Messages: On Being an Asian Woman in America

Recently I attended a workshop on racial identity. During the workshop, we were given an exercise which included turning to the person next to us and engaging in a conversation about some of the earliest messages we received about ethnic groups, as a child. My partner in this exercise happened to be a Japanese woman whom I had met on a few occasions but did not know very well. For the purposes of this column, I will call said Japanese woman, Jennifer – not her real name.

As a Korean girl growing up in white suburbia with a white family, the most immediate message that came to mind for me was that Asian women were not attractive. I shared this with Jennifer and she was shocked. Shocked because her experience as a born and bred New York City girl was completely different and the message she received from a very early age was that Asian women were sexy, submissive, demure and wanted. She went on to share with me many experiences of older, white men directly and indirectly hitting on her from a very young age, including teachers. She told me stories of certain teachers who would give her good grades merely for being there and sitting in the front of the room (as requested by them.) Her shock became mine.

Here we were, two Asian women with completely opposite experiences. Jennifer and I both have daughters now and neither of us wants our daughters to have the experiences that we had.

When I was 13, my mom took me to Korea to join a tour group of other adoptive families. On the way, we had a layover in Japan. Firmly stuck in the message that Asian women were not attractive, I remember crystal clearly being blown away at how beautiful the Japanese women in the airport were. I’m pretty sure my mouth had to be picked up off the ground as I was truly stunned over how beautiful they were. And not just some of the women were beautiful – all of them were and the 13 year old self-loathing adoptee teenager that I was, didn’t quite know what to do with this antithetical evidence to the message that Asian women were ugly. So I compartmentalized it. Japan became an anomaly for me – the one place where there were attractive Asian women.

Jennifer has always dated white Jewish men and I have always dated Black and Latino men. For me, it is clear why I never dated Asian men. The message on Asian attractiveness transferred to Asian men, as well. Besides I wasn’t “really” Asian, or so I thought, so why would I want to be seen with an Asian man? (Not that there were many Asian boys where I grew up anyway.) Jennifer still seems to be unpacking why she never dated any Asian men which leads to the second part of the exercise that we did at the racial identity workshop.

The direction for the second part was to explain when the message we discussed in the first part was either confirmed or disaffirmed for us. I am embarrassed to say that it took quite some time for the message to be disaffirmed for me. It’s only been within the last ten plus years or so that I’ve come to fully embrace how beautiful my people are – both women and men. And now I think too much about the fact that I have never dated an Asian man. And I regret it. I regret it because of what it says about me and my experience growing up as an Asian female in a white world. I regret it because, to me, it is clear evidence of the self-hatred that defined my experience as an Asian girl and young woman in America. I regret it because had I not been adopted and instead grown up in Korea, presumably I would have dated Korean men. Everything ties back to that fundamental loss caused by adoption. (And not to worry folks -since I am happily married, this is all being worked out in a novel that I’m writing.)

The message that Jennifer received, of course, continues to be confirmed for her and for me and for probably every Asian woman in America. The Asian fetish/yellow fever is real. And we’ve all experienced some form of it in one way or another. How we learn to navigate it, if we do, is a challenge we hope to lessen for our daughters. Hopefully, the messages we are sending to our daughters (and our sons) is not that Asian women are unattractive nor that we are objects of pure sexual fantasy – but that Asian women are a strong and beautiful force to be reckoned with and respected for who we are and not based on societal messages created from negative stereotypes.

julie square headshot 640

Julie Young

Julie Young is a former litigation attorney and currently works full-time in the nonprofit sector.  Additionally, Julie is a writer and speaker. She serves on the Board of Nazdeek and is an Advisory Board Member of All Together Now.  Julie holds a B.S. degree in Psychology from Fordham University and a J.D. degree from Cardozo School of Law.  She lives in Brooklyn, New York with her husband and twins.