The Asian Mystique by Sheridan Prasso

[27 October 2006]

By David Pullar

If ignorance breeds prejudice, then a well-informed, comprehensive survey of racial perceptions is a good antidote. This is certainly Sheridan Prasso’s intention with The Asian Mystique, a book that seeks to put to bed every last misunderstanding Westerners have about Asians, particularly those of Asian women as either submissive or sadistic.

Mystique is essentially two books with a similar theme. The first is a critical examination of perceptions of Asian people, as developed through historical interaction, colonialism, war and television. The second is an anthropological study of a sample of modern Asian women to determine how well they fit the stereotypes.

The analysis of Asian stereotypes past and present is illuminating. Prasso is no historian and sometimes her analysis of events and interactions appears slight. However, in a polemical work, a certain amount of assertion and selectiveness is only to be expected. Where Prasso shines is in her look at the highly circumscribed roles available to Asians in popular culture. The fact that most people consider the idea of an Asian romantic lead in a Hollywood film ludicrous gives some indication of the state of affairs.

The oral sociology presented in the book’s second half is less revolutionary, if only because its observations are not surprising after the dissection of stereotypes in the early chapters. Prasso first points out how narrow and absurd the caricatures are given the sheer number and diversity of Asian peoples (are Koreans and Cambodians any more similar than French and Finns?) She then proceeds to give example after example of how the women behind the clichés (bar girl, housewife, prostitute, martial arts mistress) diverge from expectations.

Overall, Prasso makes a compelling and well-researched point. Her message to Westerners to address their mythologising of the East is nothing less than a wake-up-call. The only shame is that those most in need of a reality check will never read it.

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