The other night, a Vietnamese friend and I went to grab a drink in Chicago's gay neighborhood. As the two of us walked down the strip, I heard someone mutter "Gaysians" to his friends. I was mildly annoyed but dismissed it as an isolated incident. However, not even 10 minutes later I heard similar comments from other people passing by. I was taken aback. It was as if being both gay and Asian was an anomaly, or a novelty worth pointing out. The stares and comments made it clear - somehow, we did not "fit in" there.
Now, I never expect to get flack for my race. I feel like people should know better than to make those comments within earshot. Needless to say, the encounters irked me.
If we were feeling creatively suspicious, we might wonder why labels like "Gaysian" are used. In her book, Asian American Dreams, journalist and lesbian Helen Zia offers a clue: "I was an Asian American and I was a lesbian, but in those days I couldn't be both in the same space. It was easy to maintain a facade in a world that presumed all Asian Americans to be heterosexual, and all gays to be white and generally male...The contradiction grew increasingly intolerable" (229-230).
The perception that the gay community is composed mostly of white men reduces other groups into mere subcategories instead of acknowledging them as vital components of the whole. Now, I understand that people are seldom entirely colorblind - I'm not either - and that everyone has his own preferences as to whom he's attracted to. But this is irrelevant when I am simply a passerby, off to enjoy my night like anyone else. I don't deserve the muttered remarks about my race, or the attendant stares that label me as an outsider. I want to be judged by my personality, not by my skin.
There's a Disney Channel cartoon about the adventures of an African American family called "The Proud Family." The other night, I caught an episode that must have been produced not long after 9-11. In this episode, the characters switch families as a part of their school's cultural awareness week activities. Penny, the show's protagonist, ends up living with a traditional Muslim family, the Zamins. Although initially dismayed, Penny soon learns to appreciate her host family and their traditions, even donning a hijab and celebrating the end of Ramadan with them. When they return home from the festivities, however, Penny and the Zamin family are shocked to see their house has been vandalized, with the words "Go back to your own country" scrawled across the garage door. The episode ends with Penny delivering a heartfelt speech about the importance of putting racial stereotypes aside.
But the Zamins are not the only "ethnic" household the show portrays. One of Penny's friends is sent to live at the Chang's, a presumably Chinese household. She is initially excited: apparently the Chang triplets - a brother and two sisters, each with a bowl haircut - are quite wealthy, their father being the owner of various businesses around the neighborhood. Her hopes are dashed, however, when Mr. Chang storms into her bedroom with an enormous stack of textbooks. "Study harder!" he orders her. When the girl protests, saying she's getting a B in class, his response is, "In this family, a B stands for 'Better work harder to get an A!'" Finally, as he leaves, Mr. Chang informs the girl that he has removed her from her normal math class: "From now on, you learn calculus!" he declares, and shuts the door.
My best guess is that "The Proud Family" is an attempt by Disney Channel to cater to a more ethnically diverse audience. The episode in question revolves around the theme of racial perceptions. This makes the grand irony of the show all the more frustrating - that Mr. Chang and his triplets are embodiments of the most common stereotypes of Asian people around. Helen Zia offers a history of these images:
"In the 1960s, a subtle transformation took place. In stories that created the 'model minority' stereotype...another monodimensional character was born: the geek, the industrious, unemotional, uncomplaining, emasculated Asian American male who blends into the background" (117-118).
She adds: "Geishas, gooks, and geeks have been the staples of the main characters of mass culture's Asian universe...As each stereotype gained a foothold in popular culture, it brought on new prejudices that real-life Asian Americans would have to contend with" (119).
Prejudices like being stared at as I go to a bar. Typically when I go out, I try to evoke Venus - attractive, amiable, and accommodating Venus. Next time, however, I may need to evoke her partner, Mars, and stand up for myself: "Yes, I am gay. And, I'm Asian. Got a problem with that?"
Besides the image of geek to contend with, I wonder if I get cast as a sort of male "geisha" (or "gaysha") from time to time. My Vietnamese friend likes to say he never gets hit on when we're together. "It's because you're exotic," he claims. "Guys like that. They can see it in you. They look at me and know I was born and raised here."
Although I doubt I get hit on any more than he does, my friend may have a point. Early depictions of Asian women cast them as seductive temptresses from the Far East. Later, these "dragon ladies" were domesticated into "geishas" - passive, subservient tea-servers, eager to please both in bed and around the house. I wonder if, for those older men who have leered at me in gay bars, I have not sometimes embodied either of these images. But I don't want to be exotic. If a guy is attracted to me, I want it to be for my character, and not because I satisfy misguided sexual longings for the foreign and exotic.
On a more positive note, as my friend and I made our way back to the car after our bar had closed, we passed through a group of people deciding where they'd like to spend the remainder of the night. As I cut through, I briefly made eye contact with a cute guy standing on the curb talking to a friend.
"Hey, I like your shirt," he told me. It seemed like a genuine compliment, so I smiled back at him over my shoulder. "Thanks," I said. It was a nice reminder that, although there are plenty of insensitive people around, there are also a lot of nice people too.
- Helen Zia, Asian American Dreams, (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2000), p. 117-119.
-"The Proud Family" is a registered trademark of Disney Channel. No copyright infringement intended, just like I'm sure they didn't intend to use stereotypes of Asian families in a show about disregarding racial stereotypes.