- Emerging Voices: Experiences of Underrepresented Asian Americans
Emerging Voices is a rewarding book. Writing about lesser-known Asian immigrants, the authors try to bring the reader up to speed quickly, saying much in a short space about the immigrants' history in Asia and their situation in America. The fourteen chapters are easily accessible to the general reader as well as to the specialist and offer a gold mine of information and insight.
To my mind, the jewel of the book is Todd LeRoy Perreira's essay "The Gender of Practice." Perreira has a knack for insight, a philosophical flare. He wrestles with an odd statistic. Almost 70 percent of Thai immigrant women marry non-Thai men. More than a quarter marry non-Asians. These women tend to be poorly educated, yet marry men with good educations. How do they attract these men? Is it because Thai women are beautiful? Yes they are, but that's not the answer. What makes them a catch is their Buddhism. Thai women are kind and loving. They deal gracefully with life's problems. What is ironic is that these things are not the hallmarks of Thai Buddhism, or at least the Buddhism of the monks. According to the monks, what counts is meditation and enlightenment as well as giving to the temples, and the monks build up credit for the next life. This has a familiar ring. The Catholic church once forgave sins for a donation of money. This was a main reason Martin Luther left the church, which kicked off the Reformation. Ordinary people do not like the idea of salvation as a business deal. Perreira says Thai women agree, so they have created their own version of Buddhism. Good works and loving deeds are spiritually credit-worthy. This is a Buddhism they can admire. Perreira wonders if the wisdom of ordinary people is not as valid a road as any to religious truth. He is in good company. There is a fable in Plato's Protagoras.1 When the gods created living beings, they gave survival skills to the [End Page 107] species—speed, strength, and so forth. By the time it was the humans' turn, the gods had run out of skills to give. So they taught humankind to compensate for their frailty with tools. And wise Zeus gave them the skill of morality so they would stop fighting and cooperate. He did not distribute this skill in the normal way, which is unevenly, with a few having great talent and the rest almost none. How could there be community if only a few were moral and the rest savage as beasts? So the distribution was equal. No experts, just amateurs who pool what little they know to discover what is right. The lesson? Learning morality is like learning your native tongue. The whole community is your teacher. The example of the Thai women and their Buddhism suggests that perhaps religious truth is found the same way.
In this connection, we learn from Jiemin Bao how Thai women give prostitution a religious twist. In Thailand, poverty forces poor daughters into prostitution. And there is a lot of it because of the ferretlike womanizing of Thai men. Yet the stigma of prostitution loses its sting when the women send money home to help their families and earn credit with donations to temples. And there is a revenge of sorts on the womanizers once Thai women are in America. American culture backs them up when they rein in their philandering Thai husbands or send them packing when they don't reform.
Before military thugs took over, Burmese women were the peers of their men. Tamara C. Ho says men even conceded women were superior in running a business and making the big decisions of life (187). In America, Burmese women reclaim their independence by drawing strength from their Buddhism, which is certainly a healthy antidote to the endless ads that swarm with purring women mindlessly rubbing against...