Wednesday, July 25, 2012

The Secrets of East Asian Women Part 2: Cuteness

Stereotype: "Asian girls are cute."   

This Korean girl is doing her best aegyo face on a talk show.
I'm sure that some of you may be familiar with this stereotype and maybe even heard someone say it out loud! I've heard this one from members of both genders, from both East Asians and non-East Asians alike. I would argue that it may be more benign than some of the other stereotypes I will examine in this multipart article, but I argue that it is a gross generalization. Let's dissect!

Where does it come from?

If I had to guess where this generalization came from, I feel I could easily pinpoint a few places -- namely pop music, anime, movies (particularly romcoms) and television dramas. See, a lot of what Westerners see of East Asian culture depends heavily on what they're into, but most likely it probably comes from one of those aforementioned sources. I shall explain these in more detail.

These are the members of the Japanese electro-pop girl group Perfume. It certainly seems that this photo was taken with cuteness in mind. Most of their videos are pretty cute too. I have to admit, I actually do like their music!
Pop Music

In East Asian music industries, there are myriad bands, groups, soloists, etc., etc. but none are more prolific and seemingly exportable than pop music, naturally. A lot of what constitutes pop music in East Asia is manufactured boy and girl groups. You know the story. A talent/record company scouts a few talented or at least good-looking young people and throws them into a group together to entertain other young people and make tonnes of money before they get too old and are forced to either become legitimate artists or pursue employment elsewhere. Well, yes, this is the driving force of East Asian commercial music, and as such it's what most Westerners see or at least hear about when East Asian media or music is discussed in our news, magazines or blogs. What does this have to do with cuteness? Well, the female exponents of these groups come primarily in two flavours, sexy/sassy or cute. Can you guess which is more popular? Hard to say really, but the point is that a lot of the images we get in the Americas of Asian pop culture come from pop music. Thus we associate these images of cute singers with everyday East Asian folks, kind of the way everyday East Asian folks associate A-list Hollywood actors with everyday North American folks . . . Hmmm . . . could it be that we're not so different after all? . . . Next medium!

These two female characters are from an old anime, To Heart, that I used to watch in high school, back when I was a super-nerd. Notice how they are drawn with big, childlike eyes to make them look cuter? These two characters also have really high voices as well. Even if you don't find this sort of thing cute, they were certainly designed to be.

Anime, anime, anime . . . oh, how I love you and hate you all at the same time. You have such tremendous creativity, delightful concepts and amazing variety, yet you can also be so gosh darn derivative, and I can't help but feel you are responsible for so much of the cultural misconceptions that East Asian women have to deal with on a near daily basis. This section is more relevant to Japanese women specifically, as anime is primarily a Japanese medium, but it can and often is extended to East Asian women generally by those who remain unenlightened. How does this happen? Women in anime, especially characters who act as love interests, are routinely portrayed as ultimately dependent, clumsy and childlike, even if at first portrayed as being assertive and headstrong. Often a tough, assertive, headstrong woman may appear as a supporting character, but only rarely as a love interest. Why does this happen? There are many reasons, but there are three that stick out.

The first is that much anime, especially modern anime, is by and large written by awkward, nerdy males for awkward, nerdy males. Let's call them otaku. Yes, this is a generalization and there are numerous exceptions, but bear with me. Ask anyone in Japan about male otaku and one of the characteristics you'll likely hear repeated is "They are afraid of real women." See where I'm going with this? The real Japanese women I've met and tutored have been complicated independent thinkers with goals and prospects, many of which do not rely solely on getting married to a man. Women in anime? Not so much.  (Note: I don't hate otaku -- I used to be one, after all.)

Long story short, a lot of female characters in anime geared towards males are given cute, childlike characteristics to make them less intimidating and more dependent than real Japanese women actually are. The male protagonists often portrayed in these anime? They range from badass heroes to . . . you guessed it . . . awkward, nerdy males who have never had a girlfriend because of their awkward nerdiness! This is done so that watching anime gives these male otaku -- the majority of the fan base for this kind of stuff -- a feeling of escaping into a world where, instead of being marginalized by popular society as antisocial misfits who lack the confidence to ask out a real woman, characters with similar traits as the viewer become independent and sexually appealing men. These men are charged with caring for an innocent, childlike, frail female companion with a voice that would make a chipmunk blush, whose only purpose in life is to find more effective ways of expressing her love to her formerly socially unacceptable boyfriend. Ah, the male otaku's romantic paradise!

The second and third reason that women and girls are so gosh darn cute in anime is because (a) anime is a visual medium and, like most visual media, it portrays things in an exaggerated and melodramatic way, e.g., characteristics perceived as feminine become super-exaggerated. And (b) cute things just seem to be really damn popular in East Asian cultures. Visit an East Asian supermarket and go to the snack food aisle -- you'll see what I mean.    

So how does this help North Americans get the wrong idea about Asian women? The stages are as follows:

1. Believe it or not, a lot of North American non-ethnically East Asian males and females watch this sort of anime.

2. Anime is from Japan.

3. Japan is in East Asia.

4. Many non-ethnically East Asian people in North America who are not familiar with East Asian cultures have a nasty habit of grouping these cultures together with little regard for their major differences.

5. Some of the more delusional viewers of this stuff get the erroneous idea that these animated female characters represent the reality of women in Japan and, by extension, East Asia.

6. Watchers of such anime tell peers that East Asian women are supposed to be "like, totally feminine and cute and stuff!" and voila! You have a stereotype!

Believe me, this is something that actually happens. When I was in high school, I was a believer of this myth. Oh, how I've learned. The crazy thing is that up into university I continue to talk to and overhear men and woman alike, of all sorts of different ethnicities, both enforcing and disputing this myth as it pertains to anime. So, yeah, it is actually a thing. Okay, so enough about anime . . . which I don't totally hate, by the way!

Movies and Television Dramas

"Vicky" Zhao Wei in the role that made her famous in the well-known 1998 drama Princess Returning Pearl, a name that probably makes WAY more sense in Chinese. Zhao Wei became famous for having big eyes and looking really cute! Awww. She has since proven herself to be a talented and well-rounded actress . . . and I'm in love with her . . . sigh* 
East Asian movies and television dramas are similar to anime in the way they portray women, only to a much lesser extent. Naturally the fact that real actors are portraying the characters means that the features and mannerisms of female characters tend to be less overdone. But still, in a lot of mainstream East Asian films, desirable East Asian women are often portrayed as being cute and "feminine," often more so than their Western counterparts. When non-East Asians watch these movies and see these characters, again they take them at face value, gaining the expectation that this is how East Asian woman act in real life! -- failing, of course, to realize that even in their own countries, films portray a largely exaggerated view of life. It doesn't help that East Asian films, especially in the mainstream, often tend to be more melodramatic than their Hollywood counterparts. East Asian romcoms (romantic comedies) especially tend to be the worst offenders, portraying idealized romantic archetypes such as the beautiful and cute "feminine" woman and the handsome and sensitive yet "masculine" man. The thing is, though, that these archetypes are also present in American romcoms, so this really should come as no surprise! In my experience it's often East Asian kung fu or action films and romcoms that get the most exposure outside of East Asia. Which of course leads to stereotypes. Don't get me wrong, I like me some East Asian romcoms -- I am, after all, a romantic at heart -- but you must also realize that they do not portray perfect representations of the reality of East Asian females.

The Truth!

Retired female MMA fighter and former champion Megumi Fuji working the mat with a training partner, applying a triangle choke. She's fought in 27 professional fights and has won 25 of them, 19 by submission and 1 by TKO, and 15 of her victories never left the first round. Isn't she adorable?! 
There are actually two truths present here: the truth as it exists for East Asian women and the truth as it exists for women born elsewhere with East Asian backgrounds. The important thing to realize, which I have talked about before on this blog, is that Asian Americans, for example, are totally culturally different from East Asian people. Where you grow up, the people you grow up with and the ideas that are instilled in you as you mature are key elements in what defines your culture. So if you think Sharon Liu, born in Windsor, Ontario, who sits beside you in your philosophy tutorial, can fulfill your fantasy of being your "sweet and pure pearl of the East," then you are sorely mistaken. This is of course not to say that if you happen to meet a girl from East Asia, she can fulfill your misguided fantasy either.

Now it is true that cuteness, or acting cute, is a phenomenon in East Asia that tends to stand out more in its pop culture than in other countries. In Korea they call it aegyo, in Japan kawai-i (there's a name in Chinese for it too but I don't know what it is), and it comprises a kind of exaggerated cuteness that pop stars, actors and TV personalities use from time to time. It is also supposedly popular among bar hostesses in these countries, whose job it is to sit with and entertain men as they drink at hostess bars (their job does not include sex and there are male exponents called hosts who act much the same way with female customers). They do this to seem more appealing and youthful to their customers, many of whom are middle-aged or even older -- it's kind of like a fantasy for them. The thing is, though, that it is not exclusive to females and is also not considered normal behavior for people in East Asia. In fact I've been told straight up that if a person acts like that in real life, his or her peers will find it unbearably annoying and/or weird. So, yes, sorry if I ruined anyone's fantasies, but ya'll need to know the truth!

Take it from ol' Alex. I've dated women from both sides of the Pacific, and the only thing I've learned is that once you get past the language barrier it's all pretty darn similar. East Asian women are about as cute as anyone else, and the idea that they are somehow "cuter" than people from other cultures or ethnicities just ain't a fact. It may well be an opinion that you or someone you know has, but a fact it is not. The thing is, if you like or even love someone, they will probably be cute to you regardless. Language barriers can play a big role too in one's perception of cuteness. Some people instinctively treat ESL students like children because their limited English ability makes them sound childlike and cute! However, that student might be working towards an electrical engineering degree back home in Taiwan, so you never really know.

With my last girlfriend from Korea, for example, I used to think it was adorable when she would get her countable and uncountable nouns mixed up, saying, "We should buy some ice creams [meaning ice cream bars] 'cause it's a hot day!" "How cute!" I would say, giggling like a schoolgirl. Likewise she thought it was precious whenever I screwed up my Korean, like when I wanted to say the word now (jigeum) but accidentally said a little (jogeum). "Ha ha! So cute!" she would say. Know when she wasn't cute? When she would talk about budgeting our money or when she was pissed off or depressed . . . you know, like everyone else. The point I'm trying to get across here is that anyone can be cute -- men, women, East Asians, Americans, adults, children -- it don't matter.

In my next post, The Secrets of East Asian Women, Part 3: Submissiveness          

Sunday, July 22, 2012

The Secrets of East Asian Women Part 1

Greetings, my pupils. Make yourselves comfortable as I, Professor Alexander, impart to you the knowledge that has been revealed to me in my many travels to the Orient and dealings with its diverse peoples. For the Orient holds many secrets and many more treasures, and of these, none is more tempting to the intrepid young gentleman than the tantalizing, sumptuous, and bountiful peaches of the East! But of course, it is of no fruit that I speak, nay! For what I speak of are the delicate, beautiful, and ever modest pearls of Asia with their dark, flowing locks, almond eyes, and skin as soft as lotus petals . . . ARGH! I can't do this anymore.

So yes, if you have a soul and half a brain, that should have made you laugh, cry, groan in agony, or feel really uncomfortable. If your reaction was awe and wonder followed by your uttering, "Yes! Tell me more, Professor Alexander!" then you need to get with the times!

 I've been waiting for a long time to write this article but never really knew how to approach it in a concise way. It's something that has always bothered me immensely and now I finally feel that I can explain it eloquently.

As an East Asian studies specialist, when asked about my major and upon answering, I am often posed a follow-up question along the lines of "So do you like Asian girls too?" This question annoys me no end because, regardless of the speaker's intent, it feels as though the person asking the question is implying that the reason I pay more than $10,000 in annual course fees and spend long hours studying East Asian societies, culture, and language is because I'm looking for a girlfriend. However, at the same time, my answer is almost always yes . . . but not for the reasons many might think.

I like East Asian women because I am a heterosexual male and am not (at least consciously) racist. Throughout my time on this earth I have had amorous feelings towards and relationships with women of different cultural backgrounds and ethnicities, including, but not limited to, women who could be described in the following ways: white, black, East Asian, Latin American, and South Asian (sometimes and problematically referred to as "brown"). This is because growing up in a bustling cosmopolitan city like Toronto and having friends from numerous backgrounds has made me realize that culture and ethnicity are two separate entities entirely, and when it comes to dating, the latter plays a much smaller role . . . unless you're racist.  
However, I also must admit that most of my past girlfriends have been East Asian or have come from East Asian backgrounds. Does this mean I suffer from the dreaded "yellow fever"? This is a term that describes an indiscriminate infatuation for all East Asian members of the opposite sex, and I find it to be overtly negative and deeply insulting to ethnic East Asians everywhere. I would argue no. I just know a lot of ethnic East Asian people, so I meet a lot more women from this ethnicity than others. It often seems to me that the problem here is that many of my peers expect me to have some sort of ulterior motive in my selection of East Asian girlfriends, apparently based on grossly outdated stereotypes that I shall unravel here in part 2 of this article!    

See, the thing I find to be most irksome about people's curiosity concerning my dating of ethnic East Asian women is the questions that often follow my yes answer. These often consist of one of the following: "Because they're cute?" "Because they're submissive?" "Because they're exotic?" And the worst and most cringe-worthy, "Because they're easy?" . . . Seriously, I mean, really? REALLY? Good god, people. The thing that blows my mind is that I have received such questions from people of varying ethnicities and cultures, including East Asians as well as people my age . . . in the 21st century, no less! Staggering, is it not?

All right, so if you don't know why this irks me so and why I can confidently say I don't date ethnic East Asian women solely because of their ethnicity, it is because these stereotypes -- which are thought to distinguish East Asian women from women of other ethnicities -- are in modern times untrue. Whereas some stereotypes may have an air of truth to them, these ones are old and outdated and currently do not exist, inside or outside of Asia. I shall look at every stereotype I've listed and explain my theories of how such misconceptions came to be, why they are no longer valid, and what we should do about it. This is going to be a multi-part article because I have LOADS to say on this subject. So check back tomorrow for the next part, and Viva La Woman!

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Restaurant Review: Don Don Izakaya

Izakaya seem to be popping up all over Toronto these days, waxing nostalgic of the sushi trend that rocked the city a decade or so ago. I've always thought of izakaya as "restaurants that serve Japanese food that isn't sushi or ramen." Yes, my friends, despite popular North American belief, people in Japan do not eat sushi three times a day every day, because, like here, good sushi is really expensive in Japan.                         

Yesterday a good friend of mine, who had grown up in Japan and travels there regularly, treated me and my best bud to a dinner at Don Don Izakaya, in Toronto, located at 130 Dundas Street West. I had heard mixed reviews about it since it opened a few months back but had never had the opportunity to try it out myself. Yesterday I finally got my wish. 

Stole this pic from Toronto Life... please don't sue me.
The mood lighting is actually way better than this, my cellphone is just crappy.

Coming into the restaurant was pretty nifty. It has a funky interior lined with bamboo, and customers have the option of sitting at the bar or at thick wooden tables -- think picnic tables only more comfy and stylish. The whole design is sort of a hybrid of traditional and modern Japanese motifs that reminds me of the traditional-style Korean pubs I often visited in Seoul -- only Japanese, of course. When you walk through the door the maitre d' hits a taiko drum twice and says something in Japanese (probably along the lines of "We got a customer!") and the other waiters chime back with the classic restaurant welcome "Irashimase!" -- meaning welcome. The taiko drum was kind of fun, as the name of the restaurant is "Don Don," which is Japanese onomatopoeia for the sound of a taiko drum. Betcha didn't know that! . . . or mabye you did. Anyway . . .

My best friend and I started with 710 ml bottles of Kirin, which is a malt beer from Japan and, to date, my favourite beer from that country. The friend who was treating us had Asahi Premium Dark, which I actually didn't know existed (I consider myself pretty worldly when it comes to beer, especially darks). The beer was tasty as usual.

The first thing I ordered was "Wasabi Tako" -- tako being Japanese for octopus. It was essentially raw octopus mixed with wasabi. Think wasabi peas except with squishy, wet raw octopus instead of processed peas. I loved it!

Next we had seared mackerel, which was REALLY good, followed by "Japanese-style" fried chicken (my friend's words, not mine), which was subsequently followed by assorted fried things that consisted of shrimp, pork, and sea cucumber, with ketchup on the side. 

Following that we had these black rolled things that were filled with pureed fish -- to die for; a miso-based soup with noodles, beef and mixed vegetables -- not the most exciting thing but still tasty; and finally grilled white fish with garlic butter -- really damn tasty! This was all served with a side of brown rice. Yummy tummy! Sadly it didn't dawn on me to take pics of everything we ordered 'cause I only decided to blog about the place halfway into our meal and all I had was my outdated cellphone for pics. However, here are some washed-out-looking photos of some of the food we got. 

The desserts were quite interesting, featuring a pudding that is apparently very popular in Japan, according to my friend (white plate, right), sesame ice cream (black bowl, bottom), and a green tea mousse with red bean and a dab of whipped cream (top). All of these were most flavourful and I was surprised just how much you could taste the sesame in the ice cream.

So, the verdict? Good! All the dishes were tasty, flavourful, and creative. The prices are not exactly cheap but are still quite affordable if you work and are not a poor student like me -- ranging from about $3 to $11 a dish (pretty standard for izakaya fare in Toronto -- think tapas). The staff were super-friendly and consisted entirely of Japanese young men and women (probably here on working holidays) for that extra authentic feel that us Western folks crave so much (this is supposed to be a joke).

Also of note is that the head chef and owner is Chef Daisuke, who owned and ran Sakura Kaiseki, which used to be at Church and Wellesley. It was also an izakaya but of a much higher quality and steeper price, at which I was fortunate enough to eat four times before it closed. The dishes at Don Don show flourishes of Chef Daisuke's expertise and creativity but seem to have been simplified to enable the many staff working there to recreate them quickly. Even so, I found the food to be delicious and up to Daisuke standard! Overall, a very enjoyable experience!

Oh . . . and the washrooms were spiffing!

Here's their website:

Thursday, July 12, 2012

If anyone is heading over or in Montreal, I recommend checking out the Samurai exhibit currently on at the museum of archaeology in old montreal.

The exhibit showcases a collection of Samurai armor, blades and myriad other accessories and artifacts collected by Montrealer Professor Richard Béliveau's private collection. And what a collection it is!

Monsieur Béliveau with his collection.
 All the pieces on display are in beautiful condition and are coupled with all sorts of interesting information about Samurai studies, daily lives, and the periods of time in which they were prolific. The exhibit makes for an accessible and comprehensive introduction to what Samurai's were all about while showing off some genuinely amazing artifacts. Definitely worth a look if your into the subject matter... and lets face it, who doesn't find Samurai interesting?

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Well, my friends, it is now July, which means I only have about a month and a half before I take off to Korea for a year. Wow. I haven't updated for a bit as I took off to Montreal for a vacation with a couple of friends of mine, and when I take a vacation, I take a vacation from EVERYTHING -- Facebook, blogging, whatever. Anyway, I hope to write another article about some serious stuff, like that "Misguided Perceptions of Asian Women" article I totally wanna write, which will likely be my next post. But currently I lack the energy necessary for such a venture, so in the meantime, here's more pictures of Korean things!

The following pics are from 2008 when I visited the Changdeokgung Palace in Seoul. This palace apparently served as a sort of pleasure palace for the king of Joseon (Korea's longest and final dynasty). The king would come to Changdeokgung to chill out in the gardens and take it easy. It was also a place where scholar-officials, or yang ban, would study and write the civil service exams that could guarantee them a job in government. I thought it was quite beautiful and took a lot of pics. In my opinion these were the best of them.

This here is a line of stones leading up to the throne room, where the king would sit around and do kingly stuff. There is an identical row to the left and it seemed that they lined the path the king would walk to get to the throne-room structure. I'm unable to read Chinese characters but I seem to remember it was explained to me that they were elements meant to protect the king from all sorts of nasty things, such as disease and fatal accidents, etc. etc. Though some of the castle needed to be reconstructed over the turbulent years of Korea's modern history, I believe that these particular stones have been sitting there for a very long time -- hundreds of years likely.

 Here we have a structure that I don't really know the purpose of. It's connected to the main palace by gates and "bridges." The colours displayed here are common in traditional Korean architecture. I wish I could say more, but it was 4 years ago, and even then I don't think I was actually told what it was.  Still, looks nice!

Here's some more bits of the palace. Here you can see a chimney running up the wall of one of the structures. This is one of the chimneys used to ventilate the ondol floor of this building. Ondol floors are heated floors and are a uniquely Korean invention that would be used in the wintertime to heat floors in Joseon times. A fire would be lit in a special furnace located at the base of the structure, and through an elaborate system the floor would be heated by this fire. The smoke would be ventilated via this chimney. For rooms where the king himself would reside, the chimneys were placed much farther away so as to ensure the structures would not get blackened by soot.

Here is a signboard for one of the structures. Some of you may be wondering why it is in Chinese characters instead of the Korean hangul scriptThis is because Koreans traditionally used Chinese characters for their writing. It wasn't until the 1500s that the hangul alphabet was created by "Seijong the Great" -- a king known in Korean history for his benevolence and ingenuity -- so that commoners could have a writing system by which to communicate. Chinese characters continued to be used by the upper classes until quite recently, and in certain newspapers Chinese characters, or hanja, can still be seen occasionally. Also notice the detailing of the structure. Beautiful, no?

These small figurines can be seen on countless traditional Korean buildings. They serve as protective spirits against misfortune and things like that. They can be seen on palace buildings, temples and various other buildings. This motif is popular throughout much of East Asia and can be seen on Chinese and Japanese structures as well.

This is one of the pleasure gardens previously mentioned. Here we see a manmade pond. The structures behind are supposedly pleasure pavilions where the king, queen and officials would've relaxed and enjoyed food, music, and possibly theater. On the other side of the pond is a gazebo of sorts that is suspended over the water -- perhaps a place to relax and contemplate. I was so fond of this picture that I printed it out and mounted it on my wall.

This final shot is an exam study hall for scholar-officials in training. Each room would house a scholar who would study hard to memorize key sections of the Confucian classics, which he would then transcribe or recite for the test. Notice the screens at the upper right. These could be manipulated to keep sunlight from shining into a scholar's eyes while he was studying. Things haven't really changed much, have they?

So, that's all for now!