Jin Ha in the 2017 production of M. Butterfly at NYC’s Cort Theater. Photo: Matthew Murphy

A man was shouting from his car. “Hey! Lucy Liu!”

My name is not Lucy Liu, but I knew instantly that he was talking to me. I pretended I couldn’t hear.

“Come on now, beautiful geisha,” he tried again. Pulling up next to me, he leaned toward the passenger side window.

“Where are you coming from?” he asked, smiling.

My mind raced. It was 2am in Washington Heights, and I was still 5 blocks from home. I smiled and played along.

I was meeting friends downtown. Yes, it is very late, isn’t it? 4 blocks. I’m a freshman at NYU, studying finance. Haha, yes I certainly hope that I’m good at math. 3 blocks. I’m from Connecticut. Hmm? Yes, originally from China. 2 blocks. You like anime? Which ones? 1 block. My English is good? Thank you so much. Home. Door. I had already fished out my keys from my bag.

“Well, good night!” I said, as chirpily as I could.

“Wait, that’s it?” He said, incredulous.

“I’m sorry, I’m not interested. Good night.” I turned the key and opened the door to the building lobby.

“Stupid fucking bitch!” He yelled after me.

The front door was heavy and slammed shut quickly, but I could still hear his last words.

“Get out of my country!”

I was only 17 then, but I knew why he was so angry. I gave someone their Asian Dream Girl, then took her away.

Asian Dream Girl doesn’t need to actually be from Asia, but she looks like she could be (any one of the 48 countries on the continent will do). She is soft-spoken and refined; a modern day princess-and-the-pea damsel. She’s petite and willowy, much smaller in stature than her man. And it’s always a bonafide man she wants — someone bigger and stronger who can protect her. She defers to him. After all, how else could such a delicate snow lily survive?

There are so many men looking for their Asian Dream girl; they’re often so excited that they’ll instantly identify any Asian-looking women they see as their snow lily. They’ll usually outright declare that they “love Asian women”. They’re really into “your culture” (you know, the culture…of Asia). They’re far too “sophisticated” to go for a Kim Kardashian or a Nicki Minaj (because they want a woman they can “handle”). They know a smattering of words across multiple Asian languages that they will share at random intervals (“Arigato! Ni hao! Kanpai!”). They’ll constantly comment on your size — specifically how “small” and “cute” you are (and how much bigger they are by extension).

At the end of the day, you’re not really a person, but just filling up an Asian-Dream-Girl-shaped hole in their lives. Your existence is crucial to their identity because it helps make them feel more like the men that our culture often tells them they should be — bigger, stronger, and more dominant.

It’s your standard issue toxic masculinity, but with the performance-enhancing additions of racism and romanticized colonialism. These are men who have absorbed the toxic values of what it means to be “real men.” It’s injected with the idea of being “bigger,” because as much as it is about dominating Asian women, it’s also about putting down Asian men (who, by extension, are “smaller”, “passive”, and “less manly”). It’s all wrapped in a gauzy bow of nostalgic colonial imagery — beautiful geishas serving men in Western uniform, rescuing exotic damsels from “savages”, being the single man in power surrounded by the women of color that you rule over.

All Asian women understand this, and we’ll play along when we need to. Asian Dream Girl might not be real, but she is safe. She’s admired and worth protecting. The labels reserved for the “wrong” kinds of Asian women— women who are fat, LGBTQ+ women, women in charge, women who, let’s say, massage strangers in day spas — are much more dangerous. Awkward nerd. Ladyboy. The help. Dragon lady. Me-love-you-long-time whore.

We maintain the illusion of Asian Dream Girl to avoid those labels, even though we also understand that it’s a fickle thing; the mirage vanishes as soon as you show your own humanity. As it turns out, it’s a pretty quick ride from “Lucy Liu, the beautiful geisha” to “stupid fucking bitch”.

This is why, for many of us in the Asian American community, the Atlanta shootings were devastating but not surprising. From the moment Donald Trump called coronavirus “Kung Flu,” we held our breaths. As violence escalated in our communities, we tried to raise the alarm. No one came. In September 2020, with violence against Asian Americans on the upswing, the vast majority of Republicans voted against a bill to condemn Asian American racism calling it “ridiculous” and “a waste of time.” Trump explicitly stated that he would continue calling it the Chinese Virus “for accuracy.” Democrats, for all the glitter and Funfetti they threw in the air about diversity, still don’t widely acknowledge the diversity within the vast Asian American voting bloc. They were empty words, and it showed when they lost roughly 1/4 of their historically strong Asian American support this past election.

The silence was deafening, and Asian women understood better than anyone what was at stake. We’ve know how many men have racist ideas about us. We’ve experienced firsthand how angry these men can get. What happens now when “Kung Flu” is an acceptable punchline? What happens when the very sight of you triggers thoughts of a pandemic that has killed millions? What happens when people think that you, to some degree, are responsible for it all — the deaths of loved ones, lost jobs, lost time?

What happened in Atlanta gives us a partial, horrifying answer. After all, Asian Dream Girl snow lilies are admired and worth protecting, but dragon ladies are meant to be slain. And make no mistake, if you caused this pandemic, you’re no one’s dream girl. You’re a dragon lady.

You see this in how officials have responded. In a forum to combat and address rising violence, Representative Chip Roy instead chose to rant about the “patently evil” Chinese government. For all his insistence on “accuracy,” Roy has surprisingly no issue conflating China vs. Asia or Chinese vs. Asian or the Chinese government vs. Americans of Asian descent. For Roy, anyone who looks “Asian American” is the same — our safety as Americans isn’t worth his time because we are all responsible for the actions of a foreign government.

(To put Roy’s actions into perspective, imagine this: a hearing is called to discuss the safety of blond-haired, blue-eyed Americans after a series of escalating attacks against them. After hearing several gut-wrenching stories, a legislator takes the floor to rant about free speech and denounce Russian interference in the 2016 election.)

It was this kind of dehumanizing, scapegoating rhetoric that Captain Jay Baker, the police’s spokesman absorbed. A few months earlier, Baker had proudly shared a photo of a t-shirt he owned. It called COVID-19 an “IMPORTED VIRUS FROM CHY-NA”.

Maybe this is why he went on to describe the murder of 8 people as a “bad day”. Maybe it’s why, when the killer described them as “temptations”, he automatically assumed that these women were sex workers— without any evidence of illicit activity at any the targeted businesses. Despite the fact that 6 out of 8 victims were Asian and the killer clearly fetishizing Asian women as “temptations”, Baker insisted that it was not a hate crime. There was nothing racist, after all, about his t-shirt either. It was simply “accurate”.

It’s another crime in and of itself. The murderer took their lives in a racist rage. The racist system that egged him on now wants to take away their humanity. It wants to soften a hate crime — born out of the prolific fetishization of Asian women and the flagrantly racist attempts to conflate the pandemic with people of Asian decent — into a “bad day”.

Don’t let them. Fight for the humanity of those who had their lives stolen. They are not “temptations” or “Asian spa workers.” Their names are Daoyou Feng (冯道友), Hyun Jung Grant (김현정), Suncha Kim (김순자), Soon Chung Park (박순정), Xiaojie “Emily” Tan (谭小洁), and Yong Ae Yue (유용애). Delaina Ashley Yaun and Paul Andre Michels were also victims.

We can’t take their lives back. We can only defend their memories and reaffirm their humanity. Here is the list of all House Representatives who thought that protecting Asian Americans against violence was “a waste of time”. Demand that they acknowledge the diversity within the Asian American voting bloc. Demand that they reject racist phrases that purposely conflate COVID-19 with Americans of Asian descent. Demand an apology for their indifference. Demand that they do better, for all Americans.

Resources:

Stop AAPI Hate: https://stopaapihate.org/actnow/

Stand Against Hatred: https://www.standagainsthatred.org/

Asian Law Caucus: https://www.advancingjustice-alc.org/

Asian Mental Health Collective: https://www.asianmhc.org/

Thoughts on tech, design, and life as a Chinese American cat mom.

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