*disclaimer: author has not read Virginia Woolf’s book so my title is an apt but really pseudo-intellectual nod.
by Woojae Julia Song
The command “Go to your room!” requires a pre-condition many children might not have: their own room. My parents never used this time-out tactic in my upbringing, but as a gal who grew up sharing a room with my older sister at home then often with a roommate in boarding schools, I appreciate the privilege of my own space immensely as a place for reflection, relaxation and renewal.
Ernest, the protagonist of The Motel (2005) directed by Michael Kang, desperately needs such a space. In daily battles and existential crises alike, everybody who isn’t a slice of Wonder Bread exists in relation to the white, heteronormative status quo. This incessant relativity enhances our need for a private space for self-actualization. Ernest creates this room for himself through writing. “The Motel”–his short story within the film–is a vital site of agency where the male, heterosexual Asian-American teenager transcends the physical limits of the motel to clarify his identity.
In Ernest’s case, his Asian male status emasculates him in dominant American discourse. “I just gotta have my own space!” by Kandy James interviews teenage girls who view their own rooms as safe spaces free from the sexist, hegemonic outside world. Any person with an identity of non-hegemony, including color, LGBTQIA, and disability shares this immediate disadvantage of otherness. For me as an Asian-American female, having a single room while attending schools with traditionally hegemonic cultures means having a rare place of solitude inside concentrated people hubs with unavoidable, tiring experiences of otherness. Writing is how Ernest creates his only private space in a world where he feels opposed and unguided.
Recreated today, Ernie would probably spend hours online in chatrooms, or Facebook or Reddit, mobilizing himself and meeting people to resonate with or emulate. He seems to exist only in communal spaces, save for sleeping in his bedroom: he cleans rooms where strangers have stayed, does his homework at the check-in counter, even masturbates in the room his mother and sister are sleeping in. Away from the motel, he’s waiting to hang out with Christine. The 13-year-old takes his cues of how he should act as a person from external influences–Sam for driving and romantic tips, Christine for smoking and drinking, porn magazines left behind for portrayals of sexuality.
But Ernest turns his interpersonal interactions into his own story, his own voice. Ernest has creative agency that Sam lacks both because of who he is or his age. Still, while Sam is not a perfect role model, his breakdown exposes the “artifice of masculinity as counterhegemony” (class 10/20) and shows Ernest that doing all the right (white) things doesn’t always lead to a happily ever after. Sam is, in turn, forced to confront his failures, which he had denied for so long, after the still-earnest Ernest (pun not intended, seriously) directly expressed anger and disillusionment about his temporary idol in the movie’s climax. In this way, Asian Americans of two generations share an unexpected experience of intensive bilateral learning.
Since Ernest created his individual space, rather than having someone give it to him, it is invaluable. Since the content of his short story is left infinite, it is indestructible.