To All the Boys Who’ve “Loved” Me Before
“Aren’t the Vietnamese so beautiful?” my friend exclaimed in the car ride home, reading a notification on her phone. She’d posted a photo of me at dinner on her Instagram story, and one of her followers responded to it with this supposed compliment.
She laughed, but my stomach turned.
At best, it’s weird to generalise an entire ethnic group and ascribe beauty to the millions of people in it. But racial microaggressions are so pervasive and automatic in daily interactions they’re often dismissed and glossed over as being innocuous. After all, the follower just meant I’m attractive, right?
Recently, a taxi driver asked me about my ethnicity. When I answered, he responded, “Ah! That’s why you look beautiful. I’ve heard Vietnam has the most beautiful women.” In the past month, two people have asked me at the bar if I wanted to be their “first Asian.” Last night, a cashier at the gas station awed about how “foreign” I appear to be. I receive remarks like this so often they shouldn’t bother me anymore, but perhaps it’s because they’re so commonplace I can’t ignore them.
It’s frustrating when my identity as an Asian woman is the only driving factor in my interaction with someone and they have no interest in who I am beyond their racist, misogynist perceptions of me.
When a compliment about my physical appearance reverts back to my ethnicity, it’s no longer a compliment. And when it’s given by a man, especially a white man, it’s offensive and almost threatening. I’m forced to relive traumatic sexual and predatory experiences motivated by the outdated equation of Asian women to exotic goods on the Silk Road. In a colonial nutshell, we’ve become desirable due to an exotic aesthetic and a need for white men to exploit or exercise control over the Other.
In other words, we’re like a porcelain vase: decorative and delicate. Our bodies are merely a commodity white men are entitled to conquer.
“We are largely invisible when it comes to politics and popular culture, yet there’s a very palpable urban myth that Asian women make better lovers than other women.”
It’s important to consider the implications of these sexual politics and how they play out in a society where white men have always had the virtue of status in contrast to Asian women. More often than not, we’re perceived as second-class citizens.
When a BBC News interview with political analyst Robert Kelly went viral in 2017 after his child and Korean wife ran into the room, many viewers were quick to assume his wife was a nanny or caretaker whom he would fire. Such conclusions play into a larger, harmful narrative that Asian women are subservient and lack agency — and the narrative perverts into a notion that Asian women are also submissive, docile, and eager to please in the bedroom. Somehow, we’re weak and gentle at the same time we’re hypersexual.
Debbie Lum, director of the documentary Seeking Asian Female and the web series They’re All So Beautiful, observes: “We are largely invisible when it comes to politics and popular culture, yet there’s a very palpable urban myth that Asian women make better lovers than other women.” A study found we tend to receive disproportionately high interest on online dating platforms. And while this may be taken for flattery, should we be so ready to accept it without surprise or unease?
“The everyday racism and sexism against Asian women yields deadly results, as this dehumanization creates a climate that makes violence excusable: 41 to 61 percent of Asian women report experiencing physical and/or sexual violence by an intimate partner during their lifetime. This is significantly higher than any other ethnic group.”
An attraction to one or few individuals shouldn’t relay back to an admiration for the entire ethnic group they belong to. Yet this discrimination toward Asian women is so normalized, and even seen as positive, that self-proclaimed “yellow fever” has become a joke or an advantage for some men.
It’s reflected in things like Asian-specific dating platforms, sex tourism in Asia, and the mail-order bride industry. Each commercialize Asian women as bodies available for sex without resistance and unworthy of anything else but a singular use and function. They devalue the control we have over our bodies and sexualities, and excuse sexual violence against us.
According to the National Network to End Domestic Violence, “The everyday racism and sexism against Asian women yields deadly results, as this dehumanization creates a climate that makes violence excusable: 41 to 61 percent of Asian women report experiencing physical and/or sexual violence by an intimate partner during their lifetime. This is significantly higher than any other ethnic group.” Notably, Vietnamese women report the highest partner abuse prevalence rates.
Still, the underlying racism and sexism toward Asian women that makes way for this is often taken with a light heart and disguised as part of a model minority myth or an alleged affinity for Asian cultures. But a fascination with Asian culture and media often translates to a fetishization of Asian women.
The proliferation of Japanese manga and anime has led to hentai, a subgenre with sexually explicit plots and representations of Japanese women, being an entire section on many pornography sites. Similarly, an increasingly pervasive fixation on Korean pop culture and the popularity of Vietnamese women as import models or mail-order brides have impelled the brazen sexualization of Korean and Vietnamese women respectively.
Interestingly enough, in the mid-20th century, Korean and Vietnamese women were exoticized by American soldiers who fought in Korea and Vietnam and used their power to take advantage of the local women.
Wartime narratives have constructed these women to be damsels in distress who were in need of white saviours. In the classic musical Miss Saigon, a young Vietnamese sex worker is saved by and, in turn, subservient to an American soldier. A blog post on The Body Is Not An Apology describes, “The problem of Miss Saigon [and narratives like it] is that it makes us believe that we are worthless, that it is only through the white lover’s touch that we may be conferred a fuller humanity.” However, the reality is that Asian women were forced to serve soldiers sexually. By the end of the Vietnam War itself, approximately three hundred thousand South Vietnamese women were coerced into a militarised sex industry.
Conquests in Asian countries created a stereotype of Asian women as powerless and fragile, yet excitingly dangerous and the very objects of conquest itself. This stereotype is immortalized in North American culture and media. Despite the historical nuances, an article on Everyday Feminism notes, “Asian women from different places end up homogenized and literally depicted as ornamental objects for the sole purpose of White men’s pleasure.”
In the film Wedding Crashers, Vince Vaughn famously screams, “That was my first Asian!” to glorify sex with an Asian woman as a milestone, and to reveal ironically the only criterion to have sex with a white man as an Asian woman is to be, well, an Asian woman. When Netflix released the film To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before last summer, Peter Kavinsky became an overnight heartthrob — but his interest in Lara Jean Covey, played by a Vietnamese actress, could only be understood by fans as a young boy’s fascination with Asian women rather than her real, complex, and multifaceted individuality. Covey is reduced to a perfect example of a one-dimensional Asian woman trope. Her only clear character traits are shy and hypersexual.
Many video games also perpetuate a one-dimensional, hypersexualized Asian woman trope. The most well-known is Street Fighter’s Chun-Li, who has recently been revived in pop culture via Nicki Minaj’s music video named after the character herself. Minaj dances in Chun-Li’s overtly sexualized costume and underpins almost three decades of perturbing fantasy around this character.
But fantasies, as explained in The Bold Italic, “by definition are unrealistic, irrational, and not meant to be sustained.”
To all the boys who’ve “loved” me before: your supposed compliments aren’t separate from a continuum of stereotyping, hypersexualization, dehumanization, discrimination, and sexual violence.
Exotifying and fantasizing over someone based on their ethnicity, a part of their identity they have no control over, isn’t as simple as a personal preference or sexual kink. There’s a problem if you’re solely interested in the idea of anyone’s identity, projecting your ideal behaviours and attributes onto them, and expecting them to fulfill the stereotypes you’re infatuated with — let alone doing so to an entire ethnic group.
When I was younger, I worried you wouldn’t “love” me because of my skin colour. I thought if you could, it’d be despite that. But now, when you do, it’s difficult to disarticulate it from that.
“Aren’t the Vietnamese so beautiful?”
Look a little deeper.