Geisha girls and dragon ladies are just a couple of the stereotypes that Americans place on Asians. Author Sheridan Prasso is trying to change that.
As part of its Experience Asia month, the Asian American Association (AAA) held a True Colors Discussion with special guest Prasso, author of “The Asian Mystique: Dragon Ladies, Geisha Girls & Our Fantasies of the Exotic Orient,” last Thursday.
“We had met (Prasso) earlier this year at a Pan-Asian conference in New York,” Amanda Liu, member of AAA, said.
“We were all excited,” Jon King, president of AAA, added. “We got to have someone really knowledgeable come and talk to us. It was a treat.”
Prasso, a Caucasian American female, began writing about Asia 15 years ago. She has served as an Asian correspondent based in Hong Kong and Cambodia, Bureau Chief for Agence France-Presse, and as Asia Editor and a Senior News Editor for BusinessWeek.
Her articles about Asia have appeared in renowned publications such as The New York Times, The New Yorker and the Los Angeles Times, among others. She has also reported for the Associated Press, and is a recipient of a Human Rights Press Award. She considers herself to be a “specialist” on Asia.
After moving to Asia for her job as a correspondent, Prasso realized that a lot of Americans have stereotypes about Asians and Asian countries. She decided to write a book so she could address these issues on a much grander scale.
According to Prasso’s research, Asian stereotypes can be traced as far back as the ancient Greeks, who viewed the goddess Aphrodite as an exotic woman from the Orient.
Marco Polo came back from China and described Asian women who were offered to the Western men. Colonial British traders realized that Asian women were different from their wives at home – they were more exotic and sensual.
Prasso said Cantonese immigrants in America stayed in the San Francisco area after the Gold Rush. These men often took up “women’s work” such as child care and laundry, and therefore were seen as feminine.
Hollywood decided to bring these images to screen, Prasso said. Asian males are seen as almost asexual or effeminate -“martial arts heroes who never get to kiss the girl,” she said. Men rarely get the opportunity to be seen in leadership positions.
On the other hand, Asian women are seen as “either submissive and docile, or kick-ass dominatrixes, like Lucy Liu,” Prasso said. Women are held to these “dragon lady” or “tea-pouring housewife” standards.
Prasso said that the main reason why Asians continue to be portrayed in this light is because there has not been enough of an outcry by the Asian community.
“We need an Al Sharpton for Asians,” Prasso said, getting some laugh from the audience. “Anyone up for the job?”
The entire discussion was not led by Prasso.
After she spoke about her book, she allowed students in the audience to ask her questions. Several questions sparked comments from other students.
“Is it better to be seen in the media as a stereotype, or not to be represented at all?” one student asked.
While the audience seemed to be divided, Prasso said, “Mistreatment doesn’t do anybody any good.”
Some students questioned whether or not Asians are the only ethnicity being held to stereotypes. Others wondered if Asian stereotypes could really be considered negative, “because is it really that bad to be considered quiet and good in math?” an audience member asked.
“I think that there is a line, and for Asians, it gets crossed much more quickly just because there isn’t an outcry for change,” Prasso said.
When asked if it was difficult to try and sell a book of this kind, Prasso revealed that her publisher had initially asked her who her audience was going to be.
“I would really like to prove to my publisher that there is an Asian American market for these books,” Prasso said.