Saturday, August 30, 2008

Geisha Girls and Dragon Ladies

Tonight was my girl Laura's birthday party (she turned 21 three days ago) - Happy Birthday, Sweetums! My goodness, but I am intensely full. I always eat so well and so much when I go visit her.

So I've just begun reading this really interesting book that I must, must, must share. It's called The Asian Mystique by Sheridan Prasso, and I'd wanted to read it ever since I first saw it at my campus bookstore.

It sort of elaborates on Saïd's Orientalism, but its focus is on the mythologies related to East Asians (as opposed to South Asians). In particular, it looks at the myths of the "Geisha Girl" (subservient, docile, obliging, sexually available) and the "Dragon Lady" (domineering, hard, demanding, sexually insatiable), which are very pervasive in Western culture (especially in the media and, perhaps as a consequence, in the way people think), where these myths come from and how the people who inspire such myths actually are.

I loved the intro and was really interested in what she had to say, but I totally had a What the Hell Moment when I was a few pages into the first chapter and read that the Dragon Lady myth came from false publications about the Empress Dowager Cixi, who was actually a really softspoken, gentle person but had her rep ruined by lying authors. Um, what??? Sure, people in the west wrote all kinds of lies about her, but she was actually very ruthless and scary. It's well documented in history. She wasted a LOT of taxpayers' money and did all kinds of things to screw the country up for her own benefit; a shy, bowing lotus she was not.

Regardless of that, I read about a really interesting event that I'd never heard about before. In the 60's, a French diplomant named Bernard Bouriscot had an affair with a Chinese opera diva while he was stationed in China - but his lover turned out to be a spy. A male spy. They actually had sex regularly (though infrequently) and Bouriscot never even suspected that his lover was a man throughout their 20 year relationship until he demanded to see "her" body in the light during his trial for treason - he handed over a ton of confidential documents to his lover during their 20 years together because he said that he was made to believe that "she" and their child would be in danger if he didn't. That's right, their child. You see, his lover even claimed to be pregnant and "produced" a son the year after they met.

How can a man be intimate regularly with someone who doesn't have a vagina and still think that he's being with a woman? Supposedly, during a medial exam, the opera singer showed that he could retract his testicles into his body and he'd tuck his penis between his firmly clenched thighs. I still don't completely understand the mechanics of their lovemaking, but that's not the point.

The point is, Bouriscot basically brainwashed himself into thinking that something so ludicrous was true, that his lover was a woman, because he firmly bought into the Geisha Girl Myth. He believed that all Chinese women are super modest and shy, so they all keep their thighs firmly clenched during sex, they only make love in the dark and that they all keep their encounters brief and rare. He credited all the unusualness of their sexual relationship (and even his lover's physical discrepancies with real women) to cultural difference.

That's what shocks me. The power of these myths can cause extreme paradigm shifts (to the point of self-delusion), and these myths are still everywhere today. I live in one of the most cosmopolitan cities in the world, and I still meet those gross idiots with Yellow Fever who will come up to me to say the stupidest things, like "Where are you from? No, really, where are you from?" and "Konichiwa, Chinese Princess" and "Say something in your language."

Can we start some discourse about this? Can we start talking and raise some awareness about this ridiculousness so that we can finally be on the path to getting rid of this absurdity?

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