Asian American Women Have Never Been Truly Safe
I was 11 when my parents signed me up for karate.
I wasn’t particularly interested in martial arts, but a schoolmate had called me a “chink” and kicked me, so they decided I needed to learn how to protect myself. I was the only Asian in the class and the only girl. I had just started wearing a training bra and I was very uncomfortable with my changing body, especially with the way it elicited leering glances from boys. One boy in my class, who was a couple of years older than me, always found a way to land kicks between my legs when sparring. I told myself it wasn’t intentional, until the day he winked at me, his foot resting against my vagina, and asked, “Does it really slant sideways?”
I punched him in the face.
At school I experienced the usual barrage of insults and racial slurs, especially after September 11 when the patriotic fervor of my classmates extended to telling me to go back to my own country. In spite of the fact that they clearly didn’t view me as American—or perhaps because of it—many of them fetishized me. Maybe viewing me as foreign made it easier for them to dehumanize me. Boys called me “Mulan” and “Shelby Woo” and “Lucy Liu” because to them, all Asian women looked alike, were interchangeable and equally objectifiable.
As I grew older the harassment grew more graphic. Men assumed that I was docile, subservient, eager to please. They told me what they wanted to do with my body. “I’ve never been with an Asian,” they’d say. “I hear you’re really tight.” Some of them offered me money for sex. “Filipinos are poor, right? You’ll probably do anything for money.” Others assumed that I would be so flattered by their attention that I would beg them to jump into bed with me. More than once I had to use the self-defense skills my parents had been so adamant about me learning.
I wasn’t surprised when the news broke that a white man had shot and killed eight people—six of them Asian women—at three spas in Georgia on March 16. I was devastated. I was angry. But I was not surprised, because the threat of violence based on my gender and my race has loomed over me my entire life.
The hypersexualization of Asian women is rooted in many things, from the historical romanticization of the East to the West’s history of colonialism to the depiction of Asian women in Hollywood. Three years before I was born, Full Metal Jacket brought us the phrases “me love you long time,” “me so horny,” and “me sucky sucky,” which are still used to objectify and harass Asian women today. I was a sophomore in high school when Memoirs of a Geisha was released, and men saw it as license to cast any Asian woman in their own geisha fantasies. There are many more examples, of course, and the problem goes back much further. Asian representation in Western pop culture has long been plagued by stereotypes. One of the most pervasive tropes, that of the mystically sensual Dragon Lady, has been used over and over again in media dating back to the 1930s when Anna May Wong starred in Daughter of the Dragon and other films that employed the damaging archetype.
Many people don’t see these depictions as racist. Some of them even think Asian women should be flattered by them. But how can I be flattered when they lead to violence against Asian women like me? Make no mistake that this hypersexualization is at the root of violence against Asian women. The recent killings were horrifying but by no means isolated; 21% to 55% of Asian American women report being victims of physical or sexual assault.