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The Scrutable Asian

The Fox family of television networks is not exactly known for its subtle look at the nature of cultural difference.

Jack Bauer, after all, tortures past this difference. And so it was a little bit of a surprise when I saw a recent episode of a new Fox show called Lie to Me.

In the show, Tim Roth stars as Dr. Cal Lightman, who spent years in various far-off tribal places and has returned with a deep knowledge of facial expressions. He is able to detect lies by matching up emotions such as anger, fear and disgust to corresponding facial movements. He uses this skill to help various crime-fighting agencies. An interesting premise. (A show based on a savant truth teller who helps the police is not new. The fabulous British show Cracker has traversed this territory very well.)

Lightman's skill is based on the work of Paul Ekman, a well-known psychologist who has codified what he calls microfacial expressions. Ekman is renowned for his ability to read minute facial expressions and has written books with the Dalai Lama on emotional balance and advised anti-terrorist agencies on detection techniques. Ekman argues that facial expressions are universal. Culture, in other words, does not shape the physical manifestations of our emotions.

Ekman's argument engages with various academic debates, particularly in anthropology, which, over the span of the 20th century, has had an internal debate on whether there is or is not a deep structure underlying all human activity and behavior. With Ekman and the fictional Lightman, Darwin, who suggested that facial expressions are universal, and, to an extent, Claude Levi-Strauss live on. (At 100, however, Levi-Strauss is not doing so badly himself.)

But psychological and anthropological theory and network television are two different creatures.

In a recent episode — "Love Always" (available online at — Lightman and his team are hired by the Secret Service to help uncover a possible assassination plot against a South Korean ambassador. Lightman's job is to detect anger on the face of one of the guests at the wedding of the ambassador's son. And here arises the problem, as articulated by an Asian-American Secret Service agent. Since most of the guests are Korean, detecting anger will be difficult. "Koreans don't like to show emotion," the agent says. "It is undignified." Lightman steps in and suggests that "nationality is irrelevant"; facial expressions are universal and involuntary.

In one quick exchange, the stereotype of the inscrutable Asian is presented and quickly thrown out the door. With the right expertise, the inscrutable Asian can be discovered and can finally be made scrutable.

Unfortunately, while the show undoes a major stereotype, it replaces it with a series of others: the stern Korean father, the secretly wayward son, the shameful silence over family secrets and the self-immolating political figure. In the final instance, the show returns us to a clear distinction between how they live and how we live. Lightman is able to make sense of the lies and the truth by the angle of a bow. The extent of a bow, the show suggests, tells you everything you need to know about this particular Korean family.

Working through stereotypes is an awfully difficult job. The hole left by the breaking down of one stereotype is often filled with a series of smaller ones.