The Rice Queen Diaries
Arsenal Pulp Press
Assumptions can get us into a lot of problems. They certainly play a part in interracial and intercultural relationships. What do we assume about our partners because of our race and culture or because of their race and culture? What do others assume about a "Wedding Banquet" (i.e. a gay Asian/White) couple? My problem with The Rice Queen Diaries, a recent memoir by journalist and writer, Daniel Gawthrop, is also one of assumptions.
The book's jacket said it would explore the "politics and pleasures" of being a Rice Queen and that the author "articulates the manners and contradictions of his desires." So, I was looking forward to reading this book, assuming that it would deal with issues I've been interested in as a writer, a community activist, and a gay Asian man in the 21st century.
I was disappointed for a number of reasons. But let me preface this discussion: please view this piece as a political commentary rather than a book review. I'm not a fan of negative book reviews: all books have their fans; we all read with our own cultural and historical lenses. However, the publication of Gawthrop's book puts it in the public realm. It deserves response, not as a way of discussing the book's value in itself, but as a way for all of us whose lives involve these issues to discuss, debate and share our views.
Gawthrop knows what he is writing of is controversial, and as a white man attracted only to Asian men, he's often seen as problematic. So there's potential for great writing material here: I was looking forward to reading it.
The arc of the book is relatively simple. The author explains why he's attracted to Asian men and describes his lovers and sexual encounters. He has sex with Asian men in various places in the world. He travels to Bangkok and Vietnam and has more sex, and then returns to Bangkok to live and has more sex with many, many Asian men.
His explanations of his attractions to Asian men are attributed to two incidents: an unsettling and powerful incident of spying on a Chinese boy being sexually hazed by older students at boarding school, and a poster of Bruce Lee. Before that, his attraction to only white men is blamed on media images (an oft-heard excuse but one I believe is too simple). He later is turned on by cultural difference, pursuing Asian-born Asians more than North-American ones: there is excitement in the contrast between how he expects Asians to be, either in terms of religion, manner and cultural stereotype, and who they are. He refers freely to the availability of Asian men to white men who are attracted to them. The result is that he has lots of sex with lots of Asian men.
But is that all there is? My problem here is that there's more description than analysis. Was there an impact on his psyche of calling himself a "rice queen"? How did friends and family view this identity? How did attraction turn into a mission? Why would he limit his sexual partners to one race? How does this particular cultural identity fit in with the dynamics of a broader gay community? The implications of being attracted to only Asian men don't really go beyond how happy he is with all the sex he's had. Gawthrop quotes Richard Fung in his introduction who asks how "desire is articulated in terms of race" and "[t]o what extent is sexual attraction exclusive and/or changeable". But he answers the first question only in terms of who he wants to fuck; he answers the second not at all.
Meanwhile I was reminded that racism is not always obvious: it can be acted out by the simple act of white people speaking all the time and taking up space (virtual or otherwise) which precludes dialogue and discussion by others. I'm not accusing Gawthrop of doing this specifically. But with dozens and dozens of Asian lovers that pass through these pages, do we ever get a hint of how they might feel about him as a Rice Queen, about this particular sexual dynamic? I don't expect Gawthrop to tell someone else's story. But I get little sense of the other side of the equation. How these patterns of desire and attraction affect Asian men beyond offering them up as sexual delights and commodities is absent. The Asian men in Rice Queen Diaries are observed, categorised, and recorded.
The attempt to understand sexual relationships between gay Asians and gay Caucasians really begins for Gawthrop when he arrives in Thailand, which he implies gives him insight into all of "Rice Queendom." This is a mistake: his interactions with Thai gay men are with the group of Thai men in Bangkok and Chiang Mai who actively pursue foreigners. Gay men in Asia have vastly different lives from each other, depending on factors such as culture, language, religion, income, and accessibility to a gay culture. There are also wide differences between Asian men living in the West and those living in the East. But I didn't read of any recognition that he participated in a very particular and specific cultural experience, the Rice Queen in Thailand.
The writing does become interesting here. Many parts of the book show his first person recollections interrupted with sometimes clunky references to academic theory and literary figures, historical information, and background information. But when free of footnotes, Gawthrop writes with ease and verve: the description of travels and life in Thailand and Vietnam, particularly where he's taken to visit the home village of a lover in the countryside, is enjoyable.
However, I think it's easy to write about how confusing it is to be in a different culture. I would have preferred to read a more difficult tale, one about the complexity of desire when tied to race, stereotyping and inequalities. Instead, Gawthrop slips into statements that tend to generalise Asians. He casually describes an Asian club night in Vancouver called "Red Lantern" as a taste of the "old country." Would the old country have gay nights like this? Would the old country gather together gay Asians from many different cultural backgrounds and countries? What the hell is an "old country" anyways? It's an expression that applies to Canada's established immigrants who dream of their grandparent's land, not to the new Asian immigrants whose "old countries" are dynamic, new economies.
Meanwhile, there's exoticisation. His Asian objects of desire have brown skin (last I checked, Asian men ranged from dark to pale), they have rose-petal lips. His first Asian obsession has the "delicate features of a Buddha, or a princeling." What?? He adds to the physical objectification by references to their imagined histories or attributes. A random Asian stranger has eyes that "gaze into his soul." He suspects that the growth of one of his Vietnamese lovers was stunted by Agent Orange. Huh? Did I really read that? Casual observations like this remind me of what I find most annoying about the "Rice Queen": the arrogance of making assumptions about someone else, even if it is meant to be positive; when a white opinion is more important than an Asian one.
When I lust after one of the many beautiful men in Sydney, do I imagine their convict ancestors? The word that comes to my mind is "creepy." I don't have anything against physical beauty. I love men myself and am rather a sucker for a muscular build. But an early lover tells him, "You're too busy slobbering" and he seems like he's leering too much to develop insight into his attractions. I do have friends who are Rice Queens, but I can't stand the ones who slobber too much.
Meanwhile, Gawthrop describes, early in the book, his pleasure in finding many of his Asian lovers in the same style of undergear. To him, their white thong underwear represented "both infantile innocence and passive enslavement." Later, he explains "how western men lose their heads in Thailand" and says for heteros, "it's nostalgia for a pre-feminist" domestic world; for the homos, it's the houseboy/sex slave fantasy." So, it was obvious what path the writer was heading down, but what are the implications? Fantasies and desire can certainly be messy and taboo; it's great to have them out in the open, even ones that appear un-politically-correct. But if your fantasies about Asian partners include them as passive child sex slaves, how do you manage to treat them with some sort of respect in a daily relationship?
I don't want to sound anti-sex or anti-desire here. I love sex. I wrote a whole book about gay sex. Sex, and not only interracial sex, is complicated, celebratory, healing and hurtful; I welcome any works that delve into this slippery and messy world to explore it. But the sex here is just a parade of lovers. It becomes the reason for more sex. The reason to move to Asia. And the reason to stay in Asia. The Thai boys are glittering angels. He asks how could I leave this place? after a stranger brushes against him in a crowd. A smorgasbord of "types" pass through the door of his first Bangkok apartment. Heaven for him is sex and more sex in a place where sex is easily found.
Much more compelling is when Gawthrop examines the consequences of so much easy sex. He relates various entanglements with Thai men and starts to hear what they are saying. A lover tells him "Did we ever stop to think how many times he had done this, and with how many foreigners? Too many times to count." There's a glimmer of both sadness and empathy in this incident but it doesn't halt an endless supply of weekend tour guides, pay-outs to said guides, and a revolving door of lovers, most of whom know each other. At one point, Gawthrop's encounters teach him he's not the centre of the universe, that as his Asian lovers come into his life, he also comes into their lives. It felt like an interesting turning point in the book, the development of compassion.
But then, he relates stories of "losing his head" in Chiang Mai through sex in rapid succession with six different men; and sex with a tall and beautiful twenty-year old - while his live-in lover is in the hospital. It feels to me that he loses moral compass in these interactions but the revelation that "sex had been an obsession" comes in a short paragraph on the fifth last page of the book and with no further exposition. And when I use the word "moral" here, it is not about whether sex (or a lot of it) is good or bad - it refers instead to how we treat each other as human beings, about whether interactions involve respect and care.
I've spent time in Bangkok myself, where I've found Thai men handsome and charming and where I've gotten more sexual attention than in other cities, both from white and Asian men. I've also observed the Thai-boys-swarming-white-men phenomenon. So, I've asked out loud to friends: "If I could go to a city where I was attracted to the men, and the men freely offered themselves up sexually to me, would I go crazy." My answer to them, "Probably." Because it sounds more libertarian and less boring. But the truth is, no. Not if I'm the same person as I am now, who tries to understand myself, my attractions, what sex means to me and who I have it with. No. I would be the kid in the candy store that chooses one or two of his favourites, would eat one and possibly save the other for later. I would not eat until I vomited.
The focus of the book has clearly been sex. But what about love? Across culture and race? I admit that I'm more interested in the mysteries of the heart rather than the motivations of the dick. But I was unsatisfied here too. How did an exploration of cross-cultural desire get reduced to sex while excluding romance and love? The author's first major relationship is a short one, and described as such. When Gawthrop finally admits to love, it is not analysed. "I truly loved Tong," he notes, referring to his problematic live-in Thai lover (who tried to bite off Gawthrop's finger, Ow!). But though he describes how he misses Tong in terms of physicality and personality, how he came to love this one out of the dozens of other candidates is not explored. When Gawthrop falls in love "for the first time" "hit by Cupid's arrow" near the book's end, the emotions involved in this momentous event are not explored.
Closing the book, Gawthrop offers that his experiences in Thailand allow him to go beyond "arch, liberal platitudes about the evils of racism" which he would have written if only basing his experiences on his life in the West (though I don't think it's necessary to travel to another country to examine oneself). Gawthrop's conclusion is this: Treating "an entire race of people as your own personal playpen, you run the risk of becoming the same stereotype you condemn." But the only condemnation he has of this stereotype is that they are guilt-ridden and furtive, and obsessed, possibly to the risk of personal ruin (he describes a few examples of losing one's looks as an example of this ruination). He condemns his own greed, and sense of entitlement.
I would disagree heartily. Becoming a stereotype is not the worst of treating a race of people as your playpen. It is much more than that, it's morally questionable. It robs people of their personalities and dignity. It treats people, on the basis of their race, as interchangeable. It can lead to stereotypes and exoticisation which if not actively offensive are tiresome and boring. It uses people for sex with little regard for their emotions. In terms of this racial dynamic, it exploits white privilege and power whether economic or social to get one's rocks off, as a little social experiment. Saying this does not imply that the Asian partners are victims in all of this - we all make our choices, some of the men in the book seemed to be using Gawthrop as much as he was using them. But as an overall assessment, this book is more an indictment than a celebration of cross-cultural desire.
Sydney-based, Canadian born Andy Quan is the author of Calendar Boy, Six Positions and Slant. He's third generation Chinese-Canadian and fifth generation Chinese-American, which sort of averages out to fourth generation Chinese-North-American but it doesn't really work that way. He's been involved with Sexual Racism Sux discussions, has been profiled on Fridae for his latest book, and wrote us an opinion piece too! Visit him at www.andyquan.com
Editor's note: In the interest of full disclosure for fridae.com visitors, Daniel Gawthrop dated Andy's brother many years ago.
Fridae readers: Are you a proud rice queen? Are you a rice queen and other rice queens drive you crazy? Are you Asian and have experiences with rice queens that you want to share? Join us on the discussion boards here.