Monday, August 28, 2017

Women are not your cultural ambassadors

Please "enjoy" this (mostly bullshit) article in the Japan Times.

What he says about his relationships to the women he has dated is striking, if not a bit annoying:

In my early relationships with Japanese girlfriends — I’d dated a Kyoto University student when I was 20 — I’d followed the standard pattern of being the curious Western male being introduced to the intricacies of the Japanese language and culture by a helpful girlfriend. But by my late 20s — when I was a graduate student in Japanese literature at Kobe University — I’d discovered that the dynamic of that type of relationship had started to fail.
Slowly it dawned on me that my language and cultural proficiency had finally come to the point where I no longer needed to be “tutored” by a girlfriend. Liberation!
By then I felt quite comfortable — indeed, slightly bored — in an exclusively Japanese world. I was spending all week in university libraries, taxing my brain, reading Japanese books. The last thing I wanted to do in my spare time, at the weekend, was indulge in more “Japanese.”

I can relate to this guy's desire to want to have his relationship to a culture be on his terms rather than deal with the ins-and-outs of expectations and obligations that come with dating someone from that culture, I couldn't help but feel squicked out by the whole article.

Yes, it is a common enough dynamic: man discovers exotic new world through woman he dates who giggles at his adorable cultural mishaps as she leads him to better knowledge of the secrets of this foreign place. I won't say it's essentially wrong - frankly, what goes on in a relationship I am not a part of is not my (or anyone else's) business. I'm not even sure it's always a bad thing. But there is something icky and 'conquering explorer'-y about it that rubs me the wrong way. 

Perhaps it would be different if a whole raft of gender expectations and stereotypes shaped by culture didn't run right up against a (mostly white male) power differential in terms of white privilege and, in some cases, socioeconomic development. It is impossible, however, to remove those from the equation.

Although this scenario can happen between any two cultures - I could just as easily imagine someone thinking a cute young girl they meet from, I dunno, Amsterdam will introduce them to European culture - I can only best describe what I see in Asia. However, I can imagine someone treating a non-Asian woman this way too, and I certainly don't want to make it sound as though I think all Asian woman/Western man pairings have this problem. The problem is the problem, not who chooses to date whom. 

 I have a lot of Taiwanese female friends and more than once I have heard, essentially, that they are whole human woman, not reducible to some foreigner's Cultural Attache.

What other reaction can one have to a man who says he "doesn't date ______ women" because he doesn't want the "cultural ambassador as girlfriend" role to play out again: why would he decide before he knows her not to date her, based on a role he doesn't want her to play that she likely didn't want anyway because she's a whole person? Why would he assume she would want that role in the first place?

It just bothers me that some men still seem to think women, from anywhere, exist primarily to highlight, change, influence, brighten or complicate the lives of men, rather than those women having their own lives. I am not qualified to comment on what happens when that attitude of treating women as an accessory or catalyst on your own journey, rather than as wholly realized human beings on their own journeys. They're trying to beautify their life paths by adding a partner to it, rather than looking for another person whose own life path is compatible with theirs. A tagalong, not a travel companion.

Again, this is not limited to one culture. I've had (mercifully brief) dating experiences where it felt as though the man was looking more for someone to liven up his journey, rather than respecting mine. Or as though I were there for his benefit, in service to his life plans: to entertain, teach, free or enlighten him, rather than being a full human being who has her own life going on. And I'm a boring white lady, not even a conventionally pretty one at that! And kind of acerbic, frankly. Why anyone would think they could shove that role on me is beyond me - if it happened to me, it could happen to anyone.

And while there are certainly women out there who do the same thing to the men they date, I've just observed that for the most part, it's men who treat women this way. I could comment on the way this attitude intersects with the whole "Western guy 'finding himself' in Asia" narrative (that is to say, "privileged guy using someone else's country, culture and society as a stage for their personal life drama in which they are the star and the 'foreigners' bit actors" narrative), to the point where this particular writer seems to first categorize all Japanese women as, I dunno, Manic Pixie Dream Asians.

And then, after casting them all in a role they never said they wanted, paints himself as the better guy for not wanting them to play it. Barf. He is even so kind as to acknowledge that there is more than one kind of Japanese woman, before categorizing all of his relationships in them as, well, kind of the same.

Are we supposed to applaud?

But I'll stop there, not only because the commentary coming from that wouldn't be particularly enlightening, and not only because I'm not really qualified to comment, but also because this is just one guy whose relationship to a foreign country and to the women in that country seems deeply problematic, and cannot be used as a treatise against all Western men who live and date in Asia, nor all cross-cultural relationships.

But this guy, creating in his head and then trashing "Manic Pixie Dream Asians"?

Fuck this guy.

Women, of any race or background, are not your cultural ambassadors. You invented that role for them, and it doesn't fit.

So stop it. 

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