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How Southeast Asia Made America

Charlotte Hand

Feb 15, 2018 | News

American culture – it is everywhere. It is the Starbucks you have first thing in the morning; the McDonald’s you had for lunch; the blockbuster film you watched last week. It is in the style of clothes you put on, and it is probably in the makeup you bought.

Americanisation has been a prevalent force in Southeast Asia since the twentieth-century, though it has been challenged by Japanisation and, more recently, the Korean wave. This influence, however, is hardly mutual. Where is Southeast Asia in America? Certainly, little pockets of Southeast Asian culture can be found, but that’s all they are, enclaves within a seemingly monolithic culture.

It is easy to assume that Southeast Asia had little to do with the construction of America. However, Dr. Farish A. Noor — political scientist, historian, and Associate Professor at the Rajaratnam School of International Studies — refutes this notion in his forthcoming book, America’s Encounters with Southeast Asia: Before the Pivot. Examining the writings of American diplomats, adventurers, and scientists, Noor reveals the significant role of Southeast Asia in the formation of America in the nineteenth-century.

Noor argues that history, as a conception of the national-self, is discursive. In other words, it is conceived differently by people of different socio-locations, and emerges through a series of negotiations and negations. The American travellers to Southeast Asia did not discover it as a thing-in-itself, but invented it through their own cultural-political lenses and in the process reinvented America in relation to this Other.

With this premise, Noor charts America’s changing position in the nineteenth-century. The writings of diplomat Edmund Roberts, adventurer Walter M. Gibson, naturalist Albert S. Bickmore, and author Frank Vincent, Noor asserts, cast an important light on America’s shifting perception on imperialism. Once strongly opposed to imperialism, America had, post-antebellum, became pro-imperialism – an ideological shift that was reified with the occupation of the Philippines (1898-1946).

Noor also discussed the emergence of American Orientalism, which is distinguished from other forms of Western Orientalism by a masculine Republicanism and the “baggage” of the Other at home, the Native Americans. The latter were often used to justify American conquest and violence in Southeast Asia to citizens back home in order to contextualise and justify their colonising mission. As a result, America’s Manifest Destiny assumed a colonial charge, even though the country had just witnessed a devastating war over slavery.

Given the current political and cultural climate of the world today, Noor’s study is a timely reminder that the nation is never static, but discursive, complex and changing.