When I was a child, I grew up seeing essentially no one who looked like me in Alabama. I’m a transracial adoptee, so my family is white and we lived in very white neighborhoods. It was also a time when there was very little representation of Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) people in movies, TV, or on the news. I was very isolated, so much so that I didn’t even realize I wasn’t white until I was in first grade when a boy at school was making fun of my eyes. I went home and stared at my face in the mirror, for the first time realizing that there was something different about me.
But the problem was that we never talked about that difference, and no one else really did either. When you never see your people or your culture reflected anywhere — in commercials, in history classes, and for me, even at home — you can start believing that maybe people like you aren’t here, don’t belong to be here, or aren’t that important to talk about. And beyond that, when other people never see us reflected in what they see, learn, consume — it can sustain this belief, whether hostile or not, that people like me aren’t a part of this country and don’t belong either.
Thus we get to the perpetual foreigner myth, which is the common assumption that AAPI people aren’t from here, don’t speak English and have “exotic” customs. And so, even though I grew up as Southern as any of my classmates and neighbors, I was the only one asked where I’m really from, if I know kung fu, if I eat dog, or would have someone literally talk around me to the white person next to me because they assumed I didn’t speak English. AAPI people are so often portrayed as not-from-here or as non-English speaking backdrops in shows where characters go to a nail salon or dim sum. It’s so prevalent that the idea of an Asian with a Southern accent was so absurd, it was the punchline of an entire episode on the FX sitcom It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. (I’m a punchline.)
But beyond these feelings of invisibility and not belonging, there is something more sinister that happens with this toxic combination of racial stereotypes. And that is that when people do see me, they tend to only see me as a sexual object. For most of my young life, this was the defining characteristic of what living as an AAPI person meant to me.
It meant being harassed everywhere I went, starting as early as age 10 or 11. Whether I was at the mall, the bookstore, or even at a community center with my parents, there were adult men asking for my number or even asking my parents for permission to take me out as a minor. The boys in school would call me Chun Li and laugh about happy ending massages. I don’t know how many times men followed me around the Walmart in Montgomery when my friends and I would go there as teenagers. It was a running joke that I couldn’t be left alone.
As I became an adult, men have stopped me while walking or waiting on the sidewalk to ask if I wanted to get in their car or if I was for hire, when I was just waiting for the bus. They’ve even gotten off the bus to try to follow me home. One time, I pretended I lived in a neighbor’s house and hid in the yard until he left so he wouldn’t know where I lived. When I waited tables, I had men I waited on ask me whether I was choking on semen or which direction my vagina went. And that was just another Tuesday at work.
Now, of course all women experience this in different ways, particularly other women of color. But sexualization of Asian women specifically has a long history, and for those who don’t know about comfort women, please Google. In fact, before there was the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, there was the Anti-Prostitution Act of 1870 in California, which was used to basically label any Asian woman a sex worker to deny entry.
But this fetishization and this association of Asian women with sex has persisted, dependent upon the idea that Asian women are quiet, exotic, and here to serve others — or in other words, that we are model minorities and perpetual foreigners. Because if AAPI people were truly seen as Americans, with accurate and nuanced representation and visibility in our broader society, then I would not be exotic anymore, and men would not be able to fetishize me the way that they have. And men would not look to me as an Asian woman to service their sexual fantasies, as they often do.
But here we are, and we all know what happened just a few days ago, in a city that is not so far from my own and with the disgusting excuse of a “sex addiction” to prove my point. But while the violence may have escalated over the past year due to COVID-19 and certain political rhetoric, none of the stories I shared are recent.
This is not new.
This is the reality I have lived with my entire life as a Korean woman in the South. And it has to change.