The Asian Mystique: Dragon Ladies, Geisha Girls & Our Fantasies of the Exotic Orient
by Sheridan Prasso
PublicAffairs, 2005, 464 pages
My girlfriend saw this book at Daedalus Books & Music and handed it to me, saying "This has you written all over it." She can read me...like a book, I guess. It's true that I have a well-documented interest in Asian art, food and culture (especially Japanese cinema and pop culture), and an aesthetic preference for slim, dark-eyed, dark-haired women - which naturally biases me towards the attributes of almost all Asian women. Not that I've ever dated anyone even remotely Asian before Amy, who is a Halvsie (Japanese mother, American father) born right here in (not so Far) Eastern Baltimore.
Anyway, I realise that it's a thin, nuanced line between having a natural preference for something and a politically incorrect obsession, which is usually tagged with the dreaded and distasteful adjective "Yellow Fever."
"What are you looking at, you objectifying Eurocentric racist?"
And, given the Seinfeld Preference Principle - aptly referenced in Prasso's book - I'm probably a racist in that regard. In the Seinfeld episode "The Chinese Woman," the following exchange takes place:
Jerry: "Helloo? Who is this? Donna Chang? Oh, I'm so sorry, I must have dialed the wrong number.
Elaine: "Donna Chang?"
Jerry (redialing): "I should have talked to her; I love Chinese women."
Elaine: "Isn't that a little racist?"
Jerry: "If I like their race, how can that be racist?"
Anyway, this is a great and detailed look at Occidental misconceptions and stereotypes about the Orient and Asians, from Madame Butterfly up to Lucy Lui. More later as I make my way through this exhaustive study - it's a long read!
Prasso, who has lived in Phnom Penh and Hong Kong and written for Business Week, nearly turns the fascination of Western men with Asian sexuality into a subject of numbing correctness. Fortunately, though, her determination to explore "our relationships and interactions, our misconceptions and stereotypes" doesn't suck the life from her compelling topic--perhaps because she is not above taking readers into the girlie bars of Bangkok and Manila, the personals ("Red Hot Asians") of the Village Voice, the cinemas and TV screens of West and East, even the home of Mineko Iwasaki, who inspired Arthur Golden's best-selling Memoirs of a Geisha. Using this frame of reference effectively, Prasso explains the symbiotic nature of Western fantasy and Asian fulfillment--often to great profit--of that fantasy, the roles that Asian women play and defy in the West, even the dangerous implications of this still-active fantasy upon global politics. Especially interesting are her observations on the emasculated role of Asian men in Western media--picture, for instance, Jackie Chan even kissing a Western woman.
Publishers Weely review:
Prasso, a former Business Week Asia editor, asks if Westerners can look objectively at the Eastern region, blinded as they are by "issues of race and sex, fantasy and power." It's this worldview-one the author admits succumbing to and feeling a "sense of loss" in giving up-that clouds cross-cultural relations. Prasso's ambitious agenda focuses on both Asian women and our perceptions of them, exploring the historical and pop cultural roots of the "Asian Mystique" and ending with a "reality tour of Asia." Her stories about the lives of Asian women from diverse cultures and socio-economic backgrounds are compelling. The Japanese woman who inspired Arthur Golden's Memoirs of a Geisha shares her distaste for the novel's "misinterpretation" of her "flower and willow world." A Chinese investment banker struggles with modern demands and traditional expectations. With the author in tow, a Filipina prostitute navigates a seedy red-light district. Prasso has an almost voyeuristic fascination with sexual mores, and the result is a frank, at times graphic, exploration of how some Asian women cope with stereotyping-and with Western males looking for one-night stands. But when the author moves from reportage to social anthropological analysis, the book loses focus. Self-conscious ruminations, such as the incongruity of dancing with Filipina prostitutes to Madonna's "Like a Virgin," sometimes intrude and distract. In addition, Prasso never really gets a grip on the Asian Mystique's effects on foreign policy, concluding, not surprisingly, that it is "much harder to measure and more difficult to prove." Nevertheless, Prasso's work and travels have opened her eyes, and this book might do the same for others.