You thought you were having fun last month at New York Comic Con when you and your film crew gained access to the convention using your job credentials at SiriusXM Radio. You thought this would be a great opportunity to provide footage for your YouTube show (now defunct, thankfully). You thought it would make great television to pull me aside, to put your mic in my face, to drive your camera’s light in my eyes and to ask if you could buy me.
You thought it was just a joke when you said you wanted to buy an umbrella with an Asian girl — because I was holding a parasol.
You thought you were being clever by mistaking me for a geisha girl, like the many submissive, diminutive women you’ve seen on TV or on the Internet or in movies.
You thought that because I was small and female and Asian, it gave you the right to ridicule my existence.
To paraphrase Ronald Reagan, here we are again. Miss Saigon, the musical about a Vietnamese prostitute falling in love with a white soldier during the Vietnam War, then killing herself when he ultimately rejects her, was back onstage at the Ordway Theater in St. Paul (MN), until the show closed this past Sunday. This musical, like any good zombie, just won’t stay dead. Along with it, the racism and sexism inherent in the play have been resurrected. Really, as the mom of two girls under six and the spouse of a candidate running for office, I don’t have time to get involved – again – in the protest against Miss Saigon. I protested this back in 1994. Plenty of good people (Don’t Buy MISS SAIGON Coalition) are already working on it. More articulate writers (David Mura) have written about it.
However, when one of my African American friends said, “No one has said why it’s offensive and I’m unfamiliar with the show, so I can’t relate,” I decided to follow my advice to my husband Blong, who had originally refused to answer the question of a white man: “What does the Trayvon Martin case have to do with civil rights?” Responses to these questions take time and energy. But as I told Blong, “Plenty of people don’t know, so while it is tiresome, you have to answer the question.”
So, why is Miss Saigon sexist, racist and generally offensive?
The above-referenced Vietnamese prostitute is portrayed as a tragic figure whose only hope is being rescued by the white soldier. Since the Vietnamese men in the production are portrayed as morally offensive and undesirable, this white guy is the only choice. The only hero of the musical is a white man. It’s bad enough that the woman at the center of the musical needs a man to rescue her from her life. The fact that this can only happen at the hands of a white man makes it sexist and racist. I am Hmong, not Vietnamese, so why do I care? Unfortunately, people can’t tell the difference. They’ve mistaken me for Vietnamese, Chinese, Korean and Japanese. Kim, the Vietnamese prostitute, is me. I am her.
In Miss Saigon, the only image of Asian women is “prostitute”– not that I am condemning sex workers. But not all Asian women during the Vietnam War were prostitutes. When stereotypes are the only images people see, it is necessary to correct the record. This play is telling me and my young daughters that essentially, we, Asian women, exist to serve and please white men.
Nothing could be farther from the truth. My truth about the Asian women I know who lived during the Vietnam War is far different. The women I know were resourceful, strong, and fearless. For example, my mother took care of my two brothers and I after my father died at the tail end of the Vietnam War. After the Americans pulled out of Laos, the Hmong were targeted for extermination for our role in helping the Americans. With my mother as the head of our household, we escaped Laos and survived the refugee camps in Thailand. In America, she navigated the social service system so that we had a roof over our heads, had food in our stomachs, and graduated from high school and college.
“Can we try it more mysterious, with that mystique from the East?
… Channel a late night sex chat ad
… Maybe go back further into your heritage … A little more ethnic.”
Remember those racist-alicious ads from Michigan senatorial candidate Pete Hoekstra, the ones where the docile, limpid eyed, bike-riding Asian woman thanked “Debbie Spend It Now” for spending so much American money that she singlehandedly ruined the U.S. economy while giving more jobs to China? Well, that Sinophobic Super Bowl ad promptly inspired several spoofs including this one from Funny or Die, and this clever one from Kristina Wong that I found recently on Disgrasian.
In it, Wong plays an actress obviously starring in a “Debbie Spend it Now”-type commercial. The disembodied (presumably white, male) director’s voice is off-camera, insisting that Wong play her role with more ethnic “authenticity.” At one point, he asks her to read the lines like her mother might. When Wong delivers the lines in an American accent, the frustrated director corrects, “But that’s the same as you read it last time, is that how your mother talks?” Wong nods, deadpan. “She was born in San Francisco.” Later, he reminds Wong that she is “in a rice paddy.” To which she exclaims, “Oh, I thought we were in Runyon Canyon.”
Kristina Wong’s spoof speaks to the continued conflation of Asian American and Asian identity. No matter how many years, or generations, we’ve been in this country, we Asian Americans remain ‘contingent citizens’ and ‘perpetual foreigners.’ (You’ve heard the question: “Where are you from? … No, where are you really from?”)
Wong’s spoof also speaks to the sexualized, passive tropes surrounding Asian American womanhood. In a recent talk I gave for Wellesley College’s GenerAsians Magazine, I suggested that three tropes still seem to encapsulate much of how Asian American women continue to be perceived: