Women, Ethnicity, and Asian Modernity: Ruth in Hong Kong?

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Introduction

For almost a half-year, I lived in Hong Kong off a road that was lined with prostitutes each night. Three things always shocked me as I would walk home on my street: 1) There seemed to be more and more foreign women, mostly those from the Philippines, 2) they were younger and younger, and 3) it was always men driving in nice cars (a major status symbol of wealth and modernity in Asia, at least in Hong Kong) that picked them up. Another thing that was interesting to observe was that the girls hanging out in cafes and clubs dressed more and more like the prostitutes on the street. And this dress was apparently viewed as an expression of fashion, beauty, wealth, independence, and modern Asian womanhood.

Interestingly, when you get off the streets and go into the houses, the situation is radically different and yet oddly the same. You will almost always encounter one or more fei yung or bun mui, which can be nicely translated as “Filipino domestic help” but literally means “servant.” And these servants are always women. To be sure, these job opportunities are crucial for the survival of thousands of Filipino women, providing them with a salary, food, and a roof over their heads, and as such they are positive examples given where the Philippines is at economically. Admittedly, this should not cause us to overlook the fact that the vast majority of these women 1) make next to nothing, and so hardly escape their situation, 2) are usually the last ones to go to sleep at night and the first ones to wake up in the morning, 3) and are not typically empowered with any kind of personal development (e.g., education) and safety (e.g., healthcare). Moreover, though some families develop relationships with their servants, they are typically commanded, not treated with any affection, and quickly fired if they make mistakes.

Taken together, I see these prostitutes and fei yung or bun mui marking a disturbing trend in Hong Kong today (with deep historical roots): Women are almost exclusively valued as 1) tools to be used and/or 2) objects to be looked at – which amounts to the same thing: using women. Within this trend, yet, I see something even more disturbing taking place: many young women in Hong Kong (and perhaps many modern Asian nations) are actively embracing this (de)valuation of themselves, as shown by their acceptance of the culture of commodification, either tacitly or explicitly. Witnessing these scenes allowed me to ponder a question. What similarities, differences, and connections could I see in treatments of these characters from different racial-ethnic scholarly perspectives?  In particular, I was interested in questioning how womanist biblical scholars demonstrate the potential for biblical texts dealing with themes of ethnic otherness to reinforce dominant notions of humanity and womanhood that contribute to the marginalization of contemporary women who are (more) socially vulnerable and dark(er)-skinned. These scholars usually attend to the potential misuses of the texts, and argue for resistance to present-day racial or ethnic and gender oppression that is firmly rooted in the stories of “othered” women in scripture.

In this short essay, I will first articulate scholarship concerning the book of Ruth as an example commonly used as many womanist biblical scholars. And while I appreciating the value of these approaches, I will argue that the question is neither merely about whether we should seek to establish resistance to racial and gender oppression, nor how we should reinterpret scripture (here, the book of Ruth) from the perspective of intercultural women – who have been subject of colonization, migration, and exile – as a potentially liberative text that highlights the potential for transformation of culture and religion emanating from the racial, sexual, and religious other. Rather, I will emphasize that we all, not only certain groups of women or men, have been poisoned, intoxicated, and colonized in the name of Asian modernity. We think using things make us powerful—whether it be men using women, women using men, or women (e.g., Hong Kong local residents) using other women (e.g., Filipino house maids). Are there important, beautiful, and truly Christian expectations at work? Definitely. But my concern remains with the trends that I introduced in beginning of this paragraph.

Race/Ethnicity, Gender, and Womanist Bible Scholars: The Book of Ruth

Turning to biblical scholars on the book of Ruth, especially through womanist critiques, we will see how women in the Bible are understood in their relation to their local societies and to God. Additionally, this will show what it implicates for modern women. Furthermore, we will see the limits of this discourse.

The book of Ruth, as a story, features Ruth leaving her home land for an unclear future to ultimately be absorbed into the royal lineage of Israel, yields both positive and negative interpretations. In particular, diverse groups of women scholars of all colors critically review the book in light of the literature from social and cultural anthropology. A popular interpretation of Ruth among earlier literature of mostly white female biblical scholars argues that Ruth can be read as a woman’s commentary on the Hebrew Bible.1 For example, Susan Niditch takes a social identity approach; whereas most of the stories in the Hebrew Bible concern the relationship of women to men, Ruth takes seriously the role of covenantal fidelity (hesed) between two women.2 Hence, for Niditch, the book can serve as a response to the andro-centric practice of circumcision, demonstrating that women can also demonstrate hesed.3 In other words, despite her foreign identity, Ruth is accepted into Israelite society and subsequently marries Boaz, an Israelite, but she also presents a possibility that women can be further active covenant partners with God due to her visible role of hesed in the house of the Israel.4 For this reason, Ruth is viewed as one of the key illustrations of women’s faith and humanity in the Bible. Ultimately, Nidtich’s work emphasizes these human experiences beyond mere textual analysis, featuring “reasons for life’s challenges and testify to the human need for such explanations.”5

Despite this early foundational interpretation, womanist biblical scholars present complex interpretations of the book of Ruth. For example, Bonnie Honig pays attention to Ruth’s originali foreign identity as a Moabite, which was a nation associated with idolatry and sexual impropriety.6 Honig features Ruth as “a model immigrant” (“the Model Emigrée”), one who is valued for what she brings to the receiving nation.7 In other words, she sees “Ruth as a myth of foreign-founding” who “invites a comparison instead to Moses, the possibly foreign lawgiver who formed the tribes of Israel into a people of the law.” As a result, Ruth’s “virtuous example returns the Israelites from a period of corruption to devotion to the one true God. Through her son, Obed, she inaugurates the monarchic line of David.”8 Ruth also functions as a means of defending foreign marriage in the Israelite community, including Solomon’s many foreign wives and against the post-exilic prohibitions against foreign marriage in Ezra-Nehemiah.9 Nevertheless, she is not celebrated for being a Moabite herself, but only for being the one who contributes to Israel: “the biblical Ruth’s migration from Moab to Bethlehem reanimates the alienated Israelites’ affective identification with their god while also beginning the line that will lead to King David.”10 This means that her otherness is not fully accepted into Israel.

Cherokee biblical scholar Laura Donaldson’s study can be compared to Honig’s “model immigrant” theory. She adopts a post-colonial approach; in fact, she raises an even more radical critique of the Ruth account than Honig’s. For Donaldson, although Ruth appears to be preferred as a “model immigrant” compared to Orpah, Ruth’s sister-in-law, who is painted as a kind of model savage, it is Orpah who provides an emancipatory model for American Indian (the Cherokee) women because she embraces her own clan, in contrast to Ruth, the more usual exemplar, who converts or assimilates.11 Similar to Honig’s argument, Donaldson assumes that Ruth is not celebrated for her otherness, but is immersed in Israel.12 From her viewpoint, the book of Ruth is not a beautiful story of liberation but it is a tragic narrative of conquest. Further, another biblical scholar Robert Maldonado argues that Donaldson’s conquest narrative theory on the book of Ruth bears painful resemblance to the situation of colonized peoples over time.13 In other words, Ruth’s survival narrative in a foreign land tells of colonized women’s lives resembled those in the modern era of the West or “Westernized” culture in every corner of the globe where the pain of their survival in a foreign land or foreign culture has been witnessed.

Asian Modernity: The Human Pursuit of Physical Beauty

While there are many wonderful things to say about the womanist biblical scholars and their understanding of the Book of Ruth, the case of Hong Kong society can be examined in a different way: the human pursuit of physical beauty. It is more than a discourse of conquest or assimilation narrative, which is grounded in a contention or conflict theory. It can be understood as part of a grand post-colonial perspective that all members of the society turn toward either materialism or materialistic values brought by the Western ideology and culture, but not necessarily to conventional ethnic conflicts as in the cases of the Israelites versus the Moabites (the Book of Ruth) and the Euramerican Imperialism versus the tradition of Cherokee women (Donaldson). Rather, it is a tragic result of the entire Asian modernity formation, or a process of Westernization-in-modernity in an era of globalization that has influenced both the natives and socially vulnerable foreign domestic workers, whether they are prostitutes or housemaids.[14] Certainly, there appears to be some tension among local residents and foreign domestic workers, but they are also from other Asian nations. The true matter is the loss of an Asian soul or Asian spiritual beauty while the globally predominant idea of desiring physical beauty has been advanced by the capitalism-driven Western modernity, or a new form of cultural colonialization. In turn, there would be no Ruth, the “model immigrant,” in this society, but everyone in this society is more likely to become both victim and offender of this modernity challenge. There comes no true unity with the current ethnic and sexual discrimination practices among the natives and foreign domestic workers while everyone in the society gets lost in a sense of true “I,” only looking at him or herself in a mirror of narcissistic self-delusion rather than living as an integrated human being that is composed of a body with its soul free from fragmentation. The soul embraces one’s ego development process and further mobilizes his or her life experiences to evolve self-consciousness with the recognizable qualities of Asian spiritual beauty such as charity, compassion, and spaciousness (to other beings).

I see a pervasive trend in Hong Kong (and many Asian nations) in which young women who have even a small amount of resources prioritize trips to the beauty salon, buying the newest clothes, and going out to see and be seen on the town. The modern Asian woman – ironically in the midst of the cultural value of personal effortlessness and even indifference – is quintessentially “done up” – hair done, nails done, heels on, sexy clothes on, talking and laughing with a group of friends in a cafe or bar. This supposedly symbolizes independence, modernity, what is to be desired and aimed for.

This emphasis on appearance gives women a place at the table. Men want them, compete for them, boast about them, buy things for them, make them appear even more “on top” and in control of themselves. The sexy woman is powerful. A deeper problem can be observed in the fact that women themselves – of course not all women – actively agree to and reinforce this condition of being tools for men to be used and looked at. It appears glamorous, modern, and better than being cooped up at home. But whatever else it may be, it is not independent. It is just a sexified form of servanthood and the creation of a new class of women who themselves pursue the status of a glamorous tool.

So women – who are already at a societal disadvantage whether they are prostitutes or housemaids, foreign or local/native – contribute to the deepening of this disadvantage. They are not seen as people who have something to say, who have something to contribute, and who have equal capacities should be taken with equal seriousness. Women are to be looked at, talked to, picked up, used – and they go to great lengths to arrive at this status of “desirability.” And so the sexy, glamorous, modern, independent Hong Kong women end up precisely where they started – servanthood – just now they are a “fancy” tool rather than just a tool. At root, the situation is the same. On that account, therefore, it is the problem of men as well as women, because that is how men treat women, that is how women agree with the way they are treated in their act of being “done up,” and that is how the Hong Kong natives treat foreign domestic female workers.

Conclusion

I believe that this is a situation of spiritual poverty rather than lack of power among certain groups, decline rather than development, more-of-the-same rather than modernity per se. But, again, something crucial has happened: it has been repackaged. We, all men and women in Asia, not just certain groups of women in Hong Kong, live the life of a prostitute, literally or metaphorically – someone to be used, to be looked at, to be possessed – but now we look like Chinese movie stars, Korean pop entertainers, and other Asian celebrities. We feel like we have broken free from something, when really we have simply changed clothes. We do not have a voice, a role, a stake in society, a place of contribution and (trans)formation. It is simply a new form of sexualized colonization and enslavement, pursued with the illusion that there is a better life on the other side of this long boat-ride across a vast cultural ocean to the “new world.”  This trend cannot be understood with existing biblical approaches including the womanist biblical scholars’ argument through the book of Ruth. It is not simply an issue of a power struggle among ethnic groups and genders, but of the advance of the modernity that brings about a spiritual poverty in Asia. Hence, we need to explore and develop a new and more adequate biblical approach to diagnose this trend.

 

David Chiwon Kwon

PhD Candidate in Theological Ethics

Boston College

 

 

 


  1. Peter H. W. Lau, Identity and Ethics in the Book of Ruth: A Social Identity Approach (New York: De Gruyter, 2011). This book presents a social identity approach to understand the Book of Ruth in four distinctive ways: historical-chronological, theological-ideological, literary-stylistic, and linguistic-philosophical. According to the author, Susan Niditch is perceived as a theological-ideological school. 
  2. Susan Niditch, “Legends of the Wise and Heroines” in Douglas Knight et al., The Hebrew Bible and Its Modern Interpreters (Chico, CA: Scholars Press, 1985), 454-56. 
  3. Ibid., 454-56. 
  4. Susan Niditch, The Responsive Self: Personal Religion in Biblical Literature of the Neo-Babylonian and Persian Periods (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2015), 120-133. 
  5. Ibid., 54. 
  6. Bonnie Honig, Democracy and the Foreigner (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001), 41-72. In fact, in this book the author attempts to reverse the question: What problems might foreigners solve for us? 
  7. Bonnie Honig, “Ruth, the Model Emigrée: Mourning and the Symbolic Politics of Immigration,” Political Theory, Vol. 25, No. 1 (February, 1997): 116. 
  8. Bonnie Honig, Democracy and the Foreigner, 10. 
  9. Jeremy Schipper, The Anchor Yale Bible: Ruth (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2016). Jeremy Schipper employs Bonnie Honig’s analysis: while Ruth plays a key role in Israelite history, she remains “Ruth the Moabite” throughout the story.  While she shows fidelity to her Israelite mother-in-law, she also seduces her kinsman Boaz in order to secure his commitment to hers and Naomi’s survival, reinforcing the sexual stereotypes of Moabites in Israel’s imagination. 
  10. Bonnie Honig, Democracy and the Foreigner, 3. 
  11. Roland Boer, “Culture, Ethics and Identity in Reading Ruth: A Response to Donaldson, Dube, McKinlay, Brenner,” in Athalya Brenner, ed., A Feminist Companion to Ruth and Esther (Sheffield, UK: Sheffield University Press, 1999), 163, 166. For Donaldson, while Ruth is celebrated for her willingness to leave her homeland, Donaldson argues that this is an affront to the dignity of indigenous women who, like Orpah, who remain committed to their own nation despite pressures to assimilate. 
  12. Laura Donaldson, “The Sign of Orpah: Reading Ruth through Native Eyes,” in Athalya Brenner, A Feminist Companion to Ruth and Esther, 132, 138-141, 143. 
  13. Robert Maldonado, “Reading Malinche, Reading Ruth: Towards a Hermeneutics of Betrayal,” in Semeia Vol. 72, (1995): 91-109. Robert Maldonado makes a comparable argument about Ruth’s life in defense of La Malinche, a Mexican Pochahontas figure as he goes as far as to compare Ruth with La Malinche, the indigenous wife of Hernán Cortés who is widely blamed for playing a major role on the conquest of the Aztec nation. In other words, Ruth can be read with a kind of Malinche Hermeneutic that prizes assimilation into the dominant culture over remaining committed to mother Moab. 


Categories: (B) Article

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