“In Front of Trang Tien Bridge” (translated from Japanese to English by Margaret Mitsutani) is Yoko Tawada’s second story in her three story collection Facing the Bridge, a work that focuses on the alienation people face when living in places other than their “homeland.”
Kazuko Minamiyama, a Japanese woman in her mid-30s, is living in Berlin when she receives a letter from a woman she has never met, who invites the addressee to visit her in Vietnam. Intrigued by the idea, Kazuko decides to travel to Vietnam, where she explores the country strictly as a tourist. During her travels, she encounters a sickly American who insists he is Japanese. They go sightseeing together and are on the way to Trang Tien Bridge when the story ends with Kazuko realizing that all the women on the bus look like her.
Tawada complicates essentialist notions of identity by exploring multiple identities within her characters. Though Kazuko is Japanese, she also identifies herself as a member of the “tourist race,” deciding her actions by her stereotypes of tourist behavior. Throughout the story, Kazuko also experiences nostalgia even though she has never visited the country. Some Vietnamese even think she too is Vietnamese. Kazuko also sees Vietnamese women that look like her. This racial and national confusion could be a product of the western idea that “all Asians look the same” – both between individuals and between nationalities. As a result, Kazuko’s racial identity as a Japanese is at times superseded by her identity as an Asian.
But are the differences between Asians physically embodied or are they only material? Back in Berlin, a newspaper advises the Japanese population to “always wear glasses and neckties” and for women to “put on as much jewelry as possible” in order to avoid confusion with the Vietnamese community that has been targeted by neo-Nazis. As in the film Lamerica, national and racial difference is reduced to material objects.
The superficial nature of identity is also explored through James, the white man Kazuko meets. Though he speaks Japanese fluently, Kazuko disregards his Japanese identity and sees him as an American who happens to speak Japanese instead of a Japanese man who happens to be white. Because identity is reduced to physical appearance, Kazuko is able to confuse her Japanese identity with the identities of her Vietnamese look-a-likes.
The story ends inconclusively with multiple “Kazukos” speaking, an ending similar to the last scenes of Gianni Amelio’s Lamerica, where the Italian Gino’s face is indistinguishable from the Albanians. The Japanese Kazuko too is indistinguishable from the surrounding Vietnamese women, and consequently she loses her Japanese identity that separates her from the Vietnamese.
by Xiaoqian Lim