This is the fifth in a series of “intimate critiques” developed by CMS Masters Students as part of my Media Theory and Methods Proseminar. Here, Xiaochang Li interweaves her reflections on the Spy genre, especially Get Smart and Alias, and her own personal and family history. This distinctly cold war genre is deployed in an effort to understand her own identity as a Chinese-American. (Of course, though this will make sense to few outside our circle, but the most fannish gesture in this essay may be, in Xiaochang’s case, the opening reference to Marcel Proust!)
by Xiaochang Li
Marcel Proust, working from the sinking grave of his bed, tells us that we are creatures
assembled from faulty memory, the eager sum of our desperate retellings, frantic
optimists. Autobiography is not the province of excavation but construction, and even
the most honest of us are careful architects of repetition and forgetfulness, deliberate
amnesiacs working to amass reasonable explanations for what we have become.
Recollection, I learned, is just another form of secrecy.
In the 60s spy satire, Get Smart, Maxwell Smart is a haphazard agent engaged in a long-term stand-off with an organization called KAOS, an epic battle against the perpetrators of general disarray. He fumbled his way through disarming death rays and and foiling assassination plots, assured in his aptitude even as he walked into the obvious traps and locked himself inside phone booths. This he taught me too: we are not always what we appear, even to ourselves.
In November of 1989, I was nearly six years old when my grandmother sewed my
identification documents to the inside of my shirt and took me to the Beijing airport. I
crossed the world with the rubbing itch of hastily tied-off threads against my skin and no
one to talk to for thousands of miles and on the other side, I managed to recognize both
my luggage and my parents. They had left China years before, while their university had
me as a sort of bureaucratic hostage, collateral for their return, though my parents had
no such intentions. Our reunion took over three years and exactly $764 (American),
including tax, a fancy camera secretly gifted to the right friend-turned-governmentfunctionary, a stamp-forger-turned-liberator. My life even now feels so clearly defined by that furtive transplantation one place to another, the bisection into before and after what was at once success and loss, discovery and displacement.
And in the weeks following, as if anticipating my arrival, footage of the Berlin Wall being
pulled apart seemed to play in a loop on every network station, the world coming
together again and again between spikes of static and weather disruption, people
spilling over, reaching out in miraculous recognition of the faces worn away to
unfamiliarity by the passage of years. Raised as I was to see all coincidence through
the lens of destiny and superstition, it seems prophetic to me now that the news footage
showed an endless cycle of reunion and celebration, but not the view after the flush of
victory had faded. What did the world look like when your physical geography no longer
bore the markers of your history?
In those first long rudderless years within an aggressively unfamiliar landscape — the
squat sprawl of apartment complexes and strip malls and other structures of uniformity
— I was raised by secret agents. Though finally in the same country, I still saw relatively
little of my parents — dishwashers and pizza deliverers with graduate degrees,
consistent volunteers for double-shifts. With no one around to enforce bedtimes, the TV
had become confidant and oracle, a late-evening companion during the long, wintery
nights in rural Idaho. Knees clutched underneath my chin, I watched 60s reruns full of
covert operatives on missions to save the world from disorder, comforted by the
repeated inevitability of favorable outcomes. I cared less that these spies were saving
the world than that, however impossible the situation, they could always save
Rewatching those episodes now, they are fraught with the almost too-obvious appeals
to racism and misogyny, a boys club of government agents fighting the good fight
against the unarticulated threats of foreign bodies. In one episode, Maxwell saves some
obscure european royalty from the aimless, but nevertheless dastardly, clutches of the
Asian arm of KAOS. America neutralizes the attacked upon the western (monarchial,
colonial) tradition, reified in the form of a swooning blonde princess, preserving the
world against uncanny reversals of power and the spiteful malevolence of the east.
But Maxwell’s advantage was not in his ability, his comic incompetence, but the very
nature of his work. Episodes began with briefings, the transfer of information that left
him, however inept, knowing more about his opponents than they knew of him. Spies
appeared to me to live a thrilling carnival of carefully mistaken identity, wherein
information acquired, remembered, withheld, became the central ingredient in the
conversion of secrecy into strength. It seemed a landless utopia of well-pressed
tuxedoes and other uniforms of distinguished anonymity that existed in any place they
went, however alien. Mastery was just a matter of careful observation.
So the logic of my unlikely alliance was simple: my home was something likewise
unruly, threatening in its foreignness, and the fantasy of being a spy had everything to
do with knowing more, knowing better. Everyday I pushed further and further into
neighboring sections of the town, memorizing street patterns and license plates and
faces and behaviors: reconnaissance. Information seemed the best method by which to
wield difference as power.
My great uncle was a spy. Before fleeing to Taipei with the rest of Chiang Kai Shek’s
forces, he left my grandfather his military-issue binoculars, a dangerous artifact that, if
discovered, might have meant any number of unimaginable penalties. But even as he
burned all other counter-revolutionary trokens — books, diaries, photographs — my
grandfather kept those binoculars carefully hidden through the whole of the Cultural
Revolution and for decades after, until his death just a few years ago.
It’s hard to say whether he had meant to leave them hidden for so long, whether he left
them secreted away out of habit, or of shame for compromising the safety of the family
he still had for a tangible relic of the one he lost. Or if he has simply forgotten where he
had left them, so thorough was his secrecy.
As I got older, the pressures of fitting in drew me further and further into narratives of
captivity and subterfuge, political and literal sleights of hand. I had always been resilient,
adaptable, and spies in the popular imagination and within my own history became
kindred spirits and strategic advisors, offering me a way around the oppositional
positioning of assimilated versus resistant, a framework where fitting didn’t necessarily
mean selling out. Armed with an metaphor of assimilation as espionage, I found a back
door out of a system in which I was apparently so weak-willed that I wouldn’t be able to
tell the difference between my clothes and my history.
In fourth grade, a classmate explained to me patiently, “You could never be president
because there’s no way we can know for sure you aren’t really a spy,” and I thought,
fiercely, I must be doing something right.
Alias aired when I was in high school, and by then my adaptability had shifted from a desire to emulate and master my surroundings to a refusal of the assumptions that went along with being read as “Asian.” Like my grandfather, I had recognized the dangers of letting others define you by what they thought your heritage meant, and understood that keeping your origins to yourself and meant keeping them for yourself, out of the hands of those who would use them against you.
On TV, Sydney Bristow embodied a vision of individual agency, and the pleasure of
watching people underestimate her was a simple, if not necessarily simplistic, feminist
revenge fantasy. She fulfilled the dream that we’ve all had every we’ve been not so
accidentally groped in a crowded room or had to walk home with our keys clenched
between our knuckles: that we can overcome the long histories of violence and trauma
and social logics that systematically privilege some people over others through personal
strength, through the fail-proof combination of karate-chop and witty retort.
She was also a double agent.
As such, she became too the fantasy of a preservable sense of self, despite the
demands of duty and survival. Her costumes were usually so flamboyantly unconvincing
that you couldn’t help but recognize them for what they were, wigs and sequins and
trappings that somehow only manage to articulate the fact that she was still something
undeniably, essentially Sydney underneath. And even in her ambivalence over her
betrayal of her manipulated SD-6 colleagues, she never lost her brash devotion to a
Through her, blending in, passing, became not a denial of history but a tactical and
superficial obscuring of difference to meet your desired ends. It was an image in which
Otherness, especially hidden, was not only still meaningful, but a source of incredible
power, a knowledge of the motivating mechanisms of a world in crisis and a glock
strapped to your thigh.
The problem, of course, is this: I am no Sydney Bristow, and I’ve had more than one
person tell me, delighted, that I am “practically white.”
The allegory of racial assimilation as espionage a nice fantasy, a neat justification, but it
falls apart at the realization that unlike Sydney, unlike Maxwell Smart, my battle is not
one for order, but representation. I have neither the conviction nor the comfortable
naÃ¯vetÃ© to stumble through the treacherous negotiations of racial identity, safe in the
knowledge that the sacrifices will always be justifiable and the outcomes always
favorable. In the struggle for visibility on my own terms, at what point is my “cunning”
disappearance of opposition and difference just another disappearance? At the end of
the day, does it matter if my camouflage is so convincing that it’s always read as
assimilation, if “practically” means “strategically” to me, but “nearly” to everyone else?
Even more troubling: the last time I was in China, I spoke with an accent, unable to spit
out the slurring tightness of all my years away. How long before passing becomes
being, before your secrecy becomes so thorough that you forget where you hid your
history for safe keeping?
If I am honest with myself, I never quite outgrew the spy fantasies. Sometimes, I still
imagine that I’m a sleeper agent, that any day now I’ll wake up knowing 13 languages
and as many ways to kill a man using a hair clip and remember, finally, who I was
supposed to be all along.
Because in the end, all of this conflicted, contested, treacherous allegory of identity
politics as espionage is fundamentally the enactment of wishful thinking: the fantasy that
beneath all of this is something more than the sum of what I’ve forgotten, that I might
one day be able to reassemble from the relics of memory and history, from the
trajectories of departure and return, seeking and displacement, an understanding of
what I have become. That somewhere in this mess, I have an exit strategy.
New York University, BA 2006
Xiaochang Li completed a BA at New York University in 2006, where she wrote an undergraduate thesis on narrative structure in Proust’s In Search of Lost Time while also exploring various aspects of media production through internships in film production, publishing, and web design and advertising. She then spent the interim year in Germany on fellowship through the Congress-Bundestag Youth Exchange, where she spent her time working with independent film production firms in Berlin and Saarbrücken and going 220km per hour on the autobahn.
Her current research interests include the emergence of narrative forms in the digital landscape that shift our understanding of, and interaction with, the structure of texts and the relationships of gender and sexual performativity between Eastern and Western media through the lens of fan-generated content. In the future, she hopes to see Roland Barthes resurrected from the dead to author a book about YouTube that consists entirely of a series of semi-related Cat Macros.