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Cross-cultural encounter

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The sub-heading of the Troubling American Women is to the point. The book is about 'narratives', about personal experiences of having moved out of the taken-for-granted familiar surroundings and of having to accommodate to a foreign environment. This can be a 'troubling', an upsetting adventure that may heighten feelings of national identity, of national exceptionalism and superiority that together may fire the 'pedagogical impulse' of playing the Dutch Uncle/Aunty. It is precisely this latter possibility that is alluded to in the book's title. The narratives span a period of over 170 years and relate about some ten female characters that left sufficient material to trace their stories. These constitute 'the study of women and national identity' over time, i.e., through a period in which culture is—as always—in transition. As a result, the cross-cultural encounter not only affects one's sense of national identity, but is also nourished by the ideational changes that come with the passing of time. 'American identity' or, rather, identification with America as the place of one's upbringing or birth is not the same in the 19th century, still shortly after its independence as a (slave-keeping) nation (1840s), and in the 20th when the country has seemingly become globally supreme.

Open-ended exploration
The author calls her work a 'study of performances of American womanhood and Americanness in Asia' in which it is observed that, as bearers of culture and keepers of tradition, gender is central to the project of nation building (2). Moreover, female perspectives and identity modes are worth exploring because of women's mostly doubly marginalised position, as they are in the minority in relation to men and as Americans in Chinese-British Hong Kong. Next to this, they find themselves—because of race, income, status—in a privileged position (11) that is likely to affect their perceptions. Is that of great consequence? Not really; identity, whether national or otherwise, is a story, is a belief. This means that the study boils down to the exploration of the changes and continuities of a) national identity, of b) gendered forms of American identity, and of c) conceptions of womanhood (12). The earliest narratives are situated in Macao and shortly after the founding of Hong Kong in 1842, followed by some observations on enterprising 19th century American prostitutes attracted by the characteristic colonial gender imbalance. Then we find ourselves in the 1930s and the Second World War. The post-war period coincides with the steadily rising influence of the United States and the Cold War in which overseas women assume the role of the "Second Voice of America". The last chapter, "Home for the Handover; Muted exceptionalism in transnational times" sounds the voices of 'modern' women and their call for emancipation from a 'masculine society' in the days running up to the transition to Chinese sovereignty.

Missing thread
The study is self-consciously fragmentary, which is not only born out by the 'conclusion' that "there is no such thing as a 'typical American woman'" (179), but also by the caveat that the work presents a case study "that will hopefully inspire other approaches, interpretations, and considerations of national identity in a range of settings within and beyond Hong Kong" (15). To put it differently, the study, although often an interesting read, falls short in system. Whereas the author brings home the idea of 'gendered American exceptionalism', she doesn't beef it up through comparison with other nations and their exceptionalisms, and fails to develop a wider perspective on the experience of "stepping outside of one's comfort zone and into the contact zone" (11-2). The way the text has been built, is kaleidoscopic, even as the turns of the tube often are confusing as the author freely mixes original sources, interpretations and outsiders' commentary in half-page paragraphs. In other words, however interesting the book's subject matter may be, its presentation is not precisely reader-friendly. This is also born out by the paucity of dates; even the crucial year that Hong Kong became British and started to attract an expatriate population has been omitted. Many of the moments in the narratives reminded me of my experiences as an eternally peripatetic anthropologist who, as a professional stranger, spent most of his life 'in the field'. [1] Since the tendency to be discriminatory seems to be inborn in most of us, people in my position have to negotiate pernicious stereotypes all the time, and since we have grown into a crowd of many millions of diasporic expatriates who share the experience of standing out, of being both privileged and marginal to local life, it would have been a good thing if the author had attempted to develop some generalisations about 'being there' as an impulse to theorise it. As it stands, the study is descriptive of the subjective experiences of certain women abroad while highlighting the self-defensive reaction of giving free rein to the 'pedagogical impulse'. In relating those experiences, it is laudable that they have been placed in the macro setting of America's changing position in the world and a gamut of historical details, even as the impact of these on the subjects' life and thought often remains nebulous. 

 

[1] Niels Mulder. 2006. Doing Java; an anthropological detective story. Yogyakarta: Kanisius; 2008. Doing Thailand; the anthropologist as a young dog in Bangkok in the 1960s; 2009. Professional Stranger; doing Thailand during its most violent decade. A  field diary. Bangkok: White Lotus.

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