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“Please Do Not Disturb:”

The Freedom of Identity in Hotels

In exploring the concept of a “hotel,” resorts, B&Bs and inns have morphed into metaphors of disorientation and missed connections. However, hotels also have the ability to become spaces for freedom. In a single suite a guest can shed their identity and leave their home behind. In Hotel Theory (2007) Wayne Koestenbaum states that a hotel room represents “a method of ‘not-staying’” (7).  Koestenbaum, responding to Being and Time by Heidegger, takes this concept further by equating hotels to methods of social freedom: “‘Hotel’ uncovers a state of undressed Being, without presuppositions. In a hotel, “Being is abstracted, naked. We suspend—or lift—the conventional identity tags” (8). Thus, in the designated space of a hotel, a guest can “not stay” in their societal label. A hotel-dweller is free to try on multiple identities, refute expectations and exist as a “Being, without presuppositions.” Applying the idea of “not-staying” to different narratives in the class, hotel freedom manifests in varying degrees. While some characters escape marriages, others are free to change their identity. Yet, each hotel liberty must contend with societal conventions. Specifically, for hotels in the Orient, this freedom of identity is colored by culture shock, local culture, and relationships between the East and the West. Ultimately, in each text or film a hotel is more than the antithesis of home; its architecture, rooms, and guests signify the art of “not staying.”

As Koestenbaum suggests, the opportunity for the guest to take on a “not-staying” mentality permits freedom of identity. In fact, Zao Wang, director of Honeymoon Suite, proposes that hotels are places for escape. Our household items shape us while a hotel allows us to break free from these belongings. In this way, a change in identity is irrevocably linked with a hotel existence; it is a blank slate to perform an “identity-swap” and experience the ecstasy of being “‘out of line, out of body, [and] out of home’” (50). For example, in Wong Karwai’s 2046 Chow Mo-wan, a struggling writer, is able to escape into another identity. By living in the Oriental Hotel Chow can assume the label of a “ladies’ man” through his multiple liaisons. His hotel existence does not allow for permanence, instead it promotes the “method of not-staying.” Given the blank and transient state of his hotel room, Chow is able to “not-stay” in his previous identity. In hotel room 2047, Chow’s romantic relationships are forced into transience, freeing him to take on a new label.

However, assuming a new label in Koestenbaum’s “method of not-staying” not only entails escaping from permanency and self-identification but also from societal impositions on identity. Hotels allow us to abandon “conventional identity tags” (8) and become “socially unattached” (7). Therefore, transformation of identity also hinges on leaving behind preexisting societal conventions. For instance, Lost in Translation (2003) speaks to the idea that a hotel can signify freedom from societal labels. In a Tokyo hotel Bob Harris, a “has-been” actor, confronts his celebrity identity. At the same time, Charlotte, a recent college graduate, grapples with her lack of identity. By exploring the hotel and Tokyo together, Bob and Charlotte escape their marriages with a short, bittersweet romance. Yet, most importantly, they shake off the identities that their loved ones unwittingly built for them. In doing so, they become “socially unattached” with their home lives (Koestenbaum 7). With the pair’s connection in the hotel, Bob can become more than a “has-been” celebrity. Charlotte can search for her identity since the hotel gives her the freedom to find it. Immersed in different spaces of the hotel she can try on different identities. For example, she listens to self-help tapes in her room and even attempts flower arranging in a conference room. Ultimately, in her friendship with Bob she tests the possibility of a life and relationship with another person.  For Charlotte, the hotel represents the potential lives and identities she could possess.

Significantly, Charlotte’s hotel, and other hotels in the course, exist in the Orient, shaping freedom of identity around Asian culture and the definition of a traveler. These “Oriental” hotels have the ability to break down the barriers between the East and West. In Empire of Signs (1982), Roland Barthes, while discerning the effect of an unknown language on the Western traveler, speaks to this cultural freedom: “to know a foreign (alien) language and yet not to understand it…[is] to descend into the untranslatable, to experience its shock without ever muffling it, until everything Occidental in us totters and the rights of the ‘father tongue’ vacillate” (6). Coming into contact with an unknown language, the Westerner’s own culture “totters” and is thrown into question. In Lost in Translation, while wrapped in the hotel environment, Charlotte’s and Bob’s Western culture oscillates as well. Sofia Coppola, director of the film, emphasizes that Charlotte and Bob feel “out of place.” Bob is the most evident example: in one scene he battles with a treadmill, while in another he awkwardly tries to adjust to the hotel’s shower. As their Western perspectives crumble, Bob and Charlotte are able to bond through their mutual feelings of isolation. Thus, by allowing the Occident to “vacillate” both characters are presented with the opportunity to explore new relationships and identities. While the hotel highlights their culture shock, it also is a stage for their connection and freedom of identity.

Investigating other texts in the course, language, or the misunderstanding of it, in Oriental hotels indicates freedom of identity as well. For example, in David Henry Hwang’s Chinglish (2012) the language barrier enables characters to express their desired identity. On the surface, Xi Yan, the Vice Minister of Culture, and Daniel Cavanaugh, an American businessman, escape their respective marriages. Digging deeper, the hotel is a space where language, and therefore meaning, is lost. This miscommunication enables Xi and Daniel to openly express themselves. Such a result aligns with Barthes’ observations in Empire of Signs. Barthes suggests that language acts as a buffer from Eastern as well as Western society, providing an escape from all social norms. Recounting his time in foreign countries Barthes exclaims that there he is “protected against stupidity, vulgarity, vanity, worldliness, nationality, normality” (9). As a participant of a hotel’s “not-staying” mentality Barthes escapes meaning itself.

In their hotel room, Xi and Daniel escape meaning as well. The words they utter to each other “descend into the untranslatable” (Barthes 6). Therefore, in their room they seem to speak more to themselves than to each other. For instance, Xi speaks Chinese, a language Daniel does not understand; their language gap enables her to speak frankly about her loveless marriage. At the hotel bar she can “tell” Daniel that her husband is “a real jerk,” “self-centered,” and a “pain in the ass” (Hwang 56-57). Furthermore, the meaninglessness of language corresponds with freedom when Daniel and Xi express their different values of love. After sleeping together, Xi and Daniel speak simultaneously; while Daniel states his realization of love, Xi says that only sexual pleasure defines their relationship. With their overlapping dialogue, Hwang emphasizes that meaning disintegrates, granting freedom of expression and identity to both Xi and Daniel. In the hotel Daniel and Xi are “dematerialized, deracinated…never limited to a single nation or nation of domicile” (Koestenbaum 21). Daniel is willing to abandon his life in the West and Xi finds a shred of freedom from the social expectations of her marriage. Thus, in their hotel room the pair is able to escape Eastern and Western societies.

However, in the Mandarin Oriental Hotel in Washington D.C., East and West collide. Instead of signifying freedom from societal labels, the hotel transforms into a Westernized version of the Orient. The painting, “Above Washington, D.C.,” that hangs in the hotel lobby is a pointed example of Edward Said’s Orientalism (1978). A modified rendition of the painting “Above the Forbidden City,” the canvas seeks to fuse East and West. Significantly, it places the last empress of China in a Western environment. In this depiction, the painting is a reminder of the power struggle between the East and the West. Additionally, placed in the lobby for all to see, the painting is “a closed field, a theatrical stage” fixed to the Occident (Said 63). Acting as a “stage” the painting filters and interprets the Orient through a “Western consciousness” (Said 1803). Therefore, through its visual media and interior design, the hotel promotes interpretations of the East and Western social conventions. Since a Westernized perspective is already set, the guest is unable to make “everything Occidental” “totter” and “vacillate.” Instead, in the Mandarin Oriental Hotel, a place of Westernized reimaginings, the Occident is constantly reaffirmed (Barthes 6).

Contrastingly, our virtual hotel, Ryokan Higashiyama, seeks to break down “everything Occidental.” Guests are freed from their Occident identity in a place that stresses integration, rather than separation, from the surrounding area. Our hotel takes the guest back into the past while simultaneously connecting them with the city fabric. Guests can escape, not from their daily lives, but rather from their preconceived concepts of the Orient. At Ryokan Higashiyama a person can abandon the label of “foreigner” and “tourist.” They can openly experience the cultural elements of the hotel, participating in city tours, the hotel’s tea ceremonies, or checking the daily event page. By incorporating these cultural aspects Ryokan Higashiyama strives to contradict the social expectations played out in hotels: traveler versus host and East versus West.  Such an endeavor seems difficult in light of Koestenbaum’s observation: “unfortunately, a hotel is the control station of the ‘They’” (8). However, just as a hotel can stand for societal expectations, a hotel can also allow the guest to deconstruct them. It can offer freedom from society’s labels, and thus freedom of identity. A hotel “wakes us from lostness in the ‘They’—peer pressure, social norms, the noise of crowd-think,” allowing us to choose and test new identities (Koestenbaum 38). The result of this hotel existence is freedom from Western and Eastern social markers. Whether a hotel is real or imagined, the concept of a hotel grants an escape from cultural and societal boundaries.