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Unlearning stereotypes of Asians - a personal journey

I was much intrigued to read Unexpected Portraits from Asia, because it led me to think about my own experience in unlearning some of the stereotypes I have held about Asians for a long time. Thank you for reminding us that Asia is large continent with many diverse cultures, and does not have the cultural uniformity that could lend itself to stereotyping. I guess I'm not too unlike many Westerners in that there was a time when phrases like "oppressed women" and "backward societies in need of ideas of Western liberation" did pop into my mind when Asia was mentioned. But after having the chance to interact with individual Asians, both men and women, from many different countries, I've found myself questioning some previously strongly held ideas.

I once worked in an office with many women from China. I had previously assumed that East Asian women, including Chinese women, were less likely to work outside the home compared to American women, so I was very surprised when one of my co-workers told me how surprised she was to see 'so many housewives' in the US. We had gone for a brief excursion outside the office and she found the sight of a woman, seemingly a full-time mom, playing with her children in the neighborhood playground during work hours a very novel thing indeed. The Chinese woman then said there were many American housewives in her neighborhood, and that she had never seen such a high concentration of housewives before. I must have been subconsciously expecting Asian women to be impressed with the 'liberation' and career options of women in American society, and it really jarred me at first when my Chinese female coworker said that most Chinese women, at least in the cities, are not housewives. But I realized my coworker was not criticizing the 'homemaker' status of American women, unlike how many Americans so freely criticize Asian societies for allegedly keeping their women at home. The Chinese woman was merely wondering how families here could afford to have one spouse stay home. Apparently, the cost of living in Chinese cities is so high that having two incomes per household is almost always necessary.

Many of the Chinese women I worked with were very loud and outspoken, which led me to doubt my previous assumptions about the "downtrodden Oriental woman" as contrasted to the "liberated Western woman". Women in Asia, on the average, may be disadvantaged compared to their male counterparts when it came to job opportunities, financial mobility and responsibility for housework, but we can make the same statement about Western women. In America, at least, women are underpaid compared to males doing the same job, and women are still under-represented in higher management. Many Asian countries have already had one or more female heads of states, but the US is yet to see a woman president. Asian women may not all be treated like queens, but they are, on the average, not treated like doormats either. The same can be said for Western women.

Getting to know my Asian male coworkers more closely and seeing in person how they interacted with their families really drove home for me the irony of how the average American man lets his wife take a disproportionate share of responsibility for child care and housework, and yet we love pointing fingers at men from non-Western countries, calling them 'oppressors of women'. My male coworkers included Thais, Indians, Chinese, Japanese and Koreans. I had extended conversations with many of them and visited some of them in their homes. My Thai friend worked on household projects, such as sewing curtains and cushions together with his wife, the kind of work that many of my Western male friends considered too 'sissy' for their 'macho' selves. My Indian friend would rush home everyday to take up his shift in childcare, so that his wife would have time for herself away from their young child. He made it is principle NEVER to violate his wife's free time. Other Asian male friends also helped their wives with cooking and cleaning, encouraged their wives' career advancement, and were extremely conscientious about sharing the burden of childcare.

Two Chinese men I knew quit their office jobs so they could stay home and take care of their children while their Chinese wives worked outside the home. Looking at these Chinese men's choices, I cannot help but think of the many Western males I've had to listen to whining about the 'selfish, career-minded American woman destroying the family by putting her work before her man.' Well, maybe it is time for enlightened Western males to put our women before our work just as we expect our women to put us before their careers. It is only fair.

I am not claiming that ALL Asian men are nicer to their wives than ALL Western men. I've certainly seen Asian male attitudes towards women that the average Western man would find appalling. Most of my Korean coworkers, unfortunately, would not have changed my stereotypes of Asian male sexism if I had not interacted with other Asian men. I have no intention of generalizing the attitudes of all Korean men, but those I've observed seemed to be honorable people who usually adhere to a system of debt and obligation (more familiar to us Westerners as 'give-and-take') with their friends, that is, their *male* friends. When it comes to female associates (who are not even girlfriends or wives), the men do not seem to abide by the same code of honor. Instead, the men take for granted that the women would do things for them without expecting anything in return. They felt entitled to ask for women's help and did not feel the least obligated to return this help when asked. I saw this in their personal dealings as well as workplace interactions. When Western women (and men) took issue with this kind of 'one-way-street' exchange, the Korean men threw a fit and some of them started crying 'racism' (I believe they were using this tactic as a 'diversion', and not because they really believed in their own accusations) though the fault was clearly theirs. The Japanese I worked with seemed equally courteous and conscientious towards both men and women alike. They were also much more open-minded and tolerant than my stereotypes of Japanese taught me to expect.

Attitudes towards women vary from country to country in Europe, and even between different social groups in the same country. The same thing is true in Asia. My Chinese and Indian friends explained that women fared better in the traditional cultures of South India and South China than the traditional cultures of North India or North China. Goddess worship is purportedly more popular in Southern India, and the place of women in southern cultures is higher. Southern Chinese men were traditionally more likely to split housework with their wives, though the north is catching up in recent years. The bride shortage meant that young Chinese women now have many spousal candidates to choose from. Young men in northern China may have found it necessary to cultivate a good attitude towards housework as a competitive advantage. One of my acquaintances, a European woman who spent some years in northern China, was impressed that young Chinese men shared housework with their wives. She contrasted the Chinese men to the men back home in her Mediterranean country, who, according to her expected their wives to do all the work.

I have also watched many Asian movies directed by Asian men, and had to admit that Asian male directors, on the average, treat Asian female characters with much more respect than do Western male directors. Asian films have their fair share of bimbo characters, but so do European and American films. In many Asian films, important female characters appear in their own right - not as someone's love interest. By this, I mean the female character, even though she might appear attractive, does not end up with any male character at any point of time in the plot. She has some function other than to be a male character's trophy or motivation. In contrast, I have never seen an Asian female character who was not a man's love interest in a movie directed by a Westerner. Asian male directors also give Asian female characters a much broader range of roles than do Western male directors. Asian women in American movies are usually either unconfident and 'cute' or seductive and exotic; at any rate, non-threatening. The lack of diversity of Asian images in American or European films, we might say, is expected since there are relatively few Asian roles in Western film to start with. But for all our claims of treating women better than Asian men do, we have created less empowered images of Asian women than their 'sexist' men back home.

I do not claim to be an 'enlightened' Westerner. I am in the process of unlearning stereotypes myself. Just recently, I saw the Japanese movie Twilight Samurai, and I was surprised that the male characters in the story were so respectful of women even though the plot was set in Old Japan before the Imperial Restoration. The title character valued women's education and criticized language which was objectifying to women. Another male character had great respect for his sister as an independent thinker and mover. He saw her as someone who is wise and capable of taking care of herself. Then I asked myself why seeing such Japanese male characters surprised me. Perhaps I still held on to Western ideas about Japanese men. At any rate, Asian men certainly do not see themselves the way Westerners see them. The Iranian movie Baran also featured a hero who was different in every way from the Western stereotype of the sexist and oppressive Middle Eastern/West Asian/Central Asian male. In fact, I do not think I have ever seen a white Western male movie character who so unselfishly served a female love interest without asking or expecting anything in return. Our heroes, such as James Bond, are always seeking some form of reward or gratification in 'conquest' - 'getting the girl' at least on the emotional, if not the physical level.

Misogynistic men, deadbeat dads, philanderers and wife beaters exist all over the world. Of course, if we compare the worst Asian husbands against the best Western husbands, Western men will come out looking better. This tactic, however, cuts both ways. Someone might also compare the best Asian men against the worst Western men, in which case, Western men will of course appear unimpressive. In my opinion, Western media has almost always taken the first approach, creating a negative and skewed image of Asian men instead of showing Asian men as people who are more like us than unlike us; people with similar virtues and vices.

I understand many Asians and other non-Westerners may feel insulted by demeaning stereotypes that Westerners hold about them. However, I also hope they can understand that people cannot know what they have not been told. If all an individual sees is a certain kind of image in the media, he can hardly be faulted for accepting it as 'reality'. Therefore, I would like to extend an invitation to those who feel insulted and exasperated by 'stupid stereotypes' to take the constructive role of teaching others, instead of limiting their reactions to scolding and blaming, which does not move anyone forward.