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September 26, 2009

What the hell is Asian Culture?

Recently someone posted on message forum about sexual fetishes and they referenced our blog about the Asian trophy wives article in Marie Claire in relation to the so-called "Asian fetish". An excerpt:

According to the urban dictionary there is the WGF (white girl fetish) but no BGF (black guy fetish). Certainly some women have interests such as a man in a uniform but I have never heard that refered to as a fetish. What about a money fetish, oh wait, is that a fetish or a prostitutue? How about a hockey player fetish. It doesn't exist but a nurse or school teacher fetish does. Then there is the lead singer fetish, oh wait that is a groupie. As for me, I like fish-net stockings on a woman (any race) but then again I like many things on a women. Do you have an opinion?

Yeah, it's scintillating stuff.

I pointed out that sexual fetishism typically refers to inanimate objects, so it's kind of offensive to talk about having fetishes about types of people. I also pointed out that having a "type" or preference doesn't necessarily mean you have a fetish. We all have characteristicss that we're attracted to in a person, but calling it a fetish sort of implies that those characteristics take precedence over the actual person.

Yes, it's true that sometimes sexual fetishism is "trivial", i.e., "low-level" fetishism not at the paraphilia level, so theoretically you could consider having a preference for Asian women a fetish, but mainly if the attraction is specific to their "Asian-ness", e.g., their physical characteristics or perhaps some illogical obsession with Asia, but that in and of itself would be based on generalizations and stereotypes. (I don't claim to be an expert on sexual fetishes, so I may not be correct on some of that... but I was giving my opinion on the subject.)

The original poster responded with this:

I had a room mate (white guy) in college that loved Asian-ness. This included food, music, and of course the Asian women. It wasn't like he was chasing them only for sex, he really got into the whole culture.
I was, of course, a little annoyed at the generalization and the Western-centric concept of the fictional homogeneous "Asian culture".

Then the conversation then took a crazy turn into a debate about racism and generalizations and ethnocentrism. It's not the most exciting conversation I've ever had, but we felt it was worth sharing because so many people really just don't get that stereotypes and generalizations are wrong... even if they're positive or well-intentioned. Generalizing all Asian peoples as if they're one homogeneous exoticized group is not a compliment.

That's one of the most annoying typical "white guy" stereotypes. What is "Asian culture"? You realize that Asia consists of so many different countries and and different cultures, right? Even though they "all look alike" to ignorant white people, there are huge differences between different Asian ethnicities and nationalities. It's like saying "European culture and music and food" without recognizing the vast differences between, say, Poland, France, and Italy.
There is little unity or common history for many of the cultures or peoples of Asia. In fact, even wikipedia described the concept of a "culture of Asia" as:

the artificial aggregate of the cultural heritage of many nationalities, societies, religions, and ethnic groups in the region, traditionally called a continent from a Western-centric perspective, of Asia. [emphasis ours]
But he clearly didn't get what I was talking about.

The college had International clubs such Japanese, Chinese, Korean that he participated in. He often attended their social events and had a genuine interest. I would say that is an interest in Asian culture. I don't see how that is stereotyping anyone.

Japanese culture, Chinese culture and Korean culture are each really different from each other, as are the cultures of many other Asian countries. The term "Asian culture" in and of itself is a stereotype, because it is dependant on the assumption that Asians are all the same (or similar) and have the same culture. They do not. You could say, he was a fan of certain Asian cultures, maybe... but there is no actual such thing as "Asian culture" so the term is a generalization.

That's like saying "Caucasian culture"... when obviously there are vast differences between, say, Italian culture and German culture. I think I already explained this.

Then using your logic African culture is based on sterotypes and should be avoided. Really?

I'm not sure if he meant that we should avoid using the term "African culture" or if we should just avoid African culture altogether... but either way it was a stupid thing to say.

It's not my logic. It's reality. Asia is a huge place with many different cultures. The term "Asian culture" makes the generalization that they're all the same/similar.

I already explained this twice. What don't you get? Do you really think that the culture of the Phillipines is that similiar to the culture of China or the culture of North Korea or the culture of Cambodia or the culture of Timor, etc...

The term "African culture" is also a generalization, because there are over 50 countries in Africa and while there are some similiarities there are also many vast differences. Compare Egypt, South Africa, Cameroon, and Mali. Even within one country, there are so many different cultures.

It's a common thing for people (especially white Americans) to lump all the "Other" categories of people together, but they're not as similar as we think. It's ethnocentrism and it's wrong. Instead of continuing to argue that this stereotypical ignorance is okay, why not actually open your mind and learn why it isn't?

Having an open mind in my opinion means recognizing and accepting that different people have different views on the same subject. There are many reasons why two people will come to a different conclusion regarding cultural characteristics that cross regions. Accepting that other people have a different point of view and not dismissing them is being open minded.

Ah, okay so now I'm the one who is closed minded. I'm so closed minded about his prejudices! Well I guess if you're going to redefine ignorance as "openmindedness" then I am closedminded.

No. Accepting - and defending - a stereotypical, generalizing, and (even, in some cases, racist) opinion is not being "open minded".

I know people who think it's okay to call anyone Asian "Chinese". I know people who think that black men are inherently more violent than white men. I know people who think that Jewish people are cheap. I'm not making these up to demonstrate silly stereotypes - I really know these people.
I consider myself to be relatively openminded, but I don't have to "accept" their racism and prejudices.

I "recognize" that you and your friend probably came to your ignorant "views" on Asian culture innocently and with good intentions... and that you're not trying to offend anyone. But it doesn't mean you're right. If someone with more knowledge on a subject tells you that what you're saying is stereotypical and offensive, who are you to tell them that they are wrong? When did you get to decide what offends other people and what's the appropriate nomenclature to use for a culture that is not your own?

This isn't the same as say, me accepting that you think the Mets are better than the Yankees. I don't have to accept your ignorant defending of racist notions.

Just to be clear, I'm not really that accepting of the opinion that the Mets are better than the Yankees, but it was a good example.

Again... "Asian culture" encompasses so many different, dissimiliar cultures that the term in reality makes no sense. Yes, it's used academically as shorthand - but within any of those "Asian Studies" programs you would likely learn about the differences within "the Culture". To say you're a "fan" of it, as a whole, without knowing about most of the countries and cultures included, is a generalization. Asia is more than just China, Japan, and Korea.

Not everyone on the planet will be offended by it, but that doesn't make it any less of a Western-centric notion. If your friend is a fan of Chinese and Japanese music, food, literature... great for him. But if he's into "Asian-ness" and thinks that Chinese and Japenese culture is somehow similar to the rest of Asia, then he's prejudiced. It doesn't matter if your stereotypes and prejudices are positive ones, they're still wrong.

The same goes for "African culture". Just because some white Americans think that Asia and Africa are "exotic" and "cool" doesn't mean it automatically makes sense for all those vastly different cultures to be grouped together merely because of geography and skin color.

I have an open mind about the fact that your and your friend's ignorance on this subject doesn't mean that you're both racist assholes. But if you're going to continue to defend this antiquated, ethnocentric point of view as totally cool and correct... no, I'm not going to open my mind to that. The fact that you're not learning anything from this only proves that your mind isn't as open as you think it is.

Some cultural characteristics cross regions such as the Celtic culture but that does not dismiss the unique cultures that developed within that region. By referencing Celtic culture does not stereotype all Irish and Scottish as the same. Just in the same way when someone uses the term "Italian culture" one should not assume they are stereotyping all Italians as being the same. Regions such as Siciliy and Tuscany are very different. A person who likes Italian culture is not sterotyping all Italians.
It's interesting that he chose Sicily as part of his example. Sicily isn't considered to have the same culture as the rest of Italy. "Italian culture" typically refers to the culture of mainland Italy, as Sicily is an autonomous region and was once its own kingdom. If you were to compare, say, the cultures of Tuscany and Umbria... they're not exactly the same, but they're similar enough to put under the umbrella of "Italian". There's a national association and history. (And even Sicily's culture is closer to the rest of Italy's than say... that of Poland or England.)

But Italy is one country. Are you really suggesting that the differences between Sicily and Tuscany are as vast as the differences between the Phillipines and China and Cambodia and Timor? A more appropriate comparison would be comparing North Korea and South Korea. What you're doing is more like comparing Tuscany with Bucharest or London or Athens.

Celticity on the other hand, is different. The term refers to the cultural aspects in common among the various "peoples"... it doesn't actually assume any similiarities that aren't there (which is something the phrase "Asian culture" does).

The Celts were a real group of people - a group of tribes whose land ranged across many countries. References to "Celtic culture" usually refers to their culture or to the shared aspects of the various cultures within, such speaking a Celtic language. (Occasionally, it is used as an umbrella term to refer to the culture/s of the descendants of the Celts... and in that case, there are groups of people who object to it because of the generalization.)

The key word to me that you wrote is ASSUME. A phrase such as "Chinese people" doesn't assume anything to me even though they just grouped over one billion people together, a group larger than Africa and Europe. If the person using the phrase surrounds the statement with stereotypical words such as "all Chinese people" then it is clear they are stereotyping. The problem isn't the phrase such as Sicilian, Irish, or European. The problem is the person's meanings. When it comes to racism and such I look for the meaning and intentions and I don't differ between a national border vs region. I recognize that others may see if differently.

What the hell is he even talking about? He keeps coming back to the issue of people, when we're not talking about individual people, we're talking about a people. "A person who likes Italian culture is not stereotyping all Italians" ... "all Chinese people". He just doesn't get it! He doesn't understand the difference between a historical society concept like "culture" and people on the personal level.

Actually, what I wrote was "doesn't assume". The key word is doesn't. "Celtic" is different because it refers to the similiarities of the different Celtic tribes that preceded Ireland, Scotland, etc. It doesn't suggest that Irish culture and Scottish culture today are that similiar, but rather recognizes the background that they used to share.

The phrase "Chinese people" doesn't assume anything other than national origin (China). The phrase "Asian people" shouldn't assume anything other than geographical origin (the "Asian continent") or perhaps physical "race". But we're not talking about people, you were talking about culture and there is not one culture that encompasses all of Asia.
I put the term "continent" in quotation marks because geographically Asia is not actually a distinct continent, but rather, a region divided into more natural geographic and cultural subregions (such as East Asia, South Asia, Southeast Asia, etc.)

The phrase "Asian culture", especially in the way that you used it, does make the assumption that there is one Asian culture, singular, rather than several different distinct cultures within the several different distinct countries within the "continent" of Asia. It's a Western-centric perspective to see Asia as a cultural aggregate instead of recognizing the many different groups within the region. You are "other-ing" them.
I understand the point you're trying to make about intentions and meanings, but good
intentions don't make incorrect or offensive terminology any less incorrect or any less offensive. If you truly do have such great intentions then stop trying to perpetuate these age-old stereotypes and listen to someone when they're telling you that that's what you're doing.

Yet again, another white person who thinks they're allowed to stereotype people - as long as they're doing it in an allegedly nice way.



sexgenderbody said...

thank you, for hitting this crap on the head with a hammer!

The sad, pathetic truth is that the predominantly white males that have Asian 'fetishes' actually see women as objects. It totally makes me hurl and want to give my daughter a repeating firearm.


Birdie said...

Um, I seem to have a "thing" for men with at least a part-genetically Korean make-up. I find parts of the culture attractive as well (sexy even, secure and yet so offensive to me as an independent-minded female), maybe because it's so different (yet similar) to my own ethnic mixology (my German grandmother's influence, perhaps?) I could try to explain it- I've come up with a few theories, but in the end I just feel like an asshole. I find Korean guys much more attractive, in general (even if I tend to amuse/offend the bejebuss out of them). Them stands for 3 men that I have known (including the father of my child). Is that a fetish? I've kind of accepted it about myself- I seem to be attracted to these men first, and then find that they are Korean (before knowing last names, which are a giveaway). What do you think about this? I feel a bit guilty somehow for admitting that I would be much more likely to pay attention to a Korean guy than an Italian one (for instance) and yet I also feel like "Hey, it's alright to accept what I like, right?" I don't know. What is going on here? Am I being offensive somehow in my preference? I am also not attracted to guys with curly hair. Or most blonds. I like guys with black hair. Does that mean that I have a no-curly-hair fetish? Can you help me sort this out please? :)

Birdie said...

Just to clarify, I meant sausage-curl curly. Shirley Temple-like=freaks me out. Wavy hair is cool, kinky hair is cool, no hair at all is just fine. Hope I'm not offending any folks blessed w/natural curls. I'm being honest. At what point does a preference become a fetish? I'll be friends with curly-haired folks, I just don't find myself attracted to them as a rule. Wow, I'm really going on about this aren't I? You even wrote that you weren't an expert on fetishes. Alright, time to go to sleep...... :(

Birdie said...

Chicks are a totally different matter. I do dig chicks w/curly-q hair.....it's just men with sausage curls that I'm not attracted to.....oh hell. I'm sure some folks I know are going to read this and they are going to figure out that I wrote this and that one of them is going to be a sausage-curl guy friend and I'm going to have to ban myself from the internet for a bit for repeatedly putting my virtual foot in my virtual mouth. Ahhhhh!

Birdie said...

I'm an asshole, aren't I? My bet is probably. I'm sorry. :( Fuck.

Anonymous said...

Birdie, I love you.

Anonymous said...

A while ago, I used the term 'Oriental' in an internet forum and was immediately shot down in a hail of fire because 'Orient' implies that the area being spoken of is to the East of the speaker - namely, Europe and the West. I was told I ought to be saying 'Asian' instead.

However, being to the East of somewhere is not an insult, and if someone is to the East of where I am, surely I'm justified in speaking of them as such? Also, if we are the West - where is the Centre?

I am also of the opinion that 'Oriental' is far less of a generalization than 'Asian', and far less likely to be misunderstood, in my part of the world at least, where 'Asian' often means Pakistan and India.

However, if there is *is* a PC term I can use without confusing everyone around me - and presuming I might not know the birthplace or heritage of any given subject of discussion - do you by any chance know what it is?


Anonymous said...


The term "Asian" is not what is offensive. It is the generalization that all Asians are similar or that there is one homogeneous "Asian culture" that is offensive.

Although, geographically Asia isn't really a true continent, so some prefer to identify as "Pacific Islanders" rather than "Asians".

On the other hand, the term "Oriental" is offensive to many. Part of the reason why it's not PC is because it is Euro-centric.

Bekah said...

While I agree with most of the concepts in this piece, it's kind of ironic that I would have the "stereotype" conversation in my psychology class last night. I have a psychology professor that is one of the most liberal, feminist people I've ever met who works with transsexuals pre and post operation and she's awesome. However she made a comment about stereotypes that I tend to side with. EVERYONE has stereotypes. We have to. It's our brain's way of grouping things together. With all the different cultures and groups out there, how is one to learn and know about them all. How can we not group some of them together through some similar characteristics? And is that not stereotyping. As we learn more and discover differences, our stereotypes should change to reflect out new knowledge but in essence it is still a stereotype. IMO there is no way NOT to have some stereotypes since there has to be some way to keep all my information organized.

Anonymous said...

That's an interesting point Bekah. But I think the distinction (for me at least) is whether the people/things are being grouped together by characteristics that are actually similar... or if the similarities are assumed (or based on unrelated similarities).

For instance, it's not as offensive to suggest that there are some similarities among "East Asian" cultures (some, they are far from identical). However the implication that there is a single "Asian Culture" is such a vast generalization that it goes beyond the "organizing" of thoughts.