VCE English Outcome 2: Identity and Belonging folio

“The search to discover who we are is one of life’s greatest challenges.”

    In recent reflections I have determined something very pertinent to myself – I love to watch TV shows that present issues and matters specific to law and order. This disposition: commenced with the cases of NYPD Blue back in the 90’s and was backed up with broadcasts of Law & Order; found a fun foray in Judge Judy; enjoyed a byte of reality in the noughties with Border Security and Customs; has diversified with the dramas today of Lie to Me and The Mentalist. Sometimes the narratives of the fictional episodes are farcical, and sometimes the judgements of the real dramas are unfortunate, yet I personally take great pleasure in these 2-D presentations.

There are two aspects to such television that I (with little effort) administer with great joy. First, there is something really satisfying when people get what they deserve! Bad things should happen to bad people. Once I was travelling on a ferry with a man who proved to me to be a thief. He tried to convince me that people who did not steal from others were fools because it was such an easy act and often goes unpunished. I determined then that there were people in the world that were different to me, that held a set of values contrary to my own, and that I just could not abide. When Judge Judy unleashes her daggers on a delinquent, or when airport security put a smiling smuggler in a cell, I feel vindicated. I’m not a criminal, and though I dislike retribution I would see others be held accountable for their actions.

    Why? Because I would not want others to pursue criminality, and I believe that catching criminals forces them to mend their ways, or at least consider doing so. Sometimes the offenders plead innocence, sometimes they plead ignorance, but there is often a moment when they have to confront their past choices and future actions (or is that past actions and future choices? Any convicts out there willing to share might correct me here…). It’s a rare moment when a criminal accepts a penalty and moves on. However, when this happens there is an opportunity for the convict to become reformed; the person can stop being a criminal simply by serving their sentence, and those who show regret or a desire to reform are following a faster route to freedom in society. Our communal freedom is dependent on others accepting that Benthem’s social contract applies to them. As such, I see the reality shows on TV as exercises in which individuals are challenged to reform, and to accept an identity that is not criminal, or suffer the consequences. Such shows demonstrate that there is a conflict: when individuals try to deceive others, when individuals must accept the undesired consequences of their acts, or when one set of individual values clashes with those of the institutions that govern society.

The second aspect of these shows that I enjoy is the chance to uncover a criminal. I’m really good at this! I turned to a friend in the first minutes of The Usual Suspects and noted “Oh, he changed hands to shoot him. I get it.” (I’ll admit though that my Sixth Sense wasn’t tingling for the ghost of Bruce Willis, and missed that one when I shouldn’t have.) Hollywood is pretty unimaginative and their narratives are fairly formulaic, but there are definite similarities in the behaviours of bad actors (pun intended) and real deceivers. The fact is that there are clear, strong and easy signs that allow us to solve the puzzling behaviours of others, and you don’t need to have Tim Roth from the Leightman Group around to read the signs of body language. (40 mins)

    So what? Well, consider the accounts of those writing in Growing Up Asian in Australia. Consider the guilty confessions of Ivy Tseng’s “Chinese Lessons”, Paul Nguyen’s “You Can’t Choose Your Memories”, and Leanne Hall’s “How to be Japanese”. There is no criminality in these actions, yet a terrible conflict is presented in each episode.

Ivy’s fantasies of “wishing I was white or Aussie” demonstrate her initial failure to understand herself, and the wishes of her father. Frankly, I find it hard to accept the importance of her judgement, that “every time I look in the mirror to brush my hair, a Chinese face looks back at me.” Instead I believe that her desire to “feel more authentic” is much, much more relevant to the problem and challenge she faces. Were one to meet Ivy I sincerely doubt one would judge her nationality by her appearance. Her body language and behaviour would tell one much, much more about her values and beliefs. Ivy herself realises this in the final lines of her tale, recognising that the language is not important, and that really, “I just want to understand my father.” Ivy here successfully judges that the challenge to understand that she personally faces is not a matter of race, but that of a daughter.

    Paul’s story is far less ambiguous or confused, and it presents two sad truths. Paul first recounts how difficult it is, despite years of trying, to conceal a secret from others. His mother “always suspected” that he was gay, although he gave her no proof and lied in answer to her direct query. It is (tragic and) relevant to note the string of strong denials, excuses and hostile accusations that his gay challenge presents to his mother. When confronted with a contradictory position, she refuses to reform her set of values because “she only knew one way to raise a child.” Paul reflects that his mother cannot change her memories, but although she will not discuss the issue with him she treats him with favour. He holds hope that perhaps he “is waiting for the wrong thing.”

Leanne describes her experience of assuming a stereotypical identity as an “exorcism”: “it’s surprisingly cathartic to let myself become the enemy.” This example explicitly explores the resentment a victim experiences when prejudice is forced upon them. It’s wholly unfair that Leanne has to witness the signs of racist behaviours, but instead of the racist confronting their prejudices she must present a toothless smile in a false advertisement of Japanese iconology. (40 mins)

    I feel a strong sense of confidence that, in reading the tales in Growing Up Asian in Australia, I can picture the body language of the narrators and observe their discomfort. Imagine the teenaged Ivy squirming in front of “Video Hits” as she tries to avoid her father, and the student Paul avoiding his mother’s eye, and the fuming Leanne sitting straight-backed upon a bar-stool. Indeed Ivy and Paul fool no one, and while the fools in Leanne’s case are others they could not mistake her angry reaction. These signs in body language strongly inform the judgements of those in a position to observe them, and it does not present any great challenge. Unfortunately, the search to discover ourselves does not enjoy such an objective perspective! Ivy continues to struggle to accept her identity. She is initially confused by the issue of race, which is not important, but surely comes to realise that duty and understanding will define her relationship with her father, thus regrets her past actions. Paul’s mother struggles to reconcile her memories as a mother with the identity of her grown son, though her son has met the challenge to realise his identity as a son who is homosexual. Paul continues to wonder if his mother is able to reform her beliefs and accept his future. Leanne presents the strongest reaction in that others have not had their prejudices sufficiently challenged, and continue to impose a false identity upon her. Though Leanne has discovered herself, she resents the misconceptions that she encounters in an ignorant society, and struggles to challenge them and change existing prejudices. (20 mins)

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