“Across the Sea” opens with Rivers Cuomo singing:
Who live in small city in Japan
And you heard me on the radio
About one year ago
And you wanted to know
All about me
And my hobbies
My favorite food
And my birthday
Listening to the song now, for the first time I realize he’s trying to imitate the broken English of the Japanese girl who writes him by omitting the “s” from “live” and the “a” before small city, unable to imagine that this girl does not likely think in broken English, but more likely exists as someone who thinks and speaks and functions in fluent, grammatically correct Japanese.
When I was an undergraduate, I read the short story collection A Good Scent From a Strange Mountain by Robert Olen Butler. He was hailed the “the master of the short story form” by my white male creative writing teacher whose ideas I challenged constantly. One of the stories in the collection, “Fairy Tale,” is told in the first person from the perspective of a naïve Vietnamese prostitute who falls in love with an American soldier who promises to love her and take her across the sea to the U.S. and marry her and give her the good life. Ultimately, he’s a shit husband and she divorces him and goes back to being a prostitute but remains optimistic in her advancing years. The whole story is written in broken English as if this Vietnamese woman would tell her own story in her own head in broken English and not in perfectly fluent Vietnamese. The failure of imagination is on the part of the white male author, Robert Olen Butler, who cannot see this woman the way she would probably see herself, even as he appropriates her voice and what he imagines to be her inner world.
No, my peers and my teacher argued with me, he’s just trying to capture how she would have appeared to us, an American, non-Vietnamese speaking audience. But aren’t there also Vietnamese-Americans? I shot back. I’m American and I don’t see her this way. I was the only person of color in that class and everyone laughed at me, at how uptight I was, at how I always found something to criticize when it came to matters of race. I didn’t say anything more on that point, but I did wonder if somewhere there was a book written by a Vietnamese woman who writes from the first-person perspective of an American soldier, and tells his story in broken, embarrassingly bad Vietnamese. Except that story likely would not exist because that white American soldier likely would likely only speak a word or two in Vietnamese, if at all. So his story would just be 12 pages of blank white space. He would be silenced altogether by his illiteracy, his inability to communicate at all in any other language besides English. Imagining that gave me pleasure for a moment, I guess, until I realized that A Good Scent From a Strange Mountain won the Pulitzer Prize and was almost universally praised for its depth and insight into the Vietnamese experience, for “making the Vietnamese real.” It always takes a white man to make the subaltern finally real. What about a book about the Vietnam War written and told and framed by an actual Vietnamese person? Would that ever win the Pulitzer? Would it even get published to any acclaim?
I guess this is a long way of saying I have to speak for myself. I have to tell my story. If I believed that I was who other people imagined me to be, I would be a broken woman speaking in broken English.
I guess this is a long way of saying I was never the girl in that Weezer song. Some people have wanted me to be and I have gone along with their fantasy of me, but that’s all it ever was: someone else’s fantasy of a girl.
I want to be clear that this is not an universal condemnation of interracial dating. It doesn’t make me or any girls of color a hypocrite for both wishing to be seen as three-dimensional and as their own subject, while also wanting to date a white boy.
The search for a decolonized love implicates all of us. You can’t put a person of color in a world that devalues them at every turn and reminds them constantly of all the privileges and immediate praise heaped on white people for simply being born to a body that passes and reads as white, and then expect people of color to not want the security and immediate validity associated with whiteness. You can’t shame and chastise those of us who seek that very security and immediate validity by association, sometimes by romantic association, sometimes by aspiring to and/or conspiring with that whiteness in other ways.
The refrain in “Across the Sea” goes:
Why are you so far away from me?
I need help
And you’re way across the sea
I could never touch you
I think it would be wrong
I’ve got your letter
You’ve got my song
It’s true I still hold that song close to me. It’s true how I hold it now has changed. It’s true I once found that song romantic. I once thought I would only be so lucky to be the girl in the song. It’s true I have been described exactly like the stationery that this girl writes the letter on—“so fragile, so refined”—and there have been times when being described this way has made me genuinely flush with pleasure, and other times, flush with disgust. The more I listened to the song I more I knew I wasn’t in it. No one was. The only person present in these songs is the white man imagining all of it. The one who told SPIN, “I was really touched by the emotion in my voice, especially with the Pinkerton songs. It struck me that there’s so much sensitivity and pain in my voice.”
I still catch myself trying to become the object someone imagines me to be, but then there are other times, when I am free, when I am fluent, when I am unimaginable, that I start to feel like somewhere out there is the decolonized love for me, somewhere out there, there is a love that doesn’t let any of us be so lonely. ♦