Orientalism Through the Lens of Lunana

There are a number of instances in Lunana that exhibit orientalism, both directly and indirectly. One major example is the teacher, Ugyen, bringing more modern, new teachings and materials to the classrooms of the remote village. Not only does he bring his phone and headphones, but he has new notebooks, pencils, and other teaching materials shipped. The children of this town have never seen any of there thing before, and this sort of embodies the relationship between the educated city man and the uneducated people from the village. In addition, Orientalism can be seen in the scene where Ugyen is teaching the children the ABCs. He says “C is for Car,” and the children tell him they do not know what a car is, as they have never seen one. This demonstrates an orientalist lens that the movie has, because it portrays the village as unaccustomed to modern practices like driving a car. This makes Ugyen almost a colonist who goes into an uneducated, remote area and has to teach the “natives” common practices.

Although Orientalism is present in this movie, I would argue that it is not an overarching theme, but a mild undertone in the film. Ugyen also learns from the people of the village, and about their practices, which seem foreign to him at first, but he eventually becomes accustomed to. These include collecting yak dung, singing the songs to nature, and even using an outhouse. In traditional orientalism, the colonist teaches the “natives” or the uneducated. In this film however, both parties teach each other, resulting in enlightenment for both the “colonist”(Ugyen) and the “natives” (villagers). I greatly enjoyed this film, and the message that it gave on orientalism, that everyone has something new to learn, and it’s important to keep an open mind in life.

Orientalism in 1910’s Fashion

The Edwardian dress in the late 1890’s-1914 refers to the style of clothing in that time period and the beginning of World War I. This time period was also called the Gilded Era and women’s fashion had a new opulence and elegance. The most notable change in fashion during this time period was the shift in corsets from a Victorian hourglass to an s-shaped corset.

One specific designer at the time period, Paul Poiret, was said to be the creator of modern fashion shapes and designs. His clothing designs were specifically inspired by classicism, Orientalism, and Art Nouveau. His styles were said to be comfortable freeing women from the constriction of corsets and relied on draping to create the feminine effect.

He specifically showed Orientalism in his designs through turbans and and jeweled slippers, providing a more “exotic” dress for Edwardian women. The war however quickly ended this fashion period due to lack of resources and money.

Gowns inspired by the orient complete with oriental parasol and coolie lampshade inspired hat.” source: https://fashion-era.com/orientalism_in_dress.htm
Fur was another example of Orientalism and appeared on outerwear such as the coats in the images paired with long columnar dresses.

Orientalism in the Orient

Although Lunana takes place in the “Orient” the ideas of orientalism can still be seen throughout the movie. The idea of orientalism is the western lens on the Middle/far east and the way that the people live and think. Long story short it is racism towards people of the orient meant to fit a western perspective. Prime western examples of orientalism are movies like Aladdin, where the “bad guys” are portrayed as large dark men with big noses and mean faces. While this isn’t as extreme in Lunana we can see the main character, a boy obsessed with his phone and modern music move to a little town with no internet and little electricity. He is originally unhappy and wishes to leave, not wanting to teach and seeming at a loss without his technology. As he lives in Lunana he becomes “Enlightened” by the wise secluded mountain people and is educated by those who live with less. While it is hard to truly argue that Lunana is a truly Orientalist movie as it was created in the “Orient” it seems to have been influenced by many stories that stem from an orientalist perspective and come from the Western World.

The Effects of Ignorance

According to Edward Said’s Orientalism theory, western culture promotes a mindset where aspects of Middle Eastern cultures are perceived as strange or inhumane. Specifically Europeans and Americans contribute to this trend, as they are largely disconnected from Asian and Middle Eastern cultures. Ironically, these are the areas of the word where knowledge and awareness of surroundings are said to be highest. Proper information about these cultures is scarce in America and Europe, which pushes the foreign culture even further away, contribution to Orientalist mindsets.

The consequences of such a mindset are clearly represented in daily events. The ignorance toward other cultures has disadvantages that negatively effect relations between countries. In situations of foreign affairs, militaries act in response to the unknown, to protect their country. Ignorance is the primary reason for a majority of negative relations between countries. America’s portrayal of Middle eastern countries in the media after the events of 9/11 are an example of this. For some, the sight of anyone representing similar Middle Eastern cultures triggers a sense of threat. This fear is reflected in the political debates regarding immigration laws over recent years in America. Ignorance of the culture causes some Americans to generalize everyone of those cultures, and exclude them from their definition of an ‘American’. This is just one of the many issues that can and do arise from Orientalist mindsets in modern day.

To move beyond this burden, it will be most beneficial to incorporate knowledge of foreign cultures into daily activities in America and Europe. As it is, there is little representation of these cultures in positions of power, which makes it difficult to spread information about it. If people and artifacts of Middle Eastern and Asian cultures are shown and represented as much as American and European national achievements in every day life and politics, the world will be a much more educated and peaceful place.

Should I Stay or Should I Go?: A Look at Locational Decisions Made in Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom

Throughout the film, Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom, the main character, teacher Ugyen Dorji often contemplates which setting he wants to be in, and which one is the most fulfilling for him. At the start of the movie, Dorji starts his story in a bustling city in Bhutan. One of the very first things we learn about our protagonist is that he is attempting to secure a visa to move to Australia. However, in Bhutan, you have to spend five years working for the government in order to maintain citizenship status and Dorji has only completed four years. He tells his governmental boss that he does not find joy in the profession of teaching and wishes to leave the country to pursue his dream of becoming a singer, another major theme found throughout the film. Instead of allowing him to leave, the secretary states he just finish his final year of service and, since he cannot seem to do his job in the city, has to teach in the most rural, isolated school in the world in the city of Lunana. Lunana is so remote that it takes several days of hiking to reach, and none of the kids there know what a car is. The community only really knows one another, no one else.

The entire lead-up and journey to Lunana is filled with discontent and complaining from Dorji. He is upset at having to leave his familiar city life, his friends, and his girlfriend. He is unfit for the hike to Lunana and disrespects customs and traditions he deems as strange, a possible (though not likely) nod to the concept of Orientalism. He feels on the outside of this society as well as feeling a sense of superiority to them. That is, until he meets the children he will be teaching and sees the lack of space and materials dedicated to their education. He starts to come around to the village, forming connections, and getting supplies to help enhance the school to the best of his ability. He truly begins to immerse himself in the culture, learning more every day about their routines, practices, songs, and most importantly, the connections they have with yaks. In the middle of his stay in Lunana, he learns that his visa to Australia has been approved and he is able to leave once his service year is finished.

The winter quickly approaches, and so are the last few days of Dorji’s stay in Lunana. When he learns he must soon leave, he is immediately distraught. He says that the children still need him and that there is so much he has not been able to teach them yet. Everyone in the village urges him to return the following year after the harsh winter has come to a close. He stays in Lunana for as long as possible until being told he must leave, or he will be stranded there. I truly believe that if he intended to return to Luanan he simply would have remained there through the winter. He wanted to teach and help for as long as possible, but he never intended to remain there, or even return. Once he left, that would be the last time they saw him.

The film ends with a scene of Dorji signing in a bar in Sydney, Australia. He has left everyone behind once again, but this time to follow his heart and attempt to actualize his lifelong dream. He does stop mid-song and sit in silence for a minute before singing a song taught to him in Lunana about the yaks and their significance. The film does not let the audience know if he ever did make his way back to the village of Lunana, which I think was the perfect way to end it. Either way, Dorji would have had regrets about his decision. It is important for him to see all of his aspirations through, which would make the return to Lunana that much more meaningful. If he left Australia for Lunana, it would show what an immense, life-changing impact that experience had for him that he was willing to leave his dreams for it. However, the opposite is also completely understandable. It would be uncharacteristic for him to sacrifice so much to return and teach in the village. I think that they needed one another to learn a lesson, but I am not entirely sure if I think he ever returned. Humans need to go on journeys and experience life in order to grow and learn what is bes for them, and every step he has taken, Dorji has done that.

Orientalism in Disney

Disney has very little diversity when it comes to its movies and tv shows. On the rare occasion where Disney produces a film with Asian or Middle Eastern characters or themes, they manage to represent them in a way that is stereotypical and offensive. Some prime examples are Aladdin and Mulan.

The original story of Aladdin is from a collection of Middle Eastern folk tales called A Thousand and One Nights. The stories began in India then traveled all through Persia and Asia Minor then were finally were written in Cairo. This authentic folk tale turned into a mockery of people from the Middle East when it was turned into a cartoon film. The writers of the movie were white and the characters were voiced by white voice actors as well. They made several stereotypical tropes for the film that included the wealthy, incompetent sheikh (the Sultan); the dark-skinned, perverted villain (Jafar); barbaric commoners; and the hypersexualized and subordinated women of the East (Jasmine). These were all things written and produced by caucasian males which were then given to many other “Caucasians as an authentic” view of the Middle East. These messages are extremely destructive and harmful to promote to viewers who may not have any idea what people from those countries and cultures are like. There were many ways it could’ve been done better because there are ways to appreciate a culture that doesn’t end up appropriating in.

Orientalism in Disney’s Mulan

There are few greater example of the western world’s fascination with exoticizing and exploiting Asian cultures for entertainment than Disney movies. Most of these films are catered to children and meant to be a family fun experience but they perpetuate stereotypes and prejudices about Asian people while also pushing a unilateral and generalized identity.

While Mulan is set in China, the film meshes Japanese and Chinese culture together. In the opening sequences of the film, Mulan is depicted with white powdered makeup typical of a Japanese geisha and she is also wearing a Kimono, a style of clothing not typical in China but instead in Japan.

Despite the sacredness of ancestral rites, the movie uses the Fa family’s ancestors as an object of ridicule. We, the audience, are supposed to find them strange and humorous. Instead of respecting this cultural practice, the film openly mocks it in its portrayal.

In addition, a major theme of the movie is Mulan’s burden of bringing “honor” to her family. The word alone is mentioned 29 times in the movie. It’s the reason she visits the matchmaker in the first place and why her family attempts to force her into marriage. It’s also her motivation behind going to war and risking her life in place of her father. In doing so, the film suggests that sacrificing herself is the only way she can honor her family and make them proud. It suggests that she must do those things at all costs. Her success and good-standing in the movie is judged by her sidekick, Mushu who never fails to tell her which actions do or do not dishonor her family.

This is a common trope in western movies where filmmakers will present the idea that all Asian people live in pursuit of one thing: honor. But honor as an all encompassing value does not exist and it isn’t unique to just one culture. We all have a personal definition of honor we apply to our lives. And yet, when Belle in The Beauty and The Beast takes her father’s place as the Beast’s prisoner, we called it an act of love.

Not honor. And not 29 times.

Indiana Jones and the Orientalism in his movies

Orientalism is the concept of the western view of the eastern world. This is mainly seen with stereotypes about eastern nations and by describing those civilizations as far away and magical. In the film series, Indiana Jones, there is Orientalism seen in each one of the original three films (in the fourth there isn’t orientalism but there are still stereotypes about Latin American nation so I guess South-Americaism?). Right away in the first movie, this is seen. in the Ark of the Covenant, one of the first locations that Indian Jones goes to is the country of Egypt. Now, even though Egypt in the real world is a very prosperous nation with several large cities and its people have very wide and common access to several high end and modern technologies, Indiana Jones and the Ark of the Covenant still shows the country as being a place where everyone fights with swords and lives in dirty mud huts. In fact, t the beginning of the movie they call Egypt a land of magic and mystery and the perfect place where the Ark would be.

In the second movie, the stereotypes just got worse. The second movie, Temple of Doom, takes place in the country of India. This movie is filled to the brim with stereotypes. Right away we see that the first civilization they encounter is a village filled with sheepherders. These villagers all talk about how they have their children stolen and how there is a mysterious royal family that lives in a palace up on the mountain (they don’t even try to hide the mystical faraway land part). The directors then try to emphasize the separation of reality and further perpetuate stereotypes when some of the food that is served is monkey eye soup. The big wammy, however, is with the cult in the basement of the palace where the priest will rip out the hearts of his victims.

The real cherry on top with Orientalism is with the third movie, The Last Crusade (except not really). In this movie, we get to see how the writers of Indiana Jones portray other foreign countries (other foreign white countries) such as Italy and Germany before it goes back to the middle east with Jordan. If one was to compare the ways that the European countries were described compared to the middle eastern countries, one can clearly see that one is shown as more modern and more civilized while the other is seen as thrid world and more old fashioned. Case and point, in Germany, the characters get around in cars and motorcycles while in Jordan, they get around in camels.

Is It Orientalist?

Keeping in mind that “Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom” is a Bhutanese film, filmed with Bhutanese actors, by a Bhutanese director, it takes a different approach to search for orientalism in the plot. Unlike a very capitalist-driven society like we have in America, Bhutan is known for measuring its success not numerically, with products produced and sold, but in happiness. The film’s narrative seems very much to be based on this philosophy; forcing Ugyen to adapt and find his own happiness in Lunana. Because of this, it is hard to argue that the film is innately orientalist, at least more than anything else is in an unfortunately Eurocentric world.

For example, Ugyen dreams of being a famous musician in Australia and initially thinks that his transition to Lunana will jeopardize that opportunity. However, he soon realizes that music is valued in a similar, if not even deeper way in Lunana than in the more urban communities he is used to. Even using a critical eye, “Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom” seems to be a very pure and honest movie, looking to spread a holistic message about community and connection. In some ways Ugyen is a yak for Lunana, but Lunana is a yak for him, being a pivotal part of his life that he will never forget and that will have a larger impact on his future, as we end up seeing when he plays the Yak song in Australia.

Orientalism in Mulan

Everyone knows the critically acclaimed Disney film Mulan. It is highly applauded due to its female hero, which breaks the norm of a standard plot of a Disney film. Despite all of Mulan’s glory, it has tones of orientalism throughout the whole film. Mulan was created after a Chinese folk tale called Ballard of Mulan, however, its animation style seems to portray more Japanese styles than Chinese. For example, when Mulan is being prepared by the matchmaker part of her makeup routine is to cover her face with white powder, however, the white-powered face style comes from the style of Japanese geishas. Not only this, but Mulan is wearing an article of clothing that resembles a Japanese Kimono, despite the film being set during the Han Dynasty. The Han Dynasty had a traditional type of clothing for women to wear, which was not animated into Mulan. In Mulan there is a warming scene between Mulan and her father under a cherry blossom tree, however, it is commonly known that a cherry blossom tree is a traditional flower in Japan. The mix-ups between Japanese and Chinese cultures show that some westerns see the Asian cultures as one big cohesive one even though Asia is made up of 48 different countries.

Mulan misses the mark on representing the fashion and make-up styles, but it also mocks one of China’s most valued ideals. Mushu is supposed to be an ancestral spirit and he is loved amongst the audience for his comedic personality as he guides Mulan through her troubles. But, in Chinese culture, ancestral worship is a belief that is taken extremely seriously and is not to be mocked. Mulan doing this suggest that Westerns see China’s ancestral traditions as a joke or an idea that is ridiculous. One of the core beliefs of the tradition of ancestral connections stems from the idea of respecting your elders. However, Mushu, the ancestral spirit, is disrespected by Mulan and the cricket which undermines the whole idea of what an ancestral spirit is supposed to be or how it is supposed to be treated. This doesn’t just highlight the lack of knowledge but shows the little respect we have for the Chinese culture.

Disney wanted to include more races and ethnicities in the Disney franchise but its version of different races and cultures is skewed by the eurocentric view westerners have about the world around them.

Leave Your Job and Sing Songs From the Hilltop: Orientalism in “Lunana: a Yak in the Classroom”

Set in the south Asian nation of Bhutan, “Lunana: a Yak in the Classroom” tells the story of Ugyen, a teacher who aspires to move to Australia to fulfill his lifelong dream of becoming a singer. However, to align with his duties to the Bhutanese government, he must complete his fourth year of mandatory service teaching in Lunana, home to one of the world’s most remote schools.

Right away, I noticed the strong juxtaposition between a city kid like Ugyen and this remote town in the Orient. Ugyen spends essentially the entire journey complaining about its difficulty and pondering how, exactly, people survive in the middle of nowhere. He almost never takes out his headphones, completely disengaged with his natural surroundings and embraced in the material world.

But as he spends more time interacting with Lunana and its people, Ugyen starts to realize that they are not just a bunch of other-worldly “savages” — the people of Lunana value his presence and value teaching him the legends of their culture. For example, the yak is a motif that is a symbol of love and survival — they sing songs about it, they honor the dead with it, they start fires with its dung to cook food. The students of Lunana expose Ugyen to a different, engaging culture, and in return they value his own lessons through his teaching. This moment of realization in Ugyen’s first few days is the catalyst in his decision to stay in Lunana rather than panic and leave at first sight.

Ugyen still struggles to see Lunana outside of the other-worldly orientalist lens — he has nothing to teach the students with, no electricity, and albeit he is learning, there is still a disconnect between the modern world and the orient in several instances — his students do not know what a car is, and after he runs out of teaching supplies, he must have more sent from the nearest civilization. While learning the traditional songs of Lunana, he is told to “leave his job and sing songs from the hilltop.” While the citizens of Lunana imagined the “hilltop” as the physical hilltop that people sing songs from, one cannot help but imagine Australia — where Ugyen planned to go to become a singer before being sent off to Lunana; the place he thought success was the most possible.

When wintertime comes, Ugyen has the ability to fulfill his lifelong dream, but instead of the “it’ll just be a few months” attitude we saw at the beginning of the film, we see him having trouble leaving. In spite of the disconnect, Ugyen did everything he could for his students, and they let him know. The students embrace of Ugyen as their teacher helped him embrace the culture of Lunana, and even as he heads off for the “hilltop” of Australia, he sings the songs of Lunana.

And I know, in this final scene of the film, Ugyen felt he was doing good — the reasons the filmmakers showed the altitude of each place Ugyen visited (Lunana being the highest; Sydney, Australia the lowest) was to demonstrate that Australia isn’t a “hilltop” after all. As Ugyen got further away from civilization, the altitude literally and figuratively increased. “Lunana: a Yak in the Classroom” demonstrates orientalism’s affect on civilization, and how one can somehow become more enlightened by getting away from the modern world.

Orientalism In The Stranger

Orientalism; the idea that Middle Eastern or Asian cultures are stagnant, savage, and only used to show the progress of a Western culture or person, can be seen in many works of literature. Novels such as Exit West, and The God of Small Things fight this system by depicting Eastern cultures as complex and independent cultures. On the other hand, many famous works like The Stranger, fail to break free from this trope.

The main instance of Orientalism in The Stranger comes when the main character Meursault (a western man) kills an Arabian man for no particular reason. The way Camus writes this ordeal is where Orientalism can really be seen. Camus refers to this Arabian man simply as “The Arab”. He is not given a name, a backstory, or a reason why he is killed. He is widdled down to the most one-dimensional version that a human being can become. As a metaphor “The Arab” possibly represents more, but as a character however, his only purpose is to die. Between this killing and the way he “objectified”, the Arabian Man and Meursault are as far away from mutual recognition as possible. The man is not depicted as a full human being and in the novel, his life only exists to be taken.

This is different from typical orientalism where an entire culture or nation is simplified because it is just one man. However, “The Arab” is the only “Eastern” character in the entire novel which means that the idea of Orientalism can still be applied. Throughout the novel, the only “Eastern” character is never given a life of his own, never shown progressing and is never even given a name. His only purpose is to interact with the western character (Meursault). Since he only exists to develop other characters, is never given an identity of his own, and is never recognized as truly human, “The Arab’s” treatment in the stranger is one of the most clear and concise examples of Orientalism in the literature we have studied this year.