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  • Heather Lewis

Musings of a Middle-aged Matriarch: Looking exotic sitting at Cracker Barrel

I was adopted into a small farming community with one blinking stop light. For all my life, I was surrounded by people who did not look like me. Once Facebook became a thing, I joined a lot of Korean adoptee groups. It filled the need I had inside to belong somewhere, to fit in. My feed was filled with families who looked like mine, white parents, Asian kids. It was a great way to meet others who have similar experiences being Korean and adopted. I follow issues such as the Adoptee Citizen Act. I learned how to start a bio-family search. So many relevant topics are discussed and shared in these groups. They can be extremely informative, but they can also become drama-filled, turning slightly Real Housewife-ish. But overall, the camaraderie is nice, and the conversation is cathartic.

Recently Jia Sun Lee, author of "Everyone Was Falling," posted a very thought provoking article titled “What White Men Say in our Absence” by Elaine Hsieh Chou in one of the Facebook groups. The essay begins with a disclaimer that it contains graphic descriptions of murder, sexual violence, and racist language. With an intro like this, I can already gather the nature of what white men say in our (the Asian-American female) absence. She starts by recounting an incident on the bus when she was teaching ESL in Taipei. Two white men were discussing dating Taiwanese women very candidly as they assumed no one around them could understand English. Before I even read the details, I knew what this conversation was all about. How could I not? I’ve spent a lifetime hearing about/being a part of Asian female stereotypes. The article was not shocking or surprising. The author laments not standing up for herself and other Asian women and exposing these men for their offensive conversation. Even eight years later she was still troubled by the experience, troubled that she didn’t face her oppressors and tell them off.

How many times had I been in that same position? Not the exact details, but a situation where I wish I had said my mind, told someone off, or even reacted at all. I remember the time after a bar night I was standing in line at Taco Bell and some guy thought he could grab my tit. I was visibly pissed, but I didn’t do anything. I stood there. Got my Mexican Pizza and brushed it off.

I remember the time a woman, co-worker of my high school boyfriend, had asked him how I could use tampons…since my vagina was slanted.

I remember guys hitting on me with the line, “I’ve never been with an Asian woman before.”

By the grace of God, I was never a victim of a sexual crime or sexual violence. But, it’s not hard to point to countless examples of Asian women being attacked, violated, and killed throughout time. I experienced enough looks, comments and situations to be wary of certain men. To this day, I will tell my husband if I get a strange vibe off a guy when we are at social events and let him know when I don’t want him to leave my side.

Doing an online search in areas like Reddit, one can spiral down a rabbit hole of disgusting content regarding Asian women’s “sexual-ness” and the unending stereotypes of the submissive Asian female. Online anonymity is a double-edged sword that allows people to speak their minds, but then say horribly offensive things they’d never say out loud. After reading article after article online, Chou stated, “I wanted these men identified. I wanted their thoughts broadcasted above their heads. Because how can I move through the world knowing that the men who think these thoughts are real? They’re subway riders, salesmen, police officers, teachers, bosses, friends. They’re someone’s father. They’re someone’s husband. They’re someone’s lover.” I get this. There’s no way of knowing who the “bad” men are. You must rely on your instincts and have faith that most people are good people. You hope.

As a 49-year-old woman, this knowledge disgusts me. The fact that my ethnically ambiguous daughter must navigate this world frightens me. Just the other day her Uber driver asked her if she had Chinese blood in her family. I’d love for this to be an innocent question, but because of such offensive and violent stereotypes, innocuous statements like this scare me. Yet, at the same time I’m scared for young Asian women, I also realize there is a benefit to these outdated tropes. When I was a young woman, I know there was a side of this disgusting obsession that was beneficial to me. There is a power dynamic between white men and Asian women where the Asian woman wields a certain power that she may not have experienced in her young life. She has that “pussy power” that gets men to buy her drinks, gifts, and to give her attention. To a young confident girl, this means nothing. To young girls who are never looked at in high school, who lack attention, who lack confidence…this can be exhilarating.

Chou recounts a time in her life she dated an older white male who showed her a box of photos of his past conquests…all Asian. Instead of being repulsed and seeing the red flags flying in her face, she became, “…dreamy, even wistful. I wanted my photo in that box. I wanted him to choose me.”

So as f****d up as that thought process is, having the power to be chosen, to be special is not lost on me. Another fabulous writer Chou quotes is Jenny Zhang from her article “Far Away From Me: I was never the girl in the Weezer song.” In her essay, she discusses the song by Weezer, “Across the Sea,” and how it affected her. She noted, “My only choices, I thought, were to be invisible and ugly or to be exoticized into worthiness.” Sometimes it’s better to be wanted for the wrong reasons, then to never be wanted at all. At this stage in my life this sounds ridiculous. But, I try to put myself back into that melodramatic, starry-eyed teenager mindset and realize logic and reason are not something we all have, they sometimes must develop. The need to feel wanted and belong may overpower the desire to think logically. Even now, I sit in a place of comfort and safety I was not afforded at age 23.

I believe this younger generation will do better. They demand to be seen and occupy space much better than we ever did. Their identities are validated more in film and theater and their stories are being told. But these hopeful thoughts are soon forgotten if I read the headlines in the news. It’s so easy to find Asian women being targeted, attacked, and killed. As women, we exist with caution. As hyper-sexualized Asian women, we exist with extreme caution, fear, and realize we bear the burden of our own safety. Chou ends her article finally stating what she wanted to say to the two white men on the train: “Be careful what you say. I’m listening. And I’m not going anywhere.” And this gives me hope.



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