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All the Ying and None the Yang
by Foo Sek Han

chees·y (adj. )
1. Containing or resembling cheese.
2. Informal. Of poor quality; shoddy.


This month’s Woodworks theme is on Asian culture, so let us talk about using it in your writing. Or, more specifically, how NOT to use it in your writing.

If you are aware of the current pop culture, Asian seems to be one of the “In” things nowadays. Nowadays anything you watch on television alone may have something related to an imported product from Japan, Korea, China, Hong Kong, or Taiwan. Cartoon Network is now showing more and more anime on their Saturday morning slots, and Korean serial dramas are evolving to be making even more money than American ones in Asian countries. The “phone book” called Shonen Jump is now publishing its American edition, and Time magazine is featuring Asian pop singers on their covers. Naturally, everyone wants a bit of Asia, and Asia can’t wait to come up with more surprises.

However, a thing that’s been done too many times has the potential to become a cliché – which is not necessarily a bad thing, unless it Falls Into The Wrong Hands. Just pick Elfwood alone, where Japanese Anime art seems to be peaking into such a norm that certain people actually mistake American comic art as Anime (the blame can be placed on Image and Marvel comics, to be frank). Wyvern Library seems to have a lot of stuff based on Asian mythology, or at least has that token Asian character as the protagonist’s best friend/partner.

Now, quoting one of us Woodwork termites, the reputable Ellen Million, “I don't think cheese necessarily comes of clichés; any idea, however overdone, can be done well.” Many accomplished authors, quite notably Stephen King, use a good number of clichés in their stories, but that does not mean they are horrible and unreadable (unless you happen to read like A.S. Byatt). However, if you can’t do them well, people will immediately come up with that dreaded word authors fear most: Cheesy!

Asian culture symbolism is especially one that would point people to that diary direction, and has existed long enough in literature for Monsignor Ronald A. Knox (1888-1957), when writing the Ten Commandments of Detective Fiction, pointed out:

5. No Chinaman must figure in the story.

Therefore, here we offer some pointers on how not to turn your writing from a nice piece of sushi into last month’s batch of miso soup.

1. If possible, try to make friends with Asians who are somewhat aware of their culture. However, if you want to solely make friends with Asians for reference purposes, look for those with grouchy grandparents who say Coldplay is the kind of heavy metal music they never listened to during their younger days.

2. Symbols are nice – but don’t think that putting it up immediately signifies what culture the household/triad/organization is of. One of the most overused symbols is the Ying Yang of the Chinese Tai Chi, and as far as I can tell, not every bloody Chinese in the world hangs that up above their door at home.

3. Make sure you have some vague idea as to what some Asian culture thingy is before you use it. Using previous example, the Ying Yang represents the “positive” and “negative” force of the world – it does not represent, as one might think, Good and Evil! If you use the Ying Yang symbol as your theme of Good VS Evil, prepare for people with some knowledge in Chinese culture to laugh their socks off.

4. Not all Eastern Asians have slit eyes, talk softly and say “honourable” all the bloody time. And sad to say, the long-haired seductive and slightly evil Asian beauty has already evolved into a cliché as bad as Conan the Barbarian. And most Chinese overlords do not have torture chambers in their basements.

5. “Veli soli, me no speekee English” is neither offensive nor funny. It’s just tired.

6. Uhrm, I don’t think people in real life affix “-san” and “-kun” to the name of every person they meet. Placing little tags of the original language in English conversation is not really something that even the Japanese do on a regular basis (in fact, the ones who do this most is the crazy otakus in America). Well, if you must, make their dialogue wholly Japanese. You can use babelfish, but the result is often awkward.

7. Don’t, don’t, DON’T use “^_^” when you can’t think of anything to put into a speech bubble of your manga. Then again, if you haven’t actually learnt drawing, and you based all your drawing style on Dragon Ball, don’t draw. (And if you use this in your writing, go study English 101…)

8. Likewise, during writing, don’t treat your characters as manga/anime characters. Not all male protagonists want to do nothing but squeeze every girl’s breasts. Not all young girls are pink-haired little lovelies who go “kawaaiiiii desne!!!!!!” at any Pokemon-esque thingamajig.

9. To show a particular culture, try avoiding the usual clichés that immediately identify it (kimonos, Dance Dance Revolution, Hello Kitty). If you can, do some research, and insert stuff that would actually allow the reader to know something new about that culture. Uhrm, but not disgusting ones like tentacle porn.

10. Hey, Asians are people too. It doesn’t make us all more mystical or technology-prone than you are. Of course this can be used if you write it well, but if your reference is Hollywood movies, you better rethink that strategy. (This also applies to Native Americans, Africans, Eskimos, Aborigines, and homeless people)

Now that you know how to make your writing not stagnant with over-Asianness, go ahead and do some research and start your writing!



Foo Sek Han is a grumpy young curmudgeon going to school and living in Malaysia.

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