Otherness, cultural shame, and the silencing of Asian-American women

Reflections in the aftermath of Atlanta.

I used to be the quiet one. I cringe internally as I write that, because it instantly paints a mental picture of that meek Asian woman stereotype I’ve tried to overcome. Although I won’t be the loudest in the room, I can definitely be outspoken when I choose to be. But despite this newfound confidence, I still feel so hesitant in publishing my thoughts today because it seems like too much; too personal. What will people think? Will they understand? Who will read it? Does it even matter?

Truthfully, I started writing this because I needed a landing place for my swirling thoughts and flowing tears. I found it cathartic to continue writing because I was upset, hurt, and disappointed when so many people I cared about had said absolutely nothing.

I’m past the point of making excuses for white silence this week or in the height of Black Lives Matter last summer — like maybe they were scared of saying something wrong, or not knowing what to say, or maybe they truly don’t care — because Asian women deserve better. I’m also well aware that social media is but a window into someone’s life, and many could be having important conversations offline. But the only way I could prevent myself from sinking into disappointment was wondering and rationalizing that maybe they don’t know what they don’t know.

Talking with trusted friends these few days has encouraged me that I’m not alone in my thoughts. But I’ll still admit that this is the first time I’ve vocalized many of these thoughts to myself, let alone to the public. My sincere hope is that the following words help articulate similar thoughts buried deep within, offer a fraction of solidarity and comfort, or shed some insight into a complex and evolving experience some will never fully understand. Ultimately, I hope for our stories to take up space in a world that has never made room for them.

Where do I even begin?

I need to first acknowledge that intersectionality is always important when approaching such issues. Every person’s experience is different — Asian-Americans are definitely not monolithic, and what I’m about to describe is an opinion borne out of my personal experiences. For some context about me: I grew up in the Midwest (Iowa), wasn’t the only Asian at my school but only one of few in my year, and have lived on both coasts (Seattle and NYC). I grew up in a religious home, identify as cisgender, and have liberal-leaning friend groups.

Since I strongly believe in intersectionality and one’s worldview being the product of home and social environments, it is clear to me how the horrific events of Atlanta were the product of numerous intersecting systemic issues throughout history: white supremacy (and the institutions that uphold it like policing), racism, xenophobia, misogyny, gun violence, fetishization and diminishing of Asian women, sex and human trafficking, violence against womxn, religious evangelical culture, Western imperialism and Chinese labor, and so on. These harmful ideologies contribute to the environment that man grew up in. These issues perpetuate ongoing failures in mainstream media’s ability to portray anyone who isn’t white. These issues erase the value and visibility of Asian women.

One facet of Atlanta that has struck a personal nerve is how the perpetrator was immediately humanized, his acts rationalized because he grew up as a pastor’s son who had ‘a sexual addiction.’ I was raised in the same purity culture that teaches evangelicals to only acknowledge human sexual desires in marriage, and escalates the shame of sexual sin to heights far above any other sin. It’s a harmful and condemning rhetoric that encourages men to blame women for being a dangerous source of sexual temptation in a world that shames women for being either too sexual or not at all; a world that profits off of the commoditization of our bodies regardless. The white evangelical Christians who normalize purity culture will also be the ones to excuse comments like Grab ’em by the pussy…because when it’s a white man’s power at stake, women’s bodies and voices are disposable.

Some days our existence truly feels like an endless losing game.

As I try to edit down this essay, I find that more and more thoughts and feelings keep popping up. The last few days have uncovered an immense gravity and weight that has been carried an entire lifetime — so long that it’s ingrained into my identity. It’s a pain that has been buried so deep that until now, I’ve never let myself question its existence. The type of pain you don’t even know how to tell where it’s all coming from, the one that makes you feel short of breath when it catches in your chest because you don’t even know where to start to let go of it.

I know the heaviness of this moment will pass. The collective emotional height of mourning and media attention will pass. I’m ready to feel less on the verge of tears every moment. But please remember that the stories and the racial trauma will carry on.

Our tears, our fury, our hopelessness does not just come from this week. It’s so much more than Atlanta, which is horrific in its own right. It’s more than a rise in documented hate crimes. It’s years of living through racially-driven incidents big and small, laughing comments off or smiling along…even adding in our own jokes, or not knowing how to say anything, because how else does one get by? How do you simply let go of years of internalized shame — of wishing you were white because it would just be easier?

You often hear stories from the children of immigrants growing up and lamenting over their parents’ accents (or inability to speak English) because it feels embarrassing or a hindrance to fitting in. Please understand this: my loving immigrant parents are well-educated, fully fluent in English, worked extremely hard to be in high-paying jobs and yet I still carried this shame and desired to be white.

It’s unwise to assume every Asian-American has felt this same pain I’m describing here. Even ones who share some of my experiences or background. I also acknowledge not everyone has been lucky enough to have the emotional and mental space to process, which is yet another twisted reality I’ve witnessed this week: my fellow Asian-American sisters who have carried the burden of this pain also feeling apologetic and guilty when asking for space to heal from it.

Publicly acknowledging how I’m feeling is a part of my healing process, but it’s also radical. Our Asian cultural upbringing taught us to keep our heads down, not cause scenes, stay quiet and work hard. Being women taught us to minimize and invalidate our existence, our presence, our emotions. Combined? That mentality has taught us that assimilation and invisibility is the path for survival and success. That mentality somehow made me a valuable asset to the workforce and groups of leadership; not to mention on the verge of burnout too many times. That mentality taught me to do everything with the utmost excellence, to not be too emotional…all in hopes to maybe one day wake up and feel worthy of my position in life.

I’ll include an example that isn’t meant as a jab to my white friends, but a blunt reality. Do you know what the best advice I’ve ever received for overcoming imposter syndrome is? Approach situations with the mentality (and outward confidence) of a white male. Let that sink in.

It also means I face a hard-to-swallow reality when it comes to my safety. I know there are Asians who don’t feel the weight of this, some who might think I’ve never experienced such racism or nothing bad has ever happened to anyone I know. There are men who think it only affects women. Whether that’s ignorance, a coping mechanism, or something else…this is the reality: violence can and does happen to anyone who looks Asian.

In a sense, I can rationalize wanting to pretend it’ll never affect me personally because I can’t allow myself to fully absorb the stories of hate crimes against elderly Asians. All I see is my parents, my friend’s parents, grandparents…it’s too painful, and I get that it’s much easier to be numb to it all. Unfortunately, it’s our reality. I received the first notification about Atlanta’s shooting when I was walking home alone at night. (For context, I’m very privileged to live in a safe neighborhood, and while always being cautious, I’ve felt relatively safe when walking alone.) When I got back to my apartment, it was the very first time I fully accepted that any of these incidents could happen to me. For looking like me. Like them.

And these days, I’m constantly aware of my Asian-ness. Minorities, especially BIPOC women, are familiar with the feeling of walking into a room and thinking, I’m the only one who looks like me here, or, if there are too many that look like us, what will ‘they’ think? I cringe at how my facial features could make me a target of violence. I’ve always loved living in NYC for the ability to blend into a larger crowd, but lately I have truly never felt more aware of my inability to blend in. Now, my chest tightens anytime someone looks my way. Keep my head down and hurry past. Just in case.

I’ve traveled enough on my own and with other Asians to know that it’s one thing to feel unsafe or targeted as a woman…it’s another level entirely to feel targeted as an East Asian. I’ve shared a lot online about international trips and many places I genuinely loved visiting. What I don’t share is how many comments we experience throughout those trips, especially in Europe:

China. Chink. Ching-Chong. Nihao. Konnichiwa. Oriental. Where you from? No, where you really from? How much?

To ignore the men and keep moving feels safer than engaging, even if you want to punch them for it. To brush incidents off is necessary to still enjoy your trip. I’m fortunate to have only experienced verbal harassment, but am sickened to know far worse things have happened and are still happening. It only adds to the internalized desire of blending in, and ‘blending in’ means looking white.

Everyone is conscious of their appearance, but that rings true even more so these days. I dyed my hair dark blonde just for fun recently and it wasn’t until this week when I realized I feel genuinely safer looking like a white girl from behind. To restate that: by changing my appearance to be more white-passing, it actually increases my chances of physical safety. I even pay to permanently curl straight, Asian lashes because it makes my eyes look bigger –– attractive — Western. We Asian women subscribe to Western standards upheld by white men who profit off of a beauty industry benefiting from Eastern innovation…and all of it reinforces that we’re not enough.

Beneath appearances is the prickly topic of desirability. I can’t fully unpack the gross history of sexualization of Asian women and why it’s led to us becoming a white man’s ‘exotic’ fantasy. Or how white supremacy has created a weird duality of Asians wanting to appear desirable to whites but also self-hating in wanting that (not to mention the jealousy or shaming of other Asians for choosing to be with a non-Asian partner). Or how white society’s emasculation of Asian men has fed into their problems of toxic masculinity and ego, being complicit in misogyny and patriarchal sexism, burying of insecurities and emotions…and doing it all just to seek acceptance from male counterparts and white society.

Like I said, these are complicated issues. Though that last one honestly stings a little bit more. Because it’s hard not to feel like Asian women also have to bear the cost of Asian men’s silence.

Asian-Americans will talk a lot about visiting our parents’ home country and feeling that tension of not being Asian enough to fit in there, yet not being American (white) enough to fit in here. What we don’t talk about often enough is experiencing that tension and feeling of otherness even within your own community. How do you reconcile that tension — questioning if you’re too whitewashed, scoffing at other Asians for being whitewashed, not wanting to appear too Asian to non-Asians, wanting to feel more Asian?

Reflecting on my adolescence, I unconsciously but definitely separated my Asian and my white friends because it felt like two different sides of me. When I found myself in a predominantly East Asian-American community in Seattle, it was the first time I realized Asian-American culture was even a thing. While it felt like belonging in some ways, these people are just like me, it also felt like learning a new language. I didn’t have a history of ‘universal’ experiences to relate to my new Asian-American friends until my 20s, like eating beloved foods (Korean BBQ or bubble tea or phở) or even shopping at familiar grocery stores (99 Ranch or H-Mart or Costco). It’s taken me a long time to see the ways that/in which growing up in a predominantly white town heavily influenced how I carry myself, see myself, and created my ability to code-switch amongst friend groups.

How displacing is it to be with people who look like you and still feel like you’re lacking something?

Generations of Asian culture reinforce that we must bury our shame and disappointment deep, to hide it so that no one will know or suspect it. Men and women are both taught to suffer in silence, but especially so in a society that doesn’t value their voices.

My heart breaks when I think about the buried shame immigrant mothers specifically carry, the lengths they’ll go to for their children to not suffer through the same hardships. Mothers who put their own dreams and aspirations aside entirely, working without complaint, so that the next generation might be welcomed as more valuable members of society. We strive for acceptance and recognition in silence, failing to find it because we’re working in a system that was exclusively built for the success of white males. We don’t choose erasure –– it was already chosen for us. And we carry those systemic failures as our own shame, gaslighting ourselves until we forget we weren’t the ones responsible.

Although I’m wrestling through a lot of my own internalized shame and personal critiques of the Western church, I still consider myself as part of the Christian faith. So especially with growing rhetoric about the shooter’s sexual ‘addiction’, I want to emphasize how purity culture can create a deeply embedded and hidden shame for churchgoers. When I look at the response of American churches and leaders this week, I’m disappointed yet unsurprised by how many chose silence amidst violence. As if churches don’t have the power to help move congregations towards empathy, to question and reform bad religion, to provide spaces for healing or platforms for sharing. As if they’ve forgotten what their commitments to antiracism meant after the heat of last summer faded away. As if they think it’s healthy to allow men to blame women for failing to keep them on an impossible level of sexual moral ground, and ask women to carry their shame in silence. Tacit compliance only adds to the dehumanization, fetishization, sexualization, and violence perpetrated against Asian women.

So, if you call yourself a Christian (and especially if you’re in a position of church leadership) I ask you this: if you believe in the God of the Scriptures that fully knows, radically loves, and has purposely formed every human being –– why do you not also embody His heart for justice for your AAPI sisters and brothers?

Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ. (Galatians 6:2)

I’m tired of feeling sad. I don’t have any solutions. This week, I allowed myself to cry in bed and feel every emotion deeply in my bones instead of pretending I was fine. I took a few days off and let exhaustion wash through my body, hoping to wake up the next day feeling less triggered by anything and everything. I’m finding immense solace in collective mourning, and grieving that we are processing so much individually. I’m constantly scrolling through a feed filled with pretty but seemingly meaningless posts, trying to not psychoanalyze and overthink why someone did or didn’t share a post. Are you paying attention? Are you worried about saying something wrong so saying nothing at all? Are you feeling awkwardly unaffected and uncomfortable because people expect you to? Do you even care?

I’m also tired of feeling angry. Not because it’s not valid, but because frankly, it’s exhausting and not a feeling I’m used to sitting in. Without completely diminishing my feelings, I’m also hopeful and ready to engage with anyone who genuinely wants to dialogue about these topics. I must also come to terms with knowing not everyone will reach out or want to talk about these issues. It’s an incomprehensible reality: even though Asian-Americans are being seen in this moment, we’re still asking for acceptance and visibility in a white society — one that has never fully accepted us as one of their own, yet has always expected us to blend in.

To my AAPI sisters that stand with me, I love you so much. I hope you are all able to heal, release, and process in whatever way you need to. And to everyone else, I love you too and hope you can see how absolutely valuable, worthy, beautiful, and powerful Asian women are. Our identities and voices and stories have been quiet for far too long. It’s empowering to be able to give just one of those stories a voice today.

I honor and weep for those whose stories were silenced too soon.*

*I’m choosing to not list out the victims’ names to respect the wishes for privacy from some of the families, but if you feel so compelled and are able to support them monetarily, you can do so on GoFundMe.

Designer, photographer, writer.