Being an Asian American woman means living through a series of dichotomies: sometimes the dragon lady and other times the China doll, seductive yet obedient, hypersexualized but innocent. She lives oscillating between visibility and invisibility: silenced when she wants to speak out, spectacularized when she wants to blend in. Hardly ever do people stop and ask her, what is it like navigating a world that tries to force her into predefined boxes?
I had the delight of reading Oriental Girls Desire Romance by Catherine Liu for my Asian Americans in the Public Sphere course this semester. This novel explores the exogenous factors that set conflicting expectations for how Asian American women should behave, and how these expectations make it difficult for them to identify their supposed role in American society. Through a stream of consciousness style, the unnamed young Chinese American narrator takes us along in her struggle to find her place in the money-obsessed New York City of the 1980’s.
Liu’s unnamed narrator can be frustrating to some due to her apparent regressive transformation. She begins as a radical anti-capitalist, feminist intellectual and aspiring writer, but throughout the novel she becomes increasingly drawn to surface-level, material values such as beauty and wealth. By the end, she fails to publish any of her work and turns to go-go dancing for money to satisfy her craving for apparel.
At first I attributed the narrator’s dissatisfying character arc to her individual psychological flaws. However, after examining the myriad external forces she faces such as her conservative Chinese family upbringing, sexist encounters in college, and stereotypes of Asian women, it becomes apparent that she turns to go-go dancing as a pragmatic last resort. Unfortunately, the narrator’s inability to publish any of her writing reflects the disappointing reality for many Asian American women, whose dreams are just out of their reach.
The novel encouraged me to reexamine the external influences in my own life and trace them to my present goals. Ever since I can remember, my mother told me that my introverted personality made me a good fit to be a doctor. I took high school biology courses and joined the math club to prepare myself for a future in STEM. But my passion projects were always creative: meticulous bullet journaling, portrait drawing, fiction writing, and video editing. Even now, my ideal career would be in video content creation, but I spend my time poring over academic journals and economics problem sets as I gear up for law school (for the Asian child, a future in law is the creative alternative to medicine or computer science). Likewise, my circle of closest Asian American female friends, a diverse bouquet of personalities and interests, have all gravitated toward the same trajectory in finance and consulting.
Even Asian American artists, zealous enough to pursue the creative fields, must find the balance between authenticity and recognition. The latter is often achieved through financial capital, and that means appealing to the mainstream—namely, Hollywood executives and liberal white Americans who want to “diversify their perspectives.”
Just take a look at the film Crazy Rich Asians. Certainly, the all-Asian cast is a rare, landmark moment for Hollywood worth celebrating. But the Crazy Rich Asians narrative itself is not too difficult to sell; Who does not want to see a cinematic romantic comedy about extremely wealthy people with a feel-good ending? Likewise, readers of Oriental Girls Desire Romance may want a conventional ending in which the narrator achieves the glamorous American lifestyle. However, the disappointing ending highlights the harsh reality: that the American dream trope is a fantasy that erases the structural barriers Asian American women face in fitting into American society.
✨ Monthly Favorites
- Climate Crossroads — a few peers and I have been working on a series about climate change in an international perspective. Check it out!
- Dune — It’s as good as people make it to be…but be prepared to be a bit confused if you haven’t read the book. Stunning soundtrack, stellar acting, and spectacular set and costumer design.