Irony-Free Zone

February 24th, 2007

Phnom Penh — One of the things I love best about Southeast Asia is that it’s an irony-free zone. People here usually mean what they say, except when they’re telling you an outright lie, which happens about as often here as it does anywhere else. What they don’t do is snicker at, say, James Cameron’s movie Titanic when in fact they’ve gone through two copies on DVD and an entire supermarket carton of Kleenex waiting for the moment when Jack slips beneath the water. A Southeast Asian is much more likely to say, “Oh, Titanic? I cry too mutt.”

Or, if it really moved them, “I cry too mutt too mutt.”

The lack of irony also means there’s a blessed lack of cool. If there were an international symbol for the Southeast Asian attitude it would be a red circle with a diagonal slash through it, and in the middle would be a pair of sunglasses. Most people here are too busy enjoying, or enduring, their lives to waste time worrying about whether they’re being cool.

Cool is a disease as far as I’m concerned, and irony is its indicating symptom. The whole basis of cool is an assumption of superiority. Cool people are above the common herd. They sneer at popular culture, unless it’s fashionably bleak. Ask one of them if he or she loves you, and you’re likely to get air quotes around the word, “yes.” (Of course, now that air quotes have become uncool – people are using them in Ohio – they’re being suppressed, so that the floor around any conversation by the terminally cool is littered with unused air quotes, crumpled little wads of unexpressed impulses.) For cool Americans, the entire North American continent should be creased like an accordion so it can be folded to put New York and Los Angeles next to each other. And I haven’t even mentioned San Francisco.

Tell a cool person about a film (never a movie) with a happy ending, and he’ll show you an idiot – you – who enjoyed it. Southeast Asian people like happy endings. They get enough unhappy ones in real life. In Cambodia, where there is literally not one family that wasn’t broken tragically under the Khmer Rouge, happy endings are a necessity. Cool is a disease of the overfed and overprivileged.

Here’s a stark example of how little cool there is in Southeast Asia. People here go to coffee houses to drink coffee. American coffee houses are little cesspools of cool, places where people wearing expensive cheap-looking black clothes can go to amp up their cool with caffeine while they knock out the next “Kill Bill” or – much more likely – talk about knocking out the next “Kill Bill” while they conserve battery life by leaving their laptops off. Open, of course (how else will people know it’s a laptop?) but off. Why waste cool on a blank page when you can express it out loud?

Or, if they’re actually going to write, then they’re likely to come up with something about a virus spread by vampires that affects only the young and innocent, turning them evil and hideous before they die, and a hero whose daily to-do lists involves killing at least a dozen people. And the vampires win. Oh, and it’s a comedy.

Only cool people will spend $150 on a pair of jeans that are already ripped. If someone gave that pair of jeans to a Southeast Asian, the needle and thread would come out the moment the donor turned his back. (It would be rude to sew them in front of him.) Most Southeast Asians iron their T-shirts. They may not be able to look rich, but they want to look clean. When they see some rich Westerner (rich means he or she earns more than $200 per week) wearing torn jeans, flap sandals, and a T-shirt that looks like it spent several years crumpled into the smallest possible ball and submerged in mud, they don’t see “cool.” They see an idiot. They may not be cool, but they know an idiot when they see one.

The most popular form of television here right now are the Korean soap operas, dubbed into Thai, Cambodian, and Vietnamese, and rented for twenty-five cents a disk. Beautifully produced and impeccably acted, they tell the story – over dozens of hours – of beautiful young people who love each other, lose each other, and love each other all over again, crying extravagantly at every major plot point. The crying is real. There are no air quotes around the tears. The guys cry, too.

To make them even less cool, the young people in these shows are virtuous. They don’t make love every time the garage door, or the lid on the Dumpster, closes behind them. If they kiss, their tongues take the day off. They work hard. They have dreams, and they strive like hell to achieve them. They (my God!) respect their parents.

A few days ago I walked past an open-air Vietnamese restaurant that was absolutely packed with people, their eyes glued to a small, emphatically low-definition television (let’s hear the sneers because it wasn’t a flat-screen) that was showing the ninth or tenth hour of the Korean drama “Full House,” which I recognized at once because I’ve seen it. Twice. The impossibly beautiful heroine was in tears, and so was everybody else. Standing at the back of the restaurant, I could hear the sobs. Maybe fifty people were so close to that screen they were practically on the other side of the glass, crying their hearts out over lost love. People whose own lives are far from easy, people who do the best they can, day after day, just to put food on the table. When the episode was over, they looked at each other, saw the tears on everybody else’s faces, and started to laugh.

Imagine that. Actual emotions, right out where everyone could see them. In broad daylight.

I could work on this sentence for a week and still not be able to tell you how good it made me feel.

One Response to “Irony-Free Zone”

  1. Stefan Hammond Says:

    Great observations. As an expat American, I have real problems visiting the country that spawned and nurtured me. I see some intelligent people, but littered on the floor too often is…their wasted potential. I see people with cabinets full of anti-depressant drugs who are depressed, cupboards full of overpriced/overpackaged low-carb snacks and they’re still overweight and obssessed about it, and racks of porn DVDs and they’re terrified to even talk about sexuality because someone might be offended lest they utter something incorrect.

    Crying in public? Last time I cried in public Stateside was when I boarded a Thai Airways flight from LA’s abominable international terminal, bound for Bangkok. I asked the stewardess (yes, I said stewardess, not “flight attendant”: sue me) for some paper and a pen. She said, just a moment, and disappeared. After two weeks in the States, my inner-gloom snapped right back into place.

    Within tens of seconds, she reappeared with five crisply folded sheets of paper, and a pen. She handed them to me. She SMILED. And she said: “do you think that will be enough?”

    I spent the next hour writing a letter to my sister, and tears rolled down my face.

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