By Courtney Song
When I was eight, I found out that I was Asian.
It happened on the playground of my elementary school. My classmates had questions about the strange in-between color of my skin, and the way that the shape of my eyes would move in a different direction than theirs did.
This was around the same time that I found out the difference between boys and girls, and that there were a lot more rules for me to follow than there were for my brother. It didn’t occur to me until much later that perhaps these two moments of difference were related.
Today, Asian-Americans, and Asian women in particular, are glorified among white Americans. A study conducted in 2013 using data from the online dating app “Are You Interested” found that among Asian, Black, Latino, and White men surveyed, every race other than Asian had a sexual preference for Asian women. Even white supremacists have an uncharacteristic preference for Asian women.
So why are Asian women such a fetishized demographic in America?
We tend to think about the model minority myth and the stereotypes surrounding Asian women as separate issues. In reality, the model minority myth is an inherently gendered form of racism.
According to Franklin Odo, a Japanese-American scholar, the myth owes its roots to the prostitution of Asian women to American soldiers. Their perceived subservience influenced the modern stereotypes around Asian-Americans. This led to what Odo refers to as “racist love” toward Asian communities.
In the 1960s, individual success stories painted Asian-Americans as people who valued family unity, education, and deferred gratification. Asian men were seen as feminine, and thus nonthreatening to their white oppressors.
Asian women were seen as the extreme of this stereotype, divided into two converse, but similarly hypersexualized categories: the silent servant (geisha) and the dominant temptress (dragon lady).
Women of all races will tell you of their difficulties walking the line between softness and forcefulness, but this experience is especially amplified when it comes to Asian women. Growing up as a half-Korean, half-white girl in predominately white areas, I was constantly aware of these warring identities that attached themselves to my genealogy.
My good qualities were always attributed to my race in some way. My intelligence was a gift from years of breeding, lent from my father’s bloodlines. I would constantly receive qualifications to compliments upon my physical appearance: “You have such an exotic look; I love Asian girls.”
Yet, my ‘bad’ qualities were made even more extreme by the intersection of my race and gender. I was too loud, too aggressive, and too opinionated—especially for an Asian girl.
Like many Asian-American women growing up in the modern era, I was overwhelmed with the desire to overtly refute these pre-conceived identities. Part of the modern female Asian-American experience is maneuvering how to break through the spectrum.
It’s not as simple as keeping one foot in geisha and one foot in dragon lady. When you’re presented with such a demeaning dichotomy, the easiest choice seems to be rejecting both identities outright. But even this approach raises complications: when your whole identity becomes about dodging stereotypes, it’s easy to lose who you are in the midst of denying who you are not.
This constant reconfiguration and contextualization of your identity leaves very little room for individuality. So much of my formative personality became about subverting stereotypes that my own personal development was handicapped. This is a complex and painful process that white children simply do not have to put themselves through.
On top of that is an even larger dilemma: you want to love your own heritage. But at a certain point, your heritage becomes your prison.
Speaking as an Eastern Asian woman, I cannot even approach the difficulties that colorism or colonialism bring into this equation in the same way that Southern-Asian women can.
This racial fetishization and objectification is by no means unique to Asian women. But it is a problem that can get buried underneath discussions around the ‘model minority’.
There is a gender problem in the way that we’re treating Asians. If we want to fix Asian-specific racism in America, we need to start first by asking Asian women and other non-cisgender identities. We need to start giving Asian women room to grow and not barricade their choices within archaic devices of subjugation.
We also need to teach Asian girls from the time that they are children a lesson that it takes some years to learn: your existence is not an expectation.