Thursday, June 12, 2008

Orientalism today

The J.Crew catalog arrived, and it has a theme: Morocco! This means that the models and their polo shirts are ostensibly in Morocco; the clothing itself is no more Moroccan than usual. It takes some suspension of disbelief to imagine that anyone would pack for Morocco and bring along exclusively clothes from J.Crew. Some of the photos, though, are really something else. I can't seem to find a way to link directly to the image (it flashes briefly on the J.Crew homepage, and is in the catalog), but there's one shot of one of the blonder models, in full prep garb, encountering an exotic water salesman, a dark-skinned 'native' complete with all manner of headgear and layers. The catalog includes a description of this colorful character--the man, of course, not the model. Needless to say, there is no mention of where one can purchase the man's rather impressive hat, or whether it also comes in Heather Gray in the size of your choice.

If you are looking for postcolonial-minus-the-post attire, you could always go with Banana Republic, on account of the name, but a better choice might be Tory Burch, whose line was "inspired by outfits her mother wore while vacationing in Morocco." It's hard for me to picture what this even means--what an American (I'm guessing Burch's mother is/was American) would wear in a specific foreign country. Does tourist clothing vary by destination? I'm thinking of what my classmates wore while studying in Paris--more scarves and artfully messy hair than they'd have gone with at home, although it could also have had something to do with unseasonably cold weather and lukewarm dorm showers with minimal water pressure. I'm also picturing Edina and Patsy's Maghreban adventure. So I guess what a Westerner dons in Morocco would be something vaguely 'Oriental' but not so much so as to appear to be trying to blend in.

Some Westerners, however, blend in with the locals so much that they serve their kids scorpions instead of raisin bran! On the one hand, as a slightly picky eater, I'm jealous of Matthew Forney's kids, growing up in China without the option of plain pasta for every meal. On the other, I was put off by the fact that the article was basically the author congratulating himself on his benefiting from having the best of both worlds, being well-off in a place where others are starving, and thus having kids who are not fussy like those whose parents commit the child abuse that is raising children in the suburbs.

I don't think of myself as especially touchy about things that contradict PC, and I am most definitely not Chinese, so this is not personal, but the confident declaration that China is a country "where people eat anything" threw me for a loop. Really, in all of China? Anything, or just things that aren't sold at Zabars? It might be on balance a good thing that we as a society have gotten enough past political correctness that I feel almost ashamed to have found the J.Crew catalog and the piece on Chinese omnivores at all disconcerting. That said, there's something to be said for admitting that at least part of the PC era's influence is worth keeping around. Like a bowl of scorpions, Edward Said is best not swallowed whole.


J. Otto Pohl said...

As a trained Orientalist, both my MA and Ph.D. are from the School of Oriental and African Studies at the U. of London, let me tackle this one. I once did raise the "What foods do the Chinese not eat?" with a professor specializing in commodity and culinary history. As I recall there was not much except they unlike the Japanese and Koreans did not go in for raw food. Everthying else was pretty much on the menu.

Phoebe said...

I'm almost convinced, but have to ask: you say "the Chinese"--is this all Chinese people, across age, class, and region?

J. Otto Pohl said...

Obviously there are exceptions to every rule. Chinese Buddhists and Muslims have the same dietary codes as their non-Chinese coreligionists. The Hui or Dungans are Muslims and are generally considered a different ethnic group from the Han. But, like other Muslims they do not eat Pork.

FLG said...

This is completely unrelated to your post, but perhaps you will find it funny.

I, until today, thought that your ABOUT ME picture was of you sitting on the ground with your legs outstreched while wearing two brown, instead of pink, bunny slippers. Yes, you would be incredibly short in that case, but since you always mention being short it did not seem unreasonable. Well, maybe. But I didn't want to say anything about it.

Anyway, I found it funny when I finally clicked on the picture.