Last week I was racially assaulted near my home in south London. I walked away, face burning, as the thirtysomething white man made “Ching chong” noises, his friend beside him laughing. I avoided looking up at the group of skaters, and the couples going about their day who had witnessed the interaction, but were in no mood to get involved.
The sad truth is this was not a surprise to me. Just minutes before, I’d read a text from a friend saying she had been called a “Chinese c*nt” in the street. Not long before that, my sister had described to me how a taxi driver said he couldn’t let a Chinese person in the car (it was “his livelihood after all”). I’ve grown up in a body that has been criticised and othered; where racial slurs and yells of “ni hao! / konnichiwa baby!” were routine from adult men as I walked home in my school uniform.
I am a mixed race, half white. My proximity to whiteness and native English has protected me from some of the most brutal treatment, but my Asianness still seemed to precede me, causing teachers to yell the name of the only other Asian girl in the class at me, and evoke a number of the classics from my peers: “Do you eat dogs?” / “I heard Chinese girls have sideways vaginas.” Shamefully, I did what I could to diminish any part of myself that seemed foreign. As anti-Asian incidents were not met with the same condemnation as with other types of racism, we knew it wouldn’t serve us to call out or report it.
The narrative around the Coronavirus pandemic, or “the Kung Flu”, as it was popularised by the former President of the United States, exacerbated the hatred directed at people of Asian heritage in the UK and USA. Reports of COVID-related hate crimes towards East and Southeast Asian people since the start of the pandemic have increased by 300 percent. Anti-Asian racism on Twitter has increased by 900 per cent. Many Asian people close to me have described train carriages emptying around them, as people scatter at the sight of someone who might be Chinese. Asian friends have been spat on and pushed.
This surge in violence over the past year is rooted in a dehumanisation of Asianness that I have felt my whole life. Yells of “chink” and worse were a regular occurrence by the time I hit teenagedom. But I never thought to call this out. Why would I? Asian characters on TV were there to be laughed at, and so was I. Frankly, I struggle to think of an Asian role model from films or TV from my childhood. If an Asian character showed up in a film, I cringed, waiting for the punchline. As young Asian children growing up in the west and absorbing its culture, we watched the impotent Asian stooges with exaggerated accents, and hyper-sexualised Asian temptresses, wondering where we fitted in, and why our characters seemed to lack the nuance of their white leads. A recent post by Diet Prada calls on various Hollywood tropes, including the “Me So Horny - Love You Long Time” scene in Full Metal Jacket; Fook “Mi” and Fook “Yu”, the Japanese twins in Austin Powers who offer him a ‘secret massage’; Mean Girls’ Trang Pak, who bears little significance in the film other than to seduce the gym teacher.
All forms of misogyny are harmful to people of any gender, as they reduce the status of women and uphold rigid modes of masculinity. But fetishisation of Asians positions Asian people as a mere accessory, an exotic experience, stripped of human depth. The most confusing thing about the issue of racial fetishisation is that it is posed as a compliment. If you can’t be respected, maybe being desired was the next best thing?
The tragic murders which took place in Asian Spas in Atlanta last week, killing eight people, six of whom were Asian women, sent shockwaves around the world. I broke down when I heard the news about my Asian sisters who were going about their lives, making a living as their families waited for them at home, slain like livestock. But when you consider the backdrop of the ubiquitous media depiction of Asian women as sexually immoral, a living joke, how surprised can you be? “Not quite the happy ending they were expecting,” someone commented on social media, alongside a chorus of many similar online responses online, alongside the tragic breaking news. These narratives validate subhuman treatment - manifesting in a spectrum of responses, from subtle and covert everyday aggressions, to murder.
So where do we go from here? I’m sure that many white people and allies to people of colour feel guilty for not sensing this problem sooner. Personally, I don’t want anyone to waste their energy feeling guilty. Do stand up for us, call out racism in all its forms, and question your own assumptions. This is a plea and not a call-out. When I first shared my story a week ago on Instagram, the responses that stung me like an arrow in my heart were from Asian parents, terrified for their babies and young children who are growing up into a world where they would have their characters reduced, they would be abused. Readdressing media depictions and Hollywood stereotypes is going to play a key role in changing this harmful narrative that has been consumed for too long.
If I could meet my teenage self, I would tell her to be proud, to boast about the food she loves to eat at home, to stare defiantly at the kids who made comments about her eyes and grant herself the kindness she would anyone else. To my Asian brothers and sisters: you are beautiful, you are whole, and you are not alone.
Artwork | Charlotte Mei / @charlottemei_