The following is an essay that I wrote in February 1996 for Dr. Bruce Ballenger's class at Boise State University. Dr. Ballenger used it as Sample Essay: Personal Response in his "The Curious Researcher" 2nd edition, published by Allyn & Bacon in 1998. "Manchurian Legacy" was published in October, 1999, almost four years after this essay.
Breaking the "Utter Silence" : A Response to Orwell's "Marrakech"
In George Orwell's essay "Marrakech," which explores his experience as a British official in colonial Morocco, he does not argue his point with you. Orwell appeals to all your senses instead. As the essay opens, he takes you through the stench of a corpse that attracted the "cloud" (46) of flies from the restaurant. You follow a shabby funeral procession, breathing the smoldering air of the marketplace under the Moroccan sun -- people and animals stained with sweat, souring fruits, and the dust of the traffic. You hear the wailing of short chant "over and over again" (46). You see the mounds of a Moroccan graveyard with "no gravestone, no identifying mark of any kind, ... like a derelict building-lot." Then you see "how easily they die," and how "they rise out of the earth, ... sweat and starve for a few years, and ... sink back into the nameless mounds of the graveyard" (46).
Then you understand and accept Orwell's point quite readily that "all colonial empires are in reality founded upon that facts... Are they really the same flesh as you are? Do they even have names? Or are they merely a kind of undifferentiated brown stuff, as individual as bees or coral insects" (Orwell, "Marrakech" 46)? George Orwell does not argue his point. He paints it. When the curtain falls on this essay, you are left with dazzling impressions.
Of course, I admire George Orwell for his skillful writing style: clear, concrete, and without frills and mannerisms. I dream of writing like George Orwell someday. But more so, I admire his honesty, his passion for truth and his "power of facing unpleasant fact" (qtd. In Smart 34).
However painful or ugly it may be, Orwell does not shy away from the truth. In "Marrakech," he first describes an Arab laborer, watching him feed a gazelle: "Finally [the laborer] said shyly in French: 'I could eat some of that bread.' I tore off a piece and he stowed it gratefully in some secret place under his rags. This man is an employee of the Municipality" (46). And then the Jews, who live in the Jewish quarters that reminds one of medieval ghettoes; windowless houses, sore-eyed children "in unbelievable numbers, like clouds of flies," and the narrow street where "there is generally running a little river of urine" (47). Then he points out the irony of the belief that the Jews are "the real rulers of this country. . . . They've got all the money. They control the banks, finance -- everything" (47). He compares this to the burning of old women for witchcraft "when they could not even work enough magic to get themselves a square meal" (48). Indeed, he does not hide behind "the utter silence that is imposed on every Englishman in the East" (Orwell, "Shooting" 35). He speaks up. He shows the world the reality of imperialism.
I recognize the "utter silence." I am a product of imperialism, a Japanese, born and raised in Dairen, Manchuria, when the area was one of Imperial Japan's colonies. As the third generation in Dairen, I was born into the society of Japanese supremacy and grew up believing in Japan's "divine mission" to "save" Asia from the evil hands of Western imperialists: British in India and Hong Kong, French in Indochina, and Dutch in East Indies. Reading Orwell's essay "Marrakech" brought back many memories that I had long discarded, had preferred not to remember.
The "utter silence" imposed on all Japanese in Japanese colonies is one of them. I did not recognize it then, but I do now from remembering my father. My memory of him is partly how he represented the generation of Japanese who have kept their "utter silence" to their graves. One particular incident depicts the "utter silence" clearly in my memory. It happened one day in the spring of 1945 in a small town at the border of the Japanese colony, where my father was the head of the Japanese government. My father and I visited the town's Shinto shrine to dedicate one minute of prayer for the war dead and also to pray for Japan's victory, as required by government. My father was a loyal Japanese. On our way back, we saw a group of Manchurian high school students. They were marching in an orderly military column, as required of all students at the time, Japanese or Manchurians. As they came closer to us, the teacher, who was leading the column, recognized my father. Suddenly the teacher ordered his troop "Atten-tion!" followed by "Eye-e Right!" all in clear and loud Japanese. My father was astounded, to say the least. He quickly looked around to see if this formal military group salute was meant for him or someone nearby but saw no one. He straightened himself up and returned the salute, imitating military fashion as best as he could manage. I remained standing by him, dumbfounded.
"Wow, what a surprise . . . " I said, catching up to his suddenly quickened steps. I knew he was terribly embarrassed.
"It's this uniform," he said somewhat curtly. He was wearing one of those government-ordered khaki "citizen's clothes" and the matching cap, closely resembling Japanese military uniform.
"Did that teacher take you for someone else, I wonder?" I said.
"No, he knows me."
"Oh, well, you are one of the highest-ranking people in town."
"I am only a civil servant," he cut me off short, almost angry.
"Yeah, but . . . " I swallowed the rest of the sentence -- but we are Japanese . . .
Did I mean that Manchurians should salute all Japanese government officials just because they were Japanese? I now wonder, but I must have. The Japanese government in the Manchurian colony was the frontier symbol of Japan's international power, the power of "the Rising Sun." Why not? Salute to us. Salute to us all! Yet, on the other hand, I knew that the Japanese supremacy that my generation of Japanese in Dairen took for granted had always made my father uneasy. He had a reputation for being fair and considerate to his Manchurian subordinates and friends. He was well liked and respected among them, Japanese and Manchurians. He went out of his way to teach us children to treat local Chinese, the Manchurians, with respect, while he did not openly deny what we were taught at school: that Japanese were the almighty leaders of Asia.
We were the rulers, superior to all others -- I had innocently believed it and had taken it for granted, while my father kept his "utter silence." Were we protected by the "utter silence" of the adults around us? Or were we deceived? Were the Manchurians simply invisible to the Japanese, as Orwell suggests was the case with the Moroccans to the Europeans?
It took Orwell several weeks before he noticed old women underneath the pile of firewood passing by, while he admits that "[he] had not been five minutes on Moroccan soil before [he] noticed the overloading of the donkeys and was infuriated by it" (Marrakech" 49). Does he mean to say that had the old women been white, or better yet British, he would have been infuriated? Orwell seems to blame the invisibility of the Moroccans on the color of their skin: "In a tropical landscape one's eye takes in everything except the human beings. . . . [I]t always misses the peasant hoeing at his patch. He is the same colour as the earth, and a great deal less interesting to look at." And again, " . . . But where the human beings have brown skins their poverty is simply not noticed" (48).
But this does not apply to the Japanese in colonial Dairen. Japanese and Chinese share the same skin color. Yet what Orwell says next is true of how it was with the Japanese in Dairen: "One could probably live here for years without noticing that for nine-tenth of the people the reality of life is an endless, back-breaking struggle to wring a little food out of an eroded soil" (Marrakech" 48). We hardly noticed the Chinese. We were taught to be "nice and kind" to the native Chinese, the Manchurians. Yet under the strict segregation, we never had Chinese neighbors or Chinese classmates. The native Chinese were our domestic servants, coolies, and peddlers, who lived in the areas where ordinary Japanese did not even think of going. They were invisible to us. How did this happen among people with the same skin color?
When a country surrenders to another, its people become one of the winner's possessions, along with the land and buildings, and they lose their individual identity. They live in the shadow of the ruthless oppressors. Invisible. And the rule of the mask, "He wears a mask, and his face grows to fit it" (Orwell, "Shooting" 38), applies equally to both the oppressor and the oppressed. They conspire with one another to make imperialism possible. The oppressed assume the role of the helpless and silent subjects, feeding the already dangerous hubris of the oppressor. And then, the "feeling of reverence before a white skin" (Orwell, "Marrakech" 50) existed among the colored, brown, yellow, or black, prostrating themselves before the Western power.
The white skin had represented the advancement of civilization for a long time, long enough to establish a superiority complex among the whites, an inferiority complex among the colored. Japan resisted it and became imperialist herself. She plunged into the world of "dog eats dog" when she awoke from the two hundred years of self-imposed national isolation. World War II in the Pacific stemmed from the fight among imperialists: Western imperialists in the East against one small but refractory Eastern imperialist, Japan.
Orwell's "Marrakech" prodded me to think through my long-pending question: What is the imperialism that has toppled my life? I was possessed by Orwell's passion for truth, his power of "facing unpleasant facts," and read the essay with very personal interest. And now, perhaps, I not only recognize the "utter silence" of Orwell's imperialism but have found the courage to speak.
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Smart, William. Eight Modern Essayists. 6th ed. New York: St. Martin's, 1995.
Orwell, George. Smart 31-34.
Orwell, George. "Marrakech." Smart 45-50.
Orwell, George. "Shooting an Elephant." Smart 35-41.