Emotions And The Western Gaze

Two posts in one week? It’s a personal record!

So what topic has been so pressing on my mind that I found it impossible to delay writing about it?

Emotional authenticity when writing about Eastern ( or less broadly, Asian) cultures or influences.

This has been simmering in my brain for a few weeks now, but it came together after I read a recent excerpt from a white author who chose to stitch together Eastern cultures as the influence for her latest world building. While I will not name names, I will say the chapter excerpt I read had me cringing from the first to the last word. There were so many things wrong with it, mostly with the author’s choice of using superficial (and many times, stereotypical) details to display her “knowledge” and “research” of the Eastern cultures she was trying to emulate.

The one thing that bothered me the most, though, was her representation of how Asians view emotions. Outside of repeating the usual “you must not show your emotions because it’s shameful” line, she did little in the way of revealing any true understanding of the reasons behind our more reserved nature.

Of course, she’s not the only person to do this. We see this all the time with other authors, and also in all major forms of Western media. Many times, Asians (not Asian Americans) are portrayed as emotionless, robotic, repressed. Other times, they’ve “lost control” and are being loud, obnoxious, or unfiltered. The idea is that we’re either one, or the other, but nothing in between. There’s also this hyper-focus on the “rules” of society without attempts to understand why those are in place.

Interestingly, when you take the time to watch Eastern-based media (ie K-, J-, or C-Dramas), you often times find that the characters show a wide range of emotions. Yes, stoicism and calm is still highlighted, but so are women who get angry and take charge, and men who are soft cinnamon rolls who cry.

Even reality TV shows the true breadth of emotion felt by Asians. Take, for example, Queer Eye’s recent foray to Japan. In the fourth episode, we encounter a married man who struggles to communicate with his wife, particularly with emotional matters. However, the show does a phenomenal job separating that from the actual depth of his feelings and affections for her. Not only that, but I think many viewers (myself included) came away from that episode with a better understanding of Asian men in general.

I write all this to say that there’s a big difference between “seeing” culture and “understanding” culture. What Westerners observe is the lack of demonstrable facial expressions or acts of emotion. When you interpret that as repressed, unenthusiastic, or emotionless, you’re doing so under the cultural construct you were raised in. By not taking the time to understand the historical and social significance of those choices, you’ll inevitably fall into the trap of writing to stereotype.

There have been many psychological studies done (on both sides of the world) on the topic of cultural influences on emotional expression. Here are some of the actual research conclusions:

  1. Yes, there is an emphasis on stoicism and calm. However, this comes from the many philosophical beliefs (Taoism, Confucianism, Buddhism, etc.) that focus on balance and harmony.
  2. To go along with #1, a lack of facial expressiveness does *not* indicate a lack of emotional experience. In many cases, the volunteers in these studies revealed they felt a lot more than they showed.
  3. For some Asian cultures, emotional communication comes not from verbal, but non-verbal, cues. In particular, tone of voice can be very important for both interpretation and expression.
  4. Excessive emotionality is considered disingenuous and/or disrespectful in public settings. For example, in Japan, it’s not appropriate to reveal such emotions while at work, but in social settings, it’s completely fine.
  5. Many Asians express their emotions through actions, not words. This includes affection and love. I’ve personally experienced this with my parents – though they didn’t voice that they loved me, they worked hard and sacrificed to ensure I was never in need of anything.
  6. There is often times a lot of thought given to emotions before one even chooses to express it in any form.

Let’s go back to point #6 for an extra minute, and I want to do because I’ve wondered if this has played a factor in my own writing. As we all know throughout the publishing journey, you’ll get a lot of rejections talking about how someone “didn’t connect to the voice.” Now, there are a lot of reasons for that, so I’m not saying this is the one and only possibility when it comes to the experiences I’ve had.

However, one thing that has been pointed out to me by various people is my characters’ tendencies to be very “in their heads” or introspective. Many of them also break down more than the “average” characters. Both of those quirks were pointed out as possible deterrents for readers to connect with them, which I found surprising.

For me, it’s been interesting to hear these comments, because this was how I’ve always understood people to be. There hasn’t been a day in my life where I didn’t encounter these things both in my personal life with friends and family and also with my patients professionally (I work in mental health).

Having taken the time to sit back and think about it, I’ve come to the conclusion that, at least to a degree, this is an issue of Western gaze. Though I am Asian American, I was raised with very traditional cultural values. This includes the understanding that whatever you say or do does reflect not just on yourself, but your family and your community. When you bear the weight of such responsibility, you’re not likely to be impulsive or rash when it comes to even things like emotions. You mull things over, consider the pros and cons, and *then* offer the most appropriate reaction. You also think of how others will feel (ie saying the food your friend burned tastes great and smiling because you knew the effort they put into it).

Now, obviously, when you live in a culture where rules about outward expression do apply, it can be overwhelming when you’re dealing with intense emotions. This is especially true if it happens over time, such as with anxiety, depression, or trauma and loss. Imagine how you’d function if you were forced to suppress (not repress – that’s a different thing) those feelings for long periods. We all have breaking points, and ways in which we self-destruct.

In Western culture, people often act in negative, outward ways – yelling, shouting, physical aggression, or destruction of property. But these are normalized for us who live on this side of the world. Those things are not accepted in Eastern culture. So, many times, we cry and break down (or if you’re Retsuko, karaoke death metal). This is not a sign of weakness. It’s simply what is more acceptable to do.

In the years since I immigrated here, I’ve become more emotionally expressive through interactions with my friends, colleagues, and being exposed to various types of Western media. However, that was *learned* behavior, done so to assimilate into the environment around me. There was a period of time where my naturally reserved nature was called “cold,” “unemotional,” or “intimidating.” It hurt a lot to hear this, and in hindsight, probably cost me potential friendships, relationships, and professional opportunities. All this due to a lack of understanding of where I was coming from.

In the era of #ownvoices and diverse representation, we need to truly understand and be accepting of the differences in our cultures. This is especially important for all of us who want to write or be inspired by experiences or cultures outside of our own.

In my case, I’ve made the conscious decision to revise manuscripts to fit a more Western gaze. I’m doing so because I understand sometimes cultural aspects are best introduced gradually. Still, I hope for the day where introspection and refrained expression are not considered detrimental to a manuscript. That the subtle clench of a jaw or edge to the voice will be as powerful as a punch or a scream, and that breaking down doesn’t mean weakness or passivity.

I’d like to challenge all of us in publishing (and also our readers) to look beyond the shiny exteriors. Peel back the layers and study what’s beneath. Immerse yourself in the cultures as you would if you lived there. It is only then that we can truly and accurately reflect the world around us.

I end on a quote from Verna Myers: “Diversity is being invited to the party. Inclusion is being asked to dance.”

Don’t just play host. Be a partner. Ask for that dance.

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