Breakout from the Teahouse
A single woman’s meditation on the charms and choices of geisha
My father called me recently to discuss a “very serious matter.”
“Your mother thinks that you should get married,” he said.
This was a curious reversal for my mother. In my formative years, she would say things like, “Make your own money,” “Be independent,” “Always work,” “Have a career,” while driving me to school, feeding me lunch, combing my hair.
I am forty-two and my longest relationship, so far, lasted about two years. Why only two? I can’t say, as each relationship ended for a different reason. But I am often reminded of a conversation with a friend who once said to me, in the years before he married, “When you’re still single at our age, you have to wonder if maybe it’s you.” We were in our thirties then.
My father thinks that I’m unmarried because I am a difficult woman (perhaps the fault of my upbringing). In light of my mother’s new concern, he advised me to read Memoirs of a Geisha and consider whether I could be more like the women in the book. If so, he said, there might still be hope for me. This made me actually laugh out loud.
The geisha: that oriental, feminine ideal. A delicate creature of ancient, exotic, mystery on which men project fantasies of submissive adoration. I am leery of fellas who tell me that they are fascinated by eastern philosophy and martial arts. What possible relevance could that have to me? I may look Korean but I was born in Buffalo. I always suspect that this is code for “You’re gonna do all that geisha stuff for me, right?”
These are my associations, not my father’s. I imagined that he was referring to a deficiency in graciousness, subtlety, and femininity on my part, but wasn’t exactly sure, so I picked up the book.
What a geisha actually is has shifted variously in law and custom throughout Japanese history. At the point where this story takes place, she is an artist, hostess, entertainer, performer, escort, companion, and mistress. A geisha does not sell sex. Men pay for the pleasure of her company, entirely clothed. She must do more than put on a kimono and paint her face white. She has to be company worth paying for. She charms, flirts and entertains. She dances, converses, and reveals her sexy inner arm while pouring tea for a man without being obvious or slutty about it. Her success and independence depend on securing a patron. What happens between them is private and a matter of discretion.
On its surface, the geisha tradition of using one’s “feminine wiles” for personal gain in a male-dominated world appears empowering. But while they draw power from their ability to seduce and entertain, this power is conditional and bounded. They may set the standards and the terms of engagement which men must honor to be privy to their charm, but these rules only hold within the world they have collectively created. It does not change women’s lives outside their neighborhoods and teahouses. As one geisha mentor says in Memoirs, “We don’t become geisha so our lives will be satisfying. We become geisha because we have no other choice.”
I count myself so fortunate to live in our present day and in a privileged position. I am lucky to have choices. I don’t have to charm, flirt or entertain if I don’t want to. I mostly don’t want to. If my life depended on doing those things, I would probably starve to death. I do wonder what’s so appealing about a geisha’s version of femininity though. Does it make men feel “manly,” and how important is that? Is femininity a thing that is learned and socially created or an intrinsic quality in some people? Is it something that I would need to mimic if I wanted to address this need for manliness?
To my father’s question of whether I could behave more like a geisha, I can reply with a resounding “no.” Following his line of reasoning, my unmarried fate is sealed. It’s possible that I could meet a man who I like enough to want to nurture and flatter his ego for the rest of my life, but it’s unlikely. So, sorry, Mom. No geisha for me.
I called my father when I was a third of the way through to book to ask him why he would have me read such a sad story of an orphaned little girl sold into slavery. He said that he wanted to boost my morale about the woman that I am and the life that I lead with a “there but for the grace of god” example. This worked on some levels. I, apparently, can’t read a novel without railing at the patriarchy. Although I imagine my mother will be expressing her concerns to me directly from now on.