When we think about Asia, it’s really easy to romanticize the life, the people there — I think. It’s easy to be aggravated by the Starbucks even while we’re heading there to get Frappucino because good lord, it’s hot and I’m jet lagged and there is nothing that would be more reassuring right now than caffeine and air conditioning and yes, I am speaking from experience, this means YOU, Singapore.
I think it’s also nearly impossible to create any kind of real picture of the young woman who’s making your coffee, to imagine where her family is from and how maybe, this is a really good job for her or hey, maybe not. And maybe a little too much cable TV has made it possible for people who have no idea what California looks like to aspire to a life that has no rice paddies or water buffalo or arranged marriages. I think it’s easy to be annoyed by the culture clash we perceive as outsiders, but there’s no way we can get inside the head of the guy who built my Nikon so he could send a kid to college, for example.
This rambling mess of thoughts is what I took away from reading Tea and Other Ayama Na Tales by Eleanor Bluestein. Yup, I got a review copy and I really enjoyed it. It’s a collection of short stories about the people of Ayama Na, an imaginary country that’s maybe Cambodia, maybe somewhere else, maybe cobbled together out of bits of Southeast Asia. Though I had the opportunity to ask the author about this imaginary place, I passed on that intentionally, I didn’t want reality to color my vision of what Ayama Na looks like, though I did patch it together in my own head, using pieces of Vietnam and Cambodia.