Not Your China Doll or Dragon Lady
Speech for Slut Walk 2016, IU Bloomington Campus
One day after teaching, I was walking towards the IMU (Indiana Memorial Union) from 10th Street down Woodlawn Avenue. I was wearing a mid-length dress with chaotic color bursts, black leggings, and gray running shoes, plus carrying my hot pink book bag, my purse, and another tote bag filled with more books and student papers. Suddenly a car stormed past me and most likely a college guy yelled, “What’s up, Whore!” I stopped in my steps with those words splattered in the air like blood, felt violated and stripped of my faculty member status and my graduate degree. To that guy, I was just another Asian woman.
Another time, while I was walking back to my car downtown in the afternoon daylight, a group of three white local high school boys approached me. They said, “Hi, Ma’am.” I said hello calmly and politely and walked past them, hoping that acknowledging them once would be enough and they would leave me alone. It wasn’t. As I kept going towards my car, they did not stop talking. “That’s a nice dress you’re wearing, Ma’am,” they said. I kept walking, silent, only keeping them in my peripheral vision. Finally, they were snickering when one of them uttered, “You have a nice ass.” By then, I had reached my vehicle, and I was afraid of being followed and ambushed. I jumped inside, shaken, and again feeling stripped of my dignity, not only as a teacher but also a woman, an Asian American woman. Later I mentioned the incident to white women acquaintances, trying to make light of the situation by saying those high school boys tried to get fresh with me, still too shaken from the moment to properly process what had happened. One of my acquaintances even said I should have taken the ass comment as a compliment. But to me, all I could think was, “Would they have said that to me or harassed me if I had been a white woman?”
When aggressions happen to me, I cannot experience these incidents without seeing them as racialized. The Western perception of Asian women as “exotic” and “erotic” began with the explorer Marco Polo in the late 13th century (Okihiro 9). His views were so strong that they endured, influencing generations of Europeans, and traveled over to the US in the 19th century, when the first large wave of Chinese immigrated to the States. Chinese women were viewed as such a sexual threat that the US government passed the 1875 Page Law to “exclude [mostly Chinese] women from entering the country for ‘lewd or immoral purposes’” (Lee 143). This perception of the Asian woman as prostitute and seductress would be perpetuated by Hollywood in the 20th century, whether it was Anna May Wong in Shanghai Express or Nancy Kwan in The World of Suzie Wong, or the infamous line “Me love you long time” uttered by a Vietnamese prostitute in Full Metal Jacket, a pick-up line that a guy once used on my younger sister. More recently in the news, K-pop band Oh My Girl “were detained at Los Angeles International Airport under suspicion of being sex workers” (Cwik). My immediate thought upon seeing that headline was “What? Are we back in 1875?”
Speaking of outdated perceptions and stereotypes, a family friend of mine in his late 40s or early 50s, who shall be called F, was convinced that Asian women were nicer than American women, and he also seemed to have an Asian obsession, befriending most of the Asian restaurant owners around my hometown. My parents owned a Chinese restaurant in southwestern VA, where I worked for most of my adolescence and 20s. One night several years ago, while I was adding up a bill at the bar counter, F sat there and told our restaurant manager, “You should get you an Asian woman. They’re sweet and they’ll take care of you.” This comment came after he had gushed and gushed about his Filipina mail-order bride, a young woman who was at least half F’s age. I was cringing the whole time during this conversation, and I really wanted to yell at F. However, I couldn’t say anything at the time. I’ve learned there is no reasoning with the unreasonable, plus I was in my workplace, which was owned by my parents, and I was outnumbered by older white men.
F’s sweet and nurturing illusion of Asian women reflects the quiet, obedient, and submissive Asian woman, the fragile Lotus Blossom stereotype. If Asian women aren’t conniving and hypersexualized Dragon Ladies, then we must be sexually innocent dolls that want to be dominated and saved. Again, popular culture and media has not helped quell this particular image due to the popularity of stories like the opera Madame Butterfly, the Broadway musical Miss Saigon, or the film Sayonara starring Miyoshi Umeki, the first and still only Asian actress to win an Oscar. That was in 1957.
No matter which stereotype Asian and Asian American women are pegged with, one thing is clear: Asian and Asian American women become easy targets for sexual harassment and violence. In recent news, there have been a number of white men who have traveled to different Asian countries, preying on women and then making online videos about how to basically sexually assault Asian women (Ismailjee). Last year, a story ran in the Washington Post about professional violinist Mia Matsumiya who has “received a seemingly endless torrent of sexually aggressive messages on Facebook, MySpace, OkCupid and other sites” since 2003 (Wang). In order to show the depravity of “what Internet users will say behind the safety of a screen,” Matsumiya saved these messages and began documenting them on an Instagram account (Wang). Not surprisingly, “[m]any of the messages make reference to [her] race” (Wang).
While most of this speech has identified men as the aggressors, women have been guilty of perpetuating these extreme stereotypes as well. One Halloween when I was in college, one of my classmates came to band rehearsal with “Chinese Takeout” and the crude drawing of a takeout box emblazoned across the front of her white t-shirt while her phone number was scrawled across the back. To compound her already problematic presentation, she wore pencils as chopsticks in her ginger hair. While my social consciousness was still awakening at that point in time, I knew this was wrong, this was disturbing. Later when I spoke to my anthropology professor, she shared my disgust and said, “You have every right to be angry given the history of sexually stereotyping Asian women.” More recently in 2012, I emailed Victoria’s Secret’s customer service in all caps, lambasting them for their “Sexy Little Geisha” lingerie modeled by blonde Candice Swanepoel. The ensemble in question was composed of a tiny black apron-like dress with red and pink blossoms on it. Swanepoel was carrying a black and pink fan, and the notorious chopsticks in the hair image resurfaced. No one ever responded to my message, but I’m assuming there was enough outrage from Asian Americans. A week later, I noticed the online ordering page to that outfit no longer existed. What these instances taught me was that white audiences are not afraid to consume, and even ridicule, iterations of Asian cultures and objects, but they fail to consider the humanity of Asian and Asian American women and how we might feel about these false representations.
How can these stereotypes be stopped? Much like stereotypes that other communities of color have had to endure, it won’t be easy, given the longevity of these exaggerated and false images. But like Matsumiya and her Instagram account, we can expose and make people aware of the creepers, the stalkers, the fetishizers, the cultural appropriaters. We can speak up for ourselves and create our own identities and sexualities. We can tell our own stories. Let us all unite in demolishing these stereotypes. Let us put a stop to other people determining our identities without our consent. To the men and boys who shout at us from their cars or while walking downtown or who creep on us from behind their computer screens, Asian and Asian American women are not your China Dolls, not your Dragon Ladies. We are strong and brave women. We are warriors. We are survivors. We are human beings.
-“Full Metal Jacket.” IMDB.com.
-“K-pop Band Oh My Girl Mistaken for Sex Workers and Detained at LAX.” Vulture, 12 Dec. 2015.
-Ismailjee, Somayya. “Julien Blanc, the ‘female attraction’ expert glorifies sexual violence.” The Guardian, 4 Nov. 2014.
-Lee, Erika. “The Chinese Are Coming…” Asian American Studies Now. Ed. Jean Yu-Wen Shen Wu and Thomas C. Chen. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2011.
-Okihiro, Gary Y. “When and Where I Enter.” Asian American Studies Now. Ed. Jean
Yu-Wen Shen Wu and Thomas C. Chen. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2011.
-Wang, Yanan. “A female violinist exposes 10 years of lewd, fetishizing messages from
men online.” The Washington Post, 21 Oct. 2015.
Lisa Kwong is an AppalAsian writer in the Midwest, where she currently teaches Asian American Studies and English at Indiana University in Bloomington and coordinates Fountain Square Poetry Series. Her poems and creative nonfiction are forthcoming or have appeared in Best New Poets 2014, the minnesota review, Still: The Journal, Naugatuck River Review, Appalachian Heritage, Pluck!, The Sleuth, and other journals. Her poem “Childhood Fade in Litany” appeared in Banango Street Issue 7: The Covers Issue.