Saturday, August 2, 2014

Go-Betweens: The World Seen through Children

View of Tokyo from Mori Art Museum, Roppongi Hills
 Post-colonial theorists, such as Homi Bhabha, have problematized what he refers to as "the irresolvable, borderline culture of hybridity that articulates its problems of identification and its diasporic aesthetic in an uncanny, disjunctive temporality."[1] Edward Said himself provides a case in point: raised as an orthodox Christian Palestinian with American nationality, he was born in Jerusalem, educated in Cairo (attending an English primary school and American secondary school) and he gained renown as a professor at an American university. With such a background, it is not surprising to read in his memoir of his childhood that "the overriding sensation I had was always being out of place."[2] What he remembers yearning for, throughout his life, was the wish that "we could have been all-Arab, or all-European and American, or all Orthodox Christian, or all Muslim, or all Egyptian, and so on."[3] This feeling on not quite fitting in, of in-betweenness, animates Said's work but also, he claimed, lent it a strength, because being able to identify with both sides of the "imperial divide" allows the hybrid to feel that he or she belongs to more than one group, more than one history.[4]
               A problem for the in-between or hybrid is that he or she can gain the feeling that they belong to neither here nor there. Take the author Pico Iyer, for instance: born to Indian parents who resided in the USA while he attended school in Britain, he has written: "The country where people look like me is the one where I can't speak the language, the country where people sound like me is a place where I look highly alien, and the country where people live like me is the most foreign space of all."[5] This emotion of always being the outsider was summed up by Salman Rushdie: "Our identity is at once plural and partial. Sometimes we feel we straddle two cultures, at other times that we fall between two stools."[6] But Iyer too, like Said, sees the fortunate repercussions of belonging to more than one group, more than one history, as it enables one to "live a little bit above parochialisms" and allows one to see "with a flexible eye".[7]
A current exhibition at the Mori Art Museum in Tokyo, Japan, focuses on the hybrid nature of childhood - the ways in which children inhabit mental states that continually cross borders - borders that separate the imaginary from the real, the living from the dead and, most significantly, the borders that separate cultures.[8] During my enjoyable visit to the exhibition I couldn't help but ponder upon the words of Bhabha, Said, Rushdie and Iyer.
Jacob A, Riis: How the Other Half Lives, c. 1890
The exhibition takes its beginning point from the work of the 19th century Danish photographer Jacob A. Riis. He documented the lives of children in the USA who had to act as translators for their non-English speaking immigrant parents. These children were forced to play the role of being bridges between languages and cultures and Riis gave them the name "Go-betweens".[9] But as curator of the exhibition Natsumi Araki has pointed out, being a translator between cultures was not uncomplicated as the children provided a link between the old homeland and the new country, but also, they were "often caught between the two".[10] As Sandra Holstein pointed out, there is a natural connection between seeing immigrant children as "go-betweens", as Riis did, and the post-colonial predicament of subjects, adults as well as children, who find themselves to be "in-betweens".[11]
Kim Insook: Great-grandmother and I, 2008
Today it is easier than in the 19th century to acknowledge and recognise the in-between status of many of the world's population. For instance, the Korean photographer Kin Insook has movingly documented the lives of Korean families in Japan - outsiders in Japanese culture but equally, if not more so, strangers within Korean culture.[12]

Zhang O: Daddy and I,No.12, 2006

Chinese photographer Zhang O has created a series of images of adopted Chinese girls with their Caucasian American adoptive fathers, providing a stark visual statement of the in-betweenness of these young girls, who look Chinese but are outsiders to Chinese culture, but who look different than the common citizen of the culture into which they have been adopted and are raised, examples of the unfathomable richness and complexity of the father-daughter relationship.[13]  
I attended the exhibition with my three daughters - born on two different continents, none of them has a passport from the country of her birth and none have lived in the country of their father or of their mother. Rising above the narrow parochialisms of the nation state, perhaps the future lies with these in-betweens. 

[1] Homi K. Bhabha, The Location of Culture (London and New York: Routledge, 1994) 225
[2] Edward Said, Out of Place: a memoir (London: Granta Books, 2000) 3
[3] Ibid., 5
[4] Edward Said, Culture and Imperialism, (London: Vintage, 1994) xxx-xxxi
[5] Pico Iyer, The Globa Soul: Jet lag, shopping malls and the search for home (London: Bloomsbury, 2001) 24
[6] Salman Rushdie, Imaginary Homelands, (London: Granta Books, 1991)15
[7] Pico Iyer, The Global Soul, 24
[8] Go-Betweens: The world seen through children. Curated by Natsumi Araki. Mori Art Museum, Tokyo. May 31st - August 31st, 2014
[9] Natsumi Araki, "Go-Betweens: The power of children to transcend boundaries". In: Go-Betweens: The world seen through children edited by Natsumi Araki,Hitomi Sasaki and Chinatsu Kuma (Tokyo: Mori Art Museum, 2014) 32
[10] Ibid.
[11] Sandra Holstein, "From Go-Betweens to In-Betweens to Hyphenated Americans". In: Go-Betweens: The world seen through children edited by Natsumi Araki,Hitomi Sasaki and Chinatsu Kuma (Tokyo: Mori Art Museum, 2014) 150
[12] See the catalogue Go-Betweens: The world seen through children edited by Natsumi Araki,Hitomi Sasaki and Chinatsu Kuma (Tokyo: Mori Art Museum, 2014) 62-67
[13] Ibid., 58-61