Is This A Crossover? (It's Not)
The Buttondown image uploader seems to be down at the moment, so apologies that this doesn’t include any pretty photos.
What I’m Watching
Having caught up on Terrace House (at least as far as Netflix is caught up, anyway), Sherry’s turned to the latest season ofQueer Eye, in which they go… to Japan! Two notes here:
i.) They put tremendous effort into editing the translators out. I noticed this because, unlike the very subtle editing in Terrace House, Queer Eye tends to have a very brash, direct editing style. So it’s impressive that they really make it seem like the Fab Five are speaking English and the makeoverees are speaking Japanese and everybody perfectly understand each other. I wonder if this is partly due to the show’s agenda of inclusivity—the idea that we can all understand each other if we just try hard enough. But it’s also interesting because it’s the complete opposite of what Tidying Up with Marie Kondo did, where her translator Marie Iida was just as much a character as Kondo is, and we see her trying (and often failing) to remain the stoically professional “straight man” to Kondo’s bubbly, hyper-energetic, “I love mess!” persona. But that’s what really made the show for me—50-something-year-old white people being confronted with a hyperactive 30ish Japanese woman, and poor Iida trying her best to translate not just linguistically but culturally. In fact you could even watch it as being about that—about the little moments where the white housemom makes a worried look that says “haha is this crazy Japanese lady worshipping our hardwood floors” and Iida tries to calmly translate Kondo’s babbling about thanking the house—and I think you get a really rewarding show about both translation and the cultural impact of our hyper-connected, globalized world! So it’s a little sad that Queer Eye cuts that all out and replaces it with “I don’t understand Japanese culture, please explain it at me, crossover host” (it’s not really a crossover, but the first episode opens by explaining that their host is a famous halfie model, and it feels suspiciously like an advertisement, i.e. a crossover).
ii.) Does Japanese culture seem everywhere all of a sudden? Not just in the Pokémon-and-curry sense (that’s been around since the 90s, I think), but in a more, hmm, domestic sense? This could just be the Baader-Meinhof effect, but we have Terrace House on Netflix, Queer Eye in Japan, and pretty much every one I know (all Asians, to be fair 🙃) went to Japan on trips recently. This is partly on purpose (I’ve heard the Japanese government has recently discovered that cultural exports make for good soft power), but my hypothesis is that Japan (which, in America at least, was still considered fairly foreign and exotic even two decades ago) is finally being viewed (and viewing itself) as a part of the quote-unquote “Western” world, in the way that you might make a cooking show and go to France, as somewhere distinct but recognizably related. Anyway, this goes hand in hand with a feeling I’ve had (that I may have mentioned here) that I’d guess that Japanese society in the next few decades will become much more open to foreigners and become much less ethnocentric than it is now, unlike China which I suspect is on the path to more ethnic nationalism, not less. (There’s a probably a dissertation out there about the deep roots of East Asian modernization, and how modernization in late Qing/early Republic China was related to a desire to overthrow the “alien” Manchus.) But maybe I’m way off base—I didn’t major in Asian Studies 🙂
What I’m Reading
Two books on Buddhism these past weeks, Buddhisms: An Introduction and A Concise History of Buddhism. The first is a lengthy but good introduction to Buddhism, with a nice focus on the modern-day anthropological perspective in the later parts. But it does fail, slightly, as an introduction, because it sometimes assumes background knowledge, like, for instance, the basic tenets of Pure Land Buddhism, and the organization was sometimes a tad confusing as well. Concise History was… fine, I guess—it did exactly what it said on the tin, but it also seemed intended more for practitioners (it’s published by a western Buddhist organization) and so often devolves into a list of the relevant sūtras for some school or another. It’s also focused primarily on Indian Buddhism in its original incarnation and so gives short shrift to most forms of East Asian Buddhism. But I did walk away with an overall grasp on the thrust of Buddhist, so I guess it was effective enough. I would still like a history with more of a world history and cultural history emphasis, though.
I rushed through Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities this weekend, which is a classic wherein Marco Polo describes innumerable cities to Kublai Khan, who slowly realizes Polo is merely describing various facets of his hometown of Venice. I think I love it? But it’s hard to tell, since I was rather unimpressed with just as many of the cities as I was blown away by others. I think it’s best not to think of it as a novel at all, but rather a poetry collection that happens to be written in prose—hit or miss, but the hits (like the city made up solely of plumbing, or the city suspended upside down over a mountain valley, or the city that reserves space both for the dead and the unborn) will definitely stick with me for a long, long time. I’m also pecking at Rob Walker’s The Art of Noticing, which is a neat little set of exercises to notice more in the world around you, and I started Jenny Odell’s How to Do Nothing—I like the original article, which also makes up the first chapter of the book, but it did lose something on a reread, with the small stories (like the crows that beg her for food) getting lost in the haze of the more, well, art-and-literary-criticism portions. I’ll see how I like the rest though.
What I’m Working On
I’m doing NaNoWriMo, so I’ve written about 17,000 words in the past ten days. Most of them are garbage 🙂 but that’s what editing is for. It’s not related, at all, to that thing I’ve teased here before. That’s also why this newsletter is shorter(ish) than usual.