Look Who’s Morphing is Tom Cho’s literary debut short story cycle. The stories that revolve around the protagonist’s, Tom’s, resourceful transformations through many identities, roles, sizes, contexts, media and stories. As he morphs into Godzilla, Suzi Quatro, a member of the Muppets, a robot, characters of the films Dirty Dancing, The Sound of Music or The Bodyguard, or a giant cock rock star, the characters challenge ideas about gender, home, language and adulthood, as well as cultural integration. Look Who’s Morphing was supported with funding from the Australia Council for the Arts, and shortlisted for several prizes: the 2010 Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for Best First Book (South East Asia and Pacific), 2009 Age Fiction Book of the Year and Melbourne Prize Trust’s 2009 Best Writing Award.
(Image via Tom Cho)
Tom Cho uses globally recognised American pop culture references to illustrate issues faced by second-generation Chinese-Australian migrants such as himself. Technology and popular culture play an important part in how migrants experience and express themselves. Questions of authenticity, national identity, and whiteness-as-Australianness are still very much relevant in Australian politics today. Australian cultural studies researcher Tseen Khoo relates the “new dynamics of exclusion in contemporary Australia in the wake of the ‘re-territorialising’ of Australian boundaries […] and ongoing global anti-terrorist rhetoric and legislation” that sparked discussions about “who belongs in the nation, imperatives of cultural assimilation, and the constitution of a ‘true’ Australian” (3). While the policy of multiculturalism replaced the White Australia policy (in the 1970s) in official discourses, Khoo argues that Australian society is still divided by “racially discriminatory structures and institutionalised inequality” with regards to Asian-Australian, as well as Indigenous Australian, people that “invoke questions of dispossession and colonisation” (4). This does not only concern first-generation immigrants but also further generations which Tan underlines: “[E]xclusionary mechanisms […] constitute to obstruct the complete acceptance of Chinese Australians as Australians despite rights of birth and citizenship” (66). More often than not Asian Australians are fixed as ‘foreigners’ or ‘new Asian migrants’ and thereby not Australian but dislocated discursively to places outside Australia due to their “skin colour, hair type and eye shape” (67-70).
To avoid this kind of racial stereotyping, the protagonist Tom adopts Western styles. Initially, he explores feelings of being trapped between his Chinese background and the English language, as well as Australian culture. Later however, he manages to develop an empowering cultural hybridity, finding his own language and ability to tell his story. Thereby, the use of, transformation into, references to, and re-writings of famous films, other media’s techniques of storytelling and actors or fictional figures, such as The Exorcist or Godzilla, allow him to challenge commonplace understandings of identity. In the first story, for example, he becomes the maturing protagonist Baby from Dirty Dancing. However, in contrast to the Hollywood movie, the story does not show the development of a heterosexual love affair. Instead, Baby retells how she observes herself “having the hottest sex you can imagine” (10) as a “Caucasian man”, Bruce, with Johnny. Tom experiences migration as corporeal and mental transformations that he learns to control self-consciously. In “Suitmation” identities can be bought in the form of full-body suits featuring American celebrities with the disadvantage that people do not really know each other anymore as the protagonist laments. Therefore, he wants to find out how to control transformations self-consciously.
For Tom Cho, the language of popular culture offers means to establish his own identity. Therefore it does not make sense to talk about the tales in Look Who’s Morphing as reproductions or repetitions of original or authentic material because Cho produces something new by embedding known stories into a novel context. The inclusion of fictional, sometimes even fantastic, elements is used to establish a relationship to the digital realm. For instance, in “Dinner with Auntie Ling and Uncle Wang” Tom solves problems with his digital know-how. His uncle is connected to a computer participating in a university study and can be repaired by Tom when he starts speaking computer code which the latter summarizes in a “MacGyver-style montage”: “Tom opening Uncle Wang’s head / Tom using a soldering iron / […] Tom using a boot disk to start up his uncle […] (Cho 33). Further, he protects his relatives from an “army of orcs”: “As this is a classic Dungeons & Dragons scenario, I know exactly what to do. I immediately cast a Fireball that kills the entire army” (33). The seemingly fictional aspect of his transformations, however, does not make them unrealistic but illustrates how virtual and real areas of life fuse and surface not only on the own body but also in social practices and relationships, language use, storytelling and thinking about one’s own identity.
In yet another story, “I, Robot”, the transformation of low-income earners into robots is introduced as part of an Australian government program. Tom signs up and becomes a protocol android, like C-3PO from Star Wars, a machine devoid of any racial identifiers. This reveals how the world and people interact and share knowledge in terms of computer games, think of themselves as machines, or the ways that governments require people to behave like, and even transform into, robots, to obtain efficient workers. When Tom had to learn the English language he watched TV and used Bruce Willis’s role and voice from the Look Who’s Talking films to express himself, as he explains in “Learning English”. Therefore, it is important that the protagonist rewrites Western classics, finds his own language by writing his book and transforms his body into a weapon. After being made into a golden robot that speaks with a British accent in “I, Robot”, Tom starts taking control and fights the cultural forces working against him. He overcomes the programs installed in his mind that would prevent rebellion and instead develops “cannons for arms”, destroys his “enemies” and takes up a body and thinking of his choice (69, 71).
Thus, identity is not only a question of “[b]ecoming what you watch” (Swinn; Cho 88), but a process that involves active participation of the individual. This is the reason why theories suggesting cultural imperialism or neo-colonialism through the global spread of cultural material like films, for example, are not completely convincing but need refinement through a focus on the local conditions and dealings with these global images. Tom Cho demonstrates that culture and cultural products travel the world across borders, transnationally and transculturally. Homogeneous products become unthinkable and transcultural hybridity is no longer seen as the fusion of two homogeneous parts or “two zones of purity” but of entities that were ‘always already’ culturally hybrid (Consalvo 129). Digital media have enabled the transcultural exchange of messages and material like popular culture so that it becomes impossible to trace their origins nowadays. Godzilla or Dungeons & Dragons are apt examples of films and computer games that were endlessly re-made and adapted across cultures so that they are inherently hybrid products. Similarly, the continuous mixture of cultures through colonizing forces since the earliest days does not make it compelling to speak of heterogeneous cultures.
Tom Cho presents cultural hybridity in a transcultural context because popular culture diffuses societies across borders via digital means. People who belong to heterogeneous groups present themselves as homogeneous to secure their own identities, and control the groups they marginalize. Therefore the local and individual adaptations of Cho matter because they allow him to tell his own story and share his understanding of transculturally spread material in an empowering way.
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Tan, Carole. “‘The Tyranny of Appearance?’ Chinese Australian Identities and the Politics of Difference.” Locating Asian Australian Cultures. Ed. Tseen Khoo. London: Routledge, 2008. 65-82. Print.
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