People call me “sweet” a lot. People call me “nice.” They used to call me “quiet,” and, when I was younger, a “good girl.”
I’ll admit, it really didn’t use to bother me. I took these terms as compliments. And, to be fair, I think that most people really do mean them as compliments.
However, these terms are loaded. They’re loaded when used to describe any female or femme presenting person—but they can be especially loaded when they are used to describe Asian women.
I’m sure you’ve all heard of the stereotype that Asian women are quiet, submissive, and giggly. Let’s be real: think about how Asian women are usually portrayed on TV. They’re often seen wooing masculine white men with their shy smiles and girlish antics. I’m hard-pressed to remember a time when I saw a cinematic, artistic, and/or literary representation of a strong, nuanced Asian woman. Most of the time, I’m hit in the face with the annoyingly giggly prototype who barely speaks above a whisper. Now, all of this might seem fairly benign to you. I’m here to tell you that it’s NOT. As a stereotype and set of expectations, it has had an insidious effect on my life, and I have just begun my journey of breaking free.
I’ll be the first to admit that I can tend towards the quiet side at times. This tendency towards introvertedness is NOT because I lack ideas. Rather, I don’t really feel the need or have the energy, to engage in small-talk esque conversations.
When I was younger, people often read this quietness as submissiveness and obedience. My quiet, white female classmates simply garnered the label of “shy”. I, on the other hand, began to experience the pressures society exerted on me to conform to the prototype of the ideal Asian woman. Adults who would witness me in a single quiet moment would make grand proclamations about my tendency towards obedience, and would tell my parents that I’m “not one to speak out.” Sometimes, people would praise my “Asian manners” and call me a “precious little girl.” These words felt slimy, even at that young age, when I was unaware of their origins in the racism and fetishization of Asian women.
And, that’s never who I was and never who I wanted to be. The truth is, during my childhood, I molded myself into that girl that all the adults, that all of society, seemed to want. I didn’t speak up. I let people step on me. I giggled softly. I avoided stepping on others’ toes.
And I was miserable. Absolutely miserable. I have a memory of being 10 years old, sitting on the steps leading up to my bedroom, and thinking to myself, “I live a double life. I hate myself because I live a double life.” By this sentiment, I meant that I acted the part of the sweetheart Asian child at school, and, when I came home, I morphed into myself. I argued with my parents for hours about fairness, equality, and household rules—my stubborn streak sometimes carrying our conversations into the night hours. I tended to have a sassy sense of humor, which sometimes got me in trouble. I also refused to sugarcoat my words and sometimes surprised my family with my bluntness.
At the time, I thought that the “real me” was the bad one. The “bad girl.” I remember sobbing for hours after my mom suggested I describe myself as “fierce and fiery” in a school assignment because I thought that being those things made me a bad person. They prevented me from living up to the expectations that I constantly felt all around me.
So, for years, I hid myself, and delved further and further into my own anxiety and misery due to this performative pretense. I had my fair share of unhappy friendships and relationships because I struggled to both present as myself and to find people who would be willing to see me outside of the confines of a stereotype. When I let my moments of sassiness and obstinance show, these so-called “support systems” would chide me for stepping out of place. So, I continued to shrink. Finally, in college, I had enough. One day, during my sophomore year, somebody said something sexist and racist, and I snapped. I confronted him, outside, on middle path, in front of my classmates. I told him exactly how I felt.
It felt so good. It felt so liberating. And, since that moment, I’ve been trying to bring that Hayley, the authentic me, wherever I go. It’s still a struggle. I’m sassy and stubborn and blunt, but I’m also empathetic and loving. I love form-fitting clothing and feel comfortable in my body. I also like to wear lots of rainbow colors that don’t match, and I like to try out weird styles on my hair. I’m queer and open to monogamous and non-monogamous relationships with people of any gender. I have OCD, depression, anxiety, PTSD, and emetophobia. I’m an outspoken intersectional feminist. And, I’m a real person. I can be all of those things. I don’t have to fit into the mold that stereotypes built for me.
It’s been a long journey, and it’s never an easy one. So, next time you find yourself playing into any set of racialized or gendered stereotypes, I hope you can take a step back and consider the abundance of stories like mine. Let’s change the narrative.