I’ve struggled with accepting my body and appearance from the moment my family told me I’d be pretty enough to marry a rich man. So naturally my desires of being seen as beautiful (from a Eurocentric model) or being seen as a sex object were some of the things I formerly aspired to. But being in a job that focused on my appearance was something that was still seen as taboo.
I came across two interesting articles the other day about maid cafes and Vietnamese bikini bars. At the same time too; it was weird, as if the universe was trying to tell me something or remind me of a memory I had suppressed from long ago. One article was from the OCWeekly, titled “Little Saigon’s Cafe Queen,” which looked at the growing popularity of Vietnamese bikini cafes in Westminster, California and the other was a Vice article, “I’m A Waitress, Not A Sex Worker” exploring the world of Japanese maid cafes. All of the women profiled in the articles have chosen to work in those environments, which I feel is a refreshing take on these “controversial” type of jobs.
What I found interesting about these women’s experiences were the ways in which they conceptualized pleasure and they themselves as being of service to people. The server interviewed at the maid cafe interviewed described greeting customers with, “Welcome home, master!” in Japanese. The idea of cuteness for women is revered as an ideal trait of attractiveness. All of these details are to be kept within the theme of the restaurants to ensure that customers gain the full experience of a maid cafe. Though in Japanese culture these cafes are socially acceptable and popular, the conflict that occurs when they enter into western culture is the interpretation of the cafes themselves by some of us (or a lot of us) non-educated about Japanese culture. Therefore, assumptions about promiscuity among maids or hypersexualizing them become a topic of discussion.
Then there are the Vietnamese bikini cafes in Westminster, California. I actually grew up around that area and used to hear of many stories of sex trafficking of the women, gang affiliation or that they were brothels. Unfortunately, I’ve never been to a Vietnamese bikini cafe so I’m unable to give an accurate depiction of what they look like, but the article gives a fair assessment of the business aspect of these establishments. Among the women interviewed in the OC Weekly article, most of them started working in cafes for the money.
Growing up in the United States after leaving Saigon in fourth grade, she couldn’t even imagine working in a coffee shop until the pay—and a tiny bit of curiosity—drew her in. “A normal girl wouldn’t want to work here,” Diamy admits. “A lot of people think really bad things about us, and I used to be one of those people, too. But I was looking for something to do, and my brother mentioned that it wasn’t that bad. I found out how much I could make, and from then on, I looked at it a little differently.
What this server states is a reminder that these are businesses. Businesses that play into a subculture or a fantasy where women are the ultimate submissive objects, there to pour you coffee and make hearts out of ketchup for you.
Just to note, I’m not against the existence of these cafes. I think, for what they represent, there can be many messages of empowerment and embracing of sexuality found within them. When my sister explained to me what a maid cafe was, I was fully supportive of her desire to be a part of it. Because within our particular family, expressing sexuality was deemed wrong and sinful. For the bikini cafes, when I explained to my partner the idea behind them, he brought up a perspective I hadn’t realized before — “Aren’t servers at Hooters pretty much the same thing?”
It’s difficult to say whether these women are choosing to work in these environments out of free will and not because they are drawn to a subculture of blatant submissiveness of women or the great pay. It’s easy, as women, to work within the patriarchal structure that exists. We can see that in which movies sell (heterosexual girl-on-girl action in a R-rated movie vs. a woman being pleasured on film), which music sells, which advertisements sell and so forth. But for Asian women, we have had a long history in the U.S. of juggling between being a marker of traditional womanhood (as seen through mail order brides) and the overtly hypersexualized whore. The conflict then lies in the objectives of these maid cafes and bikini bars — are we empowering women to be sexual beings or are we merely performing within the patriarchal structure that is intending to oppress us?