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Photo of the author applying lipstick in a mirror Photo of the author applying lipstick in a mirror

(Tired of) Loving You Long Time: The Problem of Miss Saigon

By Kai Cheng Thom

Photo of the author applying lipstick in a mirror

“He pressed his wrist against mine and said his was too pale 

My skin was so much more beautiful

To him, I was Pacific sunset, almond milk, a porcelain cup

When he left me, I told myself I should have seen it comingI wasn’t sure

I was sad, but I cried anyway

Girls who look like me are supposed to cry over boys who look like him”

–Rachel Rostad, spoken word poet, “To J.K. Rowling, From Cho Chang

The scholar Edward Said wrote in his seminal work on West-East relations, Orientalism, about an idea he calls imaginative geography: “a kind of poetic process, whereby the vacant or anonymous reaches of distance are converted into meaning”.  It is through this process that racist ideas of the Orient as mysterious, magical, backward, consumable, brutally patriarchal, and so on, are created.  When the West looks at Asia, it creates a vision for itself about what Asia means – a subordinate vision, a dream that reshapes itself to feed whatever hunger the West is feeling in the moment: for exoticism, for adventure, for a barbarian nation to civilize, for a source of ancient wisdom.

I have believed for several years now that when white boys sleep with me, a similar process occurs, a kind of imaginative anatomy – a process of sexual dominance through which the alien regions of my Asian, genderqueer body are transformed to match the desires of my white lover.   In that moment, I am subsumed.  My identity is swept up in a current of narratives about what it means to be an Asian making love with a Caucasian man, an overwhelming legacy of stories about submission and inferiority, demure grace, endless humility, and undying devotion to the Great White Savior who deigns to fuck me.  In the roar of this current, my voice is lost, and both my lover and I begin to forget that I am anything but an Orientalist stereotype.   I call this “The Problem of Miss Saigon”.  

In the musical Miss Saigon, a staple of Western musical theatre, young Vietnamese sex worker named Kim (who, despite her profession, is a virgin when the plot begins) meets an American G.I. in the time of the Vietnamese War.  They fall madly in love during a night of passion, during which Kim conceives a child, and the American promises to return for her.  Kim spends years waiting, only to discover when he does return that he has married an American woman.  Kim then kills herself in order to force him to bring their son back to America for “a better life”.  

Romantic, isn’t it?  Except for the fact that Kim is an amalgamation of every misogynist, Orientalist stereotype to grace Western theatre and cinema: at once sexually consumable and virginal, immediately enraptured by the glory of white masculinity, exquisite and self-destructive, and above all, tragically doomed to be second-best, a taste of the erotic exotic that is ultimately dismissed and replaced by superior Whiteness.   Kim, along every character like her, has become a sort of archetypal ghost that looms over sex and dating between white people and People of Color. Miss Saigon is at once reflection and root of the sexualized racism that constructs bodies of color as disposable, a delicious but cheap form of sexual take-out.

How can I articulate the Problem of Miss Saigon in the context of lived experience?  How do I “prove” that such a subtle yet all-consuming form of racism is an actual occurrence, as opposed to the feverish hypersensitivity of an insecure mind?  All I can offer are the stories that I have lived through: of the boy to whom I lost my virginity, who kept comparing me to his favourite anime characters.  The countless elderly Quebecois gentlemen who have approached me in bars and addressed me as, “petit bo mec asiatique” (cute little Asian boy). The man I met at a writers’ retreat who, without any prompting, went into town and proudly returned with a kimono he’d bought for me.  The man this summer who, as we went to bed, pushed me face down and declared, “You like to be dominated.  You like it rough,” although I never said any such thing. The man who said that I could give him blowjobs every now and then, but that we couldn’t have sex because he had a (white) boyfriend.

The problem really isn’t that the white boys I date and have sex with intend to be racist.  I doubt that they wake up in the morning and consciously decide to degrade me (this is what we call hopeful thinking).   It is that we are socialized to think of the Oriental Other in sexual terms that are inherently dehumanizing.  It often simply does not occur to white men that the way they perceive and treat Asian partners is racist.  They do not notice that they are treating bodies of color as toys, as pieces of meat, as worth less than white bodies, as blank canvas onto which they paint their fetishistic desires, because society tells us that this is normal.

Yet the most insidious aspect of the Problem of Miss Saigon is internalized in the minds of People of Color ourselves.  It results and manifests in the belief that we have no choice but to play the part of the butterfly woman, the mail-order bride, the China Doll, the geisha girl – that this role is the best we can hope for.  The Problem of Miss Saigon makes us believe that we are worth less, that it is only through the white lover’s touch that we may be conferred a fuller humanity.  The Problem of Miss Saigon would have us disbelieve in the fundamental, carnal beauty of our own bodies, denies the possibility that we are worth desire and respect.

So what is a self-respecting radical leftist Asian trans femme who fucks and loves white boys to do?  The Filipina writer and feminist Ninotchka Rosca writes that “consent is only possible all things being equal”.  Can sexual relations between White folks and people of color be equal?  I need to know.  The reality we live is one in which white lives and lives of color are often inextricably intertwined.  And while many brave, powerful people of color I know have simply decided to refrain from dating white folks in order to make revolutionary love to each other, I still cling to the hope that my white partners and I can learn to love and fuck in such a way that imagines me as a liberated creature.

A few weeks ago, a white boy I was dating told me that he had decided to become monogamous with another white boy.  This meant, he said, that we could no longer be sexually intimate, but he wanted to keep our friendship going with the option of having sex again in case his other relationship didn’t work out.  Two years ago, I would have said yes to this proposal.  I would have believed that I had to hold on to this relationship in order to receive any kind of intimacy.  I would have become Kim, waiting with pathetic loyalty for a love that would never materialize. Now, I simply told him no.  The next morning, I cried – not only for the loss of the relationship, but because I was reminded that the shadow of Miss Saigon is not so easily escaped.  Because while I may not want to love you long time, the truth is that I do.   I was raised to love white boys, no matter what that meant for me.  Yet I have also learned to love myself.  Time will tell if I can do both.  

Like this column? Check out Kai’s last post in their monthly column “Badass”. 

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Kai Cheng Thom

(obviously) an aspiring poet






October 22, 2013

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