How to Endear Yourself to an Asian Woman Writer
November 21, 2014 7:16 AM   Subscribe

Here Be Dragons
People in the US are usually surprised when I say that my Thai mother lives in Ireland. “How did that happen? That’s so strange.” Strange, and their little laugh that accompanies the statement, are code for their assumptions about the education and mobility of this foreign woman of color, who in this case is my mom. She most recently worked for Salesforce, a fast growing tech company headquartered in San Francisco. When she moved to Singapore it was to work for Intel, another large tech company. She is ambitious and accomplished. She defies the stereotypes. My dad runs up against a different stereotype. That he, a white American man, lives in Thailand is not unusual. White American Men have more world-conquering powers according to a general, Western, unexamined assumption of normalcy.
posted by infini (27 comments total) 36 users marked this as a favorite
 
Wow, I am a South Asian woman (married to a white man and living in the US), so my experiences are both similar and rather different from this author's, but can I just say - this essay really speaks to me? It gets at something that is really hard to put into words. The South Asian immigrant "single story" is different from the Thai one but it's just as annoying when people assume that is your story too.
posted by peacheater at 7:37 AM on November 21, 2014 [3 favorites]


7. Put your hands on her shoulders, on her head. Touch her, stroke her like a pet, like a plaything, like she’s so cute, you just can’t resist; all women, but especially Asian women, are pliant.

This sounds so similar to when black women say that strangers touch their hair.

WHO ARE YOU PEOPLE WHO TOUCH STRANGERS? Much less in a weird crypto-racist way.
posted by GuyZero at 7:39 AM on November 21, 2014 [22 favorites]


I loved this. It was a great reminder that I really need to read Americanah already, too.
posted by Juliet Banana at 7:48 AM on November 21, 2014 [1 favorite]


I loved this. It was a great reminder that I really need to read Americanah already, too.

I also loved this, and it is making me happy that Americanah is the next book in my to-read pile.

10. Most of all, if you’re the type to be attracted to women, when she tells you she’s from Thailand, give her a smile that lets her know you like Thai women, you get the code, you’re on the inside, and you want some too.

My partner is a different ethnicity, but she gets this all the time including from some very unexpected people. That doesn't really surprise me (well, other than how direct people are about it); what does is how often men will tell me about their sexual objectifications of my partner and in quite graphic terms. In what world is that remotely appropriate, and why would you think I'm going to tell you intimate details about her body and sexuality just because you also dated an "ethnic" woman in college?*

* Yes, obviously the answer is "racism plus misogyny," but it's still an unpleasant surprise each time.
posted by Dip Flash at 8:15 AM on November 21, 2014 [1 favorite]


I think that if someone not-me touched Mrs. Machine's head or hair, they wouldn't live to tell the tale.
posted by sonic meat machine at 8:19 AM on November 21, 2014


Assuming competence is becoming a new etiquette rule.
posted by michaelh at 8:29 AM on November 21, 2014 [2 favorites]


That's an excellent essay; thanks for posting it. I lived in Bangkok from '58 to '62, long before the Vietnam War changed it utterly, and I hate the way what foreigners once knew (if they knew of it at all) as a peaceful, independent country has become one known for sex tourism (and now political violence). "History, Stephen said, is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake."
posted by languagehat at 8:34 AM on November 21, 2014 [5 favorites]


I think that if someone not-me touched Mrs. Machine's head or hair, they wouldn't live to tell the tale.

If I were to count everyone who did this to my partner, it would probably be the population of a mid-sized town. I'm not sure you are understanding how prevalent this stuff can be. (And seriously, are you going to beat up some sweet old grandpa who is doing his inept best to make a human connection while actually being wildly inappropriate?)
posted by Dip Flash at 8:39 AM on November 21, 2014 [4 favorites]


I'm not. She might.
posted by sonic meat machine at 8:58 AM on November 21, 2014 [6 favorites]


Loved this. Thanks.
posted by rtha at 9:12 AM on November 21, 2014


SHIT.

I did not know until right now that "here be dragons" was written about real-life South Asia and not someplace in a fantasy novel.
posted by clavicle at 9:21 AM on November 21, 2014


A white man living in Thailand has its own set of assumptions, actually.
posted by basicchannel at 9:21 AM on November 21, 2014 [1 favorite]


> I did not know until right now that "here be dragons" was written about real-life South Asia and not someplace in a fantasy novel.

Actually, it probably wasn't. The Anglo-Saxon map has the inscription "hic abundant leones" [here lions abound] over a drawing of a lion (you can see it clearly in the third image on the linked page), and The Map Book (edited by Peter Barber) says that "may be a source for the oft-quoted, but unverifiable, map inscription 'here be dragons'."
posted by languagehat at 9:29 AM on November 21, 2014 [4 favorites]


It gets at something that is really hard to put into words.

The realization that you have to be the stereotype breaker. And that its hard and it hurts. That's the point this got to me. From TFA,

Now, my lineage is different. My mother is educated and my parents met at work. I was careful to say that I met my husband when we were both in college. So even despite the story that my parents have, and the story that my husband and I have, “Thai wife” is an insult I’m anxious to skirt. It’s a stereotype that overwrites complexity. Despite my efforts though, I have been introduced as my husband’s “Thai wife.” Although I recoil at the phrase, I recognize that if I’m not willing to widen and reclaim the definition of a Thai wife, who will?


Just over a year ago, I had papers for yet another European country that I was moving to on an assignment for a couple of their ministries. At the airport, looking at my bulging bag and listening to my explanation that I was in midst of relocation, the kind lady at customs asked me if I was joining my husband here. I confess I burst out laughing, gleefully informing her that times had changed and no, these were my own papers and wasn't that a great thing for women these days? Interestingly, and ironically, just noticed this study from that same country.

Over the decades, I'm discovering, that yes, while indeed there are issues of race, religion, gender, ethnicity, language, culture etc involved with one's own path chosen through life, I find it easier to be an ostrich and stick my head in the sand, unless and until someone deliberately rubs my colour and sex into my face. You see, I don't see myself all day, so I don't think of myself as standing out in the room or being different in the crowd. I don't walk around conscious and aware of being different and believe that helps those with less experience of diversity (I'm in a far more homogenous little country) become less aware of the differences and more comfortable in interacting with me.

This isn't Pollyanna because the glass ceiling is cracked and the sharp edges glint around my neck. Its simultaneously more challenging (the shoves are harder) yet less stressful (not carrying it like a millstone around my neck). Its yet another story for Chimamanda to tell. I wonder if I'm "letting the side down" by my ostrich approach, which is why that quote from the article got me in a soft spot but then I think simply carrying on carrying on is also a way of breaking stereotypes isn't it?

This was shared with me by a friend who herself is uniquely breaking stereotypes in her own country and continent. As she said to me once, you'll learn how to broaden your shoulders when you need it. Seeing the different ways we each navigate our way through stereotypes and prejudices also helps as it spreads the base of responses and shows us that the diversity of experiences and multiplicity of perspectives and experiences make us stronger in a way that we wouldn't be if we were all "fighting the same fight in the same way".

Dunno if the words came out right. Issues of race and gender are things I very rarely talk about publicly or acknowledge IRL.
posted by infini at 9:41 AM on November 21, 2014 [13 favorites]


I am white, gay, blonde, blue-eyed, tall, red-bearded science type from the US. I spent a lot of time doing public health work in rural parts of the world where people of my appearance are far from the norm. There was always a lot of stranger touching, gawking, questions about what happened to my hair, or how I got my beard to be so red, or if my mom knew that she could be protected by a spell to keep from having pale children, and so on.

This writer is full of knowledge and good intention, but the piece still fits into a narrative that's very common around these themes: white Americans are uninformed about cultural context. Well, ok, sure, but so is essentially everyone else in the world on an averaged scale. And you know what? It makes sense that people who don't have access to a significantly globalized cohort when growing up would express surprise about arrangements that surprise them. It's a very worldly thing to expect people to know, or even to desire, to suppress their surprise or wonder about how X ended up in Y. The "single story" concept is how we seem to arrange ourselves in thought until we have reason to assume otherwise. To expect otherwise--or at least to hope for a uniform awareness of cultural relativity from everyone--is an approach to these issues that is just as guilty of the "flattening" concept as the responses this writer asserts are inappropriate acts of stereotyping. If you wander far enough from where you started, you'll get the response that the writer hates and considers negative stereotyping--not everyone feels the same negativity with being visibly away from your native or ancestral or professional origin.
posted by late afternoon dreaming hotel at 10:16 AM on November 21, 2014 [17 favorites]


white Americans are uninformed about cultural context

Except for the Singaporeans in Singapore who mistook her mother for a maid, or the hotel staff in Bangkok her thought she was a prostitute, or the writer's acknowledgment of her own assumptions about Africa and people who live there, or the common reactions from people who have traveled in various parts of Asia, and are not exactly rural American hicks.

Maybe it's a familiar narrative because it's so common. Some may have the option of ignoring it, or never encountering it first-hand. You seem to think she is having her experience wrong, or that it has never occurred to her that some of these people "don't have access to a significantly globalized cohort" - I think she probably knows that. I think her experience is different from yours, though similar on the surface, and very much because of her femaleness and not-whiteness. She will get reacted to in ways you will not, and those ways will have a context and history absent from yours.
posted by rtha at 10:32 AM on November 21, 2014 [13 favorites]


It makes sense that people who don't have access to a significantly globalized cohort when growing up would express surprise about arrangements that surprise them. It's a very worldly thing to expect people to know, or even to desire, to suppress their surprise or wonder about how X ended up in Y.

Yeah. I was shocked to be asked if I was from Korea or if I was Chinese in random rural African country. I realized later it was because I didn't fit in with what they'd seen of South Asians and they could tell I wasn't Caucasian but truly hadn't seen enough diverse peoples to identify my ethnic heritage. Which was ironic because this was a region where the British had imported labour from my passport country in centuries past and my 'native' language and cuisine had imprinted teeny bits of itself in their daily life.

I think her experience is different from yours, though similar on the surface, and very much because of her femaleness and not-whiteness. She will get reacted to in ways you will not, and those ways will have a context and history absent from yours.


This.

Especially in Africa. This.

*suppresses rant out of respect for some of my best friends who are tall white men and walks away*
posted by infini at 10:33 AM on November 21, 2014


The physical invasions she's been subjected to are appalling.

When my best defense is "Well, it's probably not about race as our white President did something similar to the white German Chancellor a while back", I know I'm in trouble.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 11:23 AM on November 21, 2014


I'll just drop this here: Myth of submissive Asian women - it's a column a friend wrote awhile back on Asian stereotypes & "rice-loving haoles."
posted by kanewai at 11:37 AM on November 21, 2014


That essay has always bugged me as it tries to stereotype "Asian Women" the other direction.

Stereotyping is necessary is you're going to talk about societal issues, but please let's draw the line around 1 million or so. Making a generalization about 2.2 billion people is going a bit overboard.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 12:07 PM on November 21, 2014 [1 favorite]


I know the person who wrote this. She is amazing. I also know her family, who are also amazing.

i'm so cool
posted by niphates at 12:26 PM on November 21, 2014 [3 favorites]


One day I shall steal and use niphates' comment. One day. I swear. On Ganesha's trunk.
posted by infini at 12:36 PM on November 21, 2014 [1 favorite]


niphates

Any chance you could convince her to become One of Us? She's a great writer, I bet she'd like this site a lot.
posted by Sangermaine at 2:11 PM on November 21, 2014 [2 favorites]


A white man living in Thailand has its own set of assumptions, actually.

Yes. She also explores these assumptions in the article.

My mom is Chinese and my dad is white, and I definitely know the sorts of stereotypes she's talking about. I don't find it as bad now, simply because it's much more common to see mixed-race couples in suburban Vancouver, but I know people made assumptions about my parents when I was a kid. The "Asian wife" is often seen as submissive, but at the same time a bit of a social climber, having immigrated from the benighted land she left; the "white husband" is often seen as predatory, wanting a submissive wife whom he can take advantage of.

Gross. And hilariously inaccurate in my parents' case, given the way they really met, and their actual personalities.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 4:26 PM on November 21, 2014 [3 favorites]


It's an interesting essay.

I will say though, that feeling duty towards a message is an awful burden for a writer. It doesn't help the work. Reality - or truth? - is so often inconvenient, or untidy, or more simple than people would like, or more complicated than people can understand etc. I don't know if this is a terribly dated phrase but I can remember 'the burden of representation' being discussed with regard to cultural production by minorities, and I think that burden is particularly hard on women, who are under a lot of social pressure to conform to any number of ideals, including progressive ones. To put it simplistically, it is hard to be complete, if you are also trying to be virtuous.

there is a rising generation of people who call many continents home. ...What is it to be both, to exist in multiple cultural-linguistic dimensions, with traits from one culture that glare in relief in the other?
Indeed, and well put, and I hope she finds publishers to support the ambivalence and category trespass writing about such stuff will engender.

late afternoon dreaming hotel, if your experiences of people being surprised by your phenotype and touching your hair involved them also patronising you, dominating you, belittling you, relegating you to the lowest possible status while also feeling entitled to sexual attention from you, you might have had a point.
posted by glasseyes at 6:30 PM on November 21, 2014 [2 favorites]


This struck a chord with me. My experience is similar in some ways to the writer's parents. I met my partner while we were both working for a tech company in Bangkok. We have both had negative stereotypes projected on us, both inside and out of Thailand.

Despite that, the benefits of being with such a wonderful person far outweighs what ignorant people say and do. All we can do is to be who we are and try to counter the stereotypes.
posted by CaveFrog at 8:05 PM on November 21, 2014


Thanks so much for sharing this, infini. I too would love to see the author become a Mefite (mainly so I can ask her lots of questions about how she interacted with Thai men as an adult in business culture and pass them on to my best friend).

We (and by 'we' I mean those in the West primarily but not exclusively) do such a poor job relating to people who are biracial, third-culture kid, raised in more than one culture, visibly different from the 'majority' culture, etc. I've watched a lot of friends struggle with this and it's enlightening to hear the author describe her struggle.

Thailand in particular is pretty dear to my heart--I just spent some time there this summer and I have longstanding personal ties to the country--and while the stereotypes the author describes are completely unsurprising, they're still pretty enraging. It's truly, unforgivably stupid to boil half the population of such a huge and varied country down to one demeaning and limiting stereotype.
posted by librarylis at 9:42 PM on November 21, 2014


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