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.


  1. Just want to praise you for such a brilliantly written post/article and a great take on Asian American. Just surprised that no one had picked up on it!

  2. Just want to thank you for a brilliantly written post/article. Surprised that no one else had picked up on it, would definitely love to see an AF's take on it.

  3. N and Anonymous...

    Thank you for the kudos. I too would be curious to hear what an Asian female perspective might be.

  4. Ben, what a spot-on piece, written so well I'm almost offended you posted this on a blog and didn't try to get it published in an academic journal first!! We should talk. Do you have my contact? You've got a lot to offer, and you really should work on formally organizing these ideas into university journal articles.

    As for my response to your post. While all that you said is true, I wonder whether we're confusing ourselves by adding in the race factor. Without a doubt that intersection of race and gender should be studied, reviewed, researched, and written on, and personally it's a passion of mine; but the way I see it, there's also this overall gender gap between men and women. Period.

    Sometimes Hubby and I get into little disputes or even arguments over ideas, especially regarding gender issues. On the layers of those issues that involve race, Hubby and I agree. On the layers of those issues that involve gender, that's where the fire starts. I write a lot about this on a totally different, undisclosed channel.... ^)^

    Ultimately, the gender gap over at BWW is less about race and more about the fact many of the guys there don't know how to talk to women, and so the WAY they talk offends women, or get on our bad side, hence we respond in kind.

  5. TZ

    Thank you for those kind words. I'm somewhat taken aback that you see my writing as having academic potential! I've never thought about pursuing that course but one never knows......

    I agree that race confuses the issue, but that seems to be our lot in life. It's something of a luxury that white people enjoy to work through their ─▒nter-gender issues without race being a factor.

  6. "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."

    Strong assertion there. I'm concerned that Asian American academia is truly feminist studies in disguise.

    "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."

    Did you know that the 19th century Chinese railroad workers in San Francisco left little to no written evidence of their stay? They were so ashamed of their experience that they destroyed most, if not all of their correspondence.

  7. Hi Dali

    Welcome and thanks for yor comment. I see it as one of the main duties of any Asian-American cultural body to be the voice and the memory that connects the experiences of our pre-war Asian-American ancestors with the present. If we don't do that, no-one will.

    Without this continuity of experience with the past, then much of what we strive for in the present makes less sense.

  8. Ben, how do you come to identify as Asian American? Are you mix but look more Asian? Well, that is not important. It's nice to hear some of the issues talked about in a thoughtful way.

  9. Hi Anonymous

    Thanks for your comment.

    Those are interesting questions that you have posed! The questions are somewhat leading so I'll leave it up to you to expand on your own ideas.

    What or who do you consider to be Asian-American and why?

    I'm glad you liked the post.