Mental Imaging

To be honest, I found the following TEDtalk disturbing.

Rick Smolan tells the story of a girl | Video on TED.com

In that video from one of those selective conferences held through Technology, Entertainment, Design, Smolan describes his role in the adoption, by some of his American friends, of a then pre-teen “Amerasian” girl (a Korean girl fathered by an American soldier during the Korean war). The now grown-up woman’s American name is Natasha (despite the talk’s title, she’s not merely “a girl”). Natasha does get a “cameo” of sorts at the end of the talk. But the story is told by Smolan, from Smolan’s perspective. During her brief appearance on stage, Natasha tells Smolan that she’ll tell him later about points he has gotten wrong. But, on that occasion, Natasha graciously smiled for the camera and didn’t participate in the conversation. She’s the topic, not the narrator.
Unfortunately, I can’t find this woman’s birth name so I don’t know how to spell it. It would be awkward for me to call her “Natasha” when referring to her before her adoption. Most of the presentation revolves around this person’s life before being adopted. The rest of the story is the “Happy ending” section of the Hollywood movie she apparently wasn’t directing.

I know, I know… It’s a “charming” story. No, I don’t want to be a killjoy. Sure, everyone involved had purely altruistic intentions (even the uncle who had recuperated his niece). Yes, I’m quite happy for this woman, that she is apparently living a “good” life (though I can’t measure people’s happiness by watching a presentation about them). But, as saltydog said in another context, the story is “somewhat self-serving and lacking in depth.”

Now, to be honest, I’m not that sensitive to nice pictures (I’m more aurally oriented). My attitude toward journalism can’t be called “sympathetic.” The tendency to “pull at heartstrings” in some Anglo-American mainstream media, I find manipulative. Even adoption, I can be ambivalent toward, partly because of horror stories. So maybe I’m both missing something important and putting too much into this. But the point is, my reaction to this presentation isn’t very positive.

Because the story is so “charming,” I might need to justify myself. Even if I don’t need to, I’ll do so. Because this is my main blog and it serves me that kind of purpose, on occasion.

In that video of a “Korean Amerasian adoption story,” we have a self-conscious photojournalist from the United States who basically admits both to having been on a sort of mission (like all journalists, he mused) and to not having known what he was doing at the time. Smolan seemed so honest about how clueless he has been that I sincerely expected another direction for the plotline. I kept waiting for the twist. Especially at TED, which keeps priding itself on “inspired talks by the world’s greatest thinkers and doers.”

During his TEDtalk, Smolan kept referring to mental images he was having. Through his actions, Smolan was explicitly trying to make reality itself fit those images. Because these mental images came from an admittedly clueless perspective, the overall process doesn’t sound like an extremely charming story.

Sorry!

Smolan also mentions movie-type heroism on several occasions and it sounds like he was trying to write life as a movie script. Using the “American” looks of a young Korean girl as a major part of the plotline. With not-so-subtle allusions to racial categories.

Weird.

Like saltydog, I much preferred the orphanage anecdote to the “beauty queen” and “cheerleader” photographs. Part of the reason is that the anecdote is more dynamic and more human than the pictures. This anecdote can also be a basis for empowerment, on the part of the girl who became Natasha, as opposed to the pictures which simply show conformity to local ideals.

One interesting thing about that specific anecdote (that this girl was organizing the orphanage on her own, after just a few days there) is the fact that it contradicts the “saved girl” story. On the basis of this anecdote, it would be presumptuous to say that this woman would be leading a disastrous life had she stayed in Korea instead of being “saved” by those well-meaning people in the United States. One could even hypothesize, given the limited data supplied by Smolan, that this relatively young girl could have since become a socially engaged Korean woman, helping people in her home community. With the current state of South Korean society, we might even assume that this woman would be living a comfortable life. And since her story isn’t over, one wishes that the next chapters will be as nice as the first ones.

Though, as we’re told, “Amerasians” were probably teased in that specific environment at that specific time, Smolan doesn’t make a good case for this particular girl being misadapted to the context in which she grew up. Simply put, apart from her grandmother’s wish, what solid proof do we have that “this girl” absolutely needed to be saved?

Smolan’s perception, based purely on superficial observation, that this girl was subservient to her uncle sounds like blatant ethnocentrism. Smolan does have the honesty to convey a few of the uncle’s comments about this. But the conclusion still is that intervening in a family’s business is the normal thing to do, for an American photojournalist receiving a request from a Korean woman he saw for a few days.

Smolan’s inviting young “Amerasian” adults to prove to the girl’s uncle that she would have a terrible life based on their own experiences sounds very manipulative, misinformed, and misleading. Because Smolan sounds too much like a nice guy, I have a hard time calling him arrogant. But his actions do sound like they were animated by arrogance.

Smolan repeatedly said how misled he was so I eventually thought that he was leading the (elite) TED audience into a story about his own “learning to be humble and to not judge from appearances.”

Not at all what happened.

What happened was more of a book or film pitch. Smolan may be a great guy. He also seems to be involved in a social marketing campaign. He’s allowed to do so, of course. But it’d be disingenuous to call the effort purely “charming.”

Furthermore, there’s the matter of this focus on one individual “little girl.” Makes for a nice Disney picture and for U.S. doctrines (foreign or domestic). Pulls heartstrings. Doesn’t necessarily help in the grand scheme of things. Especially when this focus comes from a photojournalist who seeked out this one girl on the premise that her grandmother originally didn’t want her to be seen by outsiders.

As Apollyon and jackyo have been asking in an Asian-friendly forum, what about the other “Amerasian” children involved? What about the broader case of Koreans or other people born in warzones, who have been fathered by U.S. or other foreign soldiers? If the girl who became Natasha did have to be saved, what about those other children? And if, as would be my hypothesis, this one girl could have led a nice life without leaving Korea at the onset of adolescence, aren’t there other children (in Korea or elsewhere) who could have a “better life” thanks to the compassion of those people in the United States?

There’s also the whole question of racial prejudice, present in the background yet not addressed directly in this talk. This one is a complex story, which would be worth more than lipservice. Racialism takes different forms in the United States and in Korea. Natasha’s experience in those two societies could shed some light on those issues. But, in the hands of journalists, individual stories often become more allegorical than insight-generating. Personalizing those issues isn’t a technique to engage in discussion. It’s a way to shut down communication.

Back in 1993, while emphasizing technological issues and the book contract that Smolan eventually signed, the New York Times mentioned Natasha’s Story as that of “an orphaned Amerasian girl” (regardless of whether or not her mother was still living at the time). Natasha herself isn’t named or given flesh, in that short piece about Smolan. She’s mentioned as the topic of a book and/or movie. A plot device more than a breathing character.

I sincerely hope that Natasha still knows how to empower herself. I sincerely don’t think she needs Smolan or anybody else to narrate her life.

About enkerli

French-speaking ethnographer, homeroaster, anthropologist, musician, coffee enthusiast. View all posts by enkerli

One response to “Mental Imaging

  • enkerli

    It doesn’t help so much that the following summary of the story was published in 1992:

    “Against All Odds is about armchair inspiration,” Smolan said.

    He’s already at work on the next project, to be titled “Natasha’s Story: An American Homecoming.” The book will chronicle the story of an orphan child fathered by an American serviceman in Korea.

    Smolan met Natasha – a name the girl adopted after seeing “Rocky and Bullwinkle” on television – while he was on an assignment shooting Amerasian children for Time magazine. When Natasha’s grandmother died shortly after, she left the 11-year-old child to Smolan in her will.

    At the time, Smolan was unmarried, and traveling so much he didn’t even have a permanent address. He arranged for friends to adopt Natasha. He has continued to document her life for the past 14 years, as she changed from orphan to American homecoming queen, and to bride.

    There are some inaccuracies in this summary (what do you expect from a newspaper?) but the TED talk didn’t expand so much, apart from the seemingly unrelated event of a fire at the hotel.

    What happened in Natasha’s life, for the past sixteen years? Smolan does mention (mostly through pictures) that the wedding actually occurred and that Natasha had two kids. But it sounds like a number of things are missing from this story and one would think that Natasha’s life didn’t just stop being interesting after she got married.

    Another issue is that the book for which Smolan showed a cover (with only his name on it) seems not to have been published, yet. What’s more problematic, in terms of learning more about Korea-born Natasha, is that a book with “Natasha’s Story” as the subtitle and a very similar plotline (a journalist adopting a girl named Natasha because of a war context) was published by Michael Nicholson in 1993 and turned into a movie in 1997. Now, it’s quite interesting to hear of journalists getting involved in this sort of international adoption process. But it all makes it difficult to know more about the “Homecoming Queen” who appeared at Smolan’s TED presentation last year.

    Not to mention that it all makes the story sound more like a story than like a human life.

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