Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Foot-Binding Ain't So Bad

The Case For a More Nuanced Dialogue.

Few would argue that the now abolished Chinese cultural practice of the foot-binding of Chinese women has been the subject of much debate amongst the men and women (but mainly the women) of the Asian minority of America. Although a phenomenon existing exclusively within Chinese culture, some Asian-American women find value in representing the practice as the essence of female oppression in Asia (and by extension within the Asian-Amerian community). Subsequently, the burden of correcting the historical wrongdoings of the culture of foot-binding falls on "Asian men" in general. Apparently Indian, Uzbek, Siberian, Pakistani, Nepalese, Filipino, as well as Chinese and all other Asian men - all must equally share the responsibility for the phenomenon of foot-binding - even though ultimately it took the willpower of strong Asian men to end the practice.

Foot-binding was a practice in which Chinese girls as young as 3 or 4 underwent an extremely painful process to modify the shape and size of the foot. In order to achieve this, the bones of young girls' feet were broken and bandaged in whatever was the desired shape. Foot-bound women lived in constant pain, and infections were a frequent complication. Definitely an ugly practice. Yet, what were the circumstances that brought about this practice? Most accounts maintain that the phenomenon started as a fashion statement amongst the rich and well-to-do of the Tang Dynasty and slowly evolved into a tradition that involved every echelon of Chinese society.

Women who had their feet bound were highly prized in feudal China - their value as wives were increased and for many it was a means to escape poverty. Asthetically, bound feet were considered sexually attractive, and those who had undergone the procedure were widely considered to be chaste. Although it is maintained that foot-binding was a means to  keep women disempowered, on the flip side, mutilating the feet of Chinese women effectively increased their value and thus was a practice that was propagated by the men and women of feudal China.

Ironically, the American practice of modifying the body through cosmetic surgery, bears some remarkable similarities to the Chinese tradition. As was the case with women's feet in feudal China, women in modern America aspire to a standard body shape and type that is extremely difficult or impossible to maintain by natural means, and which is a standard determlned by a patriarchy and not the women themselves. In order to do this some women are pro-active and seek out invasive surgery to meet the required standard. Other women in America simply become sick - that is, they develope eating disorders from attempts at body sculpting through extreme dieting and vomiting. Those women who achieve the desired body shape through mutilation (a.k.a cosmetic surgery), become highly valued and desirable.

Clearly the underlying principles that drove the Chinese tradition of foot-binding and continue to drive the modern American culture of cosmetic mutilation are almost exactly the same. Strangely, yet not unsurprisingly, some Asian-American feminism seems to somehow not notice this fact, and continue with the "Asian men are foot-binding mysogynists" battle cry, seeming to be intellectually stuck in feudal China. Apparently, for some Asian-American feminists a traditiıon not practised by the majority of Asian cultures and one that has been abolished for decades, is more of a threat to their empowerment than an American patriarchy that is powerful enough to pressure millions of women to undergo cosmetic surgery. Somehow, Asian women seem fortunate enough to be unaffected by this American culture of control over women's body image, yet remarkably enslaved to an abolished culture of foot-binding that, incidentally, was never practised by the communities that they grew up in within the United States. This reminds very much of the type of disconnect that I noted here. I look on bemused.

The more I notice this similarity between foot-binding and cosmetic surgery, the more difficult it becomes to view the former as an inherently wicked practice without viewing the latter in the same light. Strange as it sounds, the fundamental difference between the two traditions is the availability of aneasthesia, anti-biotics, and painkillers. Unfortunately, what this means for those too lazy to make nuanced and balanced arguments against the practice, is that foot-binding would be no different and no less brutal that routine cosmetic surgery if practised in the present. Wheelchairs, Segways and escalators make the immobility issue a non-issue, painkillers and aneasthesia make the procedure painless. Modern surgical techniques might even make the practice easier and painless.

With this in mind, it is clear that if I am to be held responsible for a practice that has been abolished for decades, and which was never practised within my own Asian culture, then Asian feminists have to come up with better arguments for their case against me. Otherwise, it becomes extremely difficult to take this type of feminism seriously.

Sadly, as with much of the intellectual discourse that occurs within Asian America, the issue is often overly generalized to the point of becoming simplistic. Often this process goes hand-in-hand with a selective ommission of historical and social realities and an uncritical lack of nuance in the argumentation. Since foot-binding wasn't practised outside of China and never occurred amongst any Asian minority group in America (including the Chinese), it strikes me as strange in the extreme that this phenomenon could cause so much resentment toward the general Asian-American male population and serve as something of the rallying cry for the empowerment of Asian-American women. So how is it that some of the voices of Asian feminism rail vehemently against a practice that was not a Pan-Asian phenomenon and has been abolished for decades, yet few rail against the modern day manipulation of women into undergoing cosmetic surgery?

Hat Tip...

Friday, November 5, 2010

The Asian-American Gender Gap

The Separation of Asian Men and Women.

As readers might agree, the so-called "gender-gap" phenomenon of the Asian minority is one of the most talked about, read, and discussed subjects anywhere there is a gathering of two or more Asians. A complex matter, the gender-gap is something of an umbrella term used to describe several different states of affairs and phenomena that when taken as a whole, could be seen as indicative of a fundamental difference in the way that Asian-American men and women conceive of, and experience, the Asian-American experience.

Hyper-sexualization of Asian women and emasculation of Asian men, interracial dating disparities, the Asian Patriarchy and its misogyny, perceived sympathetic media depictions of Asian women compared to derogatory stereotypes of Asian men, plus various literary and artistic works by Asian women that are perceived by many to paint Asian men and culture in an unfair manner might be considered some of the more important or contentious issues that generally come up for discussion. All of this together is what constitutes the "gender-gap". Although not complete, I believe that the above list covers the most contentious topics of debate on this subject.

It is generally accepted that this concept of an Asian-American gender divide has its roots in the literary world of 1970's in the controversies surrounding the work of Maxine Hong Kingston and, later with the work of Amy Tan. Although the conflict of literary sensibilities between Kingston and Frank Chin in the 1970's formed the basis for the modern debate, I believe that it is Amy Tan's The Joy Luck Club that has set the tone for the debate in the last twenty years and served as the catalyst that shifted the debate beyond the literary to the wider community.

That being said, I would argue that the gender-gap, far from being a late 20th century phenomenon that reflects a misogynistic reaction to Asian feminist empowerment stems, in fact, from oppressive laws that targeted the Asian minority, making the gender division one of the factors that defines the Asian-American experience as unique and different from that of America's other minorities. What this means is that the gender division - or the separating of Asian men from women - must be seen as one of the most potent mechanisms of dis-empowerment for the Asian minority and has been in place almost since the beginning of Asian immigration to America. . 

History shows that almost from the beginning, Asian minority communities in America were prevented from flourishing in several ways; immigration controls, anti-miscegenation legislation, denial of property and citizenship rights, limitations on employment and employment discrimination, discrimination in housing, as well as the pervasive threat of personal violence. For the predominantly male Asian minorities of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, strict immigration laws meant that any hope of having an Asian spouse was next to impossible - even men who already had wives in Asia were denied the right to be joined by them. Furthermore, immigration laws that although not explicit in the intent, served to restrict the immigration of Asian women specifically into America. Effectively, this is the beginning of the separation of Asian men and women, the goal of which was explicitly to contain and limit the Asian minority and prevent its population from growing.

The second major event that shaped the gender-divide was the phenomenon of the Asian War Brides of the Second World War. In a dramatic reversal of restrictive immigration policies that targeted Asian women, the War Brides Act permitted tens of thousands of Asian women (some estimate that there were up to 100,000) to be admitted to the country as the spouses of American G.I's. Even though a number of these Asian brides were espoused to black or Asian-American G.I's, the vast majority were admitted as the wives of white Americans.  Strangely, what this meant is that (for a brief period) it became easier for an Asian woman to enter the U.S if she was married to a white man, than it would have been if she was married to an Asian immigrant to America. In other words this meant that it was legally easier for a female Asian immigrant to be married to a white American than to an Asian man - Asian women became acceptable mainly if they were partnered with white men.

Clearly, the so-called gender-divide precedes by decades the issues raised by the literary conflicts of the 1970's and 80's and was initiated as a means of social engineering. Those in power controlled the number of marriages between Asian men and women plus the availability of Asian women to Asian men through strict immigration legislation, and ultimately the roles that Asian women would take once they were permitted to enter the country.

In a historical sense, the Asian War Brides phenomenon marks the point where the history and experiences of the Asian minority that existed prior to it, starts to be whitewashed out of history and starts to be replaced by myths of Asian women needing and wanting to be rescued by western men. Put another way, the Asian-American experience becomes feminized in the sense that the apparent benefits conferred on Asian women by virtue of their marriages to white men comes to define and dominate the historical and literary dialogue of the Asian minority and the mainstream alike. The struggles and hardships experienced by the Asian men and women that went before takes a back seat and are largely forgotten, at least in the popular view, simply because it is too uncomfortable to address. Thus, since the 1950's, the Asian-American story has been reworked as the "Asian woman/white man story" or some variation or derivative thereof with Asian men largely excluded from their own history.

So, far from being a natural cultural evolution within the Asian minority, the gender gap must really be viewed as a reflection of  a fundamental difference in historical perspectives stemming from laws that deliberately and unnaturally kept Asian men and women apart. These differences are so profound that it would be most accurate to say that the outlook of the Asian minority consists of two vastly different and perhaps irreconcilable historical points of view - that of the pre-war predominantly male Asian minority whose stories of struggle against oppression are largely absent from mainstream consciousness, and that of the post-war Asian War Brides whose experiences are ostensibly disconnected from the experiences of those that came before, yet whose story evolved into the acceptable version of Asian-American history.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

This Is a Consular Advisory!

Suicide Bombers and Business As Usual.

Anyone that has had the opportunity to live in a foreign country might agree that often the experiences one has can change one's outlook on life and alter their perceptions of ideas and notions that they might have previously taken for granted. I count myself fortunate to have had the chance to live in several places outside of America where the things that might have seemed so important to me whilst there were somehow given a new perspective when viewed through the filter of a different culture.

The country where I currently reside is especially remarkable in this regard. A country that considers itself to have drawn culturally from both east and west it is a nation of contradiction. Boasting a strong secular tradition, the country also has an equally strong religious vein that is apparent everywhere one looks. Hundreds of minarets rise up everywhere along the horizon, calling the faithful to their religious duties five times a day. Most amazing and interesting are the people themselves. Walk along any thoroughfare of the city where I live and you will be struck by the almost surreal juxtaposition of cultures that coexist and interact with very little effort.

It is common to see families out for their Sunday stroll with their twenty-something daughter dressed in a short skirt and tight blouse walking along arm-in-arm with her mother who will be wearing the khimar. Further along the street you might encounter a dreadlocked or punked-out musician type offering to help an old lady climb some stairs. Walk through any neighbourhood and one might hear traditional music coming from one building whilst across the street the sounds of angry rock blare out in response. Extremely passionate, the people here take their politics and social issues seriously. Public demonstrations are common and heartfelt. On any given weekend walking through the central squares of the city, demonstrators calling for more anarchy, socialism, religion, political autonomy or gay rights will be out making their voices heard.

Whilst in normal circumstances this city is nowhere near as dangerous as most large American cities, there are some security issues here that most American ex-pats here are aware of. This was brought home to me this past weekend when a suicide bomber detonated his explosives in one of the city's central squares, which typically has a prominent police presence, in an attempt to kill as many of them as he could. Fortunately, no-one was killed although dozens were seriously wounded. In the four or so years that I've been here, there have been several bombings around the city, but most of the time these attacks occur well away from the central part of the city where I live and none of them have involved suicide bombers, so this incident is somewhat unique and close to home - my apartment is a five-minute walk from the place where it happened. 

It is at times like this that the American consulate here will send out e-mails to any ex-pats on its e-mail list warning them to be on high alert and advising on the types of places to avoid. These advisories are generally issued any time that their are heightened political tensions in the region that might lead to personal danger to Americans living overseas and are not always sent as a response to an actual attack. For instance, occasionally there might be a surge in hostile sentiment during which entire neighbourhoods will put up angry posters in their windows and drape damning banners over the street. Of course this can sometimes be accompanied by political and media rhetoric that fuels the resentment. Naturally, this can be a time of great anxiety, although in true local fashion, there is usually no display of personal animosity, with people even going out of their way to let you know that there is nothing personal about the sentiments! Still it helps to be a little wary!

Oddly, this sense of anxiety and foreboding are familiar to myself and perhaps even to many others living in America who are of Asian descent. American communities expressing and acting on resentment and hostility towards Asians that is fuelled by media and political rhetoric accurately describes the experience of the Asian minority. If occurring in the country where I currently reside, America labels this type of social intimidation as nationalism or radicalism, with it being clearly recognized that such attitudes can foster acts of violence against the targeted group. This is similar to America where the media routinely presents dehumanizing stereotypes of Asians, politicians foster xenophobia to win votes (as illustrated very recently in political ads for the mid-terms), and violence towards Asians is trivialized, there is a social acceptance and even encouragement of racist behaviour toward Asians. As I outlined here such attitudes are promoted as a method of social engineering that promotes a racial hierarchy seeking to place limitations on the Asian minority.

Clearly, there is very little difference between radical or nationalist promoted hostility in the foreign country where I reside, and media and politically motivated anti-Asianism in  my very own country, America. The effects on the target community are the same in both places; the mainstream are empowered to express their hostility with demeaning behaviour or violence, the target community experiences anxiety and a sense of danger from their neighbours. In extreme cases, it is this type of environmnent that fosters terrorism, the definition and purpose of which is to limit and intimidate a target population. Negative stereotyping and xenophobic rhetoric normalizes and promotes denigrating behaviour toward the Asian minority and models an attitude of exclusion from the mainstream. Of course, anti-Asian media rhetoric in America might not encourage a suicide bomber attack on Chinatown, but it certainly might lead to harrassment of, and violence toward Asian small business owners or schoolchildren for example, not to mention random acts of violence carried out as Asian-Americans try to go about their daily lives.

So, it is with a touch of sadness that I recognize that my dignity and safety as an American are given more credence when I live outside of the country, than when I reside within it. Living as an American ex-pat overseas, my country will do what it can to ensure my safety, as an American-Asian living in my own country, my dignity and safety are flouted. So, kudos to the Consulate for respecting my dignity and safety, now if only the rest of America would follow suit.