Friday, May 4, 2018

The white male conversation about Asian women's dress (but not how you think)

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I borrowed this photo from here, but hey, go ahead and buy their sticky rice sausages! Free marketing!
Those sausages sure look good. I think I might buy some.

First, a quick note: I've received some valuable feedback that the font on Lao Ren Cha is too small - it hadn't seemed that way to me - so I'm kicking it up one notch. If it seems oddly large, yes, something has changed. Let's see if the next font size up works better. 

I'll say it: I don't really care about the dress. I don't really want to weigh in on the dress. I understand the racial/historical/power dynamics at play, but find it a super weak example of these, easily dismissed, making it more difficult to persuasively argue that there are race-based power dynamics in the US that express themselves when white people use things from non-white cultures and are complimented while people from those cultures continue to be marginalized.

(And yes, that is absolutely a thing.)

I do care about the conversation going on among foreign residents in Taiwan about the dress, however. Although it's fine to have a range of voices, and everyone gets to have an opinion, it seems to me that the most interesting and relevant opinions would come from Asian female voices, as the garment in question is an Asian women's garment. There is a point where growing up having these experiences and being seen a certain way gives you the ability to talk about how you are treated vis-a-vis your race, culture and choice of clothing in the US as opposed to Asia more fluently, and with more gravity, because you've lived it.

Yet I can't help noticing that most of the discussions going on in English in the Taiwan foreign resident community about the Great Qipao Panic of 2018 - at least the ones marching across my Facebook feed - are started by, and propelled by, white men. There are so few women participating -and no Asian women - that it's almost comical.

This isn't necessarily a deal-breaker. A lot of what's being said is pretty smart, and there is no problem with a plethora of opinions - I'm not a fan of identity politics and I don't want to shut men up for the sake of it (though some of you might think I do, that's not the case). Nothing crass or offensive. Mostly in touch with the real issue - the people involved are mostly solid, intelligent, thoughtful dudes whose opinions I respect. But, it's not a "plethora of opinions" - it's all white male opinion - and it still feels mighty awkward to have a whole series of conversations going on about Asian women's dress among residents of an Asian country that involve almost no women (I counted a grand total of four women across all threads, one of whom was me), and no Asian women at all. 


This one issue isn't very important - again, I really don't care about the dress. But this isn't the first time I've noticed just how white and male the Taiwan expat world is, and as a result, how white-male flavored all the conversations within it are. It's not nearly the first time I've been the lone woman contributing in a sea of men (or been one of only two). It's not by far the first time I've noticed a dearth of non-white, non-male perspectives. Looking at offline real-life interactions, I can't tell you the number of times I've been the only woman around. 

This is troubling for a few reasons. First, in a conversation that's touched upon how, when we essentialize a culture and say "it IS this" or "it ISN'T that" and allow self-appointed experts to claim decision-maker status of what is and is not offensive in that culture, the narrative that emerges is almost always male, because "expert" status gets conferred upon dominant voices, and dominant voices tend to be male voices. So having a conversation about that which is also almost entirely male is a problem.

This bleeds into other issues - when we as foreign residents talk about issues focused on Asia, it would make sense to seek out and listen to more varied opinions, but we don't, and it becomes "white guys discussing Asia". The ideas aren't always bad but the lack of diversity in voices is a problem.

I don't think anyone means for it to be this way - there's no sign that says "Boys' Club NO GIRLZ ALLOWED!" and no intentional shutting out of women, including Asian women. But, it's there. There is a segregation of sorts.

Second, it doesn't seem as though the men themselves notice how monochromatic and single-gendered the community is, and therefore, I question how many of them realize how un-diverse the perspectives they are hearing are. That means they don't realize that this imbalance is reflected in the true demographics of the (mostly white, mostly male) Westerner community in Taiwan (the Southeast Asian foreign community seems more gender-balanced in my observation.) And if they don't realize it, how can we work to change it? In a community based in Asia, surely we can do better than this. I have many Taiwanese friends of both genders, most of whom speak excellent English - I find it difficult to believe that these conversations should necessarily be so segregated. I can't be that unique.

It makes it so that when you point this out, you always wonder who is going to get defensive about it, or insist that a white man's opinion is just the same, with no difference in terms of distance from the issue or lived experience, than someone who might actually wear a qipao. I have quit groups and forums over this, because it's just such a nonsense point that I didn't see any reason to stick around, if the majority of people thought that their white male opinion on issues affecting women (including Asian women) was exactly as valuable as the women themselves.

This leads into the final point, which is that as a result of the conversations in the Taiwan English-speaking community being so thoroughly dominated by white men, not everyone is going to be a 'good guy', and a lot of times, women stay away because of (as one friend put it), the K.A.C. or "Known Asshole Count". We don't always have the energy to counter the mansplaining, the defensiveness, the ad hominems, the intentionally-and-unintentionally sexist comments. This has improved somewhat in recent months, as more of the good guys are realizing that the jerks in their midst don't listen to women - so a woman telling them off has no effect - and are adding their voices to the chorus telling them to step off, and allowing the natural consequences of being one of the Known Assholes to finally be felt


Some also stay away, honestly, because it's tiring in other ways too. I've noticed other women posit good ideas, be (often unintentionally) ignored, and then have people credit a male commenter who pipes up with those same ideas later. (This has also happened to me, though it's rare.) I've thought about how to word my points carefully because I worry that even the good guys will get annoyed or defensive when being called out, and then decided just not to bother, because if I can't express myself plainly, I don't necessarily want to do so at all. It's tiring to be the lone female voice and therefore have to always be the one saying "oh hey, so, from a woman's perspective...". And it's tiring to be piled on for pointing out actual discrimination - e.g. sexist job ads or ads that blatantly violate Taiwanese gender non-discrimination laws, only to get piled on with the same tired rebuttals ("but if they want to hire [person from a certain group even though it's illegal and discriminatory] they should be allowed to do that!") that are still wrong but never change.

All this does is highlight, once again, just how male the expat community is. A lot of the time, there are few female commenters because there are few Western women in Taiwan. I've been to many events where it's me, a bunch of foreign men, and their Taiwanese wives. I have no problem with this generally, but in a more balanced community, there would be a larger cohort of foreign women. At the two annual parties I have typically attended (now down to one, as I quit the other job - and I was the only Western female employee), I am either the only foreign woman, or one of just two or three in events with dozens, if not up to a hundred, people.

It absolutely does create a bubble, and I'm not sure what to do about it. I don't really want to continue to be the only woman in conversations full of men, and I don't want to keep seeing white men talk to each other about issues affecting women and people of Asian heritage without questioning the fact that nobody from those groups is a part of the discussion, but I see no clear way to changing that. 

2 comments:

Girl in Taiwan said...

Asian female here! I just wanted to point out that actually there are lots of Asian female expats here...I'm talking about ABCs in Taiwan who primarily communicate in English. I think the problem you're experiencing is probably tied more to the fact that the Taipei expat community you've familiarized yourself with is primarily white male dominated. But there are many Taiwan expats who don't belong to that community and have their own community of sorts. When it comes to my ABC friends and me, we don't write long FB posts on these topics (like some of the men you point out) because we do it in our private chat groups or in person...so just because you don't see it online doesn't mean there aren't plenty of Taipei expat Asian women talking about the inane Qipao Crisis of 2018. If you're getting sick of the views from one particular crowd maybe try involving yourself in other expat groups?

Jenna Cody said...

Thanks for the comment!

I'm sure there are other groups, but to be honest, that's not really the point: my friend group is fine. It's fairly diverse, both local and foreign, with a good mix of genders. It's not that I'm tired of always being around white men, it's that I notice that the white men don't seem to see how segregated their group is.

I want there to be less segregation, not more, so if I abandon that group (which I don't want to do - if I'm friends with people it's because I genuinely like them), it becomes more male, not less. And since the issue isn't my friends but rather white-male dominated discussions about Asia, that won't really solve anything.

I've pointed out to a select few that there are other expat groups out there so if one is surrounded by white men and doesn't cultivate a more diverse base of friends, it behooves one to ask themselves why. I don't think anyone has though. Or if they have, I haven't heard about it (which could well be the case) and I don't see any great changes.