By Montita Sowapark ’18
**Disclaimer: The scope of this article only covers heterosexual relations. Because of my lack of familiarity with queer Asian-American communities I did not feel I had the validity to discuss how these politics apply within them.
“Did I tell you I’ve always thought Thai girls were cute?” is what he told me while we were hooking up in his room. It was my first one-night stand outside of a committed relationship or friends-with-benefits arrangement. The combined effects of alcohol, insecurity, craving for validation, and an over-compensatory urge to indulge in the types of hedonisms from which I was restricted in high school prevented me from fully parsing the meaning of his words, but I knew they made me uncomfortable.
“Did I tell you I don’t like to be homogenized?” is what I should have told him in response, before walking out of his room. I didn’t. I stayed, and in the morning he fist-bumped me as I left.
“#ethnicgirlsarethebest” is what he messaged me on Tinder.
“#that’sveryproblematic” was my reply.
“He’s really into Asian girls now,” is what his cousin said to me while we were on a date.
“Hey man, I lived in Hong Kong. You have to adapt,” is what my date said in reply.
Hong Kong and I have merely two things in common: an appreciation of quality dim sum and a long history of complicated relationships with people who have tried to claim us as their own.
The process of decolonizing my sexuality and toppling the monumental stereotypes, assumptions, reductions, homogenizations, and fetishizations that come with being an Asian-American female is exhausting. It is implicit in every sexual or romantic interpersonal interaction. As Nian Hu, ‘18, put it during my interview with her, “Every fricking guy in America has yellow fever.”
Boys who are only attracted to me because I’m Asian. Boys who are not attracted to me because I’m Asian. Boys who only see me as an amorphous essence of Asian to check off their list of conquests as they work their way from vanilla to mocha on the color scale.
Submissive. Virginal. Eager-to-please. Inexperienced. Hypersexual. Hyposexual. Sideways vaginas (I’m not kidding). And of course, the ubiquitous, insidious “Exotic.”
These are just a few of the common stereotypes and assumptions society projects upon Asian American females and our sexuality, and yes, many of them are paradoxes. We are simultaneously cast in the roles of prude, cold, asexual Dragon Lady; hypersexual, exotic, geisha; and submissive, compliant, docile china doll. These stereotypes are not only demeaning, but also dehumanizing. While white people are allowed to be complex individuals with nuanced backgrounds and histories, Asian-Americans are often all reduced to a certain set of physical characteristics, a certain aesthetic (dark hair, slanted eyes, olive skin), and certain list of personal traits (hard-working, unchallenging to authority). For Asian-American women, there are additional reductions. We are outwardly coy and shy, but secretly nymphomaniacs.
During our interview, Hu discussed her experience with this reduction and otherization, “I definitely have experienced microaggressions. It’s never so overt but it’s the little things they say like I love your culture, the aesthetic. I love your eyes. Asians have inherently different eyes. Our eyes fold differently. It’s a backhanded comment because I feel like you only like me because of my race.”
This, despite the fact that Asian-Americans have very different cultural and physical characteristics. Additionally, many people who may have the Asian “aesthetic,” such as Kazakh nationals, are not Asian.
People often ask: But wait, Montita, why is it a problem if people think you’re hardworking and good in bed? Why would you complain about getting attention? Well, there’s a difference between genuine attraction and objectification. The specific flavor of objectification that afflicts Asian-American women manifests itself as exotification, whereby we are fetishized for being different—different, and inferior—different, even though we were born here or grew up here. Different from the rest of the United States, different and never belonging, different but all the same. A sea of yellow skin, dark hair, “exotic” eyes, and meek personalities.
The ways in which Asian-American women are stereotyped as embodiments of Western ideals of femininity, such as compliance and softness, are also insulting to non-Asian minority women. Hu discusses, “I have guy friends who have relayed stories about how their friends would say I love Asians because they know how to treat their men right. It puts women of other races down because it implies they don’t know how to treat men right, and we do? It makes it so that women of other races find it hard to empathize. In the end it sucks for both of us.“ In this way, the model minority myth extends to the realm of Asian-American female sexuality, paints dehumanization as a compliment, and makes exotification even more difficult to address.
Jessica Jin ‘18, points out that much of the homogenization and objectification of Asian-American women has a very physical aspect to it as well. “There tends to be this objectification of [Asian-American women], particularly when they’re smaller. I think it’s this idea that you can decide what they are thinking or assume that they are interested in what you have to say as a male. It’s this approved culture of imposition.”
However, the complications of Asian-American female sexuality aren’t just manifest in how others impose their assumptions onto me, but also in my own evolving relationship with my sexuality. I grew up in an American culture that defines masculinity and femininity in terms of archaic gender roles. For a long time I found myself not attracted to Asian men—for the very same reasons that so many men find me attractive because of my Asian appearance—a long history of socialization to certain standards and idealizations of beauty, masculinity, femininity, and the gender roles associated with these constructs. I am constantly in the process of both resisting outside efforts to define my sexuality and divorcing it from internalized constructs of Western society. This means that even though my sex life should be about emotional and physical fulfillment, it inevitably becomes a political statement. My sex life is entrenched in historical systems of power and domination, systems that inform contemporary politics of Asian-American representation.
I’ve spent so many nights at dark dorm parties, observing the same boys moving from one Asian girl to another—as if we are interchangeable and replaceable. Boy who started speaking to my friend in Mandarin the second he found out she was Chinese. Boy who then tried speaking to me in Mandarin, despite the fact that I’m from Thailand. Boy who assumes that his summer abroad in Asia gives him cultural humility. Boy who argues against accusations of fetishization with a breakdown of his hook-up demographics. Boy who assumes that because he’s dated white girls he couldn’t possibly be a fetishist.
After years of this, living the same narrative over and over again just becomes draining. Jin notes, “A major factor in me not wanting to use Tinder or other internet dating options is that I don’t want to deal with racist comments, which is inevitable. And every non-white girl has to deal with that.”
My own experiences with Tinder have confirmed this, and it’s the reason that I deleted my account a while back. At some point it just becomes so mentally and emotionally exhausting knowing that a large percentage of the world doesn’t see me as a full human being. It is the exhaustion that comes with bearing the knowledge and weight of centuries of racism and sexism—the ramifications of my identity as a female in a patriarchal society and as an Asian in a society that prioritizes whiteness and as an Asian female at the intersection of these interlocking systems of power. Rarely do I ever stop thinking about how these histories and realities shape my everyday experiences.
A few weeks ago a white boy called me a sex pot.
“Don’t sexualize me. I’m so tired of white men sexualizing me,” is what I told him. And he listened. And then he apologized. And for the first time I realize that my sexuality is my birthright. I am entitled to its fulfillment on my own terms. It is mine to shape, it is not well-defined, but it doesn’t have to be. It is allowed to change and expand over time. It is inextricable from the long history of domination, Orientalism, and misrepresentation, forces which I still have trouble reconciling on a day-to-day basis. But my sexuality is mine, and it cannot be colonized.