- Where Asian writers get unpeeled -
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Interview Dyske Suematsu
By: PP Wong
B is for...book. What is your favourite childhood book?
I grew up reading mostly comic books. My favorite author was Leiji Matsumoto who wrote “Galaxy Express 999” and “Space Battleship Yamato”. I particularly liked his earlier works which were more philosophical.
A is for… animal. If you could transform into one animal for one week, what would you be?
N is for… necessary. If you were banished to a desert island and could only bring two items, what would they be?
iPhone and green tea.
A is for… authentic. How would you describe yourself in three words?
Visual, philosophical, Asperger.
N is for… novelist. Which writer do you most admire?
Ludwig Wittgenstein - does he count as a “writer”? If not, Dostoevsky.
A is for… appetite. Would you like a Banana milkshake? Banana fritter? Banana cake? Or just a plain banana?
Cutural Critique + Writer + Graphic Designer + Computer Programmer
+ Logical Master + Nice Guy + :o)
= Dyske Suematsu
So, who is the logical master that is Dyske Suematsu?
I was born in Japan and grew up there until 16. My dad used to tell me that I wouldn’t be able to succeed in life if I thought too much. He said smart people shoot down their own ideas by thinking about what could go wrong, like thinking about all possible moves and their consequences in chess. During the summer break of 1984, I came across a flier at my high school in Tokyo about a program that sends students to the US for a year to study at American high schools while living with American families. Doing such a thing was nowhere in my mind at the time, so it seemed like a crazy thing to do. It was just the right kind of idea to test my father’s theory with. So, without thinking about the possible consequences, I decided to sign up. A few months later, I was attending a high school in the suburb of Los Angeles, California. After a year, I decided to stay in the US for another year to finish high school there, and officially leave my high school in Japan. Looking back, my parents must have been quite stressed about my rash decisions. My high school in Japan was affiliated with a major university in Japan. I would have been able to avoid the hellish period of studying for college entrance exams if I had stayed. My parents were feeling rather secure about my future, but by abandoning my Japanese high school, the lights suddenly went off in my future.
During those two years in California, I watched a few hundred movies. One of my favorites was “Once Upon A Time in America”, and it made me want to move to New York. I knew that I wanted to study graphic design, so I found a list of art schools in New York, closed my eyes, and randomly pointed my finger at one. It said “School of Visual Arts”. It sounded good enough, so I moved to New York City. The first year at SVA is called “the foundation year” and everyone regardless of their majors studied the same subjects. At the end of the year, we had to make the final choice. When I asked my friends what they were majoring in, they all told me “fine arts” without hesitation. It became apparent that I got along better with fine arts majors. In fact, I didn’t have a single friend who was majoring in graphic design.
So, I switched.
I loved studying fine arts and I’m happy that I switched, but after 4 years of studying it, I felt like I needed to experience a different perspective. Wall Street seemed like the obvious choice for that. Oddly, I had a lot of fun there too. I worked for several investment banks sitting on the trading floor, assisting the traders with pricing interest rate derivatives. I became a spreadsheet wizard. In 1996, the head of my department retired and was replaced with an asshole, so I walked off the job, and left Wall Street entirely. (I later learned that the asshole got fired for racking up a $20,000 bill at a restaurant.)
The timing was perfect for me to join the Dotcom party.
When I first learned about the Web, I saw it had potential to solve my problem as a writer. In the early 90s, when none of my friends had email, I used to print out copies of my writing and mail them out to my friends, hoping to get some feedback. Nobody did. My friends were the wrong audience for my writing. They studied art; they are not logical thinkers. I needed to reach the right audience.
I never had any ambition or dream to publish a book. I saw and still see my writing as an on-going conversation, not some sort of final words to present to the world. I want people to point out flaws in my arguments or provide different perspectives. Most people think of writing as having some sense of permanence. I see it as an organic, iterative, and ephemeral process. The ideas presented in it would be discarded at some point, but it is still interesting to read the process, the dialogue that lead to specific conclusions. The Web was the perfect medium for how I saw my writing to be. I began posting my own essays on my website, and sure enough, I started receiving the feedback that I had always craved.
Japanese? Chinese? Korean?
You are pretty scientific in your approach to stereotypes. What is the craziest stereotype that you have heard about Asian culture?
I’m not sure if a stereotype can ever be “crazy”. The word “crazy” implies an outlier on the Bell curve, but “stereotype” by definition is something that is situated in the middle. A small number of people having a crazy misconception about any group of people would not be considered a “stereotype”. You need a critical mass for any misconception to be a stereotype. So, I can’t think of any “crazy” stereotypes of Asians.
And stereotypes can also be true. Your choice of word “craziest” seems to imply that all stereotypes are crazy to some degree, but they are not. Many people shy away from talking about stereotypes even if they are true, because they see all stereotypes to be bad. But I personally do not think such silence/suppression helps us.
Japanese? Chinese? Korean?
If something is true, we should be able to talk about it, and more importantly, we should be able to openly talk about whether any particular stereotype is true or not.
What is ultimately insidious about stereotypes is how people unconsciously use them, like assuming that I’m delivering Chinese food if I was standing in front of an apartment building, holding a plastic bag, waiting for my friend to buzz me in. Yes, it’s true; statistically speaking, an Asian man holding a plastic bag waiting to be let into an apartment building in New York City has a high probability of being a delivery man, but this probability does not legitimize your assumption no matter how high the probability is. In other words, stereotype itself can statistically be true or false, but this truth value is a separate issue from whether you used it appropriately or not.
So my approach to addressing the problem of prejudice is to debate the underlying mechanism of stereotype, as opposed to specific manifestations of it. Once we all become more aware of how it works, I think we would be able to better cope with it. Debating would make the topic more memorable by turning our short-term memories into working memories. Debating forces us to think about the topic for ourselves in our own ways.
Why did you create alllooksame.com?
Once I discovered server-side programming, I realized that the Web had a lot more potential than just posting articles. One day while I was dining at a Japanese restaurant with my then-girlfriend (now wife), we came up with the idea of creating an online quiz to test our ability to distinguish Chinese, Japanese, and Korean. The credit for the name “All Look Same” goes to one of my co-workers, Alan Bibby, who came up with it while we were trying to figure out the domain name for the site. I now see that some people have adopted it as a compound noun to describe a situation where you can’t see any difference even though you should.
AllLookSame.com went viral as soon as I launched it. Within a week, the server was crashing from traffic overload. Ever since then, I became fascinated with why and how things go viral. These days, the search engines are so efficient that if anything has any potential to go viral, you would find out within a few days.
Japanese? Chinese? Korean? Japanese? Chinese? Korean?
You wrote an article about how Americans think MSG is bad for you when studies have actually shown otherwise. Do you think urban myths and negative stereotypes about the East are usually created by the West as a tool of disempowerment against Asians?
I don’t think there are people out there who are deliberately trying to disempower Asian people. These days, much of the racism we encounter is unconscious, and primarily based on fear.
Many non-Asian Americans still feel Asians to be unfamiliar, foreign, strange, and/or difficult to understand. I would not fault anyone for feeling this way about immigrants like me, but I feel bad for Asian Americans who were born here, and speak perfect English and know the American culture as well as any other Americans. We all have unfamiliar territories, and it’s only natural that we feel fearful of things we don’t know well. Racism, or any type of prejudice, isn’t about the fear per se, but about how we cope with it. Some people turn their fear into hostility, which manifests as overt racism or bigotry. Some suppress it, which manifests as unconscious racism. They are two different forms of denial. These days, we are primarily fighting the latter. It’s rare to meet someone who claims to be a racist.
The most effective way to fight unconscious racism, I believe, is to help people face their own fears. If we are familiar with something that others fear, then we should make some efforts teaching them what we know. Accusing them of ignorance, for instance is counter-productive because they would end up suppressing their fear further. The first step in resolving any type of prejudice within ourselves is to openly admit that we fear something. I openly admit that I have fear of homosexuality, which allows me to learn more about it in a productive way.
On YouTube, there is a white American guy who calls himself Ken Tanaka and speaks in a fake Japanese accent. Some Asians find him hilarious while others find him deeply offensive. What do think of his videos?
In general, I respect people who knowingly take the risk of being called a racist and express themselves in creative forms. I see them as their ways of coping with their own fears. Their expressions might indeed be racist and offensive, but it’s better to get these feelings and thoughts out there for us to evaluate and learn from, than to keep suppressing them. I see suppression as a much bigger problem, as it is much harder to solve.
Tell us your best joke about Asian people?
There are no great jokes about Asian people. This actually tells us something. It means many people still do not understand Asians. In order to make a good joke about something, you have to know a lot about it. Most of the jokes about Asians reflect superficial understanding of Asian cultures, therefore uninteresting.
Also, people joke about things they fear as a means to cope with them, which means that people don’t fear Asians much. This is actually a bad thing. It’s better to be feared than to be ignored.
There are many great jokes about Jews; this is partly because people fear them. (According to Wikipedia, Jews comprise less than 0.2% of the world’s population, yet 20% of Nobel Prize winners were Jews.) Now that the Chinese economy is growing fast, people will begin to fear Asians more. Hopefully we will begin to hear more interesting jokes about Asians.
You created this free online test where people are shown photographs of Asians and have to guess which part of Asia the person is from. Did you find anything interesting about the results of people who completed the test?
I have some location-based analysis on it:
As you can see, the Asian countries do better. I’ve read somewhere that some researcher scientifically proved that people are better at making distinctions among their own races. I can’t find that article, unfortunately.
The average correct for the face quiz is 6.72 (out of 18), which is slightly better than random. The other quizzes like art, architecture, and food have much better averages, all above 8.
Japanese? Chinese? Korean?
Japanese? Chinese? Korean?
What happens next in the logical, whimsical, journey of Dyske Suematsu?
I have no idea. I see life as a process of self-discovery, so, “what’s next” is what I’m curious about myself.
I’m currently working on a few startups.
Professionally, I’m still involved in the Internet. I do not consider myself a graphic designer, programmer, or writer. These days, given so many tools that make our lives easier, these traditional categories of professions are getting blurry.
For instance, photography used to be a highly technical field. It took many years to master the technical aspects alone. Now with digital cameras, everyone is shooting photos all the time, and everywhere. While you still need to be talented to be a great photographer, you could be a decent photographer quite easily these days, and for most things, decent is good enough. The same is true for graphic design, computer programming, and writing. We can be decent at all of them. If you want to create something socially meaningful, how you combine these skills is more important than how good you are at any particular thing. Specialists are always working for generalists with bigger visions (like Steve Jobs who wasn’t good at any particular thing himself). Employers want employees to specialize because specialists are easy to replace. Great generalists are hard to replace because it’s not easy to find another person who happens to have the same set of diverse skills. Creativity is a process of connecting unexpected things, so it happens more in between these predictable, predefined specialties.BW
I write down what I discover along the way and publish them on my site at: http://dyske.com
My Facebook page is:
Twitter page is:
All pictures taken from alllooksame.com