With the recent anti-Asian hate crimes that have grabbed the attention of the nation, I’ve been forced to re-confront my own experiences and thoughts on what it means to be an Asian-American woman today.
My personal philosophy in life has always been to focus on the positive, because I know from experience that only seeing and feeling the negative just leads to a downwards spiral for me, which helps no one. I don’t want to oversaturate this space or drum up the despair more to a piercing decibel. But right now, I feel like the helpful thing to do would be to speak up.
In writing this, I have two audiences. For those who are like me, I want you feel seen and less alone. For those who are not like me, I want to help you understand what it’s like.
What I’ve experienced
Walking with my roommate at 4 pm from the park back home:
Walking, talking, and laughing in Koreatown with my best friend at 8 pm on our way to dinner:
Standing at a subway stop or sitting in a park, reading or on my phone, during the daytime:
Stopping at a stand at a Saturday morning farmer’s market to look at some essential oils:
They are always men. They are of all races, alone or in a group. They are old and grisly, in tattered clothing, and they are young, professional, and dressed in suits. They leer, they grin, they lick their lips. Their eyes follow you long after you’ve quickly hurried away from where they stand. Or, you go completely still, eyes to the ground, waiting for them to lose interest and go away.
Imagine having your race shoved in your face every single time you are also verbally harassed on the basis of your sex, in the ugly chant of a language that may not even be yours. Imagine, each time, realizing that to some people you are just a porn category, a foreign conquest, or a TV character who sleeps with and is then discarded by the white male protagonist. The sting never quite goes away. I don’t like to say “hello” in Chinese anymore to friends or family because I’ve heard that phrase uttered in twisted, mispronounced catcalls more times than anything else.
And that, I think, is pretty sad.
What it is, what we should call it, is public humiliation. For these men, catcalling has never been about picking up women–it’s about ignoring boundaries and exerting power over them, and in public, as if to say, “So what? What are you gonna do about it?” How many times have I uncomfortably laughed off the casual verbal harassment with my friend beside me, pretending like it was sooooo strange or that we didn’t understand what “that weird guy said”? Because that is the only way we know how to move on and attempt to reclaim the great day we were just having.
You are stunned, and then you move on. But it doesn’t make it hurt any less.
What happens in broad daylight is a reflection of where a society’s baseline stands–and so when these things happen in a public forum, it is both a challenge and a threat. These men feel comfortable enough publicly declaring their dominion over a woman’s body–to comment on her, to determine her value for her, to elevate themselves above her. Our existence, our sheer nerve to appear in front of them, is an invitation to insert themselves where they have no right.
I realized over time that I would be letting these men win if I responded with equal vitriol, or if I stopped going places or wearing certain (perfectly fucking normal) clothing out of fear of being seen. If I let my shoulders become so tense and rigid every time I stepped out on the street that the slightest crack would cause me to snap, what would my life be reduced to but a small black box of hostility? So I ignore it. I still go out to dinner in the city and transport myself home at night on the subway. I still wear sundresses and skirts. I simply refuse to allow them to take that away from me
There is, I guess, no one correct approach to how a woman chooses to deal with cat-calling. It’s just another burden for us to bear: balancing the line between not letting these violations overtake your mental wellbeing or cast chains on how you live your life, but also not being silent and complacent.
On physical and psychological safety
When we talk about safety, I feel that it’s important to distinguish that a lack thereof doesn’t just mean fearing for my literal life–it’s a more nebulous, psychological fear of being racially and sexually reduced that has not necessarily dictated, but nonetheless impacted, my worldview, interpersonal relations, and persona.
For many women, a physical fear of bad men is either something have instilled in you growing up, or a firsthand defensive mechanism you develop after being taken advantage of. I picked up boxing partially to combat the anxiety I felt about my own categorical weakness, borne out of an urge to do something to protect myself from the humiliation of potential victimhood.
But it’s when I think about psychological safety that I see the deeper harm that this noxious combination of sexism and racism has wrought on me. It’s the deep rage that robs me of my carefree joy, and the fear that robs me of vulnerability. Mentally, I have contorted the soft, gentle aspects of myself to be harder, in order to be what I thought had to be to feel safe–more aggressive, enraged, more “like a man“.
Sometimes it feels like the world expects women to be constantly on edge in order protect ourselves (because it’s our fault if we get harassed or abused) but also be always smiling, delightful, receptive, flirty, and feminine (or else nobody will like you and you’ll die alone). Even more so if you’re an Asian woman, dealing with the harmful stereotypes that all Asian women are petite, childlike, cute (kawaii!!), and submissive. God forbid you ever feel hurt and unsafe, which prevents you from being a bubbly one-dimensional emotional support vehicle for men. God forbid you’re a real, grown woman who’s experienced some shit, and not a pleasant, perfectly happy trophy.
I’m exhausted from having to worry if I’m being fetishized by any man who shows interest in me. I’m sick of the self-hatred that wells up when they end up doing just that. And let’s not even get started about internalizing all of it too, of starting to see yourself the way they see you. Wondering if there’s something wrong with you, if this is all they seem to see when they look at you. Wondering if you’re “too” Asian, or not Asian enough. Implicitly molding yourself to those male fantasies because you’ve come to believe that is the only way you can add value.
There’s too much to say about this topic, and about being a woman in general, that I can’t get into all of it in this post. But this is something, I think, that maybe more people should talk about–about being an Asian American woman. Our culture conditions us to minimize our struggles, compare them to others who “have it worse”, to accept hardship as a given in life–in Chinese, 吃苦. But I fear if we continue to eat the bitterness, we will choke. And if we continue to bear the burden in silence, we will crumple.
On current events
When we see senseless acts of racial violence like what happened in Atlanta, it’s a reminder that this is the worst case scenario of all the little things we experience in our lives. I don’t know what it feels like to lose your mom, sister, or daughter to anti-Asian hate. But I do know my own lived experiences, and these are the few specific things that I have talked about today.
I know that, at the end of the day, I’m still socioeconomically privileged in several ways. I’ve considered just avoiding this topic and not say anything at all, in fear of being seen as an attention-seeking band-wagoner. But I’ve come to realize that even if it’s something that every woman experiences (like catcalling) or it’s something that doesn’t seem as extreme as the other things you see on the news (like being called a racial slur), doesn’t mean I have to be silent about it. If it hurts, I have a right to communicate that–we all do.
Our pain is real, and wanting a world where this pain happens less often, shouldn’t be some sort of audacious demand.