I am Not. . . & Who I Am: Reflecting Images of Asian American Women
Iowa State University
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Racism and sexism are interconnected organisms that work simultaneously to shape the ways in which women of color are represented through the media. Asian American women students, in particular, are confronted with subservient, hypersexualized, and model-minority stereotypes in relation to the intersections of raced, gendered, and sexual identities (Cho, 2003). While it has been documented that Asian American women face sexual harassment and other overt aspects of oppression (Cho, 2003), further exploration of the more subtle, but equally potent, forms of racism and sexism are needed. In many ways, Asian American women face images regarding their perceived subservient roles through mainstream media.
Dodging, Weaving, and Self-Healing: A Non-Linear Exploration of Identity
Using Critical Race Feminism, the understanding that historical contexts and present realities for women of color are entwined with sexism and racism, this article seeks to explore common and public images and my personal experience as an Asian American woman. At times, racism and sexism are separate beasts; when combined they form a larger monster that pushes women of color down to limit their voices and to hide their truths. In this piece, I chose to use Google searches and images to demonstrate stereotypes and issues connected to Asian American women. Part of this work utilized critical visual and textual studies (Fairclough & Wodak, 1997; Foucault, 1977; Van Dijk, 2009), and the understanding that significant social practices and power dynamics, including racism and sexism, are included in visual and textual discourse (Rose, 2007). This work includes aspects of visual autoethnography. Regardless of the research method, this piece centers on personal reflections based on many interactions with dominant members of society, including White people and men of color.
I write this deeply personal reflexive list as a way to challenge scholarly practitioners to think about how the media presents Asian American women, including myself, and to challenge individuals’ stereotypes connected to Asian American women’s identities. This list is very different than traditional forms of research or scholarship in which a linear thought process is presented. There is no a singular idea that one should expect. I intentionally wrote this list using bullets because I felt as though I get pelted by racism, sexism, and other forms of oppression. The words and ideas are thrown at me in a nonlinear format and it feels as though it is coming from a place that I cannot see.
At times, the bullets create wounds and I think the cuts have healed and formed scars that protect. However, a word, a phrase, or even a look can open up the wounds. As a student, my focus should be on learning. As an Asian American woman who is a student, my focus cannot solely be on learning. The bullets shift my attention; I must learn to dodge, weave, and selfheal to stay in school. In many ways, images of Asian American women have influenced how others view us. I am not only my race and gender, but I am shaped by those identities and so much more. I share with you what I am and what I am not in hopes you’ll come to reflect on what you think of me and others around you.
- I am not a model minority. Sadly, this is the starting point for any issue regarding Asian Americans. This is a burden created by a White male journalist from the 1960’s (Peterson, 1966) and it continues to annoy me. If you remember nothing else, forget about the model minority (Chou & Feager, 2008).
- I am not a tiger mom—and do not plan on being a tiger mom. I was not raised by a tiger mom. I was raised by my mom, who loves me very much. Her nimble fingers from the many years of toiling in a sewing factory meant that I saw little of her. But every stitch, every hem, was done with love.
- I can do math because I learned arithmetic. I liked math until I was told that women were not good in math and science. So, as an Asian American woman, should I be in math or should I dislike it? Which stereotype wins? No, really, you tell me.
- I don’t know kung fu, karate, or any other form of martial arts.
- I can make fried rice, I learned from my mom. But I got plenty of recipes from Pinterest. Just like I got the recipe for avocado egg salad and fried pork chops. I do not make sushi. I cannot make Pho. And no, I do not think this is authentic “Asian” food that Panda Express is serving. A doctor telling me Chinese food is unhealthy or that I should eat less rice will be ignored.
- I made a pretty assistant for the White man in a lab. I’m the pretty Asian friend in the residence hall. In college viewbooks, which are the first images higher education institutions provide to prospective students, Asian (American) women are perceived as window dressing. You may see someone who looks like me, but you probably would not see me in a leadership role or a central member of the institution (Osei-Kofi, Torres, & Lui, 2012).
- My English is not good. I speak English well. And no, I won’t say something to you in another language.
- I’ve become a skilled conversationalist. It is not rude to ask me a question, ‘Where are you from?’ It can get annoying because you’re the 39384399038th person to ask me that.
- I say ‘I’m from California.’
- You say, ‘Where are you really from?’
- I say ‘I’m really from San Francisco.’
- ‘Ummm, what about your parents?’
- ‘Are you trying to ask me about my ethnicity? If I told you my family is from Hong Kong, would you know how to locate it on a map? If I told you that Hong Kong was a British colony until 1997, would that mean anything to you? What about you? Where are you from?’
- ‘I’m from here.’
- ‘I believe you so, why don’t you believe me when I say I’m from here too?
- I’m an excellent teacher because I’m constantly sharing what is missing from textbooks. The incidents connected to Vincent Chin, Rape of Nanking, The Betrayal, Anna May Wong to Lucy Liu, railroads, internment camps, the refugees and undocumented people, I must be the “expert” because who else will teach it?
My Sexuality does not Belong to you. It Belongs to me.
It’s sad how when you Google Asian women, all you see is heteronormative, hypersexual ‘fetishes and fantasies’ driven by capitalism. These images, of traditional college age Asian American women create a false sense of what Asian (American) women should be. I should be slender, with large breasts, and fulfill your fantasy. But this image was not created by me. I am not a woman in your pornography collection and I will NOT love you long time.
- I am not a China doll nor a geisha. Although others have taken my ancestors’ clothes and slapped a new name and call it chinoiserie. This is not the first time someone has taken something from the ‘East’ and changed it into a capitalistic transaction, but you’ve changed a beautiful artifact into an aesthetics of exoticism (Porter, 2002). Victoria Secret has developed a ‘Go East’ collection, a lingerie line that even caused Fox News to pose the question: ‘is this racism?’ (McHay, 2012).
- I do not know any exotic dances to entice you or your partner. I am not a sexual nymph sent from the East to ravish you. I am not a mail order bride that you can use your Diners Club card to purchase (Lee, 2009).
Despite what Google suggests…
- My hair is long, black, and shiny. No, I cannot tell you what hair straightener I use. I got it from my mom and dad. Ask them! Do not tap on my shoulder in a classroom to ask about my hair. I am here to learn. So, really, back off.
- I am neither tiny nor petite and I am not bigger than you assumed I would be. I am the perfect size for me.
- My skin color is not flawless, hairless, nor medium beige according to L’oreal or Bare Mineral. My skin changes with the season, and no, I do not spray tan.
- My lips are full, and they belong to me and not to you. I love my spirit, my body, and yes, even my hair. No, I have not injected my lips with Botox. I pout when you say ignorant things because my words are not heard. Every time I lick my lips, it’s not a form of seduction, but a way to re-moisturize my lips. I bite my lips to stop myself from saying angry things, because words can never fully express my pain.
I am an Asian American Woman
I am concerned with stereotypes. I do want to build coalitions to combat issues surrounding Asian American women.
- Being an Asian American woman in college…Depression is a secret and I wonder if student health and mental health professionals can help Asian American women (Cress & Ikeda, 2003). Are you ready for me? Are you prepared to learn from me and my pain? Does any mental health professional look like me? Talk like me? Face the same issues I meet?
- Asian American women are in need of scholarships. Not all of us drive a BMW, walk around with Louis Vuitton purses, and wear Louboutins (Hu, 1989).
- I am not that nice. I think you’re choosing not to hear the sarcasm in my voice nor acknowledge my eye rolling. You say the word nice, because you know of nothing else of me. Am I not brave? Am I not well spoken? Am I anything else? The word nice becomes a shield for you to disregard my ideas and my worth.
- I am not from the orient: I am neither a rug nor a ramen flavor. I believe orientalism is alive and well (Said, 1978). The privileging of the West and the condescending looks of the East should not surprise anyone.
- I am an Asian American woman, pursuing a Ph.D. and not waiting to get my M R S degree.
- I am an Asian American woman, with love for those around me and frustration for those who seek to push me aside and tell me who I am.
I am a student, learning from others and sharing my experiences. I am striving to learn despite the stares and the whispers. I am not an ‘other;’ I am me. I cannot check off a box on your form because I do not belong in a box. I am too unique to fit into a stereotype. I am more than all the stereotypes combined. I am a student. I am an Asian American woman.
In many ways, Asian American women are not alone in their struggles. I have witnessed other women of color get yelled at and harassed, whether it’s the sexy Latina, angry Black woman, or wise and sexual indigenous women, the stereotypes are quite old. Some of us laugh, because we have no other responses. Others use the opportunities to educate. I stand in solidarity with these women, holding their hands, smiling because I do not feel alone. I am standing with them, screaming, “I’m not that! I am me!”
- What are some overt stereotypes of Asian/ Asian American women? What are more covert and less obvious stereotypes of Asian/Asian American women?
- How do stereotypes of Asian/Asian American women impact the campus? As a scholarly practitioner, what stereotypes do you believe in?
- What are other stereotypes of women of color that are readily seen in media and college campuses?
- How do we educate students on the dangers and challenges of believing in stereotypes about Asian/Asian American women and other racially minoritized students?
- What images of Asian Americans or other minoritized populations represent a false identity?
Cho, S.K. (2003). Converging stereotypes in racialized sexual harassment: Where the model minority meets Suzie Wong. In A.K. Wing (Ed.), Critical race feminism: A reader (pp. 349- 366). New York, NY: New York University Press.
Chou, R.S. & Feagin, J.R. (2008). The myth of the model minority: Asian Americans facing racism.
Boulder, CO: Paradigm Publishers. Cress, C. M., & Ikeda, E. K. (2003). Distress under duress: The relationship between campus climate and depression in Asian American college students. NASPA Journal, 40(2), 74 -97.
Fairclough, N., and R. Wodak. (1997). Critical discourse analysis. In T. van Dijk, Discourse as social interaction, (pp. 258–284). London: Sage.
Foucault, M. (1977). Discipline and punish: The birth of the prison. London: Allen Lane.
Hu, A. (1989). Asian Americans: Model minority or double minority? Amerasia Journal, 15(1), 243-257.
Lee, H. (2009, June 18th). Get your Vietnamese bride now: Only $167 per month. Retrieved from http://colorlines.com/archives/2009/06/vietnamese_bride_only_167_per.html.
McKay, H. (2012). Is Victoria’s Secret ‘Go East’ Geisha-themed lingerie racist? Retrieved on October 11, 2012. Retrieved at .
Osei-Kofi, N., Torres, L. E., & Lui, J. (2012). Practices of whiteness: Racialization in college admissions viewbooks. Race, Ethnicity, and Education.
Peterson, W. (1966, January 9). Success story: Japanese American style. The New York Times Magazine. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/pages/magazine/index.html
Porter, D. (2002). Monstrous beauty: Eighteenth-century fashion and the aesthetics of the Chinese taste. Eighteenth-Century Studies, 35(3), 395-411.
Rose, G. (2007). Visual methodologies: An introduction to the interpretation of visual materials. (2nd Ed.). London: Sage.
Said, Edward W. (1978). Orientalism. New York, NY: Pantheon Books
Swarns, R. L. (March 30, 2012). For Asian-American couples, a tie that binds. The New York Times. Retrieved from.
Van Dijk, T.A. (2009). Critical discourse studies: A sociocognitive approach. In R. Wodak & M. Meyer, Methods of critical discourse analysis (pp. 62–86). Los Angeles, CA: SAGE.
About the Author
Joyce Lui is a doctoral candidate at Iowa State University, in the Higher Education, Social Justice Program. Her research interests include Asian American students, women of color students, arts based research, and community colleges and the transfer pathways. She earned her Masters in Postsecondary Educational Leadership, Student Affairs at San Diego State University. She graduated from University of California, San Diego with Baccalaureates in Economics and Sociology. More than her scholarship, she is a woman, a partner, a daughter, a sister, an aunt, a friend, and a foodie.
Please e-mail Inquiries to Joyce Lui.
The ideas expressed in this article are not necessarily those of the Developments editorial board or those of ACPA members or the ACPA Governing Board, Leadership, or International Office Staff.