White Girl Under Asian Neon

Samantha Culp


Fade in to: Autumn, Saturday night, Kowloon.

Some Hong Kong (Chinese) friends were taking me to their (Japanese) friend’s moving-out party. It was in his apartment on the 15th floor of a pretty nice building in East Tsim Sha Tsui (infamous stomping ground of the haak-sei-wuih or “triads”). We crammed into a tiny elevator, emptied into a tinier hallway, and waited for Ryuji to unlock the ornate set of metal bars that adorn the door of every HK flat. Inside, it was dark and loud, vintage reggae and high-proof shochu and Mild Seven smoke all flowing freely. While doing the typical hover-dance that one does when struggling to take off shoes in the entry-way of an Asian household, I suddenly felt the weight of numerous stares. The lone blonde in a room full of black (or red-dyed, or artificially afro’ed) hair had been noticed. And then, as the realization spread, three exuberantly drunk Japanese guys called out in joyful unison: “Ahhh! LOST IN TRANSLATION!!!!”

In the past year since I moved to Asia, situations like this one have become eerily familiar. And I don’t mean being the only white person in a crowd of Asians (which is pretty much all of the time, and was a mainstay of my life even growing up in Los Angeles). I mean living in the shadow of that movie. Going to parties like the one above where one or more people see me and acknowledge that, wow, this is just like Lost in Translation. Having a meeting with my Cantonese language exchange partner where he suddenly asked me with extreme concern “Are you okay? Do you feel very lonely here?” (He went on to explain that he had just seen Lost in Translation for the first time, and realized that perhaps I felt the same way as the girl in that movie). Belting out my Chrissie Hynde best at a marathon karaoke night before remembering that, damn it, Scarlett Johansson sings this same fucking song in the movie. Or any moment when I’m wandering some neon alleyway, lips slightly parted in the still-potent wonder of a foreign place, and catch a glimpse of myself from the outside as a living cliché.

It wasn’t always so. The first time I went to the Far East, it was the summer of 2002, and I spent three weeks in a Tokyo not yet overlaid with the images of a dreamy-eyed Charlotte/Scarlett. But strangely enough she was already there, a ghost-shape that any young, foreign, slightly introverted, wannabe-hip, Japanophilic but Nihongo-illiterate early-00’s girl inevitably slipped into. By the time I saw the movie in the fall of 2003, it was a slice of uncomfortable déjà vu. Not the endless lounging around a $400-a-night hotel room, or the disinterested husband, or the awesomeness of Bill Murray, and not (at least I hoped) the characters’ self-absorption or the “problematic” aspects of the film (i.e. treating Japanese people as scenery).

Nonetheless, there I was up on the big screen, peering at the spider-like Tokyo subway map and awkwardly buying a ticket; a moment later exiting into the teeming mass of Shibuya Crossing under a 10-story high virtual dinosaur (in my Tokyo summer it was a gargantuan elephant instead, but close enough). My far-prettier strawberry blonde doppelganger re-enacted my exploration of pachinko parlors and temple gardens—even sitting on the same side of the shinkansen to Kyoto, listening to the same bloody My Bloody Valentine songs on clunky headphones. In those same Shinjuku streets I had rehearsed for the film without knowing it, only a few months before production began. It was strange to see my own memories blown up to such a grand scale and now forever changed as a part of this hipster-cinema juggernaut.

On one hand I loved the movie—the languid pacing, Bill Murray, the glowing cinematography, the flawless soundtrack, Bill Murray, and in certain moments, the way the film captures that buzzy, bubbly surreality of being in Tokyo for the first time. But then, besides the same pang of possessiveness you get when your favorite secret band suddenly hits it big, there were the obvious problems. The cringe-inducing “L” and “R” jokes. The fact that Japan is just a backdrop to privileged white angst. The moments where Charlotte and Bob let us down and are just typical Western tourists in arty lighting.

The love/hate relationship I have with Lost in Translation intensified upon moving to Hong Kong, which is different from Tokyo but similar enough to many people (the density, the lights, the karaoke clubs, uniformed schoolgirls making the Victory V into pink glitter cellphone cameras). And in Hong Kong, I’m not a tourist—I have a job, an apartment, friends, and on my better days, some basic facility with the language (not to mention that nearly everyone in HK speaks proficient English anyhow). But now that Sofia Coppola’s images of a white-girl-in-Asia have fully metabolized into the public imagination (even in Asia itself), I’m still subsumed into that role. Maybe it’s just that there are very few cinematic or fictional (or historical) prototypes for my particular position. For white men in Asia there are so many more references. They can be Marco Polos or Last Samurais, Quiet Americans or Ugly Americans, G.I. Joe’s or James Bonds, or —I forget the name of the dude in The World of Suzy Wong, but they can definitely be that too. But for the flaxen-tressed flâneuse of the metropolitan Far East, there is only Charlotte.

I guess it shouldn’t bother me to be at a party and hear out of one ear a stream of speedy Cantonese spiked with the familiar syllables “lost in transLAYtion” (in the HK fashion of tonalizing foreign words) with some smiling nods tossed my direction. Judging by the way young Hong Kong people revere Sofia Coppola, it seems to be a compliment. But it always serves as a reminder of ethnic and cultural outsider-ship. I’m sure guests of color at liberal cocktail parties in the 60’s had to grin and bear it during jokes about Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, but it probably would have irked them after a while too. I shudder even to think about the long (no pun intended) legacy of Gedde Watanabe’s clowning in Sixteen Candles for Asian-American guys in the mid-80s mid-West. Compared to Long Duk Dong, however, Charlotte isn’t such a bad card to be dealt in the stereotype game.

After the fatal comparison was made back in that Kowloon-side moving-party last October, everyone laughed and I joined in, cheeks flushed with embarrassment but hidden by the darkness. We talked and drank and danced, and I again felt that magicflash that makes living in a foreign land worth all the mistranslations and awkwardness and self-doubt. In spring I was back in Tokyo for a month, living with a friend who has a strictly hate-hate relationship with Lost in Translation—perhaps because she’s lived in Japan itself for a whole year now. One beautiful day we went to a barbecue party on an island made of trash (landfill-reclamation, but it sounds more dramatic the other way). The boombox was playing electro and dancehall when suddenly the Phoenix song from that soundtrack came on. No one else seemed to notice the uncanny overlap of life and art this particular afternoon—the partiers were too busy forcing a blindfold over my eyes and convincing me it was an ancient Japanese custom to smash open a watermelon with an empty sake bottle, which I then followed to much applause. Those retro-synth strains faded along with my self-consciousness, and I figured maybe it’s just the price to pay for living in my own epic movie.