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[Viewpoint] A few insights into our Asian Casanovas

The lessons of Lee, Pacquiao and Woods illustrate the enduring appeal of ‘Orientalism.’

Jan 25,2010
When the only serious contenders during the last United States presidential election were a woman and a black man, most commentators wondered which category, gender or race, would prove worthier of the patronage of the electorate.

As it turned out, voters felt more confident about being led by a black man, although in a show of buyer’s remorse typical of history’s most successful consumer society, some Americans nowadays tend to write how Hillary Clinton would have had the leadership qualities that Barack Obama, for all his Kennedyesque charisma, sadly lacks in a time of serious global crises.

Yet the bigger picture has largely been overlooked. The standard presidential qualities of maleness, whiteness, wealth, and old age have become more difficult to assert, due to the rise of identity politics during the only truly progressive revolution the United States ever came close to, comprising the various cultural upheavals of the 1960s.

After the election of the non-WASP John F. Kennedy ushered in the Camelot spirit, the boys’ club managed to hold on for a few more decades afterward, although it became increasingly apparent that successful candidates could, and then should, be sold on the basis of their deviation from the norm: Jimmy Carter had been a peanut farmer, Ronald Reagan a B-movie actor, Bill Clinton an impoverished native son who could complete his education only through scholarship grants.

In this context, even “Dubya” Bush connected with voters despite his monstrous incompetence precisely because he was an “aw-shucks: underachieving everyday guy, in dull contrast with his father, the United States’ (and by extension the world’s) last patriarchal President.

The foregrounding of the formerly immovable categories of race and gender during last year’s election recalls another category, one where both qualities reside, and which (officially, at least) supposedly no longer exists: that of Orientalism. Ever since Edward Said published his eponymous study, Orientalism (or, more accurately, anti-Orientalism) became an area of scholarly pursuit, first within comparative race studies, where Said had originally located his ideas. Not long after, feminist scholars joined the growing body of work critiquing Orientalism, but in fact improved on Said’s framework by incorporating the issue of desire.

In other words, where Said pointed out instances in Western literature where the Oriental was presented as inferior to the Western subject, more recent studies of Orientalism, focusing mainly on popular culture, acknowledge that racial bias (expressed via Christianity-inspired moral chauvinism) had a tense and often conflicting relationship with desire, often by the West for the “Other.”

For all its potentially contentious, controversial, even occasionally pornographic implications, this view helped explain several phenomena, including the feminizing attitudes Western nations and peoples had toward Orientals, as well as the West’s comparatively less destructive colonization projects, rather than the outright enslavement or extermination wrought on populations that early conquistadores regarded as subhuman.

In order to see just how far Orientalism might have transformed, I have been casually following the still-unfolding sagas of three celebrities, all males in their 30s, more or less Asian, and beset by women trouble.

Tiger Woods, who describes himself as “Cablinasian” (Caucasian, black, American Indian, Asian), is actually more Asian than any of his other racial designations, but like Obama, exhibits the more genetically dominant African skin color.

Filipino boxer Manny Pacquiao is the more “native” Asian sportsman, a multiple-division champ.

And Lee Byung-hun, as close to the stereotypical Oriental as any East Asian can get, is a Korean actor who has appeared in local and international blockbusters.

One can “rank” them, as I had just listed them, in terms of increasing “Asianness,” but the way that twinned conditions occur among them is even more fascinating: Pacquiao and Lee are more racially Asian, Woods and Lee have middle-class backgrounds, and Woods and Pacquiao are already-legendary title holders in the traditionally masculinist profession of sports.

If we proceed from the feminization of Orientals by the self-masculinizing West, then Woods would be the person least subject to this outlook, mainly due to his most-mixed and consequently least-Asian ancestry.

Ironically he has been the one so far whose stature has regressed the most, largely because of his incursion in a field, professional golf, which had been the bulwark of a type that once would have included former U.S. presidents.

The outing, so to speak, of his sex addiction was undertaken by women who were, to put it mildly, unruly and, more significantly, white.

Lee, like Pacquiao and unlike Woods, only has to worry about a single female complainant, non-white at that. Although the specifically Korean offense of honin-bingja-ganeumjoi, or obtaining sex under a false promise of marriage, is no longer in force, it nevertheless points up the disparity between Lee and his way-too-young ex. Lee’s advantage over the other two is that, as an unmarried man, he is still technically free to play the field.

Pacquiao, if we were to take his detractors’ assertion that his philandering is more than just a gimmick intended to drumbeat his and his alleged paramour’s media projects, might not suffer the same extreme fall from grace that Woods did, but nevertheless still has to contend with his status as a family man.

Yet he is the one blessed with a partner who has been fully supportive, who holds back her outraged responses whenever he prepares for one of his much-anticipated matches, and displays a warmth and graciousness during her interviews that have disarmed even those who had long gotten over her husband’s mystique.

This is where a further insight into Orientalism makes itself indispensable: Within even a Western domestic sphere, where no racial Others might be present, the woman can still be configured as the Oriental of the man.

In a situation like the Philippines, which has been Orientalized several times over - by multiple colonizations, rapacious rulers, and possibly permanent underdevelopment ? it is the country’s close-to-legendary women who have managed to keep heart and hearth alive.

It is further proof that, as South Korea had earlier demonstrated, the most Oriental among us just might persevere in the end.



*The author is Associate Professor at Inha University and a member of the PhilRPG. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.


by Joel David



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