When the COVID-19 outbreak was declared a pandemic and I found myself in lockdown, I decided to keep a journal to chronicle my experience. I abandoned it after a few weeks, as pandemic fatigue set in, but not before writing about the fear that gripped me in those early days.
“I’m scared to leave my house, not just because there is a virus out there that no one can control but because my face is not safe in this pandemic,” reads my entry from March 22, 2020. “I am scared to go outside because I have seen my friends and relatives blamed for this sickness, because I have been told to go back to China even when the world wasn’t choking. We cannot tame this virus but we also cannot tame the racism that has accompanied it.”
The rise in hate crimes against Asian Americans was already starting, but it was getting very little mainstream attention. Sometimes I wondered if I was overreacting. What were the odds of me being the target of a hate crime, anyway?
Nearly a year to the day after I wrote that journal entry, a white man walked into three spas in Georgia and fatally shot eight people. Six of them were Asian women: Xiaojie Tan, Daoyou Feng, Soon C. Park, Hyun J. Grant, Suncha Kim, and Yong A. Yue. The other two victims, Paul Andre Michels and an unnamed woman, were white.
What are the odds of me being the target of a hate crime? That depends on what you consider to be a hate crime; incredibly, many don’t think the recent killing spree counts, with “sexual addiction” and the perpetrator having “a really bad day” being proposed as the true cause. Statistically, the odds of being the victim of physical or sexual violence as an Asian American woman are quite high; 21% to 55% of Asian women in the U.S. have reported being victims.
These shootings are far from the only acts of violence that have been committed against Asian women in the past year. Of the 3,795 crimes against Asian Americans reported to Stop AAPI Hate from March 19, 2020, to February 28, 2021, most were against women; Asian American women reported 2.3 times more incidents than men.
It’s not surprising that women are so often targeted, especially when you consider how Asian women are viewed in America. We are perpetual foreigners; regardless of citizenship or where we are born, there will always be people who see us as exotic specimens plucked from the East for their enjoyment. We are viewed as sexually voracious Dragon Ladies or as eager-to-please sex dolls. Either way, we are sexualized and objectified and it puts us in danger.
I’ve experienced it too many times to count, and it’s incredibly normalized. Once, I was standing in line to renew my license when a man behind me asked, “Excuse me, but can I ask what you are? Would you happen to be Pacific Islander?”
I answered, “I’m Filipino.”
“Ahhh, that explains it. I was stationed in the Philippines when I was younger. Most beautiful women I’ve ever seen in my life.”
He said all this not to my face but to my breasts, and as his wife stood right next to him. It was a long line and he was standing too close; I left and returned the next day.
“Women experience misogyny every day, but being Asian adds an additional layer of dehumanization.”
Men have often told me what they “know” about my body. They swear that my pussy is tighter than a white woman’s and that they’d love to “stretch it out.” They tell me that I haven’t known real pleasure because Asia doesn’t have real men. They say they want to taste me because chocolate nipples are sweeter than pink ones.
I’ve been offered money for sex because “that’s all Filipino women are good for anyway.” I’ve had men try to lift up my skirt “to see if your c**t is as slanted as your eyes.” I’ve been called racial and sexual slurs until I started crying, only to find that the person harassing me enjoyed my tears.
Many of the men are aggressive, but some of them have tried to woo me — at first. They beg me to whisper ancient Chinese secrets in their ear, vow to treat me like an empress, offer to lay cherry blossoms at my feet. Until I turn them down. “Asian women are ugly anyway,” they say.
The hypersexualization of Asian women plays a huge part in the violence we face. Knowing how violent men can be when they’ve been rejected makes me think about the shooter, who said he saw his victims as a “temptation” that needed to be removed.
Women experience misogyny every day, but being Asian adds an additional layer of dehumanization. A misogynist might catcall, “Hey, nice tits.” But a man who is targeting me on the basis of my race and my gender is more likely to say something like, “Wow, I’ve never seen an Asian woman with big boobs.”
I don’t want to live my life in fear, but I find myself grappling with anxiety every time I have to leave the house. I wear dresses with pockets so that I have a place to stash my pepper spray. A couple of my friends have admitted they’re thinking of buying a gun, “just in case.”
We don’t want to think of the unspeakable happening, but every time we hear of another one of our sisters being targeted, we worry we will be next. There’s an overwhelming sense of solidarity among Asian American women right now, but it’s not the kind of solidarity I ever wanted to see. Who would ever choose to be bonded by shared trauma?
But then, that’s what it’s like to be an Asian woman in America. We are bonded by trauma and grief, but also by anger. We are angry that our voices are often silenced. We are angry that the racism and misogyny we have experienced our entire lives so rarely gets attention. We are angry that it took six Asian women being killed for people to finally start talking about the rise in racism we have been living with for the past year.
“Why do you think Asian women have finally started speaking up?” people have asked me.
We’ve been speaking up all along. You just haven’t been listening.