Friday, July 24, 2015

Adventures with Mansplaining Americans in Berlin

In Berlin, I’m not meeting guys on the train anymore. But I am still meeting them at swing dances. At the Clärchens Ballhaus, which is purportedly the last original Weimar-era dancehall in Berlin, I met a jazz guitarist whom I’ve gotten pretty close with. I was hanging out with him last week and he needed to pick something up at a recording studio in the Holzmarkt, a really interesting cooperative on the banks of the Spree, right where East and West Berlin used to be divided.
When we arrived, the recording studio engineer was having a tête-a-tête with an older blues musician from Texas. My friend got down to business with the recording studio engineer, which left me in the company of the Texan.  Our conversation quickly devolved into a mystifying argument.
“I’ve been here for twenty years,” Tex kept insisting, “and most of my East German friends don’t speak English.”
When I suggested that they perhaps spoke Russian or Polish, he asserted that his friends don’t speak any other language besides German.
            This is, of course, different than any one else’s experience in Berlin, where it really is rare to find someone who doesn’t speak basic bread-and-butter English.  Well, the Turks in Neukölln don’t always speak English, but of course they speak Turkish since they're Turks. And they probably speak Arabic as well. You don't have to be Sherlock Holmes to see that most Europeans have language skills that Americans don’t. But the Texan purported that he’s acquainted with many Americans who speak more than one language, while his German friends only spoke German. He would not let this issue die either and kept bringing it back even after the conversation had taken another turn. Was this because I'm a woman? or I'm Asian? I have no idea why the Texan would be so adamant unless he just wanted to contradict me and be right, goddammit.

            That was the same day that we went to a party where we met another American who was equally baffling. He said that he’s a historian who writes novels. I told him that I was a writer too. He was interested in the subject of my essays, so I said something about how they’re first person so they’re mostly about being an Asian-American woman and how there are all these cultural expectations and stereotypes that you are constantly fighting. This seemed to rub him in all the wrong ways.
            “I only have three words to say to you,” he proclaimed, “Anna May Wong.” 
“But she’s a prime example of the way Asian-American women are stereotyped,” I countered.
            It turned out that he hadn’t seen any of her films and knew nothing about her except that one photograph where she is standing in between Marlene Dietrich and Leni Riefenstahl at a party in 1928. To him, this somehow proved that there was no such thing as discrimination in Hollywood.

Hot picture, but does this mean Anna May Wong
was fully accepted in the Hollywood system?

          “Name one other Asian actor,” I challenged him and while he struggled to fish Sessue Hayakawa from the recesses of his memory, I told him about Anna May Wong’s fight to land the role of O-Lan in The Good Earth. The part went Luise Rainer, who was Austrian of all things. Wong had to go to Europe to play some less stereotypical characters. Her best film is Piccadilly, an amazingly progressive film for 1929, where she got to be a typical British wench who wore cloche hats and striped sweaters, ate bangers and mash at a greasy spoon, and was an object of desire for not one but TWO white men. If you’ve never seen the film, you are missing out on Wong shaking her sweet little thing on a kitchen table, one of the hottest moments ever recorded. Contrast this with all the Hollywood dreck where she played sultry dragon ladies who speak in the third person, “Lotus Flower commands you to peel her a grape or she will stab you in the eye with her extremely long green pinky nail.
            But according to this guy, discrimination in Hollywood didn’t exist.  And he's supposed to be a historian.
“What do you want me to do?” he suddenly exclaimed, upset, I suppose that I wasn't about to be mansplained, “What. Do. You. Want. Me. To. Do?!”
            “Well…” I replied, trying to take his question seriously, “it would help if you just recognize that this is just the shape of the world.”
            “You know, I hate to say it, but you're acting like a victim,” he suddenly declared, “just like one of those black people.”
            “Um, things are kind of stacked against them,” I ventured, rather amazed at his accusation, “I mean, like, one out of every three black men ends up in jail at some point in his life.”
            “That’s because they committed a crime,” he scoffed dismissively.
My jaw dropped. Does this guy actually think that out of every three black men, one is a criminal? I wanted to ask him what he would think if the statistics said that one out of three white guys were imprisoned in their lifetime, but our conversation was interrupted.
           So okay, there's all this attention in the media lately on white privilege and I hate to jump on the bandwagon, but talk about a textbook case. Here’s a guy completely sheltered in his own self-centered island where it's always warm and breezy. He has no inkling how things are stacked against Asian-Americans in the arts. He’s obviously never walked down a street with a black guy and experienced how they are treated differently. I don’t think he’s even read one article about the crazy racial disparities in the US. Racial profiling? Nah, all those black guys are just a bunch of criminals who deserve what they get. And mansplaining? I bet he's never heard of it.

It’s a bit of a running joke that my musician friend, who is American, pretends that he’s from a small Eastern European country so he doesn’t have to converse to stupid Americans. Maybe it’s because I’m from the East Village that I am surprised by idiocy. I expect everyone to have an interest in culture and some basic understanding of the world. But after that day with the two American blowhards, I’m about ready to tell everyone I’m Inuit. Except I’ll probably be dragged into dumb discussions about rubbing noses or how there are a hundred words for snow.

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