As a Chinese American immigrant, my transition from girlhood to womanhood was a traumatic one. From the very beginning, the last thing I wanted was to stand out and be different from everyone else — to be “exotic.”
Being different meant being mocked and excluded. It meant skipping lunches on school trips so no one would see the food my mom packed me. It meant pretending I didn’t know how to speak Mandarin in public, even with my own family, when there were other Americans around. For too much of my girlhood, I was convinced that I could never be beautiful because I was Chinese.
And then something changed — and not entirely for the better. At a certain point, all the things I was made fun of for as a child — my slanted eyes, my Chinese name, my language and food and culture — transformed into the same reasons I became someone else’s object of desire.
Years later, when I found myself on Tinder, I was bombarded with messages ranging from the oh-so-sophisticated “I’ve always had a thing for Asian girls,” to nauseating phrases like “Me love you long time,” to blatantly crude, racist comments about my vagina being the treatment for someone’s "yellow fever."
Listen to me when I say this: None of these are compliments. There’s a difference between appreciation for someone’s culture and fetishization because you find them “exotic,” as if they’re a rare object to be collected.
These experiences of racism and misogyny combined aren’t unique, either. When I was 13, a stranger followed my mom around a Home Depot and wouldn’t leave her alone — he even followed her to her car, and he didn’t leave until he saw me waiting for her.
Every single one of my Asian woman friends in the U.S. can recall one horrible memory after another. One of my friends was followed on the subway by a man chasing after her with racial epithets. Another was called "a porn star" after she did something as inoffensive as putting on a pair of glasses in her Zoom class.
There’s an assumption that ties Asian women to sexual subservience that seems to haunt us wherever we go that's perpetuated by Hollywood, the sexual direct messages we receive and the “jokes” we crack ourselves because we’ve been conditioned to accept this status.
Even in our everyday lives, we can’t escape paying a price for America’s disturbingly long legacy of imperialism and exploitation of Asia and the Pacific.
It spans from America’s endless military presence and involvement in Asia, to the exploitation and abuse that happens in the sex tourism industry (which is perpetrated typically by Western patrons on Asian people), to the history of America’s exclusionary immigration laws and anti-miscegenation laws that dehumanized Asians and countless other people of color. There are other examples too extensive to list in just this one article.
All of this is projected onto our bodies, our interpersonal relationships, our lives as a whole. It makes me question some of the relationships I’ve been in — were they interested in me due to me, or because they “always wanted an Asian girlfriend"?
It makes me extremely self-conscious about my appearance in public — if I wear Chinese clothing and accessories, am I going to have to laugh off uncomfortable comments about it?
I even feel shameful about my own sexuality — but why should my relationship with my own body be tainted by someone else’s weird Asian fetish?
After reading about the Atlanta shooter’s rationale for targeting Asian massage parlors and killing the workers, I was so filled with grief and disgust I couldn’t sleep. He said he needed to eliminate his “sex addiction,” so he targeted sites of “temptation.”
Is that the reality that we, as Asian women, are condemned to suffer — that ultimately, our lives can be reduced and erased as the consequence of someone’s sexual addiction?
Every time I thought about the shooting, I relived countless experiences of being disrespected, harassed and assaulted. Too many people think Asians are an aesthetic, and not actual human beings.
I’m tired of seeing my friends harassed online and in person, watching our elders be attacked and brutalized on the street, having to bargain for empathy and humanity from indifferent — or worse, complicit — people around me.
It’s overwhelming. It’s exhausting. It’s devastating.
So to my fellow Asian women and girls: I want you to know you’re not alone. You’re not being unreasonable for being upset at gross jokes about yellow fever, or calling your friends out on their offhanded comments. You're a person and you deserve to be treated and respected as one.
We're collectively recovering from the latest string of violence against Asian people, so please stop blaming yourself for all the pain you’re carrying. Healing all of the trauma we’ve internalized from years of being spoon fed racist, misogynist ideology will take time. It’s a different journey for all of us, and that’s perfectly fine.
To every creep who’s ever hit on me because they thought I was a “spicy Asian girl": Your Asian fetish is disgraceful. It’s not just a harmless “racial preference," it's the continuation of a long legacy of objectification.
And if I haven’t made it clear enough already: Being “exotic” — as children, as adults — makes us a target of unwanted attention.
If you actually respect Asian women, you’ll stop treating us like new conquests or objects to be collected (and for your information, making gross jokes about Asian women and enabling your creepy friends is just as bad).
To all the people who see Asian girls as just quiet and cute, who think they can do whatever to us, who think we don’t make waves or won't fight back: you’re wrong.