The Journey from the West
The West, is an ambiguous concept for the non-uber intellectual.
It has been challenged and dissected by political activists like Che Guevara, Salvador Allende, Andres Bonifacio, Celia Sanchez, Martin Luther King Jr., Ho Chi Minh, Nelson Mandela, Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, The Dalai Lama: Tenzyn Gyatso; theorized by intellectuals like Edward Said, Gayatri Spivak, Franz Fanon, Angela Davis; deconstructed by authors & artists ranging from Lu Xun to Salmon Rushdie to Albert Camus to Marcel Duchamp to Frida Kalho to Chinua Achebe to Junot Diaz.
Yet, the term remains nebulous for us, commoners.
What the term “The West” signals to me, is not just a geopolitical entity; a post-colonial empire which imposes its racialized, patriarchal economic will on the globe. But also a series of questions.
What is the west?
Where does it begin?
Where does it end?
What happens when you leave the West?
Can you leave it?
The title of this essay is a play on the title of an iconic Asian Story “The Journey to the West”. This great novel is also known, in the West, as the story of the Monkey King.
The Journey to the West, 西游记, is recognized as one of the four great classical novels of Chinese Literature. It has played a prominent role in my upbringing- in Japan, China, and pockets of Asian spaces in America.
The story draws deep cultural roots from Buddhism, East Asian Taoism, magical realism, and folk mythology. Since its ancient debut, it has influenced modern East Asian cultures pervasively. Modern globalization has made its reach, global.
The story of “The Journey to the West” at its core, is an allegory of a group of rag tag, motley crew of pilgrims who together overcome challenges on their journey towards enlightenment. Enlightenment is left conspicuous vague in the story- as both something tangible, and something experienced.
The plot centers on a naive yet powerful; daring yet crass, anthropomorphic Monkey, Son Wu Kong.
Sun Wukong (孫悟空) is known/pronounced as Suen Ng-hung in Cantonese, Son Gokū in Japanese, Son Ogong in Korean, Tôn Ngộ Không in Vietnamese, Sung Ghokong or Sung Gokhong in Javanese, Sun Ngokong in Thai, and Sun Gokong in Malay and Indonesian.
At the beginning of the story, Wu Kong, is caught vandalizing the spiritual palace of the Jade Emperor (a selfish, classist, womanizing tyrant- metaphoric for so many systems and individuals). Whilst Wu Kong just wanted to “have a little fun and eat some peaches”, his love for freedom clashes with the institutions of church and state- unfair ones at that. As punishment for his deeds, he is trapped under a massive mountain.
To secure his freedom, and more importantly his enlightenment, Wu Kong repents for his “sins” by acting as protector of the spiritually powerfully, but physically weak Monk- Tang Seng- (our moral arch), as they attempts to make the Voyage to the West.
The West in the story is implied to be Tibet and India, which is a mental jump these days: back to an age and reality before European Colonialism and Western Hegemony, after which the term The West began to imply something entirely different. Similarly, it harks back to the days when Tibet was looked upon as a spiritual guide for East Asia, instead of brtually occupied and colonized by reactionary Imperialism.
As the story develops, Wu Kong matures and learns about the different people of the world. He encounters challenges testing his strength, and also crucially revealing his weaknesses-hubris, “pull myself up by my own bootstrap” mentality and general immaturity.
The journey transforms Wu Kong's beliefs and soul. His relationships with Tang Seng, who mentors him in moral literacy, changes as well. A sense of mutuality develops; replacing the previous master-protege relationship. Metaphorically, the strong body joins with the strong mind and spirit; yin and yang; spiritual and material strength join together to achieve Englitenment.
Finally, through empathy learned from his former teacher, Wu Kong is inspired to develop solidarity with the people that he has met on his journey.
Consequently, the motley crew grows over the course of the story. Wu Kong inducts xiondi (brethren) into the holy team.
These characters range from Zhu Bajie, a lecherous and gluttonous divine general turned into an anthropomorphic Pig
;Sha Wujing a clumsy spirit who broke a valuable vase of the Jade Emperor
;Bai Long Ma, a dragon turned into a steed, who had previously been sentenced to death for setting fire to his father’s (The Dragon King of the West Sea) prized pearl.
All of the xiondi find a form of release and peace at the end of the story, reconciling with their past mistakes; committing to a life of service, transmitting their knowledge to others in the hopes of creating a better world.
To me, the story of “The Journey to the West” poetically analogize the way modern immigration is viewed as a post colonial phenonema.
After all, many people today journey to the West (albeit a different one) for their definition of enlightenment: love, freedom, economic opportunity, knowledge, and equality.
They do so, whilst treading the formidable tides of the past, navigating a hurricane of exploitation and dehumanization. Hope swelling the sails towards a better tomorrow; love, of family and friends- of old and new, being their north star
In addition, the story has always resonated with me personally. It feels analogous to the experiences of my immigrant family. And my desire to make my family’s journey count towards global social justice.
How better to deconstruct this flow of people and negative flow of economics; how fitting in my quest for enlightenment and better understanding than to reflect on the journey back to a place so often caricaturized to lack “enlightenment”?
“The Journey from the West”
This week, I will return from the West, after a decade and a half of separation. I have received a Western education, and enjoyed many other forms of Western Enlightenment/Privilege- all of which will be put to the sword on the continent of my birth; and (birth)place of my spirituality; and billions of people who have been categorically dehumanized.
It seems appropriate to note that not all “Westerners” have been able to enjoy the privilege that I have in the West. Poverty, and oppression are not “Oriental” “Developing” “Third World” “Countries with people of color”problems. It is a global problem, currently rampant.
4.436 billion people.
Metaphorically, somewhere in the literary universe, Song Wu Kong will complete this journey with me. After having reached the “West” and having found enlightenment, he will journey back to his birthplace to help his people (monkeys) too.
Through my rediscovery of the “East”, I hope to gain perspectives that can inspire and help me become a better physician, and wiser peace-loving revolutionary.
After all, being a physician is about people; peace impossible without justice. Healing and justice are about empathy, affirming life, promoting health, and ultimately treating illnesses: people’s and society’s.
Both begin and end with patient’s history and the history of patients.
I have been divorced from my own history for too long. Now I realized that many of my spiritual, emotional, social political struggles are better resolved/diagnosed when I know the arch of my family; the history of my people; the life of the entire (and not just “Western”) world.
How better to contribute to social justice movements in the West, than to make my perspective more global? How best to address patriarchy in America than to understand the global extent of it? How best to connect with people, than to continuously reach beyond rhetorical caricatures; to humanize rather than be manipulated to implicitly dehumanize people of color, women, refugees?
My goal is to bridge the gap between the movements for good in the West and the people of the world. Perhaps writing will allow me to connect the social justice movements that have indelibly shaped me with the four billion plus people whose voices and lives are on the other side of “The West’s” iron curtain.
After all, to combat oppression, poverty, exploitation and systemic violence, it will take the concerted effort of the whole world, working together to change our society. Fighting to save this planet from environmental cataclysm.
We are one people, on earth, under god- its many iterations- indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.
I hope to learn more about the inhumane systems of oppression that have been such a burden, such a source of pain and suffering for me and so many others. And I also hope to learn about the different ways in which we can begin building an alternative global humane system to take its place.
I plan to do a lot of writing on trip, mostly for myself. Tid bits that I choose intentionally to share, I hope can contribute to cross cultural, post colonial and human understanding. From understanding, empathy and solidarity I hope we can achieve not just de jure but also de facto world peace.
I cannot pretend that I am an expert in all things Asia. Its culture, its history, and its languages are as varied as they are numerous and complex.
Nothing speaks to the post colonial reality of our world, than the fact that places we (immigrants) left have seemingly been transformed into unrecognizable metropolises and polyglot messes overnight; yet they maintain an immutable and familiar spirit.
What I hope will make many of these reflections unique, and meaningful, is their sincerity, and where they are drawn from.
New insights of Asia will be contrasted to the decade that I initially spent there at the dawn of my life. Both will clash against and (hopefully) overwhelm the dehumanizing rhetoric and systems that have threatened to consume me in the West.
Ultimately, I hope to learn how I can channel my histories, my cultures, my peoples and my love towards the effort to help repair a broken, wounded world. I hope to learn how to better heal myself, so that I can better heal others.
To that end, I hope to be humanized and humanize, to see and be seen, to begin the arduous process of repairing and building.
After all, it is so so easy to break things. And it is mind-numbingly and painstakingly difficult to fix them.
There can be no easy cure.
The antidote to fascism is not diversity without change;
it is change driven by solidarity.
The cure for inequality is not acceptance of the status quo;
It is equity that makes the status quo acceptable.
The answer to exploitation is not appropriation of dehumanizing dynamics;
It is the abolishment of dynamic dehumanization.
Structural supremacy cannot be allowed to create a society ruled by inanimate and lustful hierarchy.
For it is the distress call of a society in desperate need of intimate and soulful democracy
And so, let the Journey From the West begin.