Off the southeastern coast of the Dominican Republic lies what was once a small fishing village, now dominated by international behemoths—four- and five-star all-inclusive hotels with lighthouses on the beach that pump and thump dance music, dispense unlimited tropical drinks.
White resort guests mark territories, laying borrowed towels, clamped down with shark-shaped clips on beach chairs that tilt in different configurations for maximum “sleep, read, drink” pleasure. Elderly tourists are covered in downy white hair, wear skins that rival the finest Italian leather. Gleaming couples strut, oil-dipped. A little boy on his hands and knees digs a protective moat around his castle.
Resort attendants, who are mostly black, walk on the hot sand around the premises, setting up umbrellas at favorable angles, cleaning up the empty plastic cups stuffed with used napkins, or the discarded Corona bottles with the lime wedges squashed inside of them. The entire place screams with the supernaturally consistent smile of a corporate Do not even think of cleaning up after yourself.
The aerobics instructor, who appears to be of mixed race, wears a baby bonnet over his brown curls and a pair of costume diapers. He runs around clownishly on the beach to gather people for his class. He leads a group of women of all ages in the seawater, exercising, lifting arms and legs to the beat.
A vacation is a respite from unpleasantness, and since consciousness of death and decay are unpleasant, it may seem weird that the ultimate American fantasy vacation involves being plunked down in an enormous primordial stew of death and decay. But on a 7NC Luxury Cruise, we are skillfully enabled in the construction of various fantasies of triumph over just this death and decay. One way to “triumph” is via the rigors of self-improvement…But there’s another way out, too: not titivation but titillation; not hard work but hard play.1
After a few days of drowning in this hard play we succumb to the need for trying something different. Isn’t that what we’re all looking for? Something both exciting and different. Something that teases us back into the fear of death, existence, teases us back into our bodies, without actually threatening us?
The Japanese restaurant.
My friend and I, two Asian American women in a sea of white tourists—predominantly European, many Spanish and French—work nine-to-fives and have booked an “easy girlfriends’ vacation” to the Dominican Republic, where all our anxieties about cultural immersion, transportation, and food poisoning, become ameliorated by immaculate landscaping, the availability of aerobic activities at every hour of the day, and resort-controlled eating options, which in this case includes both an American-style steakhouse and this, the “Benihana-inspired” restaurant.
I was quite frankly looking for a way to forget everything, to not feel anything for a few days, to have nothing to take care of but my deepest, and in some way, most animal desires. But I am at war with myself—the part of me that wants to relax and the part of me that just can’t relax because the tropes are so obvious. The cliché of pleasure built on hierarchies, hierarchies propped by the intersections of race and class, the fact that having black people serve us is as constant as white noise.
As Asian Americans, we are people of color, and have functioned as part of the global imagination as servants, as houseboys, but here as tourists, we almost become white.
In the Benihana-inspired Japanese restaurant, with its elegant, dark and austere interior, we are randomly seated with a group of white tourists at a bracket-shaped table with a spectacular grill in the center for the chef with the tall white hat to show us his skills. The host and servers, who are black, wear ‘Chinaman’ outfits, further deepening the confused Orientalism of the experience. To our left, sit a quiet, older Canadian couple. To our right, a group of two retired American couples sit, perhaps the first Americans we have run into on this trip. They are from Ohio.
The evening starts off on the right note when the chef begins grilling and chopping vegetables aggressively. One of the American women, who sits further from us, asks the chef his name. She strains to read his nametag.
“Juan,” he responds.
“Oh… you’ve seen Juan, you’ve seen ‘em all!”
The group laughs.
Juan smiles. That is not the first time he has heard that joke.
My friend and I look at each other, chuckling uncomfortably. Oh, boy, I think. Here we go! This is just the appetizer.
When the waiter arrives by my side in his ‘Chinaman’ suit, I order my entrée in Spanish. My Spanish is decent, in the sense that I studied it in college for a couple years, and forgot most of it, but I can order at a restaurant for myself.
The woman of the Juan joke, let’s call her Joan from now on, asks me and my friend where we are from.
She probably wants us to say somewhere exotic, like Laos, but instead we say, “Seattle.”
The couple closest to me, on my right, suddenly notices us. The woman, Harriet asks, “How many languages do you speak?”
“Uh, I guess, a little Spanish and a little Korean.”
“This girl speaks three languages,” Harriet says to Joan.
I blush. Oh, boy. I can see where this is going.
My friend and I look at each other.
Their husbands are very quiet.
As we go through the coursed menu, which is just a reflection of the place in its sad interpretation of the exotic—soba noodles; pale, limp sashimi; sushi—everyone gets drunker and drunker.
Joan wants to take pictures of us “special girls” who can speak so many languages. She rushes to pose with us. We can only imagine the conversation that’ll ensue when she shows our pictures to her friends. “These nice girls from—get this—Seattle, were so smart and lovely. Guess how many languages they speak?”
There’s something sad and depressing about it all, although no one can or will articulate what that is. Here, we are all on vacation, eating our large meals, and drinking unfathomable amounts, and never having to take out our wallets to pay or tip, because we have already done so (all-inclusive), so there’s a false economy going on here, an illusion that somehow we are all being taking care of without a cost. All the anxiety that usually overcomes us when we see the bill is replaced by an anxiety of “Where is the bill?”
Harold, Harriet’s silent husband, swallows the entirety of brown-tinged wasabi on his plate. His face blows up red, inflamed. We’re all frightened for him. He drowns his mouth and throat in water. He exclaims, “I thought it was a mushroom!”
Harriet is panicking and scolding him at the same time, expressing both her fear of losing him, and also her fear of letting go of the power she has over him.
My friend and I look at each other and laugh. The man ate a spoonful of wasabi. He called it a mushroom!
Our final course consists of a heap of noodles and sauce and meat that had been grilled before us by the punchline (aka Juan). It steams and infuriates with its blandness, but we eat it anyway. We’re hungry after the mediocre sashimi and appetizer. This is imagined Chinese food, a projection of all the bizarre, greasy things so many Americans and Europeans imagine China to be.
Here we sit, a disruption. Perhaps they do not have many Asian or Asian American tourists, and here they are in front of us, in their Orientalist garb. Black men who speak Spanish who are dressed up as ‘Chinamen,’ speaking with, and serving, two Asian women. Bizarre.
Could the sadness, the smallness of the intended audience for this performance be anymore explicit? Without my Asian American friend and I, it would not be so obvious, the game, our presence illuminates the charade.
We are all punchlines. Projections of projections of projections.
But whose joke is it? And where is the bill?
They were dropped off by caravans of brightly painted Daihatsu trucks or came on foot, carrying pots, pans and mattresses, balancing suitcases on their heads. They built shelters with frames made of branches and covered them with whatever material they could find. One family made a wall out of a pair of XXL Levi’s jeans. Another stretched out a dirty Snuggie, its left sleeve hanging out like a limp windsock. Someone found a huge purple-and-yellow vinyl poster bearing the smiling face of a Dominican congressional candidate and used it as a waterproof roof.2
It’s impossible to eat everything. So, when it is time to clear our plates, Harriet is confronted with the fact of her food. There remains in front of her the pile of chow mein, cooling down to the room temperature of her sorrow, and the sorrow of a million white tourists before her.
As the ‘Chinaman,’ who is black and speaks Spanish, takes away her food, she cries out, “Now, wait a minute.”
“I can’t have you take away that food. I can’t have you throw away that food.”
“Are you going to throw away this food?”
“Have you seen the children on the streets? There are children right on the beach begging for food.”
“Yes.” He looks to me. He doesn’t know what to say, what she is saying.
In my botched Spanish, I say, “Uh, drunk American, she worry about throwing away food when children on the street are poor.”
“Oh,” he nods.
He looks at her. “No basura.” He then looks at me, “Tell her that we take the food home. We don’t throw it away. Tell her that we take it home to our families.”
The experience has transcended hilarity. The experience has become heartbreaking, as we all sit around the table. The sharp realization of how, as if we are in an episode of The Twilight Zone, dolls stuck in a donation bin for the holiday, we are now trapped.
I tell the woman that they do not throw away the food. They take the food home to their families.
But she doesn’t believe me. Instead, she stares at the food, facing the conundrum, for only a brief moment of her life. How do we please ourselves without taking or withholding from others? And why is our own pleasure so important anyways?
If she doesn’t want to see the children hungry in the street, does she believe that the leftovers from her one meal can help them?
And does she need to remind the people who work here that there are hungry children on the street? Does she think the ‘Chinaman’ never noticed these things? That he lives his life incongruously amongst the riches of a resort and then goes home to his family, who most likely live diametrically the opposite of her, without any observation or opinion?
I wish this were a Flannery O’Connor story. Because then racist grandma may or may not have a flash of recognition as God takes her life at the end.
But, eventually, she resolves to let him take the food away. Somehow in that tension, she releases herself, her frustration, and she wants it to end, finally. She has the last word, and it is over, for her, at least for now.
“Starting in the community where we live—how we are spending our money to make these choices, from your sugar to your vacation—to think about what’s being done in your name, what you’re subsidizing. What your presence means—and what your absence means,” said [Edwidge] Danticat…3
I lie on my bed, sober, thinking of what had just happened. I feel sadness for the server, having to endure those lousy outfits, those customers who dared to break the fourth wall with their comments, when all he wanted to do was do his job by pleasing her, by doing exactly what he was told to do, to take away the food.
I feel humiliated for myself, for smiling in their photos, for participating in their charades, for not having the power or the strength to point all of this out.
After resting in our room for a couple hours, we go out to dance at the club on site, which is open every night and plays bachata, where men who work at the resort stand on the sidelines to dance with female guests without partners. This is a world without loneliness, where every man wants to dance with you.
We dress up, and on our way there, one of the resort employees, who wears the resort Polo shirt, walks toward us with a smile on his face, as if he is thinking of something that makes him happy. When he sees us, he grins, pointing, “Suzuki,” he says to me. “Kawasaki!” he says to my friend.
We can’t help but laugh.
I’ve encountered plenty of casual racism in my life—people pulling their eyes back to make fun of mine, people using pretend Chinese with me—and often I’ve laughed nervously, because how do we respond to othering without further othering ourselves? Isn’t there that primal instinct to belong?
And for whatever reason, tonight, the young man referring to us as the brand names of motorbikes is a relief, as if this final othering, this strange reference to what in America are the motorbikes of the ’80s, gathers us into a secret joy, a story he has been thinking of, a dream, before he even saw us.
There is a sadness and a comprehension in that moment. He acknowledges both our presence and our absence at once.
There is no walking off this stage. As Asian Americans, we live in a world that reduces us to the objects that we make—appliances, automobiles, electronics—just as the employees themselves have been reduced to their industries as entertainers, servants.
He tries to relate to us, and at the same time, he pushes us away.
We know that in this system, in which a black local plays a ‘Chinaman,’ or wears the baby’s bonnet and the diapers on the beach, and us, Asian Americans play white tourist, and white tourists play themselves, we will always be outsiders, even Harriet herself with her eyes on the glistening pile of soon-to-be-discarded chow mein. But for some of us, that outsider status comes with great privilege, as it entitles us to unlimited drinks and food, and the ability to go home somewhere.
And for people who live on the island, it doesn’t matter if they wear the polo shirts, or the ‘Chinaman’ outfits; it doesn’t matter if they dance for us on stage, if this island is actually theirs, their home, because for our stay, which collectively is indefinite, they are ours, they belong to us, their home is whatever we would like it to be.
Tourist locations, especially “exotic” ones, become touchstones on our journey to self-fulfillment, easing the pain of our daily uncertainties with a bombardment of answers: More exercise! More sunshine! More time to read books! A simpler life!
The ultimate vacation erases all questions. But in doing so, it erases life itself.
But where is the bill?
1. Wallace, David Foster, ““Shipping Out: On the (nearly lethal) comforts of a luxury cruise,” Harper’s Magazine (January 1996)↩
Photograph provided courtesy of author.