Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Beauty Under The Knife: Cultural and Personal Standards

By now, you have probably heard some of the outsider outrage, confusion and consternation. "Everyone in Korea wants the same face!"
It seems, pardon the pun, cut and dry, but as you'll see it is anything but. Any cultural slant might be laid bare through similar scrutiny, so beware: those publications that seem to want to the headline to read "Dumb Asians All Want to Look The Same" are incapable of seeing their own cultural bias. We are all, in a sense, blind to ourselves.
Let's try to broaden our view, leading off with one of the better articles I've found on this phenomenon, 
"There's a real problem when you make generalizations about a whole country full of women, that they're all culturally duped," Hejiin Lee said in an interview. "There are certain economic situations happening in Korea and America that might impel different choices. We -- Americans -- might not see plastic surgery on the same level here that we see in Korea. But we do see people looking to the consumer market for help in their personal lives. Weigh that through an economic framework, and it's what you're seeing in Korea today." (Atlantic)
The racist stereotype of looking the same may have little bearing in this case -- rather it seems more a matter of shooting for the same standard of beauty. But why should so many people in a culture feel there is something wrong with them to begin with? Is this some kind of nascent, cultural illness?
We are want to react against that. I know my first reaction was to think how sad it is that perfectly beautiful, "normal" people look at themselves like the elephant man and want to get fairly intrusive surgery to meet the ideal in their head.
But hold on a second. Those feelings shift quite a bit when they are applied to those who feel their sex doesn't match the gender in their head. Rightfully so, I think, a recent author on Reality Sandwich who didn't feel there was any difference had been called out for her ignorance. 
 Yet there is a single thing she may have been correct about: they are nearly the same. Someone feels that their physical self does not match their internal self, and they want to take what measures are available to right that. The issue is the moralizing. The judging from the outside. "Someone that isn't trans, isn't even close to those issues, wants to tell people who are that they're wrong? What gives her the right." 
Isn't that what we're doing when we, probably neither Korean nor female, want to say such desires are sick? 
Well. Now we aren't quite so fixed in our surety, at least for those of us that are unwilling to throw the Trans- community under the bus as well. Perhaps we can glean un-generalization, albeit unproven, from this tangle: while Westerners oftentimes want to stand out from the crowd, there may be a cultural pressure in Asian cultures to be at one with the crowd. To be the crowd. I can't say for sure, but I think there might be something to that. (Not that either perspective is "right" or "wrong," those labels hardly apply. They are simply different reactions to the problems that face us in the course of being human. As all culture is.)
One thing seems for certain: we have no right to call it wrong. Is it lest our own cultural peculiarities get similar judgement? No. It is because if there is one thing we should all support, it is the intrinsic freedom of an individual to make such decisions for themselves, as we as outsiders cannot, will not ever know their internal experience.
But yet again we must hold off on such certainty. There is a deeper side to this issue -- which I can't hope to truly explore in a short post, though damnit I'll try anyway -- an issue that complicates the idea of personal freedom. You might get an inkling of what I mean from the following quotation,
"A global ideal doesn't stop at the face, says dental surgeon Jung Hak. Dr Jung says he's been fighting a trend. Korean mothers who have been bringing in their toddlers to have the muscle under the tongue that connects it to the bottom of the mouth surgically snipped.
The belief, explains Dr Jung, is that it will help a Korean speak English more clearly. People from the Asia Pacific region have difficulty in pronouncing the "L" sound, says Dr Jung. But he calls the surgery, if it's only for pronunciation, misguided, and caused by the hyper-competitive drive in Korea."
In other words, where is the line between a person's freedom to choose, and the cultural pressures that influence that decision? And where does it lie when we're talking about performing such surgery on children too young to decide for themselves, cultural pressure aside? 
Such questions are essential to get a grips on the topic; but in a practical sense, there is little hope for legislation to single-handedly correct the way many Koreans are socially pressured to be "white," in the sense that white does not so much refer to a historic or actual people but rather to the myth of whiteness which represents beauty, wealth, and all that is desirable. (After all many Irish have historically know how possible it is for their light skin to at least at one time, in-itself confer none of these supposed privileges of whiteness.) See also: Columbus-ing around: Columbus, The Borg, And The Great White Devil.) 
In any event, legislation aimed at correcting our behavior by making us act in our own best interest almost always damaged what it seeks to most aid: our increased freedom and well-being.
For if we ourselves cannot say what that is, no one can. 

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Happens All The Time

“Happens all the time,” says Coyote.
“That’s what myths do. They happen all the time.”
—Ursula K. Le Guin, Dancing at the Edge of the World

"Caan sees a ruined city, empty of human souls.
Many of the temples and palaces are crumbling and
half-consumed by the encroaching, low-lying jungle.
Some have been reduced to piles of rubble as serpentine
vines tug and pull at loose boulders and stones."
(Photo from Uxmal, quote from Mayan Interface.)
Researching a novel rooted in Maya culture, we attended a workshop on glyphs, visited the Mexican Yucatan Peninsula, and read every authoritative book we could get our hands on. We also studied Mayan storytelling. Especially fascinating was Allan F. Burns’s 1983 collection, An Epoch of Miracles: Oral Literature of the Yucatec Maya. The stories that Burns brings together are a crazy quilt collage of old and new, traditional and contemporary, fictional and true. Incongruity reigns as Christianity collides with Mayan myth and religion, and as worldly personae mingle with the mythic and the holy—for example, Jesucristo, “Beautiful Woman Honored María,” and “Wonderful True God” turn up in the same tale as Richard Nixon.

In Burns’s book, we noticed that a Yucatec tale never seems to take place in time at all. One notably haunting story tells of a Mayan hunter who slays a magical deer belonging to the Master of the Deer. The hunter perishes because of his hubris, and at the end of the tale the storyteller emphatically says,
We almost get the feeling of having glimpsed that funeral going by.

Maybe we did …

… or do …

… or shall.

Verb tenses in a Mayan story float freely between past and present. Perhaps all stories actually happen in the times of their telling, verb tense notwithstanding. After all, myths happen all the time. And strictly speaking, myths aren’t really told at all, but shared. Burns writes,
In Yucatec Mayan, it is not possible to say “tell me a story.” Instead, the only way to bring a story into verbal expression is to ask someone to “converse” a story with you.
In his introduction to Burns’s book, Dennis Tedlock explains further:
For the Yucatec Maya, even an asymmetrical genre such as narrative formally requires performance not only by “the person who knows the stories” but by “the person who knows how to answer,” the latter being much more than a mere member of an audience.
Or as the protagonist of our novel, Lydia Rosenstrom, puts it,
All speech is dialogue to the Maya.
A timely concept when so much visual art and theatre (to say nothing of subatomic waves and particles, and cats in Schrödinger’s boxes) require the participation of the viewer. And if Harold Bloom regards something as comparatively tame as poetry slams “the death of art,” what on earth will he say if Maya-style storytelling finds its way into our bars and cafes?

We took up this conversational concept of storytelling in our book, modeling whole chapters on the Mayan oral tradition. And we hope the conversation continues after the book has been read, passing on to other people. In every story we write, we’re not interested in imparting truths so much as in prompting questions, getting dialogues going, and generally stirring the hot, tasty, and variegated stew of evolutionary possibilities.

Mayan Interface is a genre story, a thriller that plunges into reality-shifting mythology and the consciousness-shifting theories of Julian Jaynes. Here’s the beginning of a chapter in which current-day Mayans and a Mexican guest converse a story. You can read the entire chapter as it was reprinted in SOL: English Writing in Mexicohere.
The three people all understood their parts perfectly. As the principal storyteller, Nacho would do most of the talking. As his designated respondent, César knew the story, too, and would prod the narrative along with questions and comments. As for Julio, he knew better than to commit the unspeakable rudeness of keeping utterly silent during Nacho’s tale. He, too, would make his voice heard in small but crucial ways as the story unfolded …

NACHO: We’re going to converse right now
of a story of very long ago,
of a time before time,
of a time before the Epoch of Miracles, even.
We’re going to converse of two Spirits:
The Spirit of San Juan Bautista,
and the Spirit of Mr. Savior Jesucristo.

CÉSAR: But before they came among us.

NACHO: Right, before they joined the human race,
before the Word became Flesh,
back in the time when they were just Spirits,
twin Spirits, Holy Ghosts, haunting the unborn world.
Mr. Savior Jesucristo hadn’t been born as God just yet,
and not as a man, either.
Because there are no people yet, you see?
This is a time before time,
a time before the Epoch of Miracles, even,
so people are just some idea in the mind
of Wonderful Rey de Dios Padre,
who didn’t yet know how to give birth to them.


NACHO: So they aren’t gods or people, but spirits, these twins,
the Spirits of San Juan Bautista and Mr. Savior Jesucristo,
before they even had the names we know them by today.
this story is of the time before time,
before the sun rose for the first time ever,
and of a very dark world awaiting any kind of light,
including stars and the moon.
And the only light there was came from the feathers,
from the bright red plumage of a bird.

CÉSAR: The macaw.…

Wim Coleman and Pat Perrin write books together. They are the authors of The Jamais Vu Papers, an experimental novel that has maintained a following for over two decades. They also wrote the popular thriller Terminal Games, which was discussed by literary critic Kate Hayles in How We Became Posthuman and taught in courses about literature and contemporary culture at several leading universities. Their articles and essays have appeared in various publications, including the Reality Club anthologies Speculations and Creativity.  Pat and Wim met and married in Los Angeles more than 25 years ago. They have lived in several other U.S. cities and in the beautiful historic town of San Miguel de Allende, Gto., Mexico. These days they’re in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Visit them at

[Take a Trip with us... Mythos Media.]


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