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Identifying Asian

Identifying Asian

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Serially published in WestEast Magazine, Spring-Winter 2008
Serially published in WestEast Magazine, Spring-Winter 2008

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Published by: Miguel Paolo Celestial on Nov 22, 2008
Copyright:Attribution Non-commercial


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By Miguel Paolo Celestial
Serially published in WestEast Magazine, Spring-Winter 2008 “So if I have to make a summary of myself, it terrifies me. I don’t know which of the many faces represents me more and the more closely I look the clearer thetransformations become, and finally only bewilderment remains.” (Gao Xingjian,
Soul Mountain
Journey to the East
The Journey to the East 
was published in 1932. It was an allegory by Germannovelist and Nobel Prize winner Herman Hesse, involving a religious sectcomposed of famous historical and fictional characters. This group set out aspilgrims searching for the “ultimate Truth” in the East, which was considered“Home of the Light”, the source of renewal.Like silk and spices that drove traders and conquerors of past centuries, Asianspirituality—as exotic fruit and elixir—has inspired a similar pursuit by the West.Though its practices have been embraced in the fields of non-conventionalmedicine and modern well-being, these are still regarded with a fair amount of caution, approached as fads or health alternatives, or trusted only as last resort.Asian spirituality remains distant. Different.But as globalization opened access beyond Asian religion and medicine, it hasallowed the West to approach this spirituality through Asia’s culture and heritage.It’s art, cinema, and literature give insight to ever-changing attitudes andidentities germinating from ambiguous systems of belief.Consequently, globalization has provided greater access to the West. But whatmakes Eastern spirituality more interesting is how Asians have appropriatedAmerican and European ideas, views, and modes of thought and expression intotheir beliefs, managing in turn to exert influence on the West. Japanese novelistHaruki Murakami quickly comes to mind.Has this happened because something is missing in the West’s understanding of itself? This may not necessarily be due to a want in analysis—perhaps, preciselythe opposite.Central to Asian spirituality is its basis in emptiness. This “emptiness, thenothingness, of the Orient”, according to Yasunari Kawabata, Japan’s first Nobellaureate for literature, “is not to be taken for the nihilism of the West”. Thedifference being that this nothingness is also the essence of fullness, as borne by
silence, light or darkness, or the wordlessness of the upmost reaches of song,where beauty brims.Only in this emptiness is wholeness, the renewal Herman Hesse sought,possible. Completeness in the constantly new sustained by the cycles of nature,in the passing of seasons where creatures flower and die, emerge and wilt. Asianreligions and cultures abide by these circular phases, transformations, andconstant changes.In contrast, Western art of late has been obsessed with brittle branches of structure and appearances, and purported discoveries of the “totally new” thatmerely peel old bark, produce works that lack sap. Instead of leading culture tothe intended evolution, this obsession, not unlike the impetus behind industry,has brought it to petrifaction.Western art has arrived at prevalent stasis, with decadence overpowering it likemold and lichen. More and more, Western culture and religion are faced with thesteady disintegration of the Western soul, which has suffered the toll of wars andhate and hyper-materialism, of megalomania and self-righteousness. As theWest begins to acknowledge its ebbing prowess for imagination, it increasinglylooks to the East.
Refugees Returning Home
“At most you can only find in a particular corner, in a particular room, in a particular instant, some memories which belong purely to yourself, and it is only in such memories that you can preserve yourself fully.” (Gao Xingjian, “Soul Mountain”)
Given Asia’s nearness and understanding of nature and its seasons andchanges, what then could account for the “bewilderment” that Gao Xingjian,Chinese Nobel laureate for literature, has referred to about himself in his book
Soul Mountain
?He suggests that amidst the confusion of transformations, returning to memoriesor personal history is necessary to verify individuality, pointing out that “in theend, in this vast ocean of humanity you are at most only a spoonful of greenseawater, insignificant and fragile”. As a writer and as an individual, Gao Xingjianhas insisted on the value of literature “to preserve a human consciousness”, toretain identity.Asia’s history has gone through wars and conquests, not only over land andtrade, but also over ideas and individuality—enough to cause the displacement of nations and identities.
 Xingjian admits that he has been “a refugee from birth”, born “while planes weredropping bombs”. He also escaped persecution in China to settle in a foreigncountry, writing
Soul Mountain
in a personal journey back to the self.For his part, Kawabata’s compatriot Kenzaburo Oë, who also won the NobelPrize for Literature, sought to return from the ravages of war to facedisillusionment and ambiguity in Japan. Personally, in his writing, he has soughthealing.Lastly, Arundhati Roy, in her Booker Prize-winning novel
The God of Small Things
, made a journey with her protagonist back to India years after sufferinginjustice not only from domestic prejudice, but also from her country’s colonialheritage.Asians have a unique way of dealing with disruptive time and history. Consistentwith the repetition of seasons, they have always managed to return to the oldflow.Returning to emptiness, to personal memories, to the historical realities of acountry, and to the wounds of persecution and prejudice, these Asian writershave identified themselves as individuals, and in the process have given readersa glimpse into the Asian spirit.
From the West: Haruki Murakami
“Oh Danny boy, the pipes, the pipes are calling From glen to glen, and down the mountain side.The summer’s gone, and all the roses falling—It’s you, it’s you must go, and I must bide.But come ye back when summer’s in the meadow…Oh Danny boy, oh Danny Boy, I’ll miss you so!” 
A child of the West, world-famous Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami wasdeeply influenced by its culture, growing up reading Kurt Vonnegut, RaymondCarver, and a slew of other writers, and also imbibing the music of bands like theBeatles, jazz acts like Miles Davis, and the classical music of Europeancomposers.As Bing Crosby sings about “Danny Boy”,
Murakami pines for the lost innocenceand spontaneity of Japan. But he does so in a voice and method that is almostfully Western.

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