restricted access 10. Travels in the Body: Technologies of Waste in the Chinese Diaspora

From: China Abroad

Hong Kong University Press, HKU colophon
In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

I The theme of toilets in particular, and waste in general, permeates the cultural production of the Chinese diaspora. This chapter analyzes the toilet as an element of material culture that usually remains invisible and yet in Chinese diasporic literature is assigned an important cultural value as a site for cross-cultural encounters.1 It is interesting to note that other diasporic Asian literatures do not share this thematic emphasis, with the exception of South Asian texts that deal with the issue of caste and of the “untouchables” whose caste-prescribed duties include cleaning toilets. Mulk Raj Anand’s 1935 novel Untouchable is a classic of this type.2 The emphasis upon the toilet as an icon of cultural transformation and subjective conflict specifically in Chinese diaspora writings seems to me to be a feature of, more or less, latent Orientalism in westernized discourses of cultural “Chineseness.”3 I will turn to this argument later in the chapter, after first exploring some of the implications of the emphasis on waste in diasporic writing. For it is the fact of travel— whether as a tourist, an immigrant, or a refugee—that makes the disruption of toilet habits possible in these texts. The moment of cultural defamiliarization occurs when the body is placed in a situation of difference where “Chineseness” and all the cultural practices associated with being Chinese are placed into question. Benzi Zhang, responding to Rey Chow’s assertion that, for the migrant, homelessness is the only home state, observes that: earlier conceptualizations of home based on a singular location are no longer adequate to describe the new dimensions and transformations of home, which has been re-versed in diaspora not 10 Travels in the Body: Technologies of Waste in the Chinese Diaspora Deborah L. Madsen 174 Deborah L. Madsen as a “felicitous space” of living, but rather as a process of (be-)coming, . . . a paradoxical feeling of both homesickness and home-crisis, for the movement between multiple locations of cultures suggests a cobelonging dialogue which, by situating diasporas simultaneously inside and outside of a culture, intensifies both the desirability and the impossibility of a given home-place. (B. Zhang 103–4) This experience of being simultaneously inside and outside the culture is, as Zhang, Chow and others have observed, an artefact of travel; but it arises from travel of a particular kind. It is the traveling performed by a migrant or refugee, a traveler who does not intend to return “home,” and who consequently finds the bonds with home culture are loosened and subject to revision. This also includes, then, the experience of liminal states of transformation, from one “national” identity to another. Of course such “culture shock” attends also the experience of tourism. But where the tourist may experience a vicarious thrill from the encounter with cultural difference, secure in the knowledge that the tour will end and a stable “home” will be available to which to return, for permanent travelers living in diaspora the shock of cultural difference is more profound. How one deals with one’s body—the physical “home” that binds the spirit to “here and now”—is subject to national technologies or rather technologies that are “nationalized”: claimed by culture as part of its national fantasy of itself. Through technologies of waste, national cultures keep hidden that which should not be seen in a “civilized” society: shit, disease, death. Travel, however, disrupts these technologies of invisibility by substituting one for another. In this way, travel makes visible that which we try so hard to keep invisible and, as a result, reveals to the conscious view the very invisibility of the culture from which we come and into which we have been socialized. The diasporic subject offers a unique perspective on this experience: in contrast to the migrant who assimilates into a new national culture and becomes fully a citizen of that group, the Chinese diasporan by definition remains allied to at least two national entities: the Chinese homeland (which might be the Chinese mainland but equally Hong Kong, Singapore, or Malaysia, for example) and the nation of residence. Indeed, these allegiances are further complicated by calls upon the diasporan’s loyalties by what Tu Weiming calls “cultural China”: the transnational networks of Chinese cultural communities that are scattered across the globe. As Benzi Zhang further comments: The complexity and ambivalence associated with redefining and revising home in relation to diaspora discourse present a challenging topic for our discussion, since the very term...


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