When I was 16, a boy I thought was my friend said, “I can’t figure you out. Asian girls are either smart or hot. But you’re both.”
I didn’t know how to respond. I was only slowly becoming aware of how Asian women are often viewed as stereotypes, not as individuals, especially in the United States. I didn’t know how to defend myself, or how to defend my Asian sisters from the disturbing subtext of his question. The older I got, though, the clearer it became to me: Asian women are frequently reduced to objects by the Western male gaze.
It no longer surprises me, but it still hurts. It has especially hurt in the past year, when a massive rise in Asian American racism coincided with the pandemic and made me afraid to leave my house by myself. It hurt when I found out that six Asian women were shot and killed at spas in the Atlanta area on March 16. The suspect claimed the victims weren’t targeted because of their race, but he did say that he saw them as “a temptation that he wanted to eliminate,” according to authorities.
The media was quick to give the charged suspect, Robert Aaron Long, a name, to post a picture of him. One police officer described Long as having had “a really bad day … and this is what he did.” In short, people humanized him.
And it makes me wonder: If I am ever killed because of my gender or race, what would the articles about me say? Would they say that I’m a Filipino American woman, a writer, a pianist, an animal lover, a wife, a devoted friend who cooks drool-worthy chicken adobo? Or would it simply sum up my existence and death in stodgy boilerplate? “Asian American woman murdered. No further details available or required.”
Over the years, I’ve accepted that being objectified and hypersexualized by non-Asian men is simply a fact of life for Asian women. It no longer surprises me when someone asks if I’m a mail-order bride, or squints their eyes at me and says, “Me so horny.”
When I was 20, I started teaching piano lessons in a music school. “This girl is exotic,” I heard my boss say on the phone. “We could put her on a billboard and sign up a bunch of clients.” Several months later, another boss offered me money for sex. I was fired from that job after I caught him taking pictures of one of my students — a young Asian American girl — without her knowledge or her consent.
Many seem to be hesitant to label this incident as a hate crime even though to Asian women like me, it very clearly is. I’ve found that people often don’t realize the way that we are viewed is racist. That’s because we are hypersexualized by the media and by Western society in general, portrayed as “Dragon Ladies,” or as submissive, as docile. Many people are also under the impression that Asian women are desperate for attention from non-Asian (usually White) men, and that we will do anything to “trade up” from Asian men, who are in turn emasculated by society.
Because of all this, many men don’t see a problem with treating us like sexual objects. They tell themselves that we want to be treated this way, that we’re wired for it. They don’t see us as living, breathing human beings with goals and traumas and lives of our own; they see us as living, breathing sex dolls ready and willing to fulfill their fantasies.
We’re told that this unsolicited attention from them is somehow a compliment. When they tell us we’re “exotic” or “mysterious,” we’re supposed to smile and nod. When they ask us out, we’re expected to swoon. When we reject them, they often turn violent. The fact that the victims in the recent attack worked at spas also raises questions about stereotypes; many men fantasize of a “happy ending” massage from an Asian woman, yet another harmful trope that directly feeds into our marginalization.
As I’ve grown older, I’ve tried to combat these stereotypes and microaggressions. Although some men will occasionally apologize and use that conversation as an opportunity to confront their own biases, the more likely response is that I’m told to “learn to take a joke” or “accept a compliment.” This is especially true when such instances of objectification are not violent; many only perceive something to be truly racist when it crosses over into physical abuse. What they don’t realize is that the jokes about Asian women being geishas and temptresses help to normalize this hypersexualized view of us and leads to our endangerment.
I’ve been fortunate enough to be able to work from home during the pandemic, but I’m afraid of what the coming months will bring. I plan to get the vaccine as soon as I’m able, but I also don’t know if I’ll feel safe returning to “normal life.” The truth is that the Asian racism that many are just now becoming aware of is part of my normal life.
There has never been a safe time to be an Asian American, and being an Asian American woman is even more dangerous. Even when the current surge of hate crimes dies down, we will still be left with a society that has objectified us for generations.
Maybe the first step to dismantling some of those stereotypes is to talk about us like we are as deserving of an identity as a White man.
Christine Liwag Dixon is a writer and musician.