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Thoughts on writing stories set in “exotic” Southeast Asian locations

As someone who lived in Asia for seven years and has written stories set in Asia, I have some thoughts about do’s and don’ts about doing so. I think some of this is applicable about writing about any location you are unfamiliar with, but I’m focusing on my former home.

Do’s

  • I hope this is an obvious one, but DO YOUR HOMEWORK. To use an example from the TV show “The Handmaid’s Tale”–in season two June spends some time hiding out in the former headquarters of The Boston Globe. She asks where she is and is told the Back Bay. Three seconds of Googling told me that the headquarters an in the financial district and the printing presses (which are in the story) were in Dorchester (another neighborhood in Boston) but have since been moved to Taunton (another town far away). The show is set somewhere in the mid 2000’s based on the soundclip they used of the Red Sox winning the World Series. This isn’t a detail that would’ve been hard to get right. The Back Bay is a district that is famous for it’s beautiful historic brick townhouses, and would never be knocked down for a building like that. Does them getting that detail wrong affect the story? No, but it’s irritating and could have easily been done correctly. Things like weather make a difference–Singapore is so humid that it feels like a slap across the face everytime you exit a building like a mall which is over air-conditioned.
  • As a follow up to doing homework–bookmark things you will need to refer to again. If your research doesn’t involve physical books (like my research for Plunder), bookmark websites and photos that inspire you. Or create a Pinterest board, if that’s your style. I’m using a mix of physical notes with topics and stars to indicate something that my research has inspired for my revisions. When I wrote Capturing the Moment I referred to not only my guidebooks and art research books (for info about the temples and their carvings) and my memories, I had a file of photos I took that were going to show up in the book whether as actual photos Meg took or just places that she and RJ would visit.
  • Try involve a local character, if you can do so without resorting to stereotypes (more on that later in the don’ts section). Singapore, from the outside, is a rigid country full of laws like no chewing gum (it’s actually more nuanced than that) with the death penalty for drugs (but moreso if you’re poor and not white–white people get deported for the most part, not executed) and is famous for canning Michael Fay in the 90’s for graffiti-ing (again, more nuanced than that). It’s anti-lgbt. BUT I have queer friends, including a drag queen. BUT I have a good friend who is an anti-death penalty activist and independent journalist. BUT there are plenty of parents who worry about the test culture. Make them a well-rounded person. They don’t have to be a main character, but they should be there (see Darany and Saroj in Capturing the Moment).
  • Do slip in some education. Details like Foreign Domestic Workers (FDW’s, more frequently colloquially called maids or helpers) in Singapore are women who are from poorer countries (the Philippines, India, Myanmar, and Indonesia) and often who have children of their own only have the right to go home for a week every two years. If they switch jobs, the clock resets and sometimes they request the money it would cost to send them home instead of actually going so they can send it home to pay for homes or education. These women take care of other people’s children while almost never seeing their own. I mention that temple children can’t afford to go to school for the most part, so the children who are riding their bikes and wave to Meg are the lucky ones in CTM. You can do this without being didactic.
  • Accept that you’ll fuck something up. I’m sure that an expat from Cambodia could rip apart parts of Capturing the Moment, and that a sailor will be able to rip apart parts of Plunder. Doing homework doesn’t mean you’ll get it 100% right. Aim for your mistakes to be smaller ones like the location of the Boston Globe and not a racist stereotype.

 

Don’ts

  • Try to refrain from the word “exotic.” It’s a word with a lot of loaded meaning and is offensive to many people. It defines the world as white and western, often American=normal, and everything else as foreign and something to gawk at. As an example, it is often applied to my elder daughter who is too dark to pass as white and not dark enough for people to accurately pinpoint the other side of her heritage as Indian. (Which in and of itself is a stereotype. She’s darker than my father-in-law who isn’t half white, and Indian can range from white-passing to people who in the US would get classified as black). It is hurtful when I hear her called that, because it is dehumanizing. Food is exotic when it’s not what you’re used to, but it’s plain old everyday food to the people who live there. Same with the weather, the flora and fauna, and facets. You can describe how alien the environment is to your MC without using the word “exotic.” Do better.
  • Do not use stereotypes about countries. When talking about Singapore, it’s cheap to just say gum is banned. Note that having the trains run on time is key in a city that largely depends on public transit (cars are six figures plus another six figures in taxes), and that when people kept putting gum over the sensors, the doors weren’t closing properly and the trains got all fucked up. The easiest solution was to prohibit public consumption of gum–you can bring gum into the country from abroad (and abroad is a 30 minute drive into Malaysia, for example), and you can purchase smoking cessation gum with a prescription, but you can’t chew it in public. Talk instead about how complex the city state is–there are giant parks to protect the natural flora and hence fauna, there are sky scrapers, there are wet markets where you can buy live frogs/halal meat/fresh fruit/etc, there are diverse neighborhoods, and vast economic disparities. Even books like Crazy Rich Asians, which portrays life in Singapore is rife with its own problems–like ignoring non-Chinese characters–Singapore is incredibly ethnically diverse, but only Chinese people figure in CRA. DO YOUR HOMEWORK
  • Do not use racial or language cues as shorthand. Darany in Capturing the Moment does not speak perfect English. But his English isn’t broken either. This is a bit of a departure from real life as my drivers’ English was not as solid as Darany’s, but using broken English to show that someone isn’t a native speaker is cheap and disrespectful. Keep in mind that due to class or history, some people in Southeast Asia *are* native English speakers. English is the main language in Singapore. Parsis in India speak English as a first language. Wealthy families throughout SE Asia may speak English as a first language, or speak it fluently enough to pass for a native speaker. Darany is from a lower class, so his English is not perfect, and doesn’t include idioms that he wouldn’t know, but it’s not broken either.
  • Don’t forget that there is significant history in SE Asia. Colonizers like the British left their mark (especially see places like India/Pakistan, and Singapore/Malaysia) and is why English plays a bit part in the lives of SE Asians. The Japanese occupied a lot of SE Asia and the oldest generations remember what it was like to live through that occupation. When Lee Kuan Yew died, the entire country went into mourning because he was the founder of Singapore–the country is only just over 50 years old but at the same time, some institutions and history predate the independence by hundreds of years. History will play an important part of your story. I mention the civil war in Cambodia briefly because there are places like Artisans Angkor which uses the funds generated by the sale of handicrafts to train young people in the art forms that were almost lost because of the civil war. So even the existence of a store can mean some within it’s historic context.

None of this is meant to discourage you from writing about Southeast Asia. It is a wonderful part of the world in which to set a story. You don’t have to visit it to write about it. But you do need to do your homework and stay respectful.