2. Unlearning Orientalism: Locating Asian and Asian American Women in Family History
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2 Unlearning Orientalism Locating Asian and Asian American Women in Family History Kathleen Uno Although experiences of home and family life are part of our everyday world, much work remains to be done to thoroughly understand and analyze Asian and Asian American women in families and households. There is also work to be undone, namely, unlearning Orientalism, which continues to influence the study of Asia and, in turn, permeates the study of Asians in the diaspora. Colonialism has left its mark on how Asian, Asian American, and Pacific Islander societies, including gender, inside and outside families, are analyzed. Those intellectual operations of colonialism have also had an impact on the lives of Asian women who migrate and are born overseas.1 “Lotus blossom,”“submissive,”“less liberated than Western women,”“shy,”“retiring,” “devoted,” “subservient,” “exotic,” and “sexy” are descriptors often applied to Asian women by the media and people in the everyday world, and these labels also stick to American-born and immigrant Asian women. Some Asian American women embrace these stereotypes as a route to personal goals, while others reject them as unwanted barriers . The stereotyping of Asian and Asian American women can be linked to images of Asia, and both sets of images are inscribed by the power of the West to shape knowledge around the globe since the rise of modern imperialism. Edward Said has argued that “the distillation of essential ideas about the Orient—its sensuality, its tendency to despotism, its aberrant mentality, its habits of inaccuracy, its backwardness—into a separate and unchallenged coherence” have characterized images of the Near (or Middle ) East, its culture, and its people.2 Yet the habits of mind formed in the imperialist encounter are not restricted to one geographic area. They have influenced views of societies , cultures, and peoples in other parts of the world, including Asia and the Pacific islands.Nor did those habits of mind vanish with the decline of formal or territorial imperialism in the twentieth century. Some consequences of Orientalism include a tendency to collapse differences and to obliterate Asian histories, replacing them with a static, timeless present. Moreover, while there are similarities between the broad regions of South,3 Southeast, and East Asia,there are also social and cultural differences.Differences exist among localities and peoples within the nations that constitute these regions as well, including differences under Western and non-Western (Japanese) colonialism. Rather than offer detailed de42 scriptions of household and family life in major Asian nations that have sent large numbers of migrants to the United States, this chapter focuses on how those interested in finding out more about Asian women may develop fruitful approaches to the history of Asian families and households by examining recent works. For students and researchers alike, (1) recognizing Asian and Asian/Pacific Islander American diversity as well as (2) acts of unlearning, recasting, or demystifying old images through questioning the assumptions of existing research may be as important as learning new facts or doing new research on Asian women in households and families. As a starting point for understandings of postmigration Asian and Pacific Island culture and social life, this chapter raises questions about the received wisdom of women in Asian households and families since the nineteenth century. Long-standing stereotypes of Asia, Asian women, and Asian family life feed images of women and family life in Asia today and Asian American women in the United States. It is worth casting doubt on these stereotypes that originate in colonial modes of thinking about Asian and Western societies and values, Asian women and men, and household or family values and activities. The historical method calls the questioning of existing assumptions , facts, approaches (or methods), and conclusions “revisionism.” At present, much of the path-breaking work in Asian family history and Asian gender history and studies is revisionist. The new scholarship interrogates the received wisdom about women in Asian households, and households in society, in the past and the present. These new findings and revisionist approaches to Asian women’s and family history can stimulate fresh perspectives on Asian American women’s and family history, especially at a time when studies of recent Asian immigration and of Asians in the diaspora are blossoming. Some Terms and Concepts The main argument of this chapter is that Orientalism, or the inscription of power on knowledge under Western imperialism since the late eighteenth century, has marked notions of Asian households, resulting in an exaggeration of both their patriarchal character and the...


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Subject Headings

  • Pacific Islander American women -- History.
  • Asian American women -- History.
  • United States -- Ethnic relations.
  • Pacific Islander American women -- Social conditions.
  • Asian American women -- Social conditions.
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