‘Oriental exoticism’ in the friendly skies



By Christine R. Yano (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press,
2011, 248 pp., $22.95, paperback)

In September of 2011, ABC debuted “Pan Am,” ostensibly, to tell the story of the once groundbreaking and legendary airline from the point of view “real stewardesses.” As Hollywood would have it, “real stewardesses” do not include “Nisei” stewardesses who were highly recruited by Pan Am beginning around 1955. However, Christine Yano, professor of anthropology at the University of Hawai‘i, Manoa, has produced a complex and multi-dimensional account of “Nisei” stewardesses (Pan Am actually referred to them as “Nisei” stewardesses) in “Airborne Dreams.”

While this book was clearly written for an academic audience, Yano, for the most part, writes in an accessible, interesting and coherent style. The author does lapse into academic references every now and than, like when she says, “A Foucauldian corporate gaze extended to the general public reminding women that they were Pan Am representatives day in and day out.” Most of the academic concepts, however, can be gleaned from the context of the subject matter.

What makes this book worth the read is that unlike many popular and even so-called academic accounts, Yano avoids simplistic pseudo explanations of post-war Japanese American successes to just Meiji values or being viewed as a “model minority” in a political vacuum. Yano is able to connect the dots of the Jet Age frontier, the building of a post-colonial empire in the air by Pan Am, Hawai‘i’s politics, the Cold War, Civil Rights Movement, and the hiring of “Nisei” stewardesses (even when other Asians were hired, this group was referred to as “Nisei”) as part of this strategy all embedded within a racialized (think relative to other racial minorities), gendered and class-bound society.

Equally important is that Yano gives voice to many of the “Nisei” stewardesses who created their own interpretations and meanings from their “once in a lifetime” experiences that for many opened up the world to them. Ironically, as Pan Am opened up new vistas for Nisei stewardesses to assimilate/acculturate, they were hired to showcase oriental exoticism and, rather than being viewed as “plain Jane” or just “Mary,” they were “Nisei” stewardesses never given the privilege of just being individuals. The “Nisei” wore their Pan Am uniform proudly but their “racial uniform” mattered more to an emerging corporation bent on selling its brand of exotic cosmopolitanism as a strategy to build an empire in the Jet Age.

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