It makes me nervous to write this. After all, I’m a science journalist. I rely on data and interviews with researchers. I’m not an expert on race, gender, and social issues, but – like many other Asian Americans in the past few weeks since a shooter killed eight people in the Atlanta area on March 16 – I suddenly found myself sort of an educator , a spokesperson-designate for the Asian Women’s Experience in America. I took on this new role partly out of anger and sadness, and partly because I found my voice when replying to texts from well-meaning white friends.
It was such a struggle to recognize shooting as racial. Six of the people he killed were women of Asian descent, but a sheriff MP with a history of anti-Asian Facebook posts told us that there was no evidence that the killings were racially motivated – that the shooter who claimed himself to be sex addict had had a “bad day”. Many other white men, including some of my husband’s fellow journalists, were quick to comment that we should not reach conclusions. Well, that’s bullshit. Even for people who recognized the shootings as an act of racism, I had to explain to them that it’s not just racism. It’s a racially motivated misogyny that is very, very specific to Asian women.
Trump may have popularized the term “Chinese virus” about a year ago, but America has fetishized and hypersexualized Asian women for well over a century. I had to look this up as I wasn’t taught Asian history in school: even before the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, Congress passed the Page Act of 1875, which banned Chinese women from immigrating by portraying them as prostitutes and threatening the institution of the Marriage. And you can’t talk about the exoticization of Asian women without talking about the Korean and Vietnam wars. We’ve all heard stories about GIs and sex workers, and we’ve seen the movies. “I’m so horny. I love you for a long time ”- you know what I’m talking about. I’ve been yelling at myself all my life. Catcalls are always a bit racist for us.
Almost every movie or television show with a slight Asian character continues stereotypes that serve others or objectify us. Sometimes it’s a quiet nerd, sometimes a kicky action buddy or a bladed gangster fighting a white savior. But mostly Asian women are either voiceless or sexualized or both – submissive, but also man-eating dragon ladies who hold secrets of the Orient. I can think of so many perfectly acceptable films that have been ruined by portraying the Asian female character. Asian teen seduces the trainer in Mean girls;; Chris Pratt is the best man in The five-year commitment sing about interchangeable nameless Asian exes and even my hero John McClane (Bruce Willis in the Die Hard Series) went straight to “Asian Hooker Bitch” when he was talking about the villain’s right wife. Representation is important.
Our famous vaginas or whatever is a running joke that is popular not only with men but also with white cartoon women. It would also be fair to say that many of my own male friends and acquaintances have commented on this, often in the form of “I’ve never been with an Asian, right …?” Perhaps at some point Sagittarius asked himself. He doesn’t see us as human beings – just as “temptations” that he could only remove by killing Asian women.
With so many mansplainers, whitesplainers and white feminists, I often feel like I have to choose my battles: am I a woman today or am I a minority? A few years before the #MeToo movement, I remember having to ask my current husband and his other white friends to stop reducing my experience by saying I was paranoid or overreacting. Because it wouldn’t happen if they were with me, they didn’t think I would be bothered if, for example, I went home alone from the subway. Or when a bartender told our group of mostly men that I was flashy, I knew it was because I was a woman.
But every now and then I am reminded that feminism only seems to matter when it comes to white women – the rest of us are invisible. When Emma Stone announced the Oscar nominees to direct, she introduced them as “those four men and Greta Gerwig,” as if forgetting that one is a black and another is a Mexican immigrant. This time around, I didn’t have to choose between two parts of myself: the Georgia shootings weren’t just an Asian or a woman’s issue; It was the first time in my life that a mass murderer targeted Asian women.
Some of my white friends have told me that I have not experienced racism, that Asians are not colored people and that I can no longer call myself an immigrant because I have no accent. One of the reasons all of this is difficult to talk about is because I only recently got angry and am almost 40 years old. For most of my life I have enjoyed the attention or “uniqueness” of being an Asian woman or the sign Asian offered me in certain circles and situations. I laughed along with the “tight vagina” jokes and in college I wore a tight T-shirt that said “Everyone Loves an Asian Girl”. If you can’t beat her, join in!
While I’ve gotten the whole “Where are you from?” Question a lot and a door slammed into my face, I’ve never been referred to as a crack or a commie. I have not been told to “go back to China” during this whole pandemic, not only because my white husband is my shield, but also because I have the luxury of working from home all the time, unlike massage parlor workers. (Though marrying a white man opened a whole new can of racism.)
So how can I argue about microaggression and “complementary” stereotypes when other color communities are fighting for their lives, being labeled terrorists at an airport and their children are being caged at our border? So we take it. In an awards show watched by #OscarsSoWhite, we still got a humiliating piece about Asians who are good at math and an emasculating comment about Asian men because racism against Asians is okay for some reason.
According to Stop AAPI Hate, 3,795 cases of anti-Asian hatred were reported between March 2020 and February 2021. Every day there is a new video on my social media news feeds of someone being pushed, kicked or yelled at while out and about. In particular, our elders are attacked and, in at least a handful of cases, literally killed on the street. I haven’t felt like an Asian since the 1992 LA riots. And I would know
We left Taiwan when I was two years old. And this was the second time my parents gave up everything they knew in hopes of a better life. My parents were just children when their families fled China at the end of the civil war when the Communist Party took control. Sometimes they regret bringing us here. It created a huge linguistic and cultural gap between us, and for all of their sacrifices, I will still never be white. When I was 10, my parents opened a small Chinese restaurant in a dusty mall in Pico near downtown Los Angeles and Koreatown. To me, that meant we wouldn’t be able to take our annual winter trip to see snow at Big Bear Lake. But it was okay because my parents had to be the bosses of their own small business – one we had for about a year before it burned down when tensions between the black and Korean-American communities exploded after Rodney Kings Attackers had been acquitted.
So my parents had to start all over again. Around the same time, my brother went to Harvard, and whatever I learned about racism, I immediately forgot about it. All I cared about was going to a good college to make my mom proud. I fell very much in love with the myth of the exemplary minority. Don’t ask for redress. Keep your head down, don’t make a fuss. Work hard and one day nobody will care that you are not white.
The myth of the exemplary minority not only drives a wedge between different POC communities, it is also not true. Each of us easily became the villain of a global pandemic and then we were murdered because a racist misogynist was having a “really bad day”.
This is an opinion and analysis article.