Asian Women Are Not Your Punchline

Featured Illustration: Phung Banh

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When I was eight, I visited my relatives in China for the first time in five years. I’d gone with my entire family. Much of the trip lives in hazy memory, born out of blazing summer days and in sweltering tresses of palm trees. It feels almost psychedelic now, looking back at memories that fade out and in like part truth and part fiction, like gradually decaying opacity, or torrents of wind that die down to breezes blown out on asphalt…

Just besides one glaring moment in a restaurant, nearly a decade ago. 

We were eating with one of my father’s friends. It was hot pot, I think, and we were all laughing jovially until one of them decided to say:

“I feel sorry for your brother.” He accompanied this with a laugh. Or more of a sneer, I’d say. “In America, white men like Asian women. Asian men, not so much.”

It was not so much the comment that offended me than the way he said it. I still remember the way his upper lip curled over his lower one, the vicissitude of spit that leaped out of his mouth and onto the tabletop, the way his jaw moved like a rabid dog, spinning fast words of Mandarin that he’d definitely thought I was too stupid to understand, too innocent, too untouched.

The worst part of it was that no one at the table seemed to mind, besides me. No one at the table seemed to mind the presence of the white man, his looming presence, even as we ate, thousands of miles away from America, as if China were his orientalist fantasy, another dominion to conquer through, a fetish to sink rabid teeth in. As if a dog, as if a mongrel, was left untamed and untethered because the other side is bones, just bones to discard and bury away like seeds that will never see the light past soil. 

As I write this now, double-aged from my once insouciant mind, it seems like perverse love, sexuality, fetishization — moves to hate, to violence, to death, just as easily as one can claim an Asian woman as “their type” to “a type” spreadeagled in a grave.

It seems almost immaterial, now, whether the killer in the Atlanta spa shootings admits to a racist motivation. It seems almost immaterial to grieve and to speak in hushed tones about the tragedy of another eight people, including six Asian women, under the hands of a white man who will undoubtedly receive sympathy, and love and attention more than any of those Asian women or victims, who seem to be destined as numbers on a kill sheet, leading on the next strike. Asian Americans have already been traumatized by the rising wave of hateful rhetoric and violence. Many of us live in a state of terrified vigilance, covering our faces in opaque masks or shrouding our eyes in dark sunglasses and our heads in dark beanies as if that will subterfuge the crime that is being Asian, of being a seemingly-foreign parasite leeching in white supremacy, a parasite that is to blame for a virus, a parasite that is to be snuffed out and left dead before anybody can speak for it or let it know that we are here, that we are not invisible, that we are not parasites and that we are people, just like anybody else in this country.

And when we are seen, at least in the mainstream? When we are seen on the silver screen and in songs and in movies and anything similar, what do we expect? I think of Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket, and the Vietnamese prostitute who saunters up to American soldiers and declares her lust; Miss Saigon, where hypersexualized images of scantily clad Asian women burn into the mind; even in a recent episode of Family Guy, where a dozen Asian women spill out frantically out of Quagmire’s trunk, skittling away in underwear. It’s only when Asian Americans and Black people and all types of POC are killed that we are forced to pay attention to the other side of a savage inequality. White people are not supposed to be on the wrong side of savage inequality. They are supposed to daintly read books and watch films by POC authors and directors. They are supposed to sensitively share Instagram posts and write #StopAsianHate or #BLM. They are supposed to care about savage inequalities, they are supposed to murmur sympathetically about savage inequalities while scanning the news, their gentle concern muffled by the whirring of dishwashers and television. But they aren’t ever, ever, supposed to fall victim to being one. 

And when they do get bloodied? When they do get accused of a crime, when they do find themselves in the muck? There is an automatic sympathy to the white man, a sympathy that extends like an olive branch, deep-rooted in soil that tells them that they have a choice, they have a freedom that is like a white-slated canvas that they can draw anything on. There are heist films and crime films that would only ever work with white people. And for Asians, we have a canvas marred by blood and dirt and perverse sexuality and fetishization. And nobody notices it, either, until blood is shed and newscasters pounce on murders like vultures. 

And we are supposed to laugh uncomfortably whenever a racist joke is siphoned to our ears, whenever another Asian woman shows up on screen and plays the timid yet sexually deviant being, dripping of exotic femininity that everyone will say is a case study. This isn’t everywhere. That is only one Asian woman. That it’s okay, that we can let it pass. Don’t ruin the fun with your SJW rhetoric. 

But it’s not just rhetoric. It’s not just simple politics, it’s not another issue on a ticked-off “current events” slideshow in class. It’s something that embroils our identity, and every infinitesimal moment in our daily lives.

We can’t let it pass, not anymore. It should have been a long time ago, far before COVID-19 and the “kung flu” slur, far before George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, that America chose to see its POC as people and not as colors to make a white slate look more interesting, to make the white protagonist three dimensional, in way that a white savior acts to save a subordinate.

We are people, just like everyone else in this country. And we are people who deserve to be heard.