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Inventing Asia, with Conrad, Greene, and a tourists’ Bible.

By Kate Hoyland.

Conrad: 'the old colonialist'.

WHEN MY FRIEND PETER, who grew up in Southern China during the dregs of the Maoist days, first saw a Western tourist – a backpacker gone astray – he thought the man must be as free as a bird, the epitome of liberation. Shortly afterwards he hooked up with a group of US missionaries, and, ever the pragmatist, memorised chunks of the Bible in return for English lessons. This became his party piece: something with which to impress other Western tourists, during long nights drinking beers (the tourists paid) and eating shelled peanuts. He lives in Norwich now, and runs a takeaway, and is fulsome in his praise of the NHS hospitals where both his children were born.

I laughed when Peter quoted me chunks of the Bible: his ticket to English, that language of passports and visa stamps.

Edward Said argued in Orientalism that all Western scholarship and literature on Asia is suspect, shot through with colonial prejudice and the need to create an inferior “other.” Difference is romantic; mystery is there to be unlocked – by a white
man with a big key.

Guilty as any, my points of reference for writing about Asia in The Icarus Diaries – a fictionalised Asia, so doubly suspect – were Conrad – the old colonialist – and Greene, the “objective” journalist who travelled to war zones for kicks.

But there is room for subtlety here. Greene’s world view contains enough shades of grey for him to challenge the limits of his own objectivity, and see that any journalist is also a participant in the stories he writes about, and as such can be judged by those
he seeks to judge. We each make assumptions about the Other, and who that Other is only depends on where we’re standing.

MY CHARACTERS, TRAVELLING BLIND, stumble against their own ignorance and preconceptions. Written from several points of view, their perceptions never quite intersect, because every point of view is only that – a point of view. Wanting to escape the small messes they have made of their own lives, they travel to a place they assume is a blank canvas, somewhere they can re-write themselves.

They are naïve: the place they come to has its own history and its own agenda; one which they only grope towards understanding. Their naïvety is shared by all of us when we leave the familiar and expect to find something transformative delivered to us with the breakfast buffet. Who isn’t dreaming of a holiday in November?

At age 22, arriving in Shanghai by boat for the first time, China was, for me, a place of greater freedom. It was 1990, a year after the Tiananmen Square massacre, but like the backpacker Peter first saw, I felt as free as a bird. I had no ties or obligations, only a naïve belief that I could re-invent myself in a strange land.

Over beers Peter called me tongzhi (comrade), and cheered louder than anyone when Deng Xiaoping declared, “To get rich is Glorious.” When I paid for the drinks I felt I was the richest of all: my currency was hard, I could afford to be generous. From a position of ignorance, we objectified one another, and every transaction – even a smile – was, at root, an economic one.

Now China is the world’s second largest economy, and a Chinese firm makes cars in Longbridge.

In the words of Aretha Franklin, who’s zooming who?

Kate Hoyland is the author of The Icarus Diaries, a literary thriller. For many years, she was a producer at the BBC World Service, specialising in Asian and international news. As a journalist, she has worked across Asia – from Bangkok, to Beijing, to Seoul – and now lives with her young son in London, where she divides her time between writing, counselling, and training for the BBC.

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