Emerging Voices: Experiences of Underrepresented Asian Americans

By Huping Ling | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 9
Thai Americans
PERFORMING GENDER

JIEMIN BAO

Since the early 1980s, scholars have been conducting research on mainland Southeast Asian Americans, mostly the Vietnamese, Cambodians, Laotians, and Hmong. The literature reveals that these Southeast Asian Americans have struggled to maintain certain cultural practices while simultaneously integrating into American society.1 Reconfigured gender relationships have been examined, but sexuality—in particular, conjugal sexuality, a crucial component of these gender relationships—is rarely addressed.

Drawing upon fieldwork conducted in Chiang Mai and Bangkok, Thailand, intermittently between 1988 and 2003, and more recently among Thai Americans at a Buddhist temple in the San Francisco Bay Area, this chapter follows people in and out of Thailand and the United States by employing a transnational rather than an American-centric approach. Locality and transnational mobility are crucial to this project because they make people think and act differently. “Awareness of multi-locality,” as Steven Vertovec points out, will help us to connect “oneself with others, both ‘here’ and ‘there,’ who share the same ‘routes’ and ‘roots.’”2

By paying close attention to the immigrants’ experiences in the San Francisco Bay Area and in Thailand, I examine how middle-class Thai American men and women rework gender and sexual relationships in response to different cultural constructions of masculinity and femininity. I conceive of gender as “a corporeal style, an ‘act,’ as it were, which is both intentional and performative, where performative suggests a dramatic and contingent construction of meaning.”3 Some acting is deeply internalized, the subjects having been socialized since childhood to perform accordingly; other acting is perfunctory as they learn how to go through the motions according to new norms in the country where they now live. However, the boundary between deep acting and superficial compliance can change over time. For Thai Americans, masculinity and femininity are never static but continuously transforming.

This chapter suggests that the sex/gender relations of the Thai Americans can best be understood through the ways in which they continuously negotiate

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