A block from me lives a slender pointy-nosed old white man with frizzy grey hair. When I was a teenager and my OOTD was high-waisted denim shorts and a scoop-back AA bodysuit paired with a winged cat-eye, he used to ask my neighbours, “where does that girl with the disabled mom live?” Sometimes he would loiter outside my window. I grew older, moved away and forgot about him.
Until early last year. A couple months into the pandemic, he spat “Chinese!” at me as I passed him on our street. My face flushed, I felt angry and shocked. But what followed was worse—for days, and then weeks, and then months afterward, I felt that same visceral fear of not being safe that I used to feel as a teenager.
I hung a bedsheet up over my translucent curtains every night, hoping he wouldn’t look in and make the connection that the same girl he used to creep on all those years ago was the virus-spreading Chinese woman he spat at on the street. Being sexually targeted felt more dangerous. If he was going to attack me for my race, at least he would be too disgusted with me to sexually assault me right? My mind circled on worst case scenarios until dawn peaked through my curtains every night last summer.
“Hey Anna, we’re making a porno, so we need an Asian girl, you down?” A university friend’s boyfriend asks me jokingly with his entourage of beefy football player friends. I laugh, brush it off.
First time visiting the apartment of this white guy I met on Bumble. He’s a nice, smart, gentle, agreeable. We’re 10 dates in, watching the South Korea episode of Street Food. I notice an Asian scroll on his wall. I start to see his perpetual doe-eyed gaze differently. It starts to grow, the seed of doubt that’s been rooted in my stomach ever since our first date when he proudly told me he spent a year teaching English in Korea—a story I’ve heard from so many white guys I’ve met on apps. Are there really that many white guys out there who’ve taught English in Korea; is it just a coincidence that I’m half-Korean?
Another white guy I’m seeing. The gaze is the opposite of doe eyes—empty—and yet it’s the same; it views me as an object. But this time it’s power. This time it’s looking right through me. This time it’s hollow. I’m hollow, my insides scooped out. I feel dirty, I learn to associate this feeling with being turned on. This is what sex is supposed to feel like right?
“I love how small you are, that I can just pick you up and fit you right in my pocket,” my boyfriend says to me. He takes a photo of me in my post-gym attire cuddled up in a ball on the couch. His friend later comments on the photo, “Asian girls are the best!”
(These are the well-intentioned, educated white men I grew up with, I won’t even go into the encounters I’ve had with men I didn’t know).
“Yeah but you’ve got a tiny frame, you’re Asian!” A woman says to me at the gym, as if that’s just how Asian women are built. What would she say if I told her “petit” is not the default for many Asian women? That this size requires work, sweat, avoiding rice? That it’s the countless times women, and men, have suggested I’m naturally “tiny” that make me feel it’s the size of space I’m naturally supposed to occupy.
I feel most at home when I’m submerged in a burning hot tub of water tucked tightly in a ball, my head in my knees, arms wrapped around me. It was in this position I cried after a man threatened to put me in the hospital (because “that’s where I belong”) on the street last spring. I feel safe here, because with my eyes closed I can pretend I’m invisible.
I’m always oscillating between two states of erasure: hyper-visibility and invisibility; always operating on the boundary of belonging; always alone because I never feel like I can articulate this liminal space and when I finally find the words to do so, I’m easily dismissed. And so I stay silent.
But it’s the silence that makes white people think that the anti-Asian racism of the past year is solely because of Trump’s ‘Kung Flu’ rhetoric (and thus can be simply eliminated by a change of government). It’s the silence that makes it a “compliment” that half-Asian women are statistically the most desirable partner on dating apps. It’s the silence that makes you feel entitled to say whatever you want to an Asian woman—from something as innocent as “you’re tiny!” to an abusive sexual demand. It’s the silence that makes it shocking when a man goes on a shooting rampage at several Asian spas.
It’s our silence, the shrinking of ourselves to fit the tiny, shy, polite mould we’ve been given, that erases our complex stories; that reduces us to objects; that makes it legitimate, in the eyes of the law, to say the murder of six Asian women was just a man with mental health issues having a “bad day.”
“Many Asian Americans have never talked about it, so white people still don’t believe that Asian Americans face racism. Because we’re invisible, the racism against us has also been invisible.“ - Cathy Park Hong.
I feel anxious and apologetic even writing this, my invisibility so internalized that I feel unqualified to talk about racism, as if it’s the oppression Olympics and my experiences aren’t valid. I finally broke my silence last spring, inspired by Asian Americans and Canadians finally doing the same: spreading awareness of the history of anti-Asian racism in the U.S. in Canada and sharing all the stories of micro-aggressions they’d repressed over the years.
But in the months since, I’ve sunk back into silence. I moved to the burbs, eliminating all potential encounters of racism with strangers on the street. I slipped into an illusion that the incidents had calmed down. They hadn’t, I just had the privilege to shelter myself from it.
Not all Asian women or men carry this privilege, or fit into the model minority category, because Asians aren’t a monolith. Class, migration status, gender, sexuality, ability are inseparable from the racialized experience of anyone who wears an Asian identity. Far from a simple stereotype, the “white man with yellow fever” can be the American GI sexually assaulting a Korean woman during the Korean War, the shy, anime-obsessed teenage boy who assumes all Asian girls are non-intimidating, or the wealthy retiree who wants a docile, trophy wife. In all of these iterations, identities intersect.
“This is a political issue, a physical issue, an economic issue. It’s complicated, it’s intersectional. And we need to think about it in a complex way.” - Min Jin Lee.
So please, call it what it is—a hate crime. Because to say the motive was purely sexual is to deny the reality that it’s the very fact that these women are Asian that makes them vulnerable “temptations” to begin with. We can’t neatly package problems, in the same way we can’t neatly fix them with a performative IG post, single donation or removing Trump from office. We also can’t divorce what’s happening today from the pre-pandemic history of Asians in the United States and Canada.
What we need is to talk, and keep talking, even when it’s uncomfortable, even when we struggle to find the words to articulate the complex identities we wear. More than that, we need people to listen, to not dismiss or ignore our stories, no matter how confusing or unbelievable they may be; to ask us how we’re doing, more often. Ignorance isn’t bliss, it’s denial, and if we wait too long to face it, people die.
How To Help? Donate & Support 🙋🏻♀️
👀 “The only thing worse than the feeling of paranoia is the sickening realization that it’s not paranoia after all,” writes Jiayang Fan. “To live through this period as an Asian-American is to feel trapped in an American tragedy while being denied the legitimacy of being an American.”
💣 The violence is in the forgetting.
🎎 Why do we so easily forget crimes of anti-Asian racism? Because the history is muddled.
“The current moment underscores the in-between space that Asian Americans inhabit. It’s hard to prove bias in a hate crime when people are mystified by the idea of anti-Asian racism.” - Hua Hsu.
💅🏻The most recent attacks can’t be divorced from race and gender.
“The impression of these establishments as venues for ‘temptation’ and of the people who were on site, stems from entrenched tropes about spas and Asian American women, who have been depicted as hyper-sexualized beings” - Li Zhou.
🇺🇸 Why this wave of anti-Asian racism feels different.
👭 We know his story, that he was having a ‘bad day,’ but we can’t even name the women who died?
“A hate crime was committed. It was vicious, gendered, and racially motivated. It was about class, the fetishization of Asian women, and men feeling entitled to sex. To eradicate this kind of moral rot, we need to name every part of it.” - Roxane Gay.
🤝 We need political solidarity.
“Maybe I stayed silent because I didn’t want to be gaslit again and again whenever I brought up the racism that Asian-Americans face,” writes Julie Ae Kim.
👘 On the unique ways that Asian American women experience sexual harassment, from three leading women.
“People are shocked because we never really tell these stories. In the the MeToo movement, we never really talked about the unique way that Asian-American women experience sexual harassment. People want to talk about race, they leave my gender at the door. People want to talk about sexual harassment, they leave my race at the door. And so I become invisible.” -Sung Yeon Choimorrow.
⚖️ Why are hate crimes so hard to charge? “The law is not designed to account for many of the ways in which Asian-Americans experience racism.”
🇨🇦 FYI - Canada has a higher number of anti-Asian racism reports per capita than the United States.
💃🏻 For a dose of joy: take in this dance team of Asian grandmas in Queens.
🧒🏻 How to talk to kids about racism.
“Black families always have the racial talk, many Asian-American families didn’t. They emphasized assimilating to what they thought was a post-racial state.”
📚 A conversation between two of the Asian American writers who’ve taught me the most about my Asian identity—Cathy Park Hong and Alexander Chee.
Appreciating this perspective of a white woman.
“What are my words worth now to Xiaojie Tan, to Hyun Jung Grant, to everyone killed this week and to every person of Asian descent in the U.S. who has been unable to escape the cruelty of the past year? Very little, I'm afraid. To be in solidarity means not waiting to speak until the issue is dominating the headlines.” - Ann Friedman.
🎥 To better understand the “Asian American experience” if there is even such a thing, read Jay Caspian Kang’s interview with Steven Yeun (nominated for an Oscar for Minari!).
“Sometimes I wonder if the Asian-American experience is what it’s like when you’re thinking about everyone else, but nobody else is thinking about you,” Yeun said.
🎬 Even though it was a historic week for Asian Americans in Hollywood, representation isn’t enough.
👸🏻 But it’s worth something—why Bling Empire’s mediocrity is so important for representation politics.
“Asian-Americans often suffer from paradigmatic ‘rep sweats,’ uneasy emotions that surrounds the reception of anything remotely Asian put on the mainstream American stage.” - Jean Chen Ho.
OK, see you… but not ! The current fifth season of Kim’s Convenience (Netflix) will be the show’s last 😭 .
I’ll admit, I’ve dipped in and out of this show. On paper, it sounds like my ideal watch: it’s about a Korean-Canadian family who runs a convenience store in Toronto (which is exactly what my Korean family did when they first immigrated to Toronto!). The main character is an anxious photographer (also like me!). They rep the east end well, and drop references only born-and-bred Torontonians would notice. But there’s something about it being a CBC show that, like Schitt’s Creek, just makes it feel cheesy.
Happy to report that last month I revisited and am now 100% on board. It portrays the nuances of the first-gen parent/second-gen child relationship well, but what it does best is capture the micro-aggressions and colour blindness that characterizes Toronto. It’s racial representation without making cliches out of the characters too. And just generally feel-good.
(If you’re watching, I need to know—do you like Shannon?).
This episode of TTSG explores the experience of Asian sex workers and migrants via an interview with Yves Tong Nguyen, an organizer with Red Canary Song, a grassroots organization pushing for justice and police accountability for sex workers.
“When you asked me about what I would tell people to take away from it, I want us to stop building and organizing in reaction to when people die. I want us to organize to keep people alive.” -Yves Tong Nguyen
Anti-Asian racism is not simply a product of Trump’s ‘Kung Flu’ rhetoric; Asian sex workers have been subjected to gendered and racialized violence for centuries.
“People want to say [Trump’s rhetoric] is the root, but really it’s a symptom of things that have existed for a long time. White Liberals want to believe that Trump is the problem, because then they can be like, if we can get rid of Trump then it’s good.” -Yves Tong Nguyen
How does our current legal system make it harder to charge hate crimes?
“Proving anti-Asian hate crimes is especially difficult because there aren’t widely recognized symbols of hate they associate with Asian Americans (like a noose or swastika),” says reporter Nicole Hong.
This episode of The NYT Daily packs an impressive amount into 25 minutes: the failures of our legal system, a brief history of anti-Asian racism, the varied responses to this attack and the sexualization of Asian women.
“When Asians are verbally harassed, they feel like something racial is going on, even if they might not be able to articulate to you why it’s racially motivated, that’s the feeling of gaslighting that’s going on in the community. Are we being oversensitive or is it racial in a way that we can just never prove?”- Nicole Hong.
“Pre-COVID, you would stay home to take care of your mental health, now it’s the opposite, more than ever I just want to go see my friends, and I can’t,” says Olivia Mew, founder of lifestyle brand Stay Home Club.
I’ll admit, I went into this interview with an angle. The brand is known for their sassy ‘Stay Home’ slogans that validate all introverts who were practicing social distancing long before it became mandatory. So when the founder told me she actually doesn’t want to stay home anymore, I was floored.
Nine years since starting the brand that was onto JOMO before it became a trend, the designer has evolved. Like me, she’s reflected on her introversion and is now drawn to more subtle, sophisticated designs. Unfortunately, she’s also moving away from the ‘Stay Home’ slogan apparel because big brands like Ardene and Old Navy have been stealing it. That’s the problem with being ahead of the trend, the true innovators lose all the credit.