of social criticism. She is lonely and lovable, sad and perceivably* unthreatening, and never outspoken of others’ mistakes, knowing by the final scene the real fools will recognize their errors, then a wedding (Mazel tov!). What better way to essay about our nation’s misguided exercises in inclusion/exclusion, then by stringing together (comedic?) scenes of well-intended (some?), yet incredibly off performers falling through the holes of their own idealism?
*I say perceivably here because all fool’s, at least the good ones, have their revenge. Feste gets revenge on Malvolio in Twelfth Night. Hunky Justin is left with blue balls and perhaps an upset stomach.
Boully does so much with so little space, I know our classes will want to attach a lot to this essay. So not trying to reduce the seriousness of Boully’s piece here, but I would like to consider some of its possible comedic elements as my contributing thread. It’s a stretch, but think of this essay in the mode of farce. On http://www.thefreedictionary.com/farce look at the first definition under “farced.” Pad, suspiciously, shows up. Everyone back to your college Shakespeare survey courses. Let’s make a checklist of the key components of farce:
Verbal Humor/Word Play: Bouly’s essay begins by playing with the words pad and pot. A pad you live in, a pad “you bleed on,” a pad you write on. Phuk-et/ Fuck-it.
Mistaken Identity: Boully, the Thai national, the Spanish speaker, the Puerto Rican, the Asian (of the scholarship winning variety), the fake speaker of Thai, the Mexican, the Taiwanese girlfriend.
Innuendo/ Sexual Humor: Buddhist anal cleansings, douching with lavender, blue balls.
Poetic Justice: We are literally left unfulfilled.
I am not suggesting that “A Short Essay on Being” uses inflated or fabricated scenes, but are not a good many of her anecdotes reflections of a certain type of absurdity? And farce allows for an indirect-directness, which may be the m.o. of essaying (?) The college girls having their taste of an “exotic” culture consume too much and their faces turn bright red. The Soros fellowship committee has no idea what criticism* means. Beyond the initial absurdity of Boully’s mistaken identity as a Spanish speaker, she is scolded for her inability to speak her “native” language, when a few decades ago the scolding would have been, perhaps, for her doing so. We are laughing, laughing at all these idiots, who want to correct Boully for her mispronunciation, until suddenly, amongst the padding of all these absurdities on top of one another, the realization occurs that we are being implicated ourselves (at least I am. My friends will tell you I am often unintentionally political incorrect.)
*Did Boully intend for this to be ironic?
Maybe that’s the sign of a successful essay. Its ability to find the narrow hole of which it can pass in order for it be heard and take effect. Pointing the finger is never easy, so Boully doesn’t point, at least not directly. While laughing at the Asian family in a Chinatown absent of fresh rice noodles, the finger I (I am not Thai) point turns on me…
I remember working in the campus bookstore, when two Indian girls asked me, “Where can we find the Hindi textbooks?” “Hindi. What’s Hindi?” I asked back. When they explained to me that Hindi was the official language of the Republic of India, I responded, “I thought Indians, spoke Indian.” Unlike Boully, these girls promptly corrected me and did nothing to hide that they thought I was an idiot. As they left the store, I do not doubt that my nineteen-year-old self thought “ I have never been with an Indian girl,” which now reminds me of verse pinned by my ingenious college roommate Matt Ward:
I want a chicken breast sandwich.
Hold the chicken.
Hold the sandwich.
We strip down/water down and in this case pour thick orange syrup over other cultures in order to transform them into pleasurable experiences (sex, food, quick spirituality). Yes, our ideal society is dedicated to tolerance, but what are we really tolerating? Only are own comfortable sugary conceptions of other cultures? This is not an easy point to make, but a good essay must/requires-an exchange between writer and reader that allows for fluidity. Boully does not soapbox us. She acquires her ingredients and she cooks her dish Thai-style. And if the Indian girls I offended hadn’t already corrected me this would be my opportunity to apologize.