Content warning: sexual assault, discrimination, violence
In high school I had a burning crush on a boy called Matt*. He was athletic, popular, blonde… everything I thought I didn’t deserve. So when my friend Sarah* rushed towards me after class and whispered, “I have something to tell you. Matt told me to tell you that you’re hot for an Asian,” I was taken aback. Sarah beamed, expressing a mixture of excitement and jealousy—in her mind it was high praise.
When I spotted Matt on the bus home I averted all eye-contact. I felt confused and needed time to process his ‘compliment’. What was he trying to say? That he’s attracted to me, but this attraction is limited by my Asian-ness? That I’m ‘hot’, but only within the scope granted towards my particular ethnic group? That Asians are usually undesirable, but he will make an exception for me? There were too many questions, and my confusion led me to abandon the prospect of dating him altogether.
For years, race has affected my experiences with romance, sex, and desire in unique ways. As a Japanese-Australian woman, I’ve frequently been complimented for my Asian-ness, as if I should swoon from flattery in response.
For years, race has affected my experiences with romance, sex, and desire in unique ways. As a Japanese-Australian woman, I’ve frequently been complimented for my Asian-ness, as if I should swoon from flattery in response. When I was walking home from school once, an older man embarked on the “Where are you from?” conversation before kissing me on the lips without my consent. People on the street stared, but nobody did anything about it. On dating apps, men have said things like “Are you a type of sushi? Because I want to eat you up”. Many Asian women have similarly reported navigating online dating as being a minefield.
Photo by Angela Weiss, Teen Vogue.
People often don’t understand why this is so exhausting to deal with. “But they’re saying that they like you, right? Isn’t that a good thing?”, they say. Well, not exactly. With four words, Matt somehow managed to praise me while degrading my entire cultural identity at the same time. These incidents only fed into my growing belief that to be truly valued, I had to be white. Having blonde hair and hazel eyes like Sarah meant I could just be ‘hot’, not ‘hot for an Asian’. It meant I could be the default. As a teenager, I literally dreamt of one day waking up white and having ‘normal’ parents, because life would be so much easier.
Being desired for the stereotypes attached to your cultural background rather than your unique quirks and personal interests feels limiting to say the least. East Asian women are too often perceived as being hypersexual, submissive, and demure—an image encouraged by tropes like the ‘dragon lady’ and ‘lotus blossom’ portrayed in mainstream media. From Austin Powers to Stanley Kubrick’s film Full Metal Jacket, Hollywood is complicit in flattening Asian women to a harmful stereotype. To add to this, the Model Minority Myth perpetuates the image of the Asian diaspora as being the rule-abiding and assimilationist ‘other’. I certainly don’t resonate with these stereotypes. What about my enthusiasm for books, riot grrrl bands, dangly earrings, and singing my heart out at karaoke? The little things that make me who I am?
Austin Powers in Goldmember (2002) with ‘Fook Mi’ and ‘Fook Yu’.
Being objectified in this manner is not only dehumanising—it can have fatal consequences. In the Atlanta spa attacks earlier this year, a white man targeted vulnerable workers at various massage parlours. Six out of the eight victims were women of Asian descent. The perpetrator blamed this violent act on temptation—he voiced having a “sexual addiction”, and saw the spas as an outlet for something “that he shouldn’t be doing”. This is an extreme case of racism and misogyny colliding to cause widespread harm. I was deeply shaken by this news. While Atlanta is far away, the sentiment felt too close to home, the familiarity behind the attacks deeply horrifying.
Once I talked openly with others, I realised that cultural fetishisation is a broader societal issue and there are communities fighting against it.
Fetishisation can be an overwhelming and upsetting experience. While people of varying cultural and gender identities are impacted in unique ways, I’ve found it helpful to discuss these issues with those that have had similar life experiences. To listen, be heard, and share self-care resources is a good first step. Once I talked openly with others, I realised that cultural fetishisation is a broader societal issue and there are communities fighting against it.
A temple in Nikko, Japan. Photo by Denise Metz on Unsplash.
Second generation migrants are uniquely tied between two worlds—not quite one or the other. English is my first language, but I hold a soft spot for Japanese TV shows, my mother’s cooking, Japanese New Year’s celebrations. It’s an identity that can necessitate complex positions and life experiences, but I’m proud of it. And it most definitely shouldn’t be associated with a hasty denominator like Western conceptions of the Asian Woman. Looking back on my interactions with Matt, I shouldn’t need to change to be valued as an individual person. If anything, he should be the one to change.
*Names have been changed