Mystery Object #1: Westerner Blowing Bubbles

From time to time in my travels I have come across unusual things that seem to defy interpretation—inscrutable objects that intrigue me because they are so mysterious. In previous generations, perhaps an anthropologist in an unfamiliar place would have been captivated by unusual statues, unfamiliar religions, esoteric cultural habits or exotic totems.

The museums of former colonizers are stocked with the collections of such objects of mystery—institutional cabinets of academic curiosity. Today, however, many of those formerly exotic objects are sold on the shelves of Target, Pier 1 and other purveyors of warm tropical products. They are easily purchased for very low prices around the world.

Nevertheless, some mystery objects still exist. In the global economy they are not as visible as they once might have been. They are, however, equally inscrutable to the outsider and for this reason equally enticing. They promise, perhaps, the potential of understanding cultural difference.

Rather than purchase these objects—collecting them in the classical sense—I thought that I would capture them in photos or video and share them here on my blog as “Mystery Objects.”

While walking in the streets of Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, one evening in the spring of 2011 I heard the sing-song of A Small World and saw bubbles floating in the air long before I laid eyes on Mystery Object #1: A Plastic Figure of a Westerner. He was bent over, pants at his thighs, smiling while blowing bubbles out of his ass.

As soon as I spied the object, I knew I had to collect it. Gazing at it, I was entranced by its mystery.

  • Who designed the object? Was it imagined by a disgruntled ex-colonial determined to get symbolic revenge? Was it designed for export and then when purchasers at Walmart didn’t find it desirable it remained in local markets for domestic consumption? I imagined it was fashioned as the kind of off-color joke object that blue-collar workers give one another at retirement parties.
  • Who created it? I imagined a whole factory, perhaps somewhere in China, where the hands of thousands of rural migrant laborers processed plastic, filled molds, cast parts, assembled them and painted them. Were they amused by the objects they spent their life’s energy producing? Were they confused by these strange talismans? Were they in on the joke, or did they sleep at night wondering if, in fact, big-nosed white people could blow bubbles from the orifices on their undersides.
  • Who ordered, shipped and marketed it? At some point the sales person, his boss, or agent looked in a catalog or perhaps perused the collection of an itinerant salesperson. Among the objects for sale was a plastic figure, bent at the knees blowing bubbles from its ass to the tune of It’s a Small World. Upon seeing the object, neurons flashed in the mind of the sales person. Those neurons connected the image of the bent-over figure to dollar $igns and profit. This object will sell, he or she thought.

I promptly pulled out my camera and shot a one-minute clip. Here it is for the pleasure of meditating on the global condition. Contemplate the mystery.

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