September 16, 2013

Review -- WAIJIAO by Owen Tucker


(Owen Tucker)
3.5 stars
Waijiao is Owen Tucker's Kickstarter-funded graphic narrative/memoir about his time teaching English in China. Well, actually it's more about Tucker's understanding his experiences teaching English in China. Now that I think about it,Waijiao is really about Owen Tucker trying to figure out what his experiences teaching English in China finally amounted to. He calls his book a "graphic essay" and it is more of a rumination than a memoir. As such, Tucker ends up with more questions than answers by the end.
"Waijiao" means "foreign teacher" in Chinese. For four years, Tucker and his girlfriend (the photographer Lily Weed, whose photos are also used in this book) lived in three different cities in China and taught English to all grade levels both in schools and private lessons. During this, Tucker had time to try to come to terms with the character of modern China, how the West was viewed by the Chinese, and the implications of this understanding.
For Tucker, China is an "immutable contradiction" and "to 'understand' China is to accept its contradictory nature." As he thinks about it, though, he starts to wonder if this contradiction is really just "a way of avoiding something," that it is a resignation to the fact that things in China are moving so quickly and the state of things is in such flux that right now people are unsure of what their culture actually is. As modernization layers on top of presupposed social mores, things feel oddly disjointed. One thing that Tucker can say with certainty about his experience, though, is that "the bathroom is always funny."

The art in Waijiao fits the subject matter well. Tucker's choices in his black and white pages really emphasize the unique quality of telling this story in comics. He is able to focus his reader on the detachment he feels being a foreigner in this experience and the repetitive nature of what he was doing there without having to rely on vast amounts of exposition. He also adds another tier of meaning and heft by using subtle symbols of a spider and the endless chalk dust he finds himself coated in, "the mark of my occupation," he writes.
Ultimately, Waijiao ponders the questions: "What is China?" and "What is Chinese?" Tucker does his best to answers these from his perspective, but really these are questions too large for any one experience to answer.
Waijiao is funny, observant, informing, and allows access into a world we might otherwise not be privy to. We leaveWaijiao much as Tucker left China, unsure of what the experience all added up to, but glad we were part of it.
You can purchase Waijiao at Createspace.

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