Saturday, March 13, 2010

Irony-Free Zone

One of the things I like best about Southeast Asia is that it's an irony-free zone. People here usually mean what they say, unless they're telling you an outright lie, which happens about as often here as it does everyone else.

What they don't do is snicker at, say, the James Cameron version of Titanic when in fact they've gone through two copies on DVD and an entire supermarket carton of Kleenex waiting for the moment when Jack slips beneath the water. A Southeast Asian is much more likely to say, “Oh, Titanic? I cry too much.”

Or, if they really bawled their eyes out, "I cry too much too much."

The lack of irony also means there's a blessed lack of cool. If there were an international symbol for the Southeast Asian attitude it would be a red circle with a diagonal slash through it, and in the middle would be a pair of sunglasses. Most people here are too busy enjoying, or enduring, their lives to waste time worrying about whether they're being cool.

Cool is a disease as far as I'm concerned, and irony is its indicating symptom. The whole basis of cool is an assumption of superiority. Cool people are above the common herd. They sneer at popular culture, unless it's fashionably bleak. Ask one of them if he or she loves you, and you're likely to get air quotes around the word, “yes.” (Of course, now that air quotes have become uncool – people are using them in Ohio – they're being suppressed, so that the floor around any conversation by the terminally cool is littered with unused air quotes, crumpled little wads of unexpressed impulses.) If cool Americans had their way, the entire North American continent would be creased like an accordion so it can be folded to put New York and Los Angeles next to each other. Or maybe San Francisco.

Tell a cool person about a film (never a movie) with a happy ending, and he'll show you an idiot – you – who enjoyed it. Southeast Asian people like happy endings. They get enough unhappy ones in real life. In Cambodia, where there is literally not one family that wasn't broken tragically under the Khmer Rouge, happy endings are a necessity. Cool is a disease of the overfed and overprivileged.

Here's a stark example of how little cool there is in Southeast Asia. People here go to coffee houses to drink coffee. American coffee houses are little cesspools of cool, places where people wearing expensive cheap-looking black clothes can go to amp up their cool with caffeine while they knock out the next zombie virus movie or – much more likely – talk about knocking out the next zombie virus movie while they conserve battery life by leaving their laptops off. Open, of course (how else will people know it's a laptop?) but off. Why waste cool on a blank page when you can express it out loud?

Only cool people will spend $150 on a pair of jeans that are already ripped. If someone gave that pair of jeans to a Southeast Asian, the needle and thread would come out the moment the donor turned his back. (It would be rude to sew them in front of him.) Most Southeast Asians iron their T-shirts. They may not be able to look rich, but they want to look clean. When they see some rich Westerner (rich means he or she earns more than $200 per week) wearing torn jeans, flap sandals, and a T-shirt that looks like it spent several years crumpled into the smallest possible ball and submerged in mud, they don't see “cool.” They see an idiot. They may not be cool, but they know an idiot when they see one.

The most popular television programs here right now are Korean soap operas, dubbed into Thai, Cambodian, and Vietnamese, and rented for twenty-five cents a disk. Beautifully produced and impeccably acted, they tell the story – over dozens of hours – of beautiful young people who love each other, lose each other, and love each other all over again, crying extravagantly at every major plot point. The crying is real. There are no air quotes around the tears. The guys cry, too.

To make them even less cool, the young people in these shows are virtuous. They don't make love every time the garage door, or the lid on the Dumpster, closes behind them. If they kiss, their tongues take the day off. They work hard. They have dreams, and they strive like hell to achieve them. They (my God!) respect their parents.

A few days ago I walked past an open-air Vietnamese restaurant that was absolutely packed with people, their eyes glued to a small, emphatically low-definition television (let's hear the sneers because it wasn't a flat-screen) that was showing the ninth or tenth hour of the Korean drama “Full House,” which I recognized at once because I've seen it. Often. The impossibly beautiful heroine was in tears, and so was everybody else. Standing at the back of the restaurant, I could hear the sobs. Maybe fifty people were so close to that screen they were practically on the other side of the glass, crying their hearts out over lost love. People whose own lives are far from easy, people who do the best they can, day after day, just to put food on the table. When the episode was over, they looked at each other, saw the tears on everybody else's faces, and started to laugh.

Imagine that. Actual emotions, right out where everyone could see them. In broad daylight.

I could work on this sentence for a week and still not be able to tell you how good it made me feel.

Tim - Sunday


  1. Irony, a word that has evolved from the Greek word meaning "dissembler", which, in its less polite definition, means "liar" applies more to the speaker than to the ideas spoken.

    Irony is the result of people working too hard to prove their smart which in fact makes them seem not smart at all (unless you are Jon Stewart and make it the basis on which your comedy is built).

    Your name suggests that you have Irish roots. The Irish weren't willing to take on British religion but they did take on the "stiff upper lip" persona. It was the British ruling class, in government and commerce, who feared showing emotion. How do you rule countries if the people you are subjugating see you laugh and cry just like they do? The Irish applied it to their religious belief that suffering was ennobling and if one gets too happy, they will be smited by an angry God who, if He wanted them to be happy, wouldn't have sent them the British.

    The United States prides itself on self-control, never expressing emotion unless it is to cry along with the "Biggest Loser". Emotion at a distance is either the result of, or the cause of, emotional distance. One can't cultivate irony while holding on to a Kleenex box. (Although Americans cried through TITANIC,too).

    Perhaps public emotion can only thrive where it is warm. Emotion is contagious, happy or sad (unfortunately, so is anger). Life is lived closer to the streets where it is warm. The closest we came to national emotional catharsis was the JFK assassination. Would anyone want to do that again?

    Most teenagers in the US respect their parents but no one is going to write about it or take it on Jerry Springer. Respect does have to be earned and it can't be earned when parents have decided that they and their children should be friends. There isn't a female alive who wants to hear that she looks just like her mother. When a 16 year-old whose mother thinks it is great that she and her daughter share clothes, the teenager loses her identity and the mother has given up her role as a respected adult. Taking on a teenager's vocabulary is stealing the language that binds contemporaries. Plus, the adult sounds like an idiot. It's awkward and contrived and contrived is a word that describes the mother-daughter equality relationship. It isn't natural.

    The word "love" lost much of its value when it was used to indicate the users opinion of pizza, shampoo, and the aforementioned pre-slashed jeans. If teenagers don't use the word love to describe their relationships with their parents it is, in part, because that wouldn't be cool. It may also be because they never hear it. Sometimes people are emotional misers. Every phone call with a child, every meeting, should end with a parent saying "I love you" because it is truth and it that truth rather than unearned sports trophys that engender self-esteem and self-respect.

    Cool is boring and irony is hard-work.


  2. A beautiful piece, but will Americans read anything this long on the BlackBerrys or laptops? And, I hate to break this to you, but many people would think living in Thailand a highly cool thing to do.
    Detectives Beyond Borders
    "Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home"

  3. Tim, I loved this - the curse of cool. Tell me about it! The teenage years (and later!) I wasted in the spurious pursuit of elan and cool in the hope of attaining unattainable women. Got me absolute nowhere. Now, I turn Dolly Parton up full blast (only to find out Dolly Parton went and became cool...) I still know grown men who live like this - so detached by irony and being perceived to be uncool that they can barely live. Like statues. No one can touch them and they can't feel a thing. Or let themselves feel a thing. Terrible way to live.

    Not me. These days, I'm striving to be the world's most uncool Dad. My son says I'm well on my way...

  4. Tim - speaking of the Titanic.... Everyone got caught up in the four day love affair of Jack and Rose and missed the real love story.

    As the ship is sinking, there is a shot of an old couple lying together on a bed as the cabin fills with water. These characters are based on Isidor and Ida Straus a couple from New York in their 60's. Isidor and his brother were co-owners of Macy's Department store. Ida had a place in a lifeboat but wouldn't leave without Isidor. A crew member told Isidor he could get in the lifeboat with his wife but he refused to do it because men were still waiting for the women and children to be loaded into the lifeboats. So they moved away from the rail and died together. They were married forty-one years.

    Isidor's body was found but Ida's was not. When the lifeboat was lowered to the sea it was not full.

  5. Beth -- I love the idea that emotion is more readily expressed in warm climates, although Koreans don't exactly stifle themselves, and God knows they get cold enough. Also love the story of the Strausses -- there's still love in the world. (Also, anyone look at the piece on the survival rates on the Titanic vs. those on the Lusitania? The Lusitania sank in 18 minutes and most of the survivors were fit young men. On the Titanic, there was enough time for more selfless impulses to kick in, and the vast majority of those who survived were women, children, and the elderly.)

    Peter, if you think this was long, you should see the first draft. I don't know whether anyone (except you and Beth and Dan) will ever finish it, but it felt good to get it off my chest. My books come in long, too -- the first draft of the new one was almost 150,000 words.

    Dan -- Thanks for the agreement. In fact, the contrast between cool Anglos and their resolutely uncool Asian counterparts is nowhere greater than in teen-agers. Southeast Asian teenagers are, by and large, kids who still act like kids, not the wizened, disillusioned, cosmically disappointed adults so many American kids pretend to be.

  6. And one more response to Peter -- I should have distinguished between "cool" as a positive (and apparently ageless) adjective and "cool" as a noun to distinguish those who possess it from the poor, hopeless straights.

    Interesting, isn't it, that "cool" the adjective has remained current since the forties. Hard to think of another piece of slang that can be said of.

  7. How long was this piece? As Dr. MLK said, not long.
    I knew, of course, in which sense you used cool. I was just being ironic.
    Like as a meaningless interjection or mannerisn may similarly date from the 1940s, and I'd bet its waxing and waning parallel those of cool.
     Detectives Beyond Borders
    "Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home"

  8. Cool post, Tim. I happen to think that "uncool" is very cool, if only because those saddled with the "uncool" label never have to fake a thing; they're just real people leading real lives and feeling real emotions--all in the absence of pretense. The face they present to the world is genuine, and that, to me, is the epitome of "cool."

  9. Tim - Long is very good. Keep doing it. I've mentioned already that Poke is a poet.

    Speaking of long, HBO's series THE PACIFIC began tonight. It follows 3 Marines from Guadalcanal to the surrender. One of the Marines is Robert Leckie, a man who wrote a significantly long book (coming in at over 900 pages) called DELIVERED FROM EVIL that covers WWII from the Treaty of Versailles to the surrender of Japan. It reads like a conversation.

  10. Here's something interesting - I was told by someone living in Japan that the Japanese don't use or understand sarcasm. I suppose that includes irony. But do the kids think that purple and pink spiky hair is cool? This is getting complicated...

  11. I find this interesting as a mom raising a young boy and a young girl. How should I raise them? To understand the social mores of the US? And to understand how stupid it all is? It's really tough. Thanks for this interesting glimpse into an honest (at least emotionally) culture.