Building a ‘Public Bath’ Network - Beyond “Asia Bubble”

What is a ‘deep’ cultural exchange? What can produce this ‘depth’?
Atsuto Suzuki (Japan)

In our current lives surrounded by the internet and computer, we tend to use the word ‘network’ without thinking too deeply about its meaning. Why not checking up this work on the dictionary? First, as a transitive verb, it has the meaning ‘to broadcasting something on a network’, next, as an intransitive verb, ‘to establish a work-related connection (through an unofficial meeting)’. This made me realise that the Asian TYA Network was indeed an event where you ‘establish a work-related connection through an unofficial meeting’.

I feel this ‘through an unofficial meeting’ part is an important point. In this case, if we are to translate ‘to network’ to Japanese, it may be ‘to go to a public bath’. Going to a public bath starts with going through the entrance curtain, then you would get naked, and wash your body. While washing, you would glance across at other people being naked. Maybe you are curious about other people’s size, or a little nervous to see a little tattoo. When you see someone naked, you can kind of know his history. Now, your body is clean and let’s go to the bath tub and relax. I believe sharing such an experience is ‘to network’. Then I question myself, ‘Could I get naked during this Asian TYA Network?’

It was not possible to get naked straight away like a public bath, but fortunately we stayed at the same hotel so we met at the breakfast, opened up little by little, and I feel I myself could possibly become in swimsuits. This was due to the common language being English. Compared to my mother tongue, my expressions and vocabularies are much limited in English. This resulted my words naturally became quite straightforward. It feels other participants felt familiar with me as I was talking honestly about many things.

The next question is, how much could I glance the history in their bodies? To be honest, I was not able to fully take part in the programme because I presented my own work as part of ricca ricca*festa programme. I feel I had relatively frequent opportunities to talk personally with Ruth Pongstaphone. She has her root in Thailand and the US and is active in Myanmar while teaching in New York. There was a time she excitedly told me about her first class to the students in Myanmar.

‘On the first day of the class, the students asked me “Teacher, have you got books?”. I showed my copy of The Empty Space by Peter Brook, and they asked me to lend it, so I did. The next day, everyone in the class photocopied the book and was reading it. In New York, even if I tell my students ‘Read this book’ they would never do.’

She told me this was the driving force for her to start her activities in Myanmar which she still carries on. Amongst what she shared in the programme, the discussion during the session of The Future of TYA in Asia left me a strong impression. Our group discussed based on the topic of ‘Commercial vs. Citizen’. First, Daniel Azzopardi, the artistic director of ZiguZajg Festival in Malta, spoke ‘It is nonsense to separate works whether it is commercial or civil. The only difference must be either it is with high quality, or not.’. Then Ruth clearly objected with her opinion ‘It is not, at least in Southeast Asian context. Current;Currently the commercial theatre from the West is invading (the local culture in) Southeast Asia’ and explained what is happening in Vietnam and Myanmar.

For me, what struck me more was not the actual contents of her objection, but her face as she talk furiously. I knew from the past few days communication with her that she is a very calm person. She was normally like a Buddha, but at this point she looked like Asura. I wondered what urged her so much. As I mentioned before, she has her root both in Thailand and the US. Maybe it is related to the fact that her existence itself represents the clash of the West and (Southeast) Asia.

Although I personally did not have much interest, the topic ‘Tradition vs. Contemporary’ was one of the important subjects in the session of The Future of TYA in Asia. I feel not that, with just saying ‘Tradition vs. Contemporary’, it does not fully make the subject clear. The actual subject was ‘(Our lost) Tradition vs. (Westernised) Contemporary’ and how we should think about this.

It seems to me most countries in SEA share a similar structure of contemporary history. They went through 1) invasion by the West, 2) invasion by Japan, and 3) developmental dictatorship. Their history and culture which had been passed on until then were extinguished by the invasion of the Western countries and Japan. At the same time, the developmental dictatorship brought in a twisted Westernisation where their living is modernised but their freedom of expression is censored. This is the ‘contemporary’ of Southeast Asia. I felt it was crucial to understand this background in discussing ‘Tradition vs. Contemporary’ otherwise whatever we speak to each other never find a point to meet. Even though Japanese experienced the occupation of the US, Japan still was never colonised. Although there are some similarities, the context of ‘Tradition vs. Contemporary’ for Japanese and ‘Tradition vs. Contemporary’ for SEA people is quite different. Also there is a difference in terms of the ethnicity. In Japan, people live without being too aware of minorities (although we do have the issues around Ryukyu and Ainu), while in many SEA countries people cannot clearly identify who ‘we’ are (who belong to which country) and are still in the process of the integration of the nationality.

To be honest, until I took part in this Asian TYA Network Programme, I was feeling rather tired of ‘Asia’. Perhaps it is since the 2020 Tokyo Olympics was confirmed, or the Japan Foundation Asia Center launched in 2014, I could see the ‘Asia Bubble’ in the theatre industry in Japan. In both good and bad ways, productions and projects involving SEA are likely to be supported with funding and this sort of events are flourishing.

I myself also benefited from this bubble that I spent 2 months in Thailand for the research for creation with the Asian Fellowship, a just-launched programme by the Japan Foundation Asia Center in 2014 which also just started. I am aware that I was the one who grabbed the privilege of ‘Asia Bubble’ before anyone else, however I got exhausted by the communication mainly in English and the differences in cultures and contexts as I was involved in several international co-productions and tours up to 2018. Also there is a tendency of audiences in Tokyo that they show less interested in Asia-related projects compared to the ones with the West. While being abusive to them like ‘Stop yearning for the West! Look at Asia!’, I struggled with gathering audiences and it really made me tired. I selfishly named it ‘Asia Exhaustion’ and started to distance myself from SEA-related projects and give a cold look at the ‘Asia Bubble’. It was basically me before taking part in the Asian TYA Network.

This network, however, not only healed me from this ‘Asia Exhaustion’ but also made me look into the actual reason of my ‘Asia Exhaustion’. I was not exhausted because of the communication mainly in English and the differences in cultures and contexts. Of course it was not easy, but it was more that I was hurt by the fact I was aware the collaboration I was part of only touched the surface and never dug deeper. In a way I might be disappointed by the superficiality of myself as an artists and also as a cultural-exchanger (if such word exists).

But what is the ‘depth’ in this context? I felt I want to establish a deep connection with theatre artists in SEA, but how can I achieve it? What is a ‘deep’ cultural exchange? What can produce this ‘depth’? I still do not have the answer, however I feel this ‘through an unofficial meeting’ is the keyword. Of course this programme included many ‘official’ sessions. Still the time we spent together outside those official moments was the most important. ‘through an unofficial meeting’ we get naked, wash our body, glance others, get into the bath tub together and relax. I feel now that this creates the ‘depth’ I am talking about.

Asian TYA Network
Atsuto Suzuki
Theatre Company INZOU

Director, Founder