TEXT review

Becoming Tom Cho

review by Alice Robinson


Tom Cho
Look Who's Morphing
Giramondo Publishing, Sydney 2009
ISBN 9781920882549
Pb, 181 pp, AUD24.95


Tom Cho's romp through identity - Look Who's Morphing - is a collection of carefully constructed narratives, both outrageously funny, and full of unsettling pathos. Cho manages both masterfully. 'I think it is hard for a non-migrant to understand just how difficult it is to learn a new language while adapting to life in a new country,' Cho writes. 'This was why I hired actor Bruce Willis to talk for me' (53-54).

As protagonist of the book, Cho stars as himself and as a Bill Henson Muppet. He is a guest on Dr Phil. He is The Bodyguard, Heather Locklear, Maria von Trapp and also her husband the Captain. He is Godzilla, and he is Tom; he is Tom and a God of Cock-Rock. He is homosexual; he sleeps with women. He is a robot. And then: he is Australian and he is also Chinese; he is both at once, and sometimes he is a car. He casts his family as characters in the plot and American sitcom characters as family. 'These days,' Cho remarks, putting his finger squarely on the pulse of our culture, and on a theme of the book, 'everyone wears suits; everyone is a celebrity.'

Cho's work reflects back the problematic nature of identity, particularly in response to migration. But the book also speaks of other kinds of transitions - adolescence, sexual awakening, shifting familial relationships, employment - and the questions they raise about who we are. Cho demonstrates that when uncertainty arises, sometimes meaning is made and identity formed through nothing more substantial than story: 'I said that, according to various myths and popular stories, morphing is accomplished via touch … that was no problem because myths and popular stories were also on television' (138). This is social commentary, cultural critique, and rollicking adventure through pop culture. 'Whatever you watch, you become,' Cho decides, flicking channels on TV. Like the wellworn phrase 'you are what you eat', Cho's catchphrase - and his take on the amorphous nature of self in our consumer-based, media-saturated culture - operates on plains both metaphoric and literal. Not only does Cho internalise the narratives presented on screen, he becomes them; playing out and discarding one character after another, transforming himself, trying things on for size. What Cho demonstrates by inhabiting these well-known narratives - familiar to us as our own lives - is that stories are fundamental to creating identities: personal, national, cultural. 'I migrated to Australia with my parents,' he writes, 'and I immediately began morphing into various celebrities … After a few weeks of this, I became the most popular person in my class and even my parents were moderately pleased with my success at the language school' (139-140). At times - especially when thrust into an unfamiliar culture - Cho shows us that stories can be the only common language that binds us to one another, to place and to ourselves.

Pop culture is one of Cho's passports to self, just as writing and academia are another. Each is a kind of language, and each offers Cho some way of feeling out who he is in the world around him. Most often, both writerly/academic Tom and pop culture character Tom are embodied in the same bizarre circumstance. When Cho's Auntie Wei is demonically possessed in the way of The Exorcist, she takes on the voice of Cho himself, quoting a grant application: 'As indicated by the project timeline … I would then be in a position to more significantly benefit from Australia Council Funding,' she says as she masturbates with a crucifix (20). When Cho appears on Dr Phil with his Auntie Lien, he takes the time to 'intellectualise about Dollard et al's "Frustration-Aggression Hypothesis" and its subsequent behaviourist/neo-associationist reformulation by Berkowitz,' before joining his auntie in a typical trash talk show style punch-up (64). The juxtaposition of Cho's fragmented scholarly hypotheses - 'I had come to the conclusion that the greatest lies ever told have the following two major characteristics' - when mixed in with the various fictional characters and plots from film and TV makes for hilarious reading. But even more importantly, Cho's use of both 'languages' at the same time renders the academic equally consumable as the popular, just as it shows how the popular can be as significant as the academic in making sense of the world.

Each disposable cultural reference appropriated by Cho speaks to real life, just as each is absurd. Cho's writing is pervasive in its ability to entertain; it seems effortless. And yet the book's themes linger after the last outrageous transformation is complete. In the end, there is nothing funny about questioning who we are, where we come from and where we belong. On morphing, Cho tells his father that 'the majority of these myths and stories ultimately suggested that morphing was difficult and complex' (142). Just how complex, Cho demonstrates beautifully across each story, with the right amount of humour, and the right amount of pain. And mostly with a little bit of each.


Alice Robinson is currently completing a PhD in creative writing at Victoria University, focusing on climate change and Australian literature. She lives in - and is passionate about - the city of Melbourne.


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Vol 14 No 1 April 2010
Editors: Nigel Krauth & Jen Webb