Ghost of Madame Butterfly
I first became aware of my identity in the context of race and gender when I watched (forced to watch) opera Madame Butterfly in the high school music class. A white woman as Madame Butterfly looked horrendous and downright wrong. Her ghost-like painted white face, a grotesque wig of hairdo, and floppily donned kimono. Madame Butterfly marries an American navy officer and bears his child, but he eventually returns home. Madame Butterfly waits for him, but when he returns, he is married to an American woman and together they take away the child. She is devastated and kills herself with the sword she inherited from her samurai father.
I was livid as we finished watching it. Didn’t care that it was an art. Hell with the art, they made us a miserable wretch.
I imagined the audience in an opera house, white, formally attired, and in couples. The wife whispers to the husband, oh poor oriental girl, while relieved at the implication of her superiority to the abandoned race. The husband wishes he had a young Japanese mistress, who’d venerate him like Madam Butterfly did the officer. They’d think, those women are for white men’s pleasure, but only white women deserve the place in the white patriarchy.
It pained me to see Madame Butterfly being so powerless in the exploitation by the white man because there was some truth to how slightly Japanese women were treated and how we accepted that as our fate. But the shame came from the fact that the representation of Japanese women was created by the hands of the West as if they have the power to decided on our lives, values, and dignity.
I decided I’d never see the opera again, but I didn’t know at the time that I’d have to deal with the ghost of Madame Butterfly for decades after that.