“So, seeing as ‘home’ is a relative term anyway, where would you say is home?”
“Singapore,” I replied, trenchantly.
“Ah, but you sound completely American!”
The question had been posed by a fellow dog-walker, a certain well-meaning but irritating type of Western Massachusetts resident. The white person’s performance of wokeness is predominantly for themselves, and it necessitates endorsement by a nonwhite person. Here the Asian person is very useful: We come with built-in model minority complexes, are aligned with whiteness in key ways, and possess a cultural propensity to publicly perform politeness. So, it’s me this man has to address. My eyes are overscored with an epicanthal fold, also known as the “Mongoloid fold,” and my skin has a yellow undertone. After an afternoon in the sun, I caramelize into a biscuity shade of brown, but never burn. These, I knew, were what prompted his peevish question, cloaked though it was in discursive eccentricity.
After 14 years in the US, I have learned to be vigilantly hyperaware of my skin. Racism most of the time rubs more like a rash than a gash. Sometimes it’s hard not to feel like I’m whining. I am, after all, ensconced in my own kind of privileged position. I can be read at the outset as a kind of bougie cosmopolitan academic—from Singapore, just exotic enough. I am unburdened by some of the things that weigh on Asian Americans (model minority, growing up as minority), though I am burdened by others: Hey FOB! You have an accent! Touché, so do you. Mostly, I remind myself that no one, at least, is throwing eggs at me from a car and yelling “Fucking Chink!” then going around the block and doing it again—which happened in my first semester at Berkeley.
Jerrine Tan (@jerrinetanew) currently teaches Global Anglophone Literature in the English department at Mount Holyoke College. She was born in Singapore and has a PhD in English from Brown University. Her writing has appeared in Asian American Writers Workshop, The Los Angeles Review of Books, Literary Hub, and elsewhere.
The long moment of the pandemic and its requirements of additional cladding have made the significance of visual, external inscriptions of race and ethnicity concrete. In Covid’s early days, masks “marked” one a certain way: Asian, liberal, etc. In their ubiquity later on, masks literally masked difference. I live in a conservative part of Western Massachusetts; all through 2020 houses in the area brandished frightening and violent Trump paraphernalia. Before mask-wearing became widely practiced, I feared marking myself as “foreign” by wearing one. Then I feared being “exposed” as Asian when not wearing one. So I covered up completely. Under my hat, behind my sunglasses and mask, who could know who or what I was? A month into the pandemic, as Trump was spewing vitriol about the “China virus,” my husband and I decided to stop walking in the woods with our dog for fear of running into a gun-toting Trump supporter. When we shared this decision with others, we always felt embarrassed, like we were overreacting.
In Covid’s early days, masks “marked” one a certain way: Asian, liberal, etc. In their ubiquity later on, masks literally masked difference.
As an Asian person in America, one learns to be grateful for the small things. I’m told my food is stinky, but if I’m compliant, no one will bludgeon me and drag me off a flight. One tells oneself, “At least it was an egg and not a bullet.” In her New York Times op-ed on the recent wave of anti-Asian hate crimes, Anne Cheng drove this point home: “Are Asian Americans injured, or injured enough, to deserve our national attention?”
And then, on March 16, a white man shot up three massage parlors around Atlanta, including one called Young’s Asian Massage, and killed eight people, six of whom were Asian women.
The truth is, “Chink” is one of the less insulting things I’ve had yelled at me, less stinging than the gendered and solicitous ni haos, or the unshakeable, awful Kubrickian “me love you long time.” Let’s be clear, in a year that saw a stratospheric spike in anti-Asian hate crimes, the majority were against women. Until this week, I’d been struggling to give gravity to what I knew deeply were important issues concerning Asian women in particular, but I kept second-guessing myself, worried I was being irrelevant, missing the point, or diverting attention away from events at hand. In my frustration, my writing devolved into ranting lists that ran the gamut of instances of microaggressions to harassment, to assault, to my own paranoia. I worried I sounded petty or dramatic—indulgent, for taking up space. When a white man murdered six Asian women and two other people because he had a “bad day,” I knew I had gaslighted myself—a revolting feeling of both vindication that I was not crazy and horror that my worst suspicions had been confirmed.
For Asian women, there has always pulsed a danger of an altogether different frequency, one not registered by others who haven’t had the same embodied experience. I was followed home once by a man in Berkeley who tittered at me in broken Mandarin, told me he had a knife, then coolly asked for my number. The presumption of the Asian woman’s obedience might seem to remove her from obvious conflict, but this simultaneously assumes her subservience, dehumanizing her and rendering her impervious to violence—at least to the minds of her perpetrators. In moments like these, I am not only terrified, I am seething with rage. I want to cuss and scream. But this is not what they expect of me, and I know that to shatter their image of a nice Asian girl is to risk a price I cannot pay.
Pop culture has perpetuated the view of the subservient yet sexually accommodating Asian woman, often as a metaphor for the fantasy of a Western, patriarchal, white colonizing force. In Miss Saigon, Kim, the Vietnamese prostitute whom the American soldier Chris falls in love with, willingly obliterates herself, ceding to the American wife, Ellen, enabling the creation of the American nuclear family. So much homage has been paid to the stereotype of the Asian woman as a “hooker with a heart of gold.” In The World of Suzie Wong, Suzie is seen as welcoming and inviting her own abuse, all the while portrayed by the stunning Nancy Kwan, clad in beautiful cheong sams, herself transformed into an art object. The film is littered with references to the “kind of woman” she is, which serves as sufficient reason to dupe her, insult her, and even assault her. It is never clear if the white characters mean that she’s a prostitute or if she’s Chinese (not that there’s anything wrong with either except to them). The distinction doesn’t seem to matter, which allows one category to collapse into the other. Even the way Asian women have historically been spoken about—from Dragon Ladies to Tiger Moms—casts them as animals first, humans second. In Lovecraft Country, Jamie Chung’s character of the Kumiho (a succubus fox spirit) is yet another deployment of the Asian female as a symbol of irresistible yet dangerous and corrupting sexuality. We’re meant to focus on the violence she wrecks without any consideration for the fact that she is suffering too.
In this light, the Atlanta shootings and the targeting of Asian women feel like a tragic inevitability. It is sickening yet unsurprising that news coverage would mention first that the suspect “apparently has an issue, what he considers a sex addiction, and sees these locations as a temptation for him that he wanted to eliminate” even though he simultaneously “denies it was motivated by race.” Asian femininity is at once all too sexually foregrounded and completely erased. The pesky sex objects to be done away with are indeed Asian women—their Asianness implicit and not worthy of remark. The coldness of this reporting is chilling: These locations were temptations for him, which were to be eliminated. Not women who were murdered. It is as if the bodies have disappeared into the space that names them for their use value: massage parlor, brothel, and so on. It’s as if they deserve punishment for having stoked a white man’s desire—a desire which he hates, because culture teaches one to hate to love the Asian woman. Already excuses are being made for him. How can the response to “having a bad day” be to kill Asian women, unless Asian women are not people and therefore cannot be killed, only “eliminated”? It’s the investigator that describes it this way, not the murderer. This way of viewing Asian women is acute and explosive, but also chronic, pervasive, invisible, rhetorical—fatal.
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For Asian women, there has always pulsed a danger of an altogether different frequency, one not registered by others who haven’t had the same embodied experience.
Seeing Asian women as corrupting vamps and vixens in America dates back to at least the Page Act of 1875, preceding the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, which banned Chinese women from entering the United States, on the assumption that they were immoral prostitutes. But the plight of the Yellow Woman is not unique to her being in the West. To understand her position requires an intersectional understanding of a subject that is under the heel of both racism and misogyny. It’s not as if Asian women in Asia and elsewhere don’t experience sexism, and it’s not that their experience of sexism there is extricable from their being Asian either. When an Australian backpacker pinned me to my hostel bed in Warsaw, livid, because I had declined to join him at the bar, what hurt more was the laughter of my male Singaporean friends when I told them about it the next day.
The global Asian community is now struggling to find a way to unify itself for solidarity, and all attempts feel unwieldy. In America, the rhetoric calls for Asian Americans to band together. But this erases large groups of Asian diasporic populations. After all, much attention has been brought to the fact that many of the recent attacks have been on elderly Asian people, many of whom were not born in the US. What about Asian people who are non-citizens? How does this movement seek to address anti-Asian hate crimes in other parts of the world? A Singaporean student was brutalized in London last year; more recently, a Chinese professor was severely beaten up in Southampton while told to “go home.” Soon after the pandemic reached America, I was privately hurt and saddened to hear an Asian American acquaintance express frustration that white Americans would not be able to tell that she was not Chinese, and that they could not tell that she “sounds American” unless they got closer. I used to wake up before dawn to practice the comments I wanted to make in class in an American accent so that, without the garb of my foreign accent, I could simply be heard. Now, as then, my tonal passing has become a protective covering.
All of this is tied up too with class and citizenship, intra-Asian violence, East Asian imperialism, American exceptionalism, colonial violence, and anti-Blackness. It’s not extricable from the fact that Harvard law professors continue to deny the existence of wartime Korean “comfort women.” Or from the fact that if Asian women endure violence, it is also often in the context of domestic violence, in America and elsewhere. Or from Western imperialism that tells us Yellow is dirty. Or from decades of white feminism that erases and silences the validity and subject position of Asian women.
The pain of this moment lies in straining to articulate a defense for the safety of one’s community because conversations around anti-Asian sentiment fall through the cracks in the dyad between black and white in the American racial consciousness. Asians are pit against Black people when both groups are under the thumb of white supremacy. Trump’s “Kung Flu” digs are as much at fault as are bipartisan “tough on China” positions. The current geopolitical flux makes all these conversations even more intractable. White America—liberals and conservatives alike—is grappling with the end of the American century and the rise of the Chinese one, while Asians flounder in the shifting hegemony between national politics, citizenship, and race, stumbling to find their place. This and more is why the movement to fight anti-Asian violence struggles to cohere.
But cohere we must, if we are to push back against white supremacy and misogyny and insist on the humanity of every person, black, brown, or yellow, American or non-American. After a year of being holed up in my apartment in pandemic-ravaged and racism-roiled America, I can’t help but be impatient, and I am tired of being afraid. I am looking forward to the summer once again, the hot, humid, stickiness reminiscent of my tropical island home. When I can shed my outer layers and, unafraid, expose my skin to the sun. After all, it is not the sun that I fear. I’m yellow, I brown. I never burn.
Editor's Note: Attacks on Asians and Asian Americans have increased in recent months during the Covid-19 pandemic. For more information how to help, please read these Anti-Asian Violence Resources.
WIRED Opinion publishes articles by outside contributors representing a wide range of viewpoints. Read more opinions here, and see our submission guidelines here. Submit an op-ed at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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