Saturday, October 30, 2010

"My Mom Is A Fucking Bitch."

Discovering The Elephant in the Room With Amy Tan.

As readers may know, The Joy Luck Club is possibly the most popular and widely read novel written by an Asian-American author. Although loved by the mainstream, the book is either adored or reviled by Asian-Americans and since its publication a degree of contention has surrounded the novel. Some critics (such as Frank Chin) lambast the book for perpetuating stereotypes and many Asian men complain that the novel depicts Asian men unfairly. Like it or hate it, The Joy Luck Club is the work that many point to as representative of the vast difference between the experiences of Asian-American men and women. Although first published over twenty years ago, the subsequent "controversy" over the book's content seems to have set the tone for much of the inter-gender dialogue within the Asian minority in the two decades since.

There is very little doubt that out of all the ways that the Asian minority seems dis-united, the divide between Asian-American men and women is the most widely discussed and contentious. For some (perhaps many) The Joy Luck Club is the book that made it fashionable for Asian women to be outspoken about their disdain for Asian men and perhaps even made this rejection a necessity in the process of Asian-American feminist empowerment. For me then, there is no question that The Joy Luck Club could be considered to be something of a watershed in the Asian minority experience and particularly in the manner in which the genders interact.

Despite the apparent gravity of the anger and frustration that the book has elicited, I do,  nevertheless, find that it can offer us some intriguing insights into the experiences of the Asian minority. Moving beyond these ideas of inter-gender conflict, the novel is fascinating to me for the sole reason that it simply ignores any kind of Asian-American (or even simply American) historical context.

The American part of the story takes place mainly between the 1950's and 70's, which as readers might know was an extremely turbulent period in American history. It was during this period that America, amongst other things, went from practising apartheid to promoting civil rights, engaged in a highly divisive war in SE Asia, put several men into space, developed the H-bomb, created youth culture, experienced several inner-city race riots, empowered women and gays, and saw the rise of an open drug culture. This is not to mention the social effects of the Cold War and the threat of nuclear holocaust that hung over almost every aspect of western creative expression of the period. Apparently, the young Americanized Asian women that the novel describes were somehow unaware of any of these dramatic and world-view building shifts in the culture to which they belonged.

The effect is surreal since despite growing up in a period that could be described as volatile and dynamic, the Americanized characters in the book seemed to have missed the entire experience. Imagine if we had the story of Dr. Zhivago but with characters that are unaffected by the turbulent Russian Revolution. What we would be left with is a sappy love story with one-dimensional and self-absorbed characters. From a purely Asian-American perspective the disconnect from historical context is even more remarkable. At this time anti-misegenation laws forbidding Asian men from marrying white women still existed in several states. Anti-Asian racism was still deeply entrenched in the laws and social context of the time. Racially biased immigration policies limiting Asian immigration were still in force, plus citizenship and property rights were only recently given to the Asian minority. Strangely, none of these factors that had defined the experiences of the Asian minority at the time make it into the consciousness of the characters in the book.

Of course it can be argued that the story describes a universal human condition in a way that goes beyond race and racist restrictions, yet this seems inadequate since the human condition is very much informed by its social  environment. In fact, the story might possibly have been more powerful and universal if the complexities of the Asian-American experience of the time had been referenced in some way. A good example of this in action is the movie "Precious" - set against the backdrop of African-American poverty, the movie describes personal human tragedy that interweaves effortlessly with the historical and social context. Compared to this, the Joy Luck Club seems soap opera-ish.

It is for these reasons that I've always found the Americanized daughters described by Tan to be extremely annoying. Their apparent self-absorption is so profound that they don't seem to realize that the success they achieve in America was built upon the struggle against oppression of those who came before. They seem oblivious to the fact that their ability to effortlessly make dating and marriage choices across the racial divide was a right paid for with the blood of thousands, and that even at the time that the events were being described was a right denied to ethnic minority men and women in many states. Effectively, the Americanized characters described by Tan seem so disconnected from the social and historical realities of their time that they can only be described as borderline sociopathic.

This for me is the ultimate legacy of The Joy Luck Club. If we move beyond the bickering of the interracial dating disparity and view the novel objectively, it should become apparent that the book sets a mode of consciousness for ensuing generations of Asian-Americans that is mundane, socially disconnected and heavily biased toward emotionalism. By definition these qualities are dependent, irrelevent and ultimately favour the irrational adherence to disadvantage that drives the emotional appeal. Fundamentally, this type of approach is impotent for both Asian men and women and directs the dialogue of the Asian experience away from rational discourse that is based upon logical assements. If we ignore the very circumstances that create our world-view, then all we have left is emotive irrelevence.

I would argue that much of the creative, political and sociological commentary of the Asian minority follows this example of the appeal to emotion. The principles of rational argumentation and intellectual honesty take a back-seat to emotional necessity. I would suggest that The Joy Luck Club stands as the leading model for this mode of thinking that continues to the present. As a community that still struggles to define itself the reliance on emotionalism is ultimately detrimental to this cause. So in the end, the thinking espoused by The Joy Luck Club can only be viewed as a literary and intellectual dead-end that promotes short-term emotional expression but that has ultimately failed to inspire a rational, intellectually honest world-view.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

A Herd Of Cats

Overcoming Stereotypes.

Here in Asian-America much is discussed about the notion of overcoming stereotypes and for many (possibly most) people from the Asian minority the effect of being stereotyped is something that they encounter on a daily basis. Often these experiences might involve the mundane, but sometimes stereotyping can result in violence and even murder. So the issue of stereotyping is complex and covers a wide range of experiences ranging from irritating to fatal. I think it would be accurate to say that the process of stereotyping has a dehumanizing effect and by propagating the social acceptance of demeaning behaviour towards the Asian minority it upholds the structure of social marginalization and personal disempowerment.

America is known throughout much of the world for its commitment to freedom and the cause of individual attainment. Vague and often elusive, the notion of freedom can be and often is interpreted by different people to mean different things. The notion of freedom has been understood to comprise a negative and positive aspect (as examined by Isaiah Berlin). In simple terms, the negative aspect of freedom holds that there be few external restrictions from others within one's society (be it from other citizens or government and generally accepted to come in the form of society's laws) that interfere with one doing as one pleases - limited of course by laws that protect the common good. Positive freedom is more of an internal concept that involves the idea of individuals transcending personal limitations - which can often be in the form of social, cultural or even self created limitations - and achieving one's full potential as an individual.

If we look at stereotyping through the filter of negative and positive freedom we might notice that the process of stereotyping creates an environment that allows mainstream society to restrict our ability to enjoy freedom as completely as other Americans. Political propagation of mistrust of Asia plus social willingness to accept - as normal - behaviour that denigrates Asian peoples and trivializes violence against them (as popularized by the media) all serves to diminish our capacity to live our lives free from pervasive random acts of prejudice and nurtured ignorance.

So, even though we won't find any laws that explicitly deny the Asian minority its freedom, in practice social attitudes are promoted that allow and perhaps even encourage interference in our lives. This means that whilst institutional racism towards Asians is ostensibly limited, the free market promotion of negative attitudes encourages prejudice as an expression of individual choice driven by social expectation and demand, which, put another way, means that institutional racism towards Asians has become privatized. In other words, whatever negative freedoms American democracy guarantees its citizens is diminished through sometimes severe social restrictions resulting from society's eager embrace of negative stereotyping and the subsequent effects this has on the Asian minority.

For most Asians what this means is that despite some degree of economic prosperity (which many people assert is the measure of a minority's integration and "success"), society's promotion of demeaning xenophobic attitudes and behaviours results in routine experiences of baiting, harassment and bigotry that often carries with it the potential for violence. This contradicts ideas of positive liberty as outlined by Isaiah Berlin............
".....we are not acted upon by external nature or by other men as if I were a thing, or an animal, or a slave incapable of playing a human role........I feel free to the degree that I believe this to be true, and enslaved to the degree that I am made to realize that it is not".                                                                                      

Two Concepts Of Liberty
In this sense stereotyping can be viewed as a process of social engineering carried out by cultural institutions and apparently driven by market demand. The goal is to reinforce ideas of a social hierarchy that excludes Asians (especially Asian men), and diminishes our humanity whilst simultaneously mainstreaming hostile behaviours towards us and effectively creating social barriers that promote personal limitations.

What all of this means is that the struggle to overcome stereotyping is first and foremost a personal and private endeavour that seeks liberty from imposition of limitations through the emancipation of the mind. It is individuals that have to emerge as role models and positive archetypes (but not necessarily via the media) for others within their own community. The individual has the choice to decide the power that attempts at social limitation and stereotypes will exert in their lives. This means no centralized notions of what constitutes a "good" or "bad" stereotype where the individual is informed from above on what best represents them. Rather, the process becomes one of individual inquiry that discovers its own limitations and thresholds and by so doing informs the community and society at large about who or what it is.

This is not to say that the work of protesting media stereotyping is without value, but to suggest that we shift our focus away from the sometimes superficial idea that stereotypes are an insult and turn our attention to the real tragedy which is that stereotypes place social limitations on individuals from our community. For instance, I don't like stereotypes such as Long Duk Dong but not because it has the potential to make me look bad. If non-Asians are stupid enough to put that on me, then it's my job to make sure they understand who I really am. What should truly make us angry about the existence of such depictions is that Asian men, individuals perhaps much like myself, have had and to a large extent still have social limitations placed upon them that restrict their opportunities to realize their full potential in whatever their chosen field might be.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

"No-One Loves Me!"

Self-Fulfilling Prophecies.

I once attended a seminar that claimed to have the key to prosperity. The promise was simple - cultivate the habit of positive self-talk, and "manifest" prosperity by focused visualizations of one's goals and dreams. Simply, think good thoughts and the world will be your oyster! Eventually, the prosperity I visualized didn't match the prosperity I actually achieved, but I wouldn't say that I'm too disappointed. What I learned and what I came to believe is that what a person believes about theirself and the self-talk that comes from it can have profound consequences in their life. For Asian men, this idea is all-important.

As readers may agree, Asian men are somewhat invisible in this society - and that's at the best of times. When we aren't invisible, restrictions on positive Asian male images means that we're generally negatively represented by mainstream culture. Understandably, this is a cause of concern within the Asian community and for Asian men in particular the weight of this negativity is a heavy burden that, for some, seems to affect many aspects of their lives. It is media mis-representations that are charged with causing a sense of emasculation and disempowerment amongst Asian men. In addition to this, there are others who point to the media's defamation of Asian men as a major contributing factor in the supposed relegation of Asian men in the dating pool. In fact, it has become almost an acceptable standard to point at the media as causing the value of Asian men to decrease in the love market to such an extent that partnering an Asian man is tantamount to scraping the bottom of the barrel.There's little doubt that Asian men have their detractors (who doesn't?), and it's not really uncommon to hear or read various women opining on their negative attraction for Asian men. But is this representative of a general truth? Are Asian men at a disadvantage when it comes to love? I don't think so.

Despite personal testimonials that support the notion that Asian men may encounter negative responses based upon racial characteristics, this in no way proves that Asian men are generally at a disadvantage when it comes to finding partners. Yet, many seem to accept this as a common truth and there is no shortage of cultural reinforcement of this "truth" through online and offline media sources alike. Worst of all is the fact that some Asian men themselves seem to buy into this idea that they are at the bottom of the romance ladder. My own personal experiences, those of my friends, as well as casual observation of Asian men around me leads me to believe that reports of Asian men's undesirability are greatly exaggerated.

Suffice it to say that I never felt intimidated to approach an attractive girl and have also been pursued by attractive girls. I've seen this happen to other Asian guys too. So why doesn't my experience and the experiences of many of those I see around me not fit the stereotype of romantic losers? Is it that I'm simply "good-looking for an Asian guy"? Much as I would like this to be true, I don't think it offers a good explanation!

In  reality, as individuals Asian men are neither more nor less desirable than other men. The fact that so many Asian men seem to believe that this is not the case is a result of the ongoing cultural terrorist campaign being waged against us by society. The undesirable Asian male archetype is as much a caricature as is Long Duk Dong - it isn't real. It is a stereotype just like all the other negative stereotypes of Asian men, the goal of which is to uphold the fragile sexual ego of frightened white men. We don't accept the truth of these other stereotypes, yet we seem to accept the idea that we aren't desirable and internalize it, and therein lies the problem. If Asian men believe that they are going to fail in the world of romance, then that's pretty much guaranteed to happen.

In short, I simply don't believe that Asian men are doomed to failure when it comes to dating, and I especially don't believe that Asian are at a romantic disadvantage. Asian men need to give themselves a fighting chance of romantic success by first changing their mindset and everything else will follow from that.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Invasion of Privacy

The Sexual Harassment of Asian Men.

Shaming of others through mockery, taunting or any other method will always be ugly and will often carry with it painful consequences. The suicide last week of Rutgers University student Tyler Clementi is a tragic reminder of this. As readers may know, his decision to commit suicide is alleged to be the result of a "prank" by his roommate and an accomplice that exposed Clementi's apparently hidden homosexuality in a live online broadcast of the boy engaging in a sexual encounter with another male student. No doubt, defendants Dharun Ravi and Molly Wei may have thought that shaming a young man about his sexuality would be a great laugh! Both students now face charges of invasion of privacy with some gay rights activists calling the incident a hate crime which, if proven, would carry with it a harsher sentence.

Sadly, Clementi was the target of the mean-spirited spite with which Asian men may be familiar. Sexual shaming of Asian men is now such a common phenomenon in American culture that sexual inadequacy has become the normal mode of reference for Asian men. Sexual myths about Asian men are broadcast so routinely by many major institutions of popular culture that they have become commonly accepted truths. From big-budget movie productions to home-made YouTube videos the personal and private particulars of Asian men's sexuality are the subject of much public discourse - often carried out with the apparent intent to humiliate.

This is why the incident and subsequent reactions to it are so fascinating. When public sexual humiliation is directed at Asian men society sees no problem with it. If society were consistent then it should find reason to be outraged at the pervasive sexual denigration of Asian men. Yet, as we all appreciate, this is not the case. Perhaps it could be argued that Asian men don't commit suicide as a result of cultural shaming. This may be true (or not - who knows?) but that line of argument also legitimizes social sexual shaming of homosexuality as long as it remains directed at the entire community and not at individuals. This would make homophobia acceptable as long as it isn't directed at any particular individual. As most would agree, this is incoherent and of course unacceptable.

As I've outlined before, Asian male sexuality is feared.  The sexual denigration of Asian men serves to uphold the myth of white male sexual prowess. This is why society is so heavily invested in this phenomenon - Asian male sexual empowerment is the final straw that will break the back of western patriarchal self-confidence hence the vehement propaganda war to prevent this occurring.

Edit: Minor Word Edits For Clarity.