Anne Marie Nakagawa’s film Between: Living in the Hyphen (2005) examines the life experiences and “half-ness” of seven Canadians, each with one parent of European descent and one from a visible minority. Nakagawa’s mother is an Albertan of German and Irish descent; her father is Japanese.
Bryan Lee O’Malley is also a hyphen-dweller. He is the author of the Scott Pilgrim comic books, which infuse tales of Toronto indie-rock slackerdom with videogame logic and the aesthetic of Japanese manga comics. O’Malley’s mother is Korean; his father is French-Canadian.
The following conversation—conducted at the invitation of Maisonneuve in an attempt to get at the evolving definition of Canadianness—took place by telephone this past August.
I. “I’M A BIG, DARK GUY.”
Bryan Lee O’Malley: I watched Between for a second time this morning, taking notes as it made me think of stuff. So I’ve got, like, a day’s worth of talking.
Anne Marie Nakagawa: Well, you should just start right in then!
BLO: The first thing that hit me was the idea of racial identity being imposed on you by the people around you. I get weird looks when people meet me after just knowing my name. I’m tall, and I’m Asian. I’m a big, dark guy. I’ve been told many times that when people are looking for Bryan O’Malley, they’re expecting this short, red-headed Irish guy.
AMN: My father likes to call me Mari [her Japanese first name]. It’s weird, that whole negotiation. He’s very comfortable in Japanese culture, and there’s kind of a power struggle between us depending on which language we’re speaking. We almost always speak English now, but when we used to speak in Japanese, he’d always have the upper hand because my language ability isn’t as good as his. But when we’d switch to English, I’d have the upper hand. Now we always speak English. It’s sad, because I know he wants to communicate in the language that is native to him, where he has more personality and sense of humour and can be more himself. But I’m so removed from it now that I almost can’t. In these mixed cultural relationships the children have to do this back and forth to build that relationship. Often times, I think someone ends up losing. I truly believe that one culture does dominate the other, inevitably. I don’t think both can be incorporated into your lives to the same degree.
II. “OH. I THOUGHT YOU’D BE MORE KOREAN.”
BLO: My mom’s never been back to Korea. She moved here when she was nineteen and really wanted to assimilate. She speaks perfect English—she’s actually a French teacher—and she lives five minutes from the mall, that’s her whole deal. So I never really had that much exposure to Korean culture other than, like, the food.
AMN: I did have quite a bit of exposure initially. I went back to Japan for university for a couple of years. I thought I was “gettin’ back to my roots.” I thought, “This is where I should be, because I’m not really being accepted in Canada.” I was eighteen. Then I realized I totally could not deal with living in Japan. I couldn’t fit in, my language was way behind, I was almost illiterate, I was completely not the ideal of what a Japanese woman should be in terms of my behaviour and my attitudes [laughs] and my body language and my posture… Even though I thought a lot of my identity was in my Japanese roots, it had evolved to the point where I couldn’t ever comfortably assimilate back into Japanese society. I would have had to compromise a lot of who I was to do that.
When I was twenty, I rejected all of that part of my identity and moved back to Canada and finished my degree at McGill. I almost had to separate the two sides of myself: “This side is too complicated and causing me too much confusion, so I’m going to push it back.” There are specific rules and social conditioning about what it means to be Japanese. If you have any kind of marker that’s different, they try to beat it out of you. Not physically, but… That time of my life really informed the film, even though I made it ten or twelve years later.
BLO: Yeah, it submerged for a while then came back out. I remember when I was in college, at Western in London, Ontario, I was friends with these white guys who were total rice-chasers and—
AMN: I don’t know that term. What is that?
BLO: Guys who are into Asian girls, and they don’t differentiate between kinds of Asian girls. They just want anyone who looks Asian—which is just creepy. But anyway, I ended up going to Asian parties because I was being dragged around by my white guy friends. I was at these Korean parties and that was the first time I felt like I didn’t fit in there either.
I joined this website for a while: Asian Avenue. I’m not sure if it’s still around. I guess I was trying to be more Asian or something. It was like Myspace, only for Asian people. I went on, like, one blind Internet date with an Asian girl. When she met me, she was like, “Oh. I thought you’d be more Korean.”
AMN: Really?! Did she say that to you?
BLO: Literally the first thing she said to me.
AMN: My mom belonged to a club called the “Foreign Women Married to Japanese Men Club,” or something. It was a social group. There’d be a Christmas party, and all the half kids would sit on Santa Claus’ knee—and he’d be a Japanese Santa! That was confusing. The women were all white, as opposed to a generation earlier when there were a lot of American servicemen who came over during the occupation and married Japanese women. At that time, there was an oppresssive phenomenon associated with the mixing—that American men were taking Japanese women.
BLO: Certain people that I told my background to, in my teenage years, thought the same thing—that my Dad had gone to Korea and swept away a woman. Which is not the case. My mom just came to Windsor for college.
AMN: The women could really relate to each other because they had a lot of the same issues. My mother lived there for fourteen years and she could never become a citizen. Even though she was married to a Japanese man, every year she’d have to go to the local police station to be fingerprinted. And she had to have a sponsor, other than my father, to vouch for her. So it was very hard. In Japanese, they call it ouchi and soto. Ouchi is “house,” and soto is “outside.” So you’re either of the house, or you’re outside. And if you’re outside, you get fingerprinted. You’re not Japanese.
III. “VOLUPTUOUS BODIES AREN’T AN ASIAN FORM.”
AMN: When I was reading your books, I was entertaining the idea that Scott Pilgrim was half Asian. When he’d be having supper with his family, I’d be like “In this picture, the mom looks like she could be…the way the eyes are drawn…”
BLO: I haven’t really done anything that addresses the “half” quality. But, well, [laughs] they’re definitely based on my own family. And the sister, Stacey, is just explicitly based on my own sister. Whose name is Stacey. And she looks like her. And Scott Pilgrim is kinda based on me, too. But I don’t think I want to really concretize that sort of thing in the book.
AMN: Right. But there’s room for that because of the form you’re working in, with the whole manga-esque aesthetic. For me, it always comes back to the way the eyes are drawn. I lived in Japan until I was nine, so I did read manga. The characters always had these huge, gigantic eyes. Even though most Japanese people don’t have huge, gigantic eyes. I wonder if there is some kind of idolization of Western features.
BLO: I think there’s some malleability with their cultural self-image. If you’ve ever seen any manwha, Korean comics, their stuff is even more extreme and hyper-idealized. The characters look like they’re nine feet tall. They’re all blonde and they have these beautiful big eyes. Even pronounced noses and big lips. I know plastic surgery is just this huge thing in Korea. Everyone gets their eyes “fixed” and stuff.
AMN: Yeah. The “double lid” is big.
BLO: I don’t know to what degree the comics reflect their self-image, but I think it’s a big deal.
AMN: I think it’s a big factor in Japan. Even as a really young child, I realized that the way they drew people in the manga wasn’t correlating to what Japanese people looked like. The pointy noses, the huge eyes—and, with the women, the big breasts. Voluptuous bodies aren’t an Asian form. There’s also a lot of cartoon … pornography, I guess. When you ride the subway, every third guy is reading it. That’s what they like to look at. There’s some kind of subconscious correlation between the Western figure, the Western woman, and sexual arousal. Even in Japanese anime, there’s always—
BLO: A lot of up-the-skirt shots.
AMN: Yeah! Up-the-skirt shots! You’ve seen that stuff, right?
BLO: Oh, yeah. Yeah. I used to be really into it—anime, I mean, not specifically up-the-skirt stuff.
AMN: I didn’t think anything of it when I was watching it as a little girl, but as a more mature adolescent, I’d go, “Wow, that was so sexualized.” But because it’s so much a part of the culture, people don’t even see it in Japan. They just think it’s normal. What’s weird is that it can only happen in that realm—
BLO: Real life is so much more reserved.
AMN: Right. That’s the outlet. Then there’s manga that’s not all that racy. I used to read Doraemon. Have you heard of that?
BLO: I’ve only read a little bit of it.
AMN: He was this asexual, round, blue creature, but, at the same time, he pulled things out of his pouch that were, you know, magical—and the kid he was helping always used the magical device to go look at the girl he had a crush on while she was bathing!
BLO: Oh, right! [laughs]
AMN: He’d be, like, “I want to be able to go through walls.” Then there’d be a shot of him passing through a wall and into that girl’s bathroom while she’s taking a shower.
BLO: I don’t know if that’s what kids want, or if it’s what the adult creator wanted the kids to look at.
AMN: Maybe it’s for boys. It’s definitely not what female kids are crazy about.