Interview with Sheridan Prasso
SHERIDAN PRASSO: As I explain in the chapter of my book called "Matters of Men and Country: The Unbearable Lightness of Being Portrayed," in Hollywood movies, over and over again, action heroes such as Jet Li and Chow Yun-Fat save the girl but don't even get a romantic kiss at the end. I have read that in the finale of "Romeo Must Die," the kiss scene between Jet Li and Aaliyah was cut after it fared badly in front of test audiences, and the director decided that American audiences weren't ready yet to see an Asian man acting the same way that a white hero would.
There is no such prohibition between white men and Asian women on screen (witness "Sideways" as the most recent example). These images from Hollywood need to change before male sex symbols from Asia can be fully regarded as masculine heroes in the eyes of Hollywood and in Western culture in general. I argue that such images - of Asian males as asexual and/or emasculated in Hollywood movies - have an impact on interpersonal relations, such as the low prevalence of Asian male/Caucasian female couples in the West.
US ASIANS: When do you feel that the attitudes that you've described above and at the review of "Romeo Must Die" will change where AM/WF relationships will be accepted, like in the past pictures such as Cecille DeMille's "The Cheat," "Hiroshima Mon Amour," James Shigeta/Victoria Shaw in Crimson Kimono and/or James Shigeta/Carol Baker in "Bridge to the Sun?"
SHERIDAN PRASSO: I do not know when it will change. Having contemporary movies from Hollywood showing equitable relationships between Asian males and Caucasian women might help.
US ASIANS: Having recognized that you are a journalist-cum-social anthropologist and the contemporary face of the "old Asia hand," could you describe what is an "Old Asia Hand?"
SHERIDAN PRASSO: With a few exceptions, Old Asia Hands have been white males, and the descriptions they have given us have largely been tainted by what I call "Asian Mystique" - this view of Asia as exotic, decadent, sensual and full of obliging and sexually available women. Their writings frequently reflect their experiences in this realm. That is why, as a woman with many years of experience writing about Asia, I feel that it takes a woman's viewpoint to correct some of our long-held misimpressions. Because I am female and can have access to cultural realms in Asia that Western men can never enter, I can bring a perspective that we largely haven't seen before, and that's what I do in my book.
US ASIANS: Why have the writings of female Asian writers such as Iris Chang, Jung Chang, Lan Samantha Chang, Yu Hua, Ji-Li Jiang, Marie Myung-ok Lee, An Na, Fae Myenne Ng, Linda Sue Park, Icy Smith, Monique Troung, Loung Ung, Jeanie Wakatsuki, Hisaye Yamamoto, Rae Yang, Judy Yung and others not struck a more responsive chord with the general public with their stories describing the broad spectrum of experiences of Asian women?
SHERIDAN PRASSO: Jung Chang's work is very popular with the general public, and White Swans was a huge success, as was Iris Chang's Rape of Nanjing. Both of these were international Best Sellers, so you may want to rethink this question.
US ASIANS: Could you share the purpose behind the book cover bearing an alluring picture of a geisha, one of the most fetishized images of "Asian Women?"
SHERIDAN PRASSO: I think that we have to start to reach people where they currently are, and the image of geisha is a well-known representative of the mistakenly fetishized images of Asian women in Western culture. Because I am deconstructing these images, it makes sense to signal that that is the topic of the book through the imagery on the cover. Some people have suggested to me that by using such images I am just perpetuating them. Perhaps, but what is the alternative? A cover must have some kind of image. If I have a blank cover with only words (which is not an option with a mass market commercial publisher such as I have) and then nobody picks up the book to read it, I then would not have accomplished my goal of trying to change perceptions at all.
US ASIANS: Acknowledging your words that the Asian Male suffers the most from the "Asian Mystique" - could you elaborate on why most people perceived that the focus appears to be on the plight of Asian women?
SHERIDAN PRASSO: The problem is not one of plight but one of Western perception. In the Western mind - the fictional image of the "Asian woman" is the most imagined, misunderstood and "fetishized." Its juxtaposition onto the Asian male, effectively wiping out his masculinity in Western culture, is what is at the root of the misperception about men.
US ASIANS: What were the factors behind dressing up as a geisha - as oppose to a female working on a Chinese farm, a female boat person coming from Vietnam, a Filipina living on one of the islands in the Philippines, a Cambodian female who had experienced the "Killing Fields" horrors created by Pol Pot or a female college student from Dubai (India)?
SHERIDAN PRASSO: I'm not sure how one would "dress up" as a Filipina, or a Cambodian, other than to don a kramah of which I own many after living in Cambodia for three years. But my point in putting on a kimono while in Japan was to experience this very unique cultural practice that can be experienced no other way. The kimono and geisha accoutrements are part of Japanese culture and part of the iconic exhibition of Japanese femininity in a way that clothing in other cultures is not.
To make an equivalent comparison -- not about clothing because there is nothing really comparable in American society except maybe Levi's blue jeans, and that's more for men -- it is more like attending the fireworks at July 4th in America or going to view the Constitution, Liberty Bell and Statue of Liberty. If you want to understand what America is about, you need to see these cultural icons. If you want to try to understand what Japanese femininity is about, you need to put on a kimono. Of course this is not sufficient by itself, but it does give a small measure of understanding.
US ASIANS: Could you share your thoughts regarding the possibility of being overlooked/betrayed by Western men who were chasing Asian women might have influenced your writings?
SHERIDAN PRASSO: I haven't experienced this myself. Partly the reason, I am told, is that I am a petite, soft-spoken woman who exhibits some of the more classically feminine qualities that make women in some Asian cultures appealing to Western men. My Chinese friends frequently tell me that I am "more Chinese" than they are. I don't agree entirely, but I think that my ability to exist between the worlds of East and West makes me an ideal observer of both sides of the Pacific.
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