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East, West and Tampons

We have come to see Orientalism as an anchored mechanism, that manufactures ’subject’ and ‘object’ labels along very distinct criteria. Edward Said’s (Said ) celebrated exposee of Orientalist writing reveals a unified discursive practice. Allegiance to the colonial cause and an inclination to register observations in a light that is favourable to it is the primary identifier. Said condemns Orientalist discourse for it’s failure to account for the variety of experience that comprises the Orient, and for relying on facile generalisations. However his analysis falls into a fundamental episteomological pitfall. His entire project of creating a knowledge and discourse over Orientalists, results in the repetition of the sort of generalisations Orientalists themselves have relied on when observing and re-creating the Orient. In a sense then it could be said that Said objectifies the Orientalists, much like Orientalists objectify the Orient.

This point of view has opened the way for a great deal of investigation into the discourse of the Orient. Eventually The notion that Orientalist discourse is a monolithic structure started to erode. An interesting questioning of the unity of Orientalist discourse is Homi Bhaba’s investigation of racial stereotypes (Bhaba 1987?). Bhaba argues that far from being a unified ideology, racism in fact relies on it’s fragmented nature to adapt to changing circumstances and reassembles itself to fit the individual context. Thus it is not the stability but the very ambivalence of the stereotype that makes it a durable tool of colonialism.
Bhaba’s approach also has it’s problems however. The big question left unanswered is: what exactly is it about subjectifying/ Orientalist stereotypes that ensures their adaptive forms will successfully serve the interests of the colonial empire? If stereotypes rely on their flexibility to maintain a cognitive hold on the human imagination, the presence of a shady united ‘colonial interest’ is also cast in doubt. Bhaba suggests, a racist individual is capable of infinitely contorting his/her imaginary stereotype to fit into incoming observations. What needs to be remembered here is that what constitutes ‘colonial interest’ is an idea just like a ’stereotype’, therefore it too can be contorted endlessly to fit into specific contexts. Simply put: an idea about what is best for ‘colonial interest’ may not always translate to reality, or might indeed even be detrimental to the same project. Therefore, the instrumentality of stereotyping to ‘colonial interest’ is questionable as it assumes that each stereotype producing individual is capable of making the kind of calculations that will determine a certain stereotype will be ‘beneficial’ to the colonial project.

I have lived and studied in Taiwan between 2008-2012. As a member of Taipei’s expatriate community I have noticed that certain stereotypes regarding Asians had been accepted as matter-of-fact. As my protestations to inflated generalisations were met by objections like: “that’s political correctness gone mad!”, my curiosity on the subject started to grow, until I committed myself to fieldwork on the subject by the summer of 2011.
That summer I had a ‘lightbulb’ moment when a friend showed me a picture from the supermarket chain Carrefour. The picture showed Toblerone bars suspended in between the shelves in the tampon and sanitary pads aisle. The image is amusing for obvious reasons as it reveals generally held menstruation taboos. The taboo dictates that women in general and specifically during menstruation, are hysterical creatures. The specific Carrefour incarnation of this taboo implies that only through the consumption of chocolate will women be able to control their tempers.
What struck me as being even more interesting was my friend’s framing of the taboo as a uniquely Asian phenomenon. Her repulsion by the contemptuousness of the product placement expressed itself with disgust at the placement of an alimentation product next to another that comes into contact with menstrual blood. My attempts at explaining that both products are sold together globally; for instance, in TV advertising during broadcasts that are targeted for women, were met with resistance. It is at this point that I recalled Mary Douglas’ dictum on Dirt: “Dirt offends against order. Eliminating it is not a negative movement, but a positive effort to organise the environment.” (Douglas 1984)

The tenacity of the will to differentiate between oneself as a Westerner and ‘other’ as an Oriental in the face of rational evidence was what interested me the most and I set out to carry out a fieldwork based research about how people come to develop their stereotypes on others.
The most important discovery I have made is that stereotypes are less guided by a vast ‘colonial interest’, and more by how societies and individuals perceive themselves. My intention was testing to what extent the concepts of nature and culture are used in said stereotypes and whether they effect a person’s view of Oriental sexuality positively or negatively. The responses I have collected mainly from recorded interviews were so varied that I struggled to determine their conceptual proximity with each other. I have reinforced the discourses voiced by informants with constellations of popular culture stereotypes that they are drawing on, and managed to come up with a very simple table that roughly illustrates my informants position to Taiwanese sexuality vis a vis the nature/culture problematic.

I have to stress that since almost none of the informants ever thought about the subject from a nature/culture perspective, almost none of them fit neatly into a single category. In fact, a lot of them were in contradiction with themselves especially when it comes to the natural/artificial categorisation. There was a degree of contradiction in terms of whether informants liked or disliked Taiwanese sexuality also, but to a much smaller extent. When an informant shifted positions within the table during the interview, or at a later date, I have used both of their pronunciations to record the discursive practice.
Currently I am working on placing the discourses pronounced by my informants into this table and determining how they define themselves through their perception of the other.


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