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Saturday, May 18, 2013

Stereotypes are Ugly

Today the prompt at dVerse Poets Pub stopped me short: Poetics: 'Asians are Ugly!'  Written by Kelvin S.M. a self-proclaimed "Poet*Artist*Mythical Sleuth*" who is "Filipino-Spanish," the prompt lays out a bit of his experience of racism and asks us to write about any experience we have had with Asians--which includes, of course, being Asian.  He called the resulting poems his "Asian revenge (lol)" which is rather tongue in cheek.  

Geraldine Farrar as Madama Butterfly, 1907Metropolitan Opera de Nova York

I, who have never met an ugly Asian, sat down to think about Kelvin's prompt.  My Asian experience is all within the USA.  Here are the highlights summarized chronologically:

1.      Uncle Nishino
2.      Chinese and Indian food
3.      Taiwanese roommate Ye Fe Chou
4.      Madame Butterfly by Giacomo Puccini
5.      Japanese set designer Jun Maeda
6.      Butoh dancers
7.      Chinese Canadian Ping Chong and Company
8.      Korean students of English as a second Language
9.      Thai food
10.   Noh theatre
11.    Kabuki Theatre
12.    Chinese Opera
13.   M. Butterfly by David Henry Hwang
14.   Tea by Maxine Hong Kingston
15.   Bunraku
16.   Vietnamese students in Public School English classes
17.   World Affairs Council Seminar in South East Asian Culture

Of these, Number 13 was probably the most intense.  I saw Hwang's M. Butterfly first on Broadway, second in text (as part of  the "Freshman Seminar in Multi-Cultural American Drama" I taught at the College of William and Mary), and third as a Hollywood movie.  Only the movie disappointed.  


The Broadway play in 1989 with actors John Lithgow as Gallimard and BD Wong as Song Liling literally put me in my place.  Not forewarned about the content and message of the piece nor anticipating its relationship to Madame Butterfly, I was taken in by the same racist stereotypes as Gallimard who was “loosely based on” French diplomat Bernard Boursicot and his relationship with  Shi Pei Pu, a male Peking opera singer.  Here is Wikipedia’s summary of the plot: 

The first act introduces the main character, Rene Gallimard, who is a civil servant attached to the French embassy in China. He falls in love with a beautiful Chinese opera diva, Song Liling, who is actually a man masquerading as a woman. In traditional Beijing opera, females were banned from the stage; all female roles (dan) were played by males.

Act two begins with Song coming to France and resuming his affair with Gallimard. They stay together for 20 years until the truth is revealed, and Gallimard is convicted of treason and imprisoned. Unable to face the fact that his "perfect woman" is actually a man, that has been posing as a woman for 20 years to be able to spy, he retreats deep within himself and his memories. The action of the play is depicted as his disordered, distorted recollection of the events surrounding their affair.

The third act portrays Gallimard committing seppuku (also known as harakiri, ritual Japanese suicide through self-disembowelment) while Song watches and smokes a cigarette.

So what were the stereotypes?  

The worst is that all of Asia is feminine/submissive to the male western world—HA! Here are some memorable quotes from the play found at Goodreads:   

“As soon as a Western man comes into contact with the East -- he's already confused.  The West has sort of an international rape mentality towards the East. ...Basically, 'Her mouth says no, but her eyes say yes.' The West thinks of itself as masculine -- big guns, big industry, big money -- so the East is feminine -- weak, delicate, poor...but good at art, and full of inscrutable wisdom -- the feminine mystique. Her mouth says no, but her eyes say yes. The West believes the East, deep down, wants to be dominated -- because a woman can't think for herself. ...You expect Oriental countries to submit to your guns, and you expect Oriental women to be submissive to your men.” 
David Henry HwangM. Butterfly

“Consider it this way: what would you say if a blond homecoming queen fell in love with a short Japanese businessman? He treats her cruelly, then goes home for three years, during which time she prays to his picture and turns down marriage from a young Kennedy. Then, when she learns he has remarried, she kills herself. Now I believe you should consider this girl to be a deranged idiot, correct? But because it's an Oriental who kills herself for a Westerner–ah!–you find it beautiful.” 
David Henry HwangM. Butterfly

“Why, in the Peking Opera, are women's roles played by men?...Because only a man knows how a woman is supposed to act.” 
David Henry HwangM. Butterfly

“Tonight, I've finally learned to tell fantasy from reality. And, knowing the difference, I choose fantasy.” 
David Henry HwangM. Butterfly

The classes I have taught since 1989 have all, in one way or another, been about identity vs. stereotypes/expectations.  I champion curiosity, inquiry, listening.  As in Kelvin’s prompt, the results I am after are much bigger, but we start always with individual experience.  I enjoy diversity.

I first learned I was white European and racist in 1969, two decades before this play taught me the depth of that racism, sexism, and classism.  I was getting on a Greyhound bus in Worcester, MA, to travel to Albany, NY where my parents were waiting for me. I looked up and saw all the faces, all black faces.  I had never been in a place where everyone else was Black, and I wondered for the first time in my life how it felt for my African-American friends to experience White.  My first instinct was to back up and step off the bus, but I didn't   I walked to the back of the bus and sat down.  I had experienced difference, but not danger—I hope I will never know the full extent of racism experientially. 

Now I love that this life-changing moment occurred on Memorial Day weekend.  Insight into self, good or bad, is always memorable.

Thank you, Kelvin S.M.