Thursday, July 9, 2009

On a "Chinese Bride"

So, I am officially headed to China in the Fall (end of September/beginning of October). Since this is the official plan and where my near-future is taking me, I - of course - have found myself talking about it with many different people.

There are a number of reactions to this news - mostly positive - but one of the most common comments I've gotten back (especially from acquaintances, but also from real friends) is a reference to me coming back with a "Chinese bride." Seriously. I've heard this many more times than could even slightly be due to coincidence.

And it's not a coincidence. Not at all. It's a "funny" joke just as creative and new as a really tall person being asked about the weather.

"Oh - you're going to live in China for a while? I bet you come back with a Chinese bride!" Ha. Ha. Ha.

Do I really need to break it down for folks? It all just falls into the theme of race-based objectification of women. In this case, it's part of the whole "exotic, yet submissive" meme that always flows around stereotypes of Asian women. It's that damn Asian fetish rearing its ugly head, yet again. It's also part of the general exploitation and de-humanization of non-Western countries and women of color by the Western (generally white, but not only white) world.

So - people's first thought when I talk about going to China? That I must be going to pick up a bride. Like I'm going shopping for a woman. And since we all know how submissive and eager-to-please Chinese women are, of course I could buy one while I'm there. It's a lot cheaper than mail-order, and this way, I can have a pick. Let's think back to the "good old days" of opium dens, "dragon ladies," and cultural exploitation. Right off the bat.

This pisses me off on so many levels, but it's that first thought aspect of it that kills me the most. I say I'm finally going to China, and that's what I hear. Nothing about how great that is, from a cultural sense. Nothing about my identity or how much I'll probably learn. Nothing about learning the language, maybe seeing family, etc. No - time and again: "Chinese Bride!! HA HA HA!!!"

And that just shows how insidious racism is in this country. It's like me talking about China is my own version of the Implicit Association Test** - I say "going to China," and everybody else spits out their first association: "Chinese Bride." Cutting through all the bullshit. Friends, acquaintances, whatever - that's what comes out. People that know me and my background, and they jump right past respect and support to a triggering stereotype.

And I'm not saying that any of these people are actually racist. I don't think they even know what they're saying, really (or how I take it). Some probably mean something entirely different by it. But it just sums it all up for me. No matter the intentions, or how much we talk about it, the racist power of the media and popular culture wins most of the time. I can't be "on" all the time.

This is the thing, too - if folks took two seconds to think about it, they would never say this to me. I'm mixed, Chinese/white. My dad is white. My mom is Chinese. I constantly fret about that being the vast majority of interracial Asian/white couples: white male, Asian female. I battle against the "Asian fetish." I don't fully believe that all of those relationships are based on love and not an objectifying, disempowering racial stereotype. So why the Hell would I head to China - where the power dynamic between me and the women would be even more lop-sided - and be a participant in exactly what I loathe most in American society?

And sure - some of it is based on the assumption that I want to marry a Chinese woman, period. The unfortunate stereotypes associated with "Chinese brides" being coincidental to the assumption that that would be a way for me to connect to my identity, or satisfy my dead grandparents, or something like that. But again - those who know me should know that I'm not stupid enough to work that way. A Chinese romantic interest isn't going to make me any more Chinese than I already am. It also annoys me that the assumption is that - since I'm half-Chinese - I must need a Chinese lover to make me whole. Doesn't really work like that.

For those who think I'm "overreacting" and/or "misunderstanding" - that's exactly the point. Again - race doesn't happen in a one-time-only vacuum. If all these other bits and pieces hadn't been piling on for the last two decades, I wouldn't be "so damn touchy" about all this. But they have. And I am. And I have every right in having those reactions. In fact, it would be kind of amazing (or maybe sad) if I didn't.

So think of this as just one more lesson about the power of race in this country. How it all piles on. How one stupid, "joking" comment can just blow things up. Yeah - I can take a joke. And I can also work from experience. If only one or two or even three people said it, I could "relax" and just "take a joke." But when it becomes an over-arching theme?


And don't even get me started on the lady whose only reaction was to keep telling me, "You don't even look Chinese!"

And now that I've written all this? How mentally-twisted would I be if I ended up falling in love in China . . . Thanks, media-influenced racial stereotypes.

Aiyaaa. Can we ever win?

* I should note here that the image with this post is a painting by Chi Tung Chiang. I don't actually know him at all, but I wanted to give him credit, and if you are interested in seeing more of his work, go to:

** If you don't know what that is, read my reference to PRIMING, then go to this website: I highly recommend you check out the tests - you'll learn a lot about your thoughts in a short time.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

On Sex and Male Power, Part I

I suppose I could have used a more titillating image to go with this piece. But if I had - wouldn't I just be playing the same game that I'm about to challenge? As a male, would using an image of female subjugation to draw attention to injustice be anything but exploitive?

I don't know. Mt. Rushmore may not be sexy, but it gets part of the point across, and it does so without blurring boundaries.

Because that's what this post is about: the blurred line between "consensual" sex and male dominance in U.S. society. A big jump-off from my usual line of questioning, but one that is late in coming. I should have written this a long time ago, but I think I only recently have been able to touch on it effectively.

So here goes:

I start with a premise that few would deny - we (U.S. citizens) live in a patriarchy. In this society, males dominate. Males dominate positions of political power. Men make more money for doing the same jobs that women do. Men dominate the media - making it so that women in the media are often objectified and sexualized; even those bringing us the "news."

I don't think I have to go into any more depth there. That's all patently obvious.

Level Two:

Due to the level of male dominance in our society (and especially in the popular media), all things being equal - things are not equal between men and women. From birth, girls in this country are inundated with messages about their "roles" as females - generally about the need for being "attractive" (and how to do so), the need to be submissive (to some degree) to male desires.

Yes, men are also told their roles throughout life. And most men don't actually fit within those roles. However, there is a much larger pressure on women to focus on how they look, how they present themselves, and how they put in the effort to gain male attention - in all contexts, including "professional" areas where those ideas should seem irrelevant.

Level Three:

I am now going to focus on a sub-set of male-female relations in this society: heterosexual sexual relationships. Because it is within this realm that I believe the media plays the most direct role,* and it also happens to be within my realm of experience.

So, recently, I've had some discussions with friends (one in particular) about whether or not it's possible for sex to be "just sex" between men and women in our society. More specifically, we've discussed the man's responsibility in those situations. To start, we'll go with the "random hook-up" scenario.

So a female (call her "F") and a male (call him "M") are at the club (or the bar, or wherever), and they're doing their thing. Having drinks, talking with friends, looking around at those of the opposite sex around them. At some point, F and M see each other, and they're intrigued. They come together, maybe dance a bit, do some groping - they get excited. A while later, they're at F's house, having sex. Numbers are exchanged, nobody makes a further call. End of story.

In this scenario, let's say that all F wanted was sex. She felt the need, she went out and did something about it. Nothing wrong with that. M was doing the same thing. Totally mutual. Totally consensual. Totally equal. Right?

Well . . . the problem is this: we've got that whole "Madonna/Whore" thing going in our society. I.e. a woman that is fully comfortable with her sexuality and demonstrates that is a whore, while a woman who is not and does not is of virginal purity. There is no in-between. And I know the minds of men, and I'd say that that belief falls out far too often (among women, too, although more submerged).

So men want to date and love the Madonnas, and they want to use and cast away the Whores. The problem being, of course, that there is no true dichotomy like this, so women run a constant risk of being cast as the Whore in men's minds - which often precludes an opportunity of further connection and a true relationship (because men close that door when their judgment comes down).

So we go back to F and M and their "consensual" sex. If F really only wanted sex, then she's okay - as long as she doesn't mind the possible judgment that will come from M (and/or his friends or whomever) about it all. But what if she finds, somewhere along the line, that she is actually attracted to M on a different level? What if she decides, sometime during the rise to sex or afterwards - that she would like to get to know M?

Well - then she's in trouble. Because our society has pounded into M's brain that F must be a slut because of her willingness to have sex (or engage in sexual acts) right off the bat. Even though he did the same thing and gets off un-judged. So he decides that F is decidedly un-dateable and won't give it a further thought. Because, if she's a "slut," then she must be more likely to cheat, less likely to commit, less intelligent, less "worthy." All a bunch of BS, of course, but the truth seldom does people any good when ingrained bias rears its head.

On the flip side - M can roll both ways. If he just wanted sex - he just got it. However, if he wants more, he can go for it - still with no guarantees, but without being cast as "undateable" simply because he was willing to have sex.

And that's the man's power in this situation. His power is that he gets to cast a judgment with the weight of society behind it. He gets to have a one-night stand without losing anything, while the woman makes a choice (conscious or otherwise) to give up a further opportunity by having that one-night stand.

Okay - so there are a lot of questions and arguments against what I'm saying here. But the guy could want more and get rejected, too, right? If the woman just wants to have sex and the guy wants more, then doesn't she have all the power?

Sure, to answer the first question. But that doesn't change the inequality of the overall situation. A black man can be a white man's boss, but that doesn't mean that the black man isn't oppressed by overall institutional racism. Same here. A woman can have more power in a given situation, but that doesn't empower her on a societal level. I often hear women talk about "taking back power" over their sexuality - and I'm all for it - but you can't do that operating within a vacuum. Part of that must come knowing that there is a sacrifice to doing so. Hopefully at less cost than the benefits, but a sacrifice comes. One that a man never really has to make.

As for the second question, what I just said applies, and so I disagree. The woman doesn't have all the power because she has to make that choice, before sexual contact has occurred. The choice between doing what you want in the moment, at the possible cost of a loss of further connection, versus holding back on immediate desires, so that future options are available. And going with the latter still guarantees nothing, possibly making things worse if all the guy wants is sex in the first place. A lot of possibility of disappointment here (and I'm not even talking about the fact that most guys are terrible lovers).

Finally, Level Four:

I've tried to lay this out as concisely as possible, but it's a deep dilemma - one not easy to explain. But I think we've finally gotten to the point where I can write about the man's role in all this. Right now, I'll just use myself as the example.

So - say I'm in M's place in the previous scenario. I think F is sexy, and I want to do something about it. She says she wants to do something about it. We're agreed. So shouldn't we just do something about it?

The problem is - I've already thought through everything I wrote above (and so much more). I know I have the power here. I know that there's a risk that F might not actually want "just sex" - that she may want something more and feel that that's a way to get that. I also know that - having the power - I'm in a position to have F feel used when all is said and done. I also know that maybe F really does just want sex, and has no interest in more - which maybe I have interest in. I know that - maybe - F is making a conscious choice to forgo further opportunities by choosing to have sex.

Okay. Okay. So there are a lot of possibilities. Some end with "no harm, no foul." We fulfill basic needs, we part ways, both none the worse for wear. But a number end with negatives: maybe she'll feel used; maybe she's doing something she doesn't really want to try to get more; maybe I'll end up wanting more, and she's already eliminated that option - so I'll get hurt; maybe I just have flat societal power over her, and that just doesn't feel good, no matter what she actually wants.

So, in my position, with all the possible negatives that can come from this, how can I go through with it? How can I feel okay about possibly using a woman? How can I feel okay in a situation where I might be abusing my societal power?

My personal answer? I can't. So I don't put myself in those situations. I will make sure women feel wholly safe with me (something that takes real time - not a night, not even a few days), so that they can make an honest choice for themselves, without the pressure of patriarchy influencing it.

On a more general level, I just ask men to be aware of their power. And the devastating effects it can have (not that it always does, but can have) on another human being. To be aware that, in our society, sex is not "just sex." There is history and pressure and injustice and inequality behind it. To be aware of that - and to make subsequent decisions with that awareness in full view. You all might not make the same choices that I do - maybe mine aren't the right ones - but awareness never hurt anybody.

As for the women? Bring that same awareness. Make your choices for you - knowing that - most often - the men aren't going to bring that awareness. Know what you want - and go for it. I'm in no position to be giving any other advice on this one - since you are all the experts, and I'm just working on suppositions.

There is so much more to be said and written on this topic. I know I've left glaring holes and haven't made myself fully clear. But this part of the fight needs to be mentioned - by me, in this space - and waiting to say it "just right" likely means that it won't be said at all.

When it comes to gender and sexuality - I'm the oppressor. I'm the privileged one, here. I don't have many answers. I'm starting to find the right questions. And I hope all you experts out there (women, LGBT) wouldn't mind helping me out on this one.

I'm out of my element here. And that's where the learning happens.