Postmodernism Essay Research Paper In

Postmodernism Essay, Research Paper

In “Foreign Bodies”, although Hwee Hwee

Tan explores what has been done before ? the blend of East and West, themes

both light and serious ? the treatment has her own signature, and the political

satire existing side by side with the Christian preaching is unique. The

main effect that emerges is that of humour through the contradictions within

each component and against each other, in the motley selection. Especially

engaging is the exposé on the cultural practices, idiosyncrasies

and two-facedness of Chinese Singaporeans. On the one hand, both local

and non-Singaporean readers derive fun as the former see themselves in

a comically unflattering but true light, while the latter get acquainted

with the local culture in an entertaining way from Tan’s light-hearted

portrayal. Later in the book, deeper issues push to the droll surface because

facing the characters in the end is the dilemma of life-choices and moral

integrity. This engages the reader into a contemplation of serious issues

beyond Tan’s wit. On the other hand, alienation may also result from readers

in disagreement with her views on certain aspects of Chinese culture, those

who find her pro-Christianity stance too forward and those unable to identify

with the characters.

The novel acquaints non-Singaporean readers

with Chinese moralistic myths and legends like the eighteen levels of Hell,

Chang-E the maiden of the moon, and Mu Lian who saved his mother from hell.

They learn about interesting Chinese beliefs like “that it was good luck

for gifts to come in pairs” or that a pregnant cat can resurrect a corpse

by jumping over it. National pastimes including karaoke, gambling and soccer

mania are described as staples of the general populace. Singlish as an

essential part of everyday communication is illustrated by Mei’s conversation

with an MRT warden after Andy spilled a drink at the station, which is

followed by an explanation to Andy who does not comprehend the language.

The reader is introduced to Mei’s prying relatives (which are, of course,

ubiquitous creatures that anyone from any culture will know). “They only

want to know so that they can say bad things about us. Laugh about us.

They only want to gossip”. Other perennial topics for idle local gossip

revolve around discussions of property prices after an arrest etc. In addition,

a keen sense of home is recreated for Singaporean readers. The strong Singapore

feel comes from the Singapore slang words kaypo, wah leow, eng, lah, xiao,

ang moh, ai-ya, gek sim, pei she, chin-chai, ca jiao etc; familiar place

names such as General Hospital, Woodbridge Hospital, Geylang, Tiong Bahru,

East Coast Park; and Singaporean’s love for acronyms POSB, HUDC, HDB, CID,

NTUC, MP etc.

Slices of life distinctively Singaporean

are drawn from social, moral and cultural issues. The gold tooth of Mei’s

grandfather, which is “his only luxury”, symbolises the frugality of the

older generation that scrimp on themselves. The preoccupation with good

fortune is made comic. For example, Eugene’s parents have his original

Chinese name changed into an auspicious one because the number of strokes

in the original name was unlucky, or Mrs. Lam nags at her maid Melissa

that she sweeps away luck for using broom during the Chinese New Year.

Food and bingeing serve as a form of consolation for Singaporeans (with

an emphasis on local cuisine) ? “I got the most calorific dishes possible

? roast pork rice, fried kway teow, and fried carrot cake?and burped. It

felt so good” after being dismissed by Andy from representing him.

Many instances of Tan’s portrayal of Chinese

culture are often hilarious. In the extended family situation, it is hard

for Andy to remember Mei’s niece and he calls her “Zhen Chou” (really smelly)

instead of “Zhen Cai” (genuine fortune), besides showing the language difficulty

for non-Chinese speakers. There is a stigma of being an older unmarried

woman as Mei’s mother worries about her daughter who is nearly 30 years

old and reaching the “expiry date”. She likens marriage to going to NTUC

to “grab first, worry later”. This “kiasuism” is compounded with the pragmatism

of Singaporeans who see divorce as easy, “can refund or exchange” if not

satisfied. Mei’s mother also typifies the Chinese Singaporean housewife

who has the superstition that Fengshui improves luck, to the extent of

writing to a member of Parliament requesting that a tree affecting her

HDB unit’s Fengshui be cut down. The humour sometimes comes to the level

of pastiche, for example, when Mei is asked by her mother “You pass motion

now still got bleed or not?”, the “bad taste” of alluding to bodily functions

effectively indicates the mother’s concern. Little is known about Singapore

expatriate children and it may especially pique the curiosity of locals

to learn more about their own “exports”. The reader is probably shocked

to find that the Singapore expat kid shoplifts, “kicks from smashing in

headlights, lobbing lamp-post bulbs, and watching porno videos”

Irony suffuses many situations such as

“In other countries, if you’re a kid dying of a terminal disease, you do

interesting things like try to break a world record?(a Singapore boy) achieves

6 A1s, but doesn’t live to see it”. Tan criticises Mei’s relatives who

gossip about uncle Cheong that he “Go world tour” after his wife’s death,

not understanding that grief can be private without an overt show of tears.

In fact, the gambling at funerals and the hired professional mourners do

not escape Tan’s eye as she comments on the “misplaced” sense of proper

respect to the dead and the hypocritical pretence at mourning. The accent

of Chinese values on filial piety is fodder for irony too since Mei’s grandfather

is sent to an old folks’ home after a stroke. His own children do not look

after him and becoming a ‘recipient of Interact Club care” that is hardly

a part of his family adds to the irony.

The political arena is another area that

Tan practises her wit upon. She reminds Singaporeans and informs non-locals

of the inevitable “Big Brother is watching” part of Singapore society.

In the MRT incident, spy cameras catch the recalcitrant Andy spilling his

drink under the “No food and Drink sign/ $500 fine” sign and he gets into

trouble. Andy’s frustrated question: “How come betting on horses is legal,

but betting on soccer is not?” provokes speculation on the government’s

efforts at the profit aspect of state control over gambling rather than

for reasons national welfare. Tan suggests that the press is the primary

vehicle for government propaganda: “Andy was the foreigner, the evil outside

influence, the ang mo; Eugene was the Singaporean kid led astray by corrupt

Western expatriates; and me, I was the local, naïve, suaku mountain

tortoise of a girl who should have listened to her mother and not fallen

for a criminal like Andy”. The racism of the judge at Andy’s last hearing

is brought into the fore by Andy’s statement: “When a crime occurred, it

would be too easy to blame it on someone like me, to see him as the foreign

body, the element that infected a once healthy society.” Tan’s mild political

satire maintains a wry humour that complements the general comic tone.

It may be objectionable to some readers

to have the didactic preaching of Christian values thrust upon them. In

fact, some of the supposedly Christian values exist in other religions

(e.g. unconditional love in Buddhism). The born-again Christian passages

of Andy and Mei are reminiscent of the pamphlets about Christian conversion

stories distributed by overzealous preachers in the streets. The rather

bleak ending, but containing sentimental pseudo-enlightened feelings, does

not break from the mould, common nowadays, of gritty stories finally expressing

unconditional faith, to attract the world-weary youth.

The championship of the Christian cause

appears to be an attack on Chinese folk religion. Tan’s character Mei makes

a judgement of the religion by focussing on the negative aspects. She believes

that the religion is built on the premise that “You are guilty until proven

innocent”. She elaborates that “The King of Hades judged the deceased’s

popularity by the amount of tears shed for him, hence the professional

mourners. Volume, not sincerity, counted.” Tan also presents a jeering

unsympathetic view of the funeral rite, that is never alleviated in the

book: “An army of priests?ready to storm Hell with their rituals and rescue

(the grandfather) from the demonic clutches of Yuen Thou Wong”. While it

is quite fair to judge human actions (within certain limits), the criticism

of a religious ritual that cannot and does not contain good or evil, claims

no credibility. It is a very different thing to attack wayward religious

followers and to attack the religion itself, no matter how pious one is

to one’s own.

There are characterisation flaws in the

novel that may disengage the reader. Mei is too clever and her humour seems

slightly forced and out of place since it is unlikely anyone real perceives

things the way she is portrayed. She feels neither Singaporean nor European,

but perhaps she is a hybrid that Tan intends to represent the new cosmopolitan

Singaporean? Andy, too, is unconvincing and will not be immediately identified

by the English themselves. He is a romanticised picture of a simple English

lad by the Singapore-Party-Girl-like Mei who has a slight Pinkerton syndrome.

However, it is possibly Tan’s attempt to exoticise the West in reaction

against the popular exoticism of the Asian girl. The reader is hard-pressed

to imagine a simpleton with brains, who can put a tin of beans into the

microwave oven, and unexpectedly displays an artful self-defence in court.

Some issues that are foreign to Singaporean readers may also alienate instead

of engage them. The yuppie lifestyle of Loong and Eugene, and the friendship/romance

between a local and foreigner are unfamiliar to most, therefore may do

little to engage.

Tan is more successful in her secular

contemplations as they provide valuable insights to the Singaporean psyche

and greater awareness of painful truths through the experiences of her

various characters. The obstinacy of blame of Mei on her mother whom she

has not realised to be every bit as much a victim to her father’s oppression,

disappears as “Now (she) realised that (her) mother did nothing, not because

she didn’t want to, but because she couldn’t”. She begins to understand

that it is human nature that “If anything went wrong, we acted like it

never happened” because reticence is a safety mechanism against further

hurt. The belief in the “correlation between moral fibre and good grades”

is inadvertently challenged by the actions of Loong who tortures animals

for fun and who has little regard for human life. Eugene “want(s) people

to know PSC scholars are not synonymous with moral virtue. (He) want(s)

the world to see that Loong is evil”. However, the adage that hatred makes

one becomes what one hates used for Eugene’s characterisation has not received

much development and remains a cliché. Yet, the fact that Eugene

is unwilling to bail Andy despite being his fault because “(He) only want(s)

justice if it costs (him) nothing.” is fully believable. He has little

contact with Andy and Tan is justified in the negligible involvement of

the Eugene character in the plot. And the most poignant and candid observation

of all is from Andy who says “Losing isn’t romantic, life-enhancing or

artistically inspiring. Losing sucks.”

In conclusion, Tan combines elements

of postmodernism to create a refreshing way of perceiving the world. Her

mixing of different genres ? politics, social situation, culture, humour

and irony ? and probing of the polemic binaries of the East and West, and

the flippant and the solemn, distinguish her writing as her very own. Furthermore,

the fluid and deliberate intertextuality of pastiche and allusion dissolves

the distinctions between high and low culture.


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