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The Routine Dehumanization of One Asian American Woman

TW: This piece contains multiple instances of sexual assault.

On a cloudy afternoon, my cat was restless, following me around my apartment and meowing in desperation. I put his little vest on, stuck him in the pet backpack, and headed to a local coffee shop with him strapped to the front of me. At one point on my walk, I spotted a group of men standing on a corner I could not avoid. While I waited for the light to turn, one of them quipped at me, “I love Chinese women! Real, authentic Chinese women!” I did not respond. He continued, but louder, “I also love Korean women!” The light turned, and I scurried away. He started shouting, “I LOVE FILIPINO WOMEN TOO!” When I reached the other side of the street, a Black woman appeared, and he yelled, “I LOVE BLACK WOMEN TOO!”

Four days later, eight people were killed in the Atlanta area. Six of the eight people murdered were Asian and female, just like myself.

On Being an Asian American Girl in Grade School

cropped family photo

Like many of my fellow Asian Americans, I was raised in a strict household. My mother is a hard-working, God-fearing woman with a green thumb and many artistic talents. My father is also hard-working, with a love for technology and science fiction. I was a 90s kid growing up in the suburbs of a midwestern city. On Sundays after mass, there were brunch and football games. My parents worked often, but my older siblings looked after me.

If I had to name the first three things that come to mind that I loved as an elementary school student, it’s Chicken McNuggets, cats, and Scholastic Book Fairs. Things I did not like included: Saturday school, rice stuck to the bottom of my sock, and church. I was a happy kid. My problems were miniscule. So, imagine my bewilderment when a white boy rolled up to me on the playground, and then proceeded to pull back the corners of his eyes as he looked right at me. I just thought, “What?” I didn’t get it. Why do this? I didn’t realize this would most definitely not be the last time this would happen. It wouldn’t even be the worst thing that would happen.

Around the same time period, some other white classmate asked me during lunch, “Do you eat dog?” I remember feeling confused, but mostly irritated. I scowled and answered, “Ugh, no!” In elementary school, this was a question I routinely navigated. As recent as a few years ago, I was present when a white man made a “joke” about a Chinese restaurant using dog meat.

In junior high, the bullying morphed into something different. A white boy in a grade above me, would terrorize me by snapping the back of my bra. In orchestra, a different white boy took the bow to his cello and used it to lift up my skirt. I would never “snitch” because snitching could only make my school life worse. After I had enough, I outfitted myself with a pair of Doc Martens, and gave swift kicks to the shins of anyone who decided to terrorize me. Despite being small, I thought if I made myself look and seem tough, maybe I would be left alone.

On Being an Asian American Girl in High School

TW: Sexual assault

photo of two young men playing the guitar and one young woman playing the bass

In high school, I was routinely asked why I watched anime because “isn’t all of it just porn?” With the same disgust I had when someone asked me if I ate dogs, I would scowl and say, “No!” After my freshman year of high school, I went through my first breakup. I spent time watching movies, playing PC games, and wandering around in the depths of the internet. During my sophomore year, I met someone who was 18. He liked anime too. One day, he picked me up from school to hang out and watch a movie. I won’t go into too much detail, but I will be blunt. I was raped. I was shocked, frozen, and confused. Afterward, I never spoke to him again. A few years ago, I was having dinner with a dear friend, and it was the first time I ever spoke of the incident.

The following year, I met with an ex-boyfriend. We chatted and played pool. He got close to me, and started to remove my clothes. I told him to stop more than once, and when he didn’t, I started to cry. Only then did he stop. I left, quietly crying to myself.

That same summer, I made one of many visits to our city’s Chinatown with a few friends. I was so proud to wear an outfit I made myself. My hair was in braided pigtails, reminiscent of how Naomi Watanabe often wears her hair. As I walked up the stairs to a train platform, someone ran up behind me, took my two braids into their hands, yanked on them hard enough to pull my head back so I saw the ceiling, and then screamed mock Chinese at me. As fast as they ran behind me and did this, they disappeared ahead of me. I couldn’t even catch the person’s face as they zoomed past me.

A year or two later, I would be riding that same train route with my Chinese American friend. We were on the train with one other man who loudly spoke mock Chinese at us until we left the train.

On Being a Young Asian American Woman in College

TW: Sexual Assault

cropped photo showing arms wearing a watch and colorful bracelets

At this point, I had only made a few friends in high school. Too many of the previous people I knew were connected to the ex-boyfriend that almost raped me. The vast majority of my friends were made outside of school. When choosing what college to attend, I decided on what turned out to be a joke of an art school. After 6 months, I left. The first reason being that I didn’t feel challenged, but the second reason was the last straw. A teacher who taught color theory would talk about his adopted daughters from China and how he saved them from what he essentially described as a shithole country. When the school asked why I was leaving, I didn’t want to make a scene. I just said I was transferring to a different school, and that was it.

After a short break, I went to an actual university. On any given weekend, I could go to the local Japanese grocery store and find a hoard of people I knew. We would travel in groups no smaller than 13 people at a time. One trip, I remember standing in the dining area of the food court, holding bags of groceries in both hands. I don’t know why, but I made a self-deprecating joke for being “flat-chested.” In a split-second, a white male friend who I had known for years then patted my breasts saying, “No, you’re not.” I was shocked, but my instinct was, again, not to make a scene. I never confronted him about it, but as the years passed, I stopped speaking to him completely.

Although I spent my later teenage years taking upon myself to learn about Asian American history, it was my time in college where I took Asian American history classes and joined the school’s Asian American group. To fulfill a science requirement, I took an Environmental studies class. There was a lot of focus on population. I can’t remember how we got on this topic, but I remember talking about how some Asian Americans can struggle with income. Before I could finish my thought, a white student interrupted me and said, “Oh, I beg to differ!” This was someone who clearly bought into the model minority myth, and I was pissed. When I tried to argue, the professor cut me off and moved on. The professor didn’t chide the white student for saying something so blatantly racist. The professor cut me off.

On Being an Asian American Woman in the Workplace

cropped photo of a young woman holding a small, stuffed toy of Sanrio character Kuromi

After I graduated college, I gained my first salaried job. At this job, I was asked by my boss to get into a box so that we could play a joke on his boss. The gist of the joke was this: I was a mail order bride from China. My sibling, an HR professional, instructed me on how to fight back. With the services of a local Asian American law group, we fought as hard as we could. The litigation lasted nearly a year, and in that year, I was made to relive the dehumanizing incident every time I had to visit my lawyer, and every time I had to repeat the story. It would be 3 years until I would work for someone who was not family or myself.

After living in the same place my entire life, I moved hundreds of miles away to the suburbs of another major city. I got a job at a large ecommerce company, and after some time there, I overheard white co-workers talking to each other in mock Asian accents. This was a potential temporary to permanent hire, and I was not about to make a fuss over a hostile work environment. Ironically, everyone in our department was let go months later because they outsourced our jobs to those in the Philippines. I would not work for anyone but myself until I moved again and became an employee of an Asian-owned company almost a decade later.

On Being a Grown-Ass Asian American Woman

Cropped family photo of a woman holding a child

For a time in my adult life, there was not much other than the usual microaggressions. Questions like, “Where are you from?” And comments like, “You don’t sound Asian.” There are the white men who come up to me on the street or at events, greeting me with nihaos and annyeongs. Then, there are the old white men who must tell me about their Asian wife! Perhaps this is the most egregious one of them all, the white acquaintances and white exes, who exhibited patterns of dating Asian women or other women of color.

Once, I got into a Twitter argument with a white, male writer with an Asian wife. He wrote a false and asinine editorial in a popular newspaper about “why Asians are so successful.” I let him know that how many people living in an Asian household is not accounted for when household income is recorded, and many under one roof is not uncommon for us. At one point in my life, there were six of us living in the same house, and five of us had full-time jobs. I couldn’t wait to tell my parents about my Twitter argument. When I did, my mother told me she was proud of me.

screenshot of an article asking why Asians are so successful
Screenshot of a gross op-ed by white male with Asian wife

A few years ago, I had a painfully drawn out conversation with a white child in the presence of his white relatives. He asked, “Where are you from?” I answered with the Midwestern city I am from, and then said a few sentences to show my genuine Midwestern accent. The white child asked again, “Where are your parents from?” I answered with the same Midwestern city I named before. “Where are your grandparents from?” I was getting visibly annoyed. One of his relatives just looked at me with embarrassment, but no one corrected him. I felt it was not my place at that moment to correct him, and his white relatives should have been the ones to do it.

Not all that long ago, I was followed by an ex, a white man, to where I was going that evening with some friends. Where I went was over 40 miles away from where I lived. An acquaintance of mine mentioned, “Your ex is stalking you.” She, a woman of color herself, said that she “knows what stalking looks like.” It did not take long for me to spot his car. My heart pounded so hard, the sounds around me dampened, and my vision blurred. I had a panic attack.

After moving out of a family member’s home, I looked for an apartment. I found one at the right price in a good location. The building was owned by an older white couple. When I called the landlord (who was not present when I looked at the place), he was happy when I spoke to him on the phone, and I asked for an application. He told me the parking space as advertised was already taken, but he would pull a few strings to get me a spot across the street. I sent him my application, as well as proof of employment. My proof of employment was the contract I had with my employer, who was located in a different country. The first half was written in an Asian language, and the second half was the English translation. The landlord immediately changed his tone with me. He suddenly was speaking to me like a child, and was distrustful of my proof of employment. I provided him with the phone number of my supervisor, but he ultimately ghosted me. Housing discrimination is illegal, but landlords in this area constantly get away with it. In the end, I ended up renting from an Asian American woman.

Hey, Listen

What is written above only skims the surface of my personal experiences with racism and sexism. I didn’t dedicate a paragraph to the time I was incapacitated by medication, and a man slept next to me in my bed without my consent. Or a time I had been drinking and the man I was with was completely sober. Or a different time someone else I knew for years randomly groped me. Believe it or not, I’m not here to call anyone specific out on their misogynist, racist bullshit. In many instances, I could name names, but that’s not the point. I’m here to tell you, I am someone who grew up in an ordinary suburb. I drive an ordinary car, and live in an ordinary home. Because I am an Asian American woman, I have been repeatedly dehumanized, othered, and objectified all throughout my life.

If you are asking, “But is all of that actually motivated by race?” I ask you the following. How much power in this country do white men have? How much power in this country do Asian women have? What does it look like to you when I say the vast majority of those who assaulted, harassed, abused, insulted, and discriminated against me are white and male, and I am Asian and female? If a white man commits a crime against an Asian woman, and she doesn’t say a word, did it ever really happen? What would happen if I said something? Would anyone care? Would people scrutinize every aspect of my life and then claim all of these actions made against me were somehow my fault?

Staying silent is a multi-generational tactic for self-preservation. They get to walk away, and I get to carry memories of their actions against me. Most of the time, I don’t think about it. However, this past week, I can’t stop thinking about it. I am just one person. Look at the stories that have long existed in our history from the Page Act of 1875, to the internment of Japanese Americans, to the murder of Vincent Chin. Imagine all of the stories of those who have stayed silent.

In the recent past, I have grieved loss after loss after loss. Like most people, I suffered the consequences of a poorly managed pandemic. In the aftermath of the murders of Elijah McClain, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd, my city was unraveling with civil unrest. Police here so infamously pointed a weapon at a toddler, and I marched in the streets hoping to add the voices speaking against systemic violence and injustice.

After learning about the deaths of six Asian women at the hand of a single shooter, all of my energy and all of my fight left my body. All I wanted to do is curl up into a ball and cry. I have been relatively quiet this past week, but I have seen so much support from my loved ones. Most of them are non-Asian, and many of them are men. I recognize the traumas I’ve endured do not define me, but maybe if I made them known, it might help others know they are not alone. It might help others understand what racist and mysoginist behaviours look like against someone like myself.

While I have spent the better part of the past week processing, I am still deeply proud of my Asian heritage, who I am, and how much I’ve grown. If you are asking yourself, how can I be a supporter? Well, you’re already on a good start having read this. Listen to me. Listen to your Asian American friends and relatives. Listen to Asian American voices of all kinds. Familiarize yourself with the history of violence and discrimination all people of color have suffered in this country. After all, knowing is half the battle.

Fighting for love and Justice.