A primary theme of Chua's Gold by the Inch involves the way individuals and societies create identity by means of comparisons with a cultural, gender, or ethnic "other." When the narrator is speaking to Martina, he asks, "What's that [femininity]." To which she replies, "Femininity is everything that isn't masculine" (Chua 93). Throughout the book Chua brings to light the way in which people identify who they are by contrasting themselves to what they are not. The manner in which European powers have used this to devastating effect is pointed out in the line, "Only by making the native inhuman did the British Resident become human" (Chua 97). British visitors, participating in the sex tourism and exploitation that is a part of Thailand economy, make the natives of Thailand less human to justify how they become objectified in this novel, and in real life. Another instance of otherness is the encounter with the workers who speak Tao instead of the national language Thai. We are given another portrait of what his identity is not, in the form of the spoken word, and their attempt to change dialects to fit in, which annoys him to no end.
By leaving Thailand and then returning the narrator himself also has the label of other applied to him. When he comes into the country the customs agent that interviews him wants to know if he can still eat traditional Thai food (p. 144). The customs agent is joking to an extent but is also checking to see if the main character has become an other who belongs in the country as much as the Americans, Europeans, or sex tourists.
Identity is also commented on through the use of architecture. In every locale that the narrator visits he comments on the architecture and its similarity to other paces he has visited. In France he comments that the architecture reminds him of paces back in Thailand and Malaysia. This is of course the case because of colonial influences on the two countries, but the recognition that this western country looks in many ways similar to the eastern countries he is trying to find a home in expounds on the fact that he is an other no matter where he travels.
Chua, Lawrence. Gold by the Inch. New York: Grove Press, 1999.
Last modified 8 January 2005