“Chinese American efforts to construct both gender and ethnic identity during the post-World-War-II era. In defining the ideal woman to represent Chinatown, pageant organizers responded to developing cultural, economic, and political tensions within the Chinese American community and the broader American society. In turn, these efforts to represent Chinese American womanhood generated a variety of responses, which reflected community conflicts surrounding not only gender roles and ethnic identity but also class divisions and international politics.”
What is evident with respect to Miss Chinatown USA pageant is its role in creating constructive dialogue among members of the community. It has aided intellectual discourse concerning Chinese ethnicity and culture in the American context. On the flip side, critics pointed to how the event is clinging steadfast to an anachronistic and exotic idea of beauty that is of little practical relevance. There were Marxist criticisms of the pageant as well, as it was seen as promoting elitist perspectives of physical beauty, which most of the working class women of Chinatowns could not aspire to. But in the final analysis, the community is better as a result of the event, for it has at least opened up dialogue on key topics concerning the community. It has also clearly demonstrated that there is no consensus on the topic of ethnic identity defined idea of beauty.
It is interesting to study how ethnic identity affects the idea of beauty cross-culturally from the Arab American experience. Suheir Hammad, an Arab-American scholar, has written an interesting book about cultural aesthetics titled Drops of This Story. Hair and nose were chosen as motifs throughout the book for conveying cultural sensibilities. Hammad has had a share of problems in growing up. An area of conflict with her conservative minded father is her tendency to wear her hair fashionably and attractively. But eventually she is forced to reduce her hair to abide by her father’s dictate. Her father would scold her by saying that loose hair meant a ‘loose woman’ – an understanding that is lost to modern Western women. But such were the social norms of previous generation of Arabs. Talking about the caustic nature of her father’s putdowns, Hammad recounts,
“They (her father’s harsh criticisms) forced me to think about my own journey with my hair and, by extension, my ethnic identity and how it is shaped by aesthetics. At this point, my hair has been fried, dyed, laid to the side and chopped up. Until the time I started college, it was long – very long. The first time it was even cut, I was nearly 10 years old, and that was just for a trim. But it wasn’t just the fact that my hair was long, oppressive and certainly a pain on hot summer days that bothered me. It was the fact that I wasn’t allowed to cut it by my father’s edict…It was a form of control: he wanted to tell me what to do with every aspect of my life.”
Hence, it is also possible that what constitutes as cultural markers of beauty, may be no more that forms of parental or paternal control. This view is validated by the fact that one of the first actions performed by Suheir upon entering college (which was away from home), was to cut it in half – “When I went away to college, my father could no longer control virtually every aspect of my life, so off the hair went. It was symbolic of a new sort of freedom, or so I like to think.”