Exotic and Smashable Fragility

I’ve previously written a number of posts about the racial stereotypes represented in my salt and pepper shaker collection: lazy Mexicans, but especially adorable Native North Americans and jolly overweight African Americans. This time, it’s the turn of the Asians.

This set sums up one significant branch of the Asian world as it is depicted in salt and pepper sets: the sensitive aesthete stereotype (the other main branch has to do with cooking, especially Chinese cooking–more of that in a later post).  This is one of two similar sets I own that depicts a couple seated on the ground as they play their artistic trades–here, playing a stringed instrument and just plain reading.   I’ll talk about the second set in my next post.

The main effect of these figures is to confirm a kind of exotic vision of the mysterious East–a place where people with eyes so totally slanty that they look like nothing but thin slanty lines, and with strange but luridly bright clothing and truly weird hats, sit on the floor, of all unusual and uncultured places, as they lazily avoid the world of commerce and war in the midst of a dream of fragile beauty.  It’s an ultimate expression of the Orientalism that Edward Said talks about in his book of that name:  the East as the opposite of everything that makes the West and we supposedly inherently superior Westerners powerful and with a divine right to our power; the East as weak, as fragile, as driven by emotion rather than reason, as unworldly and impractical, as childlike, as effeminate if not inherently feminine.  Is possible that these figures represent a male and a female, but both are equally delicately boned and slender and unlikely to be seen partaking in UFC matches or screaming “Yeehaw!” at a Rodeo somewhere manly and tough.  Or making trades on Wall Street, or occupying the Oval Office.

The two are something like ceramic versions of Madame Butterfly or Liu of Turandot–creatures too delicate and exotic to invite anything but being admired in a condescending way that focuses on their ethereal abnormalcy.  They actually appear to be too delicate and exotic to be anything but tragically tormented and heart-throbbingly crushed by the harsh realities of real life.  Their exotic delicacy, I think, evokes a rather ugly kind of sadism–something like a common response to the cuteness of children, a focus on their fragility that more or less assumes their breakability, and that seems in some insidious way to to be inviting an act of breakage.  I can say, however, that I have not yet broken them.  Not yet.  But they so seem to exude a tempting invitation to get on with it and enjoy the resulting self-pity and guilt and remorse.  They are made of some kind of ceramic ware–eminently breakable.  But they are a tough kind of ceramic ware–unlikely to be really hurt by being dropped.  You can toy with abusing them quite safely, then–enjoy the implication of causing them pain without actually indulging in it  (An intriguing sort of parallel, then, to how Robin Bernstein reads the scriptive actions implied by the physical qualities of material objects depicting African Americans in her book Racial Innocence, which I discussed in earlier posts).

That these shakers fit into a readily recognizable category of mainstream North American kitsch is made clear for me personally by the ways in which they evoke for me a memory of my childhood.  When I was young, my parents owned  a pair of plaques that depicted a pair of very similar figures.  While I have no pictures of them as they once hung on the living room walls of my youth, I do have one shot of them, still hanging on the walls of the house my parents lived in in their later years.

They’re a little hard to see here, hidden as they are by part of my father’s rather immense collection of houseplants.  But there they are, to the right of the photo, one hidden by some leaves.

The figures are seated on the ground, under umbrellas, reading.  I have no idea what, if anything, the symbols beside them mean–although they do sort of look like Japanese letters.  These plaques were originally, as far as I can recall, primarily, black, with gold highlights; my father, who had something of a fetish for house paint and a lifelong urge to paint each and everything that came anywhere close to him (even, sometimes his children as he was busy painting other things), painted them silver as they appear in these pictures.

I have no idea why my parents were attracted by these plaques–or if they even were attracted by them.  They were things they owned in the category of stuff to hang on the wall; and whenever we moved, down they came from one wall and up they went on a new wall in another house.  No one ever really looked at them–they were not artistic objects so much as they were merely acceptable house decoration, the kind of thing you might expect to find on a standard living room wall in North America in the forties and fifties and into the sixties and therefore merely a category filler, not something that invited an admiring or critical gaze. So it really wasn’t until I’d left home and been living elsewhere for some years that I came back and actually noticed what they were, and found myself astonished by the casual taken-for-granted racism of their stereotypes.  My parents were so blind to that racism that they kept the plaques hanging on their wall even after they acquired an Asian daughter-in-law they adored and then two half-Asian grandchildren.  These images of a decidedly mainstream and widely acceptable Orientalism were, it seems, so distant from their experiences of real people that I doubt they ever even made the connection.

Published by pernodel

Children’s literature critic and author of books for children

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