This article focuses mostly on the experiences of an Asian American. This narrative does not represent the entire Asian or Asian American population, but it’s meant to give perspective on the thoughts and feelings that may be running through the minds of your friends and loved ones with an Asian background.
For the past few days, I haven’t been at such a loss of words than I am right now, but I can tell you the range of emotions I currently feel. I feel infuriated. I feel terrified. I feel disoriented. But most of all, I’m absolutely disappointed. I’m disappointed in America’s failure to understand the gravity behind the anti-Asian sentiment. This is nothing new. This pandemic only poured gas into the raging racist fire that Asian Americans have faced their entire lives.
If you’ve been on Instagram, you’ve probably learned or become familiarized with some topics associated with the Asian American experience. The Model Minority Myth. Racial microaggressions. Fetishization of Asian/Asian-American women. It’s a lot to absorb, and I don’t blame you for wanting to isolate yourself from all of this. With the incessant media exposure of Asian American hate crimes, the easier thing to do would be to step away. But that’s a privilege. Some of you can step away from Instagram or step away from this article right now, and you may not have to worry about whether you can go out in public without being verbally harassed. Or whether your grandparents will be randomly attacked. Or if your parents can go to the grocery alone and come back in one piece.
With all these topics circling around Asian-Americans, maybe personal experiences will help you understand the weight behind each issue.
The Model Minority Myth
When I was younger, around 6th-7th grade, I genuinely enjoyed school, and that’s why I did well; I took the time to learn. I excelled at my academics, and anytime I did well on an assignment, I’d get hit with “oh, it’s because she’s Asian.” Not so harmful, right?
In my high school classes, anytime an Asian student did well, many would automatically tie that achievement to their race: “These Asians just know everything.” But we don’t. At first glance, the sentiment doesn’t seem so bad. But what happens when we fail and don’t uphold the “inherently successful” image? I’ve witnessed first-hand my Asian American peers beat themselves up for not upholding that image. I’ve heard the self-degrading talks about not living up to their “Asianness.” The repetition of the phrase plants the seed of deep insecurity around our race, and it creates the narrative that we can’t and won’t fail. But, making mistakes is a part of life. I’ve seen my Asian American peers and their darkest moments revolve around their failure to uphold the “perfect Asian image”.
I can guarantee you that most Asian Americans have heard this annoying question: “Where are you from?” I always know what answer they expect, but I always say, “New York!” They always counter with, “But where are you really from?” since they expect an Asian country as my answer. Is it harmful? Yes. This microaggression undermines our status as Americans. We are just as American as you, but this microaggression perpetuates the foreignness associated with Asian Americans. Just because we aren’t white doesn’t mean we aren’t from here.
When I was in elementary school, I would sometimes bring Asian food for lunch. I remember countless times my classmates would reject my food as “disgusting,” and I’d always hear “How could you eat that?” Being an impressionable young kid, I let their words denounce my culture’s food. This type of racial microaggression reinforces the idea that “American” food is superior and appetizing, but Asian food is not.
In some Asian cultures, we use a fork and spoon to eat food. I didn’t even realize that was an Asian custom because I’ve been doing it my whole life without question. When I ate with friends in college, it’s understandable they were curious about my different way of eating. However, to continuously make fun and ridicule how I eat is unnecessary. I sometimes ate with the same people, and without fail they would point out how “weird” my way of eating is. This racial microaggression perpetuates the notion that Western norms are the right way, and Asian norms are inferior.
Fetishization of Asian/Asian-American Women
I have a lot to say about this one, but I’ll give you only a spoonful. Many of the guys I’ve talked to always consider my “innocence” as attractive. I’ve been told many times that I “surprise” them when I speak up. Rather than getting to know me, they focus more on the image they’re projecting onto me—a naïve, docile Asian. By projecting and fetishizing Asian American women for their perceived naiveness and submissiveness, this promotes the idea that Asian American women are helpless and will do as you please. We won’t. We are not helpless. Some of us may have a small stature, but that doesn’t mean we’re damsels in distress. We will speak up. Don’t expect an Asian American woman to stay quiet and serve your every sexual need.
Also, our race is not restricted to a type. We aren’t here for your “yellow fever.” Like you, we are complex beings, and race is one of our many characteristics. Don’t tell your Asian American friend she has a shot with someone because the other person has had an Asian significant other in the past. And I say this from experience: “Look! He’s been with an Asian before, so you have a chance!”
Here’s another take: our beauty, time-and-time again, is subjected to European beauty standards or restricted to our race.
“If only she had bigger eyes!”
“You’re pretty for an Asian!”
“I like Asians with lighter eyes/hair!”
These are backhanded comments that implicitly demote Asian features as inferior compared to western beauty standards. A lot of the physical insecurities I had growing up revolved around my Asian features, and half the time, people explicitly pointed out my “shortcomings.” I didn’t realize my “sh*t colored” eyes, “boring black” hair, flat nose, yellow skin, and “mosquito bite” boobs were embarrassing until others said so.
The most upsetting part about my experience with “casual racism” is that I know I haven’t seen the full extent of it. There are others who have seen and heard more horrible things, or worse, were physically attacked. At a time where anti-Asian sentiment is on the rise, I ask for openness and mindful change in our everyday words and actions. Be open to hearing about our personal experiences. Be mindful of what you say and how it may undermine not just Asian but also other ethnic cultures. Mindful change starts with openness to change in our attitudes. I want to leave you with a challenge. If you find yourself questioning the anti-Asian sentiment rather than opening yourself to the discussion, ask yourself why. It’s an uncomfortable discussion for you and me, but it’s necessary if we want to ensure the safety and protection of our Asian American community.