Essay by Hoa Pham
Look Who’s Morphing is a series of humorous short fiction stories, playing with issues of identity and pop culture. The humour in the book references pop culture from the 80s onwards, from Sweet Valley High books to David Hasselhof and Godzilla. The stories also question notions of identity, touching on ethnicity, family and gender and their interaction with popular culture. The series of short stories incorporates the fantastic with the real, where, with sardonic humour, characters turn into machines and celebrities, and the narrator is turned into Godzilla and a giant cock rock god. The book provides no easy answers but it leads the reader to question the societal assumptions about race, gender and identity.
Family and ethnicity
Tom Cho references family in a fictitious way. Most of the stories mention family members such as his uncle, aunt, grandparents and mother. In the first story ‘Dirty Dancing’ he mentions how he is called ‘Baby’ and his parents only recognise him as an adult when he dirty dances at the airport when they come and pick him up. The stories are linked by an ‘I’ voice which is not dissimilar to the author, despite the stories clearly having elements of morphing fantasy into the real contemporary world they are set in. In the story ‘Look who’s morphing’ Cho and his brother morph regularly, alarming their parents until Cho mentions to his father that it is normal behaviour for a young man, and then the whole family sits down and morphs into the family from The Cosby Show.
‘Dinner with Auntie Ling and Uncle Wang’ features stereotypical dishes like lemon chicken and sweet and sour pork. But the story takes a lateral jump to the left when Uncle Wang is wired up to a computer that Tom has to fix. There are two other stories where the familiarity of family dinners is hijacked by fantastical occurrences. ‘Dinner with my brother’ slips sideways into a discussion of Chinese names where Cho concludes that if patchy employment history has a name, it’s Tom Cho. This self reference is one example of how Cho inserts himself into the text. ‘Dinner with my grandmother’ includes the traditional meme of learning the language of cultural origin along with smoking cigars and drinking brandy. Naming is an important literary device in Cho’s stories; it undermines the status quo and gives humour – like his grandmother being called Bruce. It also challenges the associations commonly linked with names like Bruce. One could interrogate why it is funny that a Chinese grandmother is called Bruce.
Cho plays with popular expectations and the morphing involved has political and literary underpinnings. The title Look Who’s Morphing is a play on words from Look Who’s Talking the popular film starring John Travolta’s voice about a talking baby. Using his own image on the cover, Cho playfully inserts himself in the narrative as an autobiographical figure inviting the reader to suspend disbelief and doing away with the invisible fourth wall between reader and writer. The reader is invited to interpret the stories in a self reflexive way, with Cho being the protagonist of the short stories. The image used on the cover of the book includes a scar that bleeds neon pink, perhaps a reference to the suitmation that enables Cho to morph into the Fonz. Another interpretation is that even on the cover of the book Cho is morphing and his resemblance to the Fonz is yet another morphing. But underneath Cho is still pink flesh inside like all of us.
Transformation and morphing can be read as metaphors in Cho’s stories. That Cho can morph into a Chinese Heather Locklear like in the story ‘Look who’s morphing’ challenges what transformations can take shape regardless of ethnicity. It challenges fixed notions of identity; the reader is invited to suspend disbelief and to go along with different morphings of the narrator/protagonist.
Cho comments in the book that we are all influenced by pop culture and the shows we see, and that we fantasise about who we are. It is worth noting that almost all the pop references that Cho uses in his fiction are white people with the exception of Godzilla who one could say is Japanese, the Cosby family and Bruce Lee. The references to pop culture acts as a metaphor for the metafictive interpretation of Cho’s work. He mentions the migration journey in a humorous way– saying that as a migrant child he learnt to substitute words with ‘yadda, yadda, yadda’ (a pop reference to Seinfeld) rather than English. His observation that he was nobody until adopting a pop culture icon in a suit (see ‘Suitmation’) and his mother becomes Olivia Newton John in a suit.
There are significant Japanese pop culture influences in Cho’s stories. Cho turning into Godzilla, and a giant cock rock god in Tokyo are two of the overt references. In the story ‘Suitmation’, people dress up to become celebrities which pays homage to the activities of cosplay where fans dress up as their favourite anime character, a common activity in Japan. In ‘Cock Rock’, Cho has Japanese school girls favouring him down below. This morphing empowers Cho to address gender as well. There are casual references to sex but no details – the closest the reader gets to sex is in ‘Cock Rock’ where the narrator takes the form of an enormous cock rock god in Tokyo.
Cho himself comes to the conclusion that though he set out to write about popular culture, he has ended up writing about himself as well. The questions he poses in another monograph about his work include: ‘How do I see myself?, ‘How might others see me?, ‘What kinds of desires and fantasies do I have?’ and ‘How have I been changing?’. These questions are not posed rhetorically, but self reflexively. Cho is as influenced by the pop culture he consumes as we all are. Taking the Japanese schoolgirls fantasy in ‘Cock Rock’ as an example, Cho exploits the situation with humour and self depreciation. He is embarrassed even in his own fantasy.
Cho comments in an article he published in Monash University’s Crossings that the writer uses popular culture as a short hand with the shared assumptions and associations attached to these memes (Cho 2004). He mentions Asian fanfic such as anime and films (ie Jackie Chan). Disrupting the normal assumptions behind derivative works in a playful way, Cho successfully challenges and questions with humour. As he questions, why do we laugh when his mother opens the door as Olivia Newton John? If Tom Cho was from the dominant ethnic group (anglo saxon) would we still be laughing? Would ‘AIYO – ninjas are attacking a call centre’ spoken with the Malaysian accent by performer Jeanette Hoe be able to be laughed at if performed or written by someone of a different ethnicity?
As a visually Chinese individual, Cho’s ethnicity is negotiated and staged by Cho especially in putting his own picture on the cover. However the book has been criticised by a prominent Sydney Morning Herald reviewer as reaching too far and Cho should only concentrate on his Chinese-Australian identity. This limited reading of what an Asian author can do in Australia is implicitly racist – like telling David Malouf or Peter Carey that they can only write about whiteness.
This having been said one could view Cho’s stories as a sophisticated fanfiction with Cho himself being an ‘otaku’ (a fan of things Japanese such as anime and characters such as Godzilla). Cho himself has noted in an article he wrote in response to a forum on popular culture that references to popular fiction are missing from the Australian literary scene even though it has a great influence on ‘culture’ (Cho 2006). Cho draws on popular memes such as the Japanese schoolgirl and ninjas to advance his metanarratives about culture and, in particular, Asian cultures. As he describes it, using popular culture is literary shorthand, with commonly held associations between writers and readers.
Using fantasy reminiscent of sophisticated fanfiction makes the impossible possible in Cho’s work. Cho pulls off allegories of identity in his work and uses his own ethnicity as a literary device. For instance, in ‘Cock Rock’ his ethnicity is not mentioned but his gender is played with in the eyes of the schoolgirls. The questioning narrator has a loose common thread or character arc throughout the stories, looking at his physique and morphing, his views on gender and fantasy, and sometimes just the absurd in life. Cho uses these common assumptions to make readers laugh and also disrupt the status quo regarding these memes. The number of levels that the fantasies work on and the many possible interpretations, make the work very sophisticated as noted by favourable reviews (Cho has made all reviews available on his website).
Cho’s narrator can be read as the author’s fantastic projection of himself. Cho has owned that he is writing about himself in conference papers he has given about his creative work which also formed part of a PhD completed at Deakin (Cho 2004 and 2006). The narrator has been given no name and one could assume that these are questions Cho posed about himself especially considering the cover of the book is of his picture with a scar and dressed like the Fonz from Happy Days, a fantasy he later shares with the Mother Superior from ‘The Sound of Music’. Mother Superior says that ‘I must find out for myself if who I like to do is also bound up in issues of who I am and want to be’.
Tom Cho draws on the experience of being visually Chinese (he was born in Australia), using pop culture as a way of opening up questions about ethnicity. The story ‘Chinese Whispers’ is an example of how he subverts expectations. He plays with words, and Chinese Whispers as a game is subsequently turning whispers into Chinese, then the players into Chinese. Referencing the Chinese burn, Cho makes comment about how popular people inflict Chinese burns on other people – ‘Popularity is a game. Those who are not popular learn to play along’.
Cho also rewrites the story of Elvis Presley, saying that he did martial arts, has a massive Asian fan base, respected his parents and did karaoke. Cho mentions that Presley may have been born Asian with the white Elvis Presley being an imposter. He comments that Asians and Elvis are made for each other. This story concludes with a comment on Nagasaki and the bombing of it by Americans – the final comment of the story is that in Chinese Whispers the message is finished when all the players change along the way. This story is a play on words with the game Chinese Whispers and Chinese burns in Western countries having racist overtones.
In conclusion Cho has created a series of loosely linked stories enhanced by references and aspects of pop culture. He is strongly Japanese fanfic influenced, and plays with the assumptions underlying common Western memes like the Mother Superior from The Sound of Music, and music idols such as Elvis. The stories are a breath of fresh air and give new life to the assumptions underlying pop culture. They also challenge readers’ assumptions about ethnicity, and use the process of morphing as a self reflexive device in the narrative.
Cho, T. “Look who’s morphing. Popular culture, Asian identities and new possibilities for fiction”. Crossings 9.3 (2004).
Cho, T. “Inserting myself into the story: Artistic explorations of popular culture … and identity” written in response to the forum Popular Culture, Art And Community Cultural Development presented by Footscray Community Arts Centre and the Cultural Development Network, November 2006.
Cho, T. Look Who’s Morphing. Sydney: Giramondo Press, 2009.
© Copyright Hoa Pham 2013