Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Girl, interrupted, by the Golden Horde

Alexandra Wallace, a student at UCLA, laments on YouTube© that she is dismayed by the multitude of Asians at her school. Whether at the sight of Asian students' large and attentive families coming around dormitories on weekends to cook, clean, and shop, or at the sound of the students themselves enthusiastically chattering on their cell phones in the library in their native tongues, either to catch up with friends or to discover whether their families survived the tsunami, Ms. Wallace considers herself aggrieved. Her Asian fellow students' library behavior is particularly annoying, she says, because they tend to interrupt her epiphanies.

Ms. Wallace certainly puts me in mind of a library in one respect, since her own natural endowments are at least as impressive as the twin volumes of the Oxford English Dictionary sitting on my shelf and don't even require the aid of the magnifying glass thoughtfully provided with the dictionary, to appreciate. I am at least as gratified to see the word "epiphany" occur in the unscripted conversation of a modern college student. And I certainly second her desire for silence in the temple of learning, believing, with Gibbon, that "Conversation enriches the understanding, but solitude is the school of genius."

Ms. Wallace, who criticizes the Asians for not adopting "American manners" may not realize just how rare she is. She has apparently lived all 20 years or so of her admittedly brief life without being aware that loud, heedless discussions of purely private matters inflicted on bystanders in public places via cell phone are American manners. The poor Japanese, known for their alacrity in copying, and seeking to improve, the best of American inventions, may simply be trying to fit in. As for Ms. Wallace, perhaps she was raised among the Amish, though her speech doesn't suggest it and her mode of dress would indicate that if that is her origin, she seems to have discarded that group's dress code with abandon.

If Ms. Wallace has, indeed, lived this long and remained so little aware of real American manners as to find public cell phone conversations peculiarly Asian, she has certainly achieved a kind of distinction; indeed, it occurs to me to wonder if her obliviousness arises from having read a Zen text and become lost in contemplation of the Diamond Sutra or something. I too detest loud, public cell phone conversations though admittedly, hearing one in an oriental tongue would at least spare me the litany of "I was like...he was like...whatever, dude!"

Perhaps Ms. Wallace is like the woman I once worked with, some years ago, who went to Hong Kong for a week with her husband. When she returned, the rest of us asked her how she liked it. With a gesture of distaste, she said, "It was OK, I guess--but good God, all those Orientals!"

In any case, I must admit that I, too, have misgivings about Asians in libraries—they have an unsettling tendency to show up the rest of us.

© Michael Huggins, 2011. All rights reserved.

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