Sunday, February 22, 2009

Shortcomings and "Don't do this to me"

I stopped by the Barnes and Noble near Lincoln Center yesterday (by the way, the newly rebuilt Alice Tully Hall looks quite imposing, at least from the outside) on my way home from the Society of Illustrators' gallery. I like to browse B&N's graphic novels section for unexpected catches. It's hit or miss and today was a hit.

I found Shortcomings by Adrian Tomine. The graphic novel falls in the same genre of another recent Barnes and Noble find, American Born Chinese by Gene Yang: Gen-X Asian-American male identity crisis and angst. Both cover much of the same ground, except Tomine's protagonist is Japanese-American rather than Yang's Chinese-American and Tomine's work is relatively nuanced (though still direct) and Yang's style is more fantastic. Tomine explores the problem without a solution, while Yang proposes a solution of sorts. I was a little surprised to find out that Japanese-American men are dealing with the same social issues; I had assumed they were better assimilated.

Both works spoke to me in the emerging collective voice of my Asian-American male generation, to which can be added 2006 movie The Motel. We're beginning to bring to light the relentless social pressure placed on Asian-American men from all sides. Tomine uses Ben to show how isolating and subversively debilitating that social pressure is. We're granted no allowance for our personality shortcomings (reference intended). We're constantly in the wrong and pressured to adapt to others, at the same time that the equal or greater imperfections of our non-Asian American male peers are seemingly indulged. It's a trap, especially when we internalize the pressure to defer in a culture that grants us no privilege. In the surprise but oh-so-familiar plot twist, Ben's cheating girlfriend Miko proves to be worse than he, but it has been Ben, not Miko, who has been bombarded with reproach throughout the story.

Shortcomings hit home in the climactic confrontation between Ben and Miko in her white boyfriend's apartment. At the end of their mean break-up argument, Ben abruptly begs Miko to stay with him and finally whimpers, "Don't do this to me". I said nearly the same thing - "Don't do this" - to Traci after our falling out, during the break time of one of the college classes we shared in Yongsan's high school. I was helplessly in love with a girl who rejected me and I was afraid of the long-term consequences of her rejection. I knew it was hopeless, but I desperately confronted Traci anyway.

Like Ben, I was hurt by the girl who had my heart, yet debased myself and begged her; like Miko, Traci was unmoved. Reading the climactic scene in Shortcomings, the coincidence made me wonder whether Traci perceived me as poorly in our brief time with each other as Miko perceived Ben. Then I wondered why accountability for imperfection and responsibility to reform should fall exclusively on me . . . on us . . . and not more on them.

Eric

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