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“CHINITA! CHINITA!” WAS ALL WE HEARD FROM BELOW OUR DORM WINDOWS WHERE FOUR OF US HAPA HAOLES WERE STUDYING.
Hapa haole, in Hawaiian, means half-white. And it’s assumed the other half is Asian or Pacific Islander. Having never come across another hapa girl since I left Hawaii, it was a small miracle that I just happened to stumble into three of them while studying in Spain.
So naturally, as people do when they look alike, we stuck together. I didn’t know it would cause such a stir in the community, with the entire local soccer team calling after us, or people knowing who and where we were just because we looked different.
That was the first time I was ever referred to by my race. I was 20. And it was always “chinita” or “little Chinese girl” even though I’m not even close to Chinese, and have never been to China.
It was also the first and not the last time I’ve dealt with fetishism, or being the object of sexual attraction just for being Asian.
The fact that I didn’t experience this until I was 20 is sort of puzzling to me, now that I experience it so frequently. Maybe because I was born and raised in Hawaii where everyone looked the same as me. Or maybe because when I moved to mainland America, I Latina-passed, often mistaken for a Mexican in my Texas town. But for some reason, in Spain, I was all of a sudden Asian. I think that’s the first time I was really recognized for that part of myself.
And the recognition was something like a fascination, an adoration, it’s something I didn’t mind. Although, I genuinely didn’t understand the captivation of my looks and had never been followed in the streets before.
Going on to travel throughout Europe, Africa, and Asia, being Asian has never worked against me in terms of treatment abroad. The fact that I’m half-White is a privilege in and of itself, especially because this makes me racially ambiguous. Being ambiguous means people can’t place you, and therefore have no preconceived stereotypes upon your first interaction. I can confidently say, I’ve never experienced racism really anywhere I’ve traveled. Unless you count the girl in Guatemala who pulled her eyes back with her fingers so she can slant them like mine. Or in Cuba when someone asked me if I ate dog (This question has always confused me, because firstly, I have never seen this before, and secondly people ask me this as they’re eating goat or cow head or pig, which eat their own feces. What determines a specific meat as “off limits”?). Despite the curious and slightly offensive questions, it never bothered me enough to affect how I interacted with that person. The only problem I’ve ever encountered while traveling was being fetishized. And the place I’ve felt it the most has been in The United States.
I think in Spain I didn’t realize it, but the key to being fetishized is traveling in a group of Asians. As a solo Asian woman, I’ve never had a problem. But two or more Asian girls together, the sexual attention is a hundred-fold. I’m not sure what it is about the group, or maybe I’m not Asian enough to be fetishized solo, but I’ve only experienced this traveling with 2 or more Asian women.
For example, traveling in the south of France, a Korean friend and I went to a bar after celebrating the Monaco Grand Prix finale. A British man struck up conversation, but when the conversation started dying, we decided to exit by going to the restroom. As we walk out, we find him standing outside the women’s stalls with his pants down and his penis exposed. Was this because we were Asian? Maybe, maybe not. But I assumed this because of my experiences when I’m with other young Asian women in The United States, where people are much more direct about their fetishes.
ONLY IN THE UNITED STATES HAVE I FELT DOWNRIGHT DISGUSTED OR ENDANGERED FOR BEING ASIAN.
Having sushi and sake with a Japanese friend, two men saunter over, pay for our meal, then ask:
Is it true that Asian women have horizontal slanting vaginas?
I actually don’t know where this rumor came about, but since then I’ve been asked this question about a dozen times by different men. For the record, Asian vaginas are anatomically the same as every other woman. I also don’t know why a horizontal slanting vagina would be attractive? Does it feel better?
Is it true it’s extra tight?
They went on, either not noticing or caring how uncomfortable this was making us feel. Well, I’ve never stuck anything up any other woman, so I have nothing to compare it to. But just because a woman’s frame is small, doesn’t mean it correlates to the holes inside of her. Again, this rhetoric is something I’ve heard multiple times since then.
In college, fetishism has gotten downright dangerous for me. A 230-pound athlete flirted with me in the cafeteria, asking leading questions towards a date. Knowing this person exclusively dates Asian girls, I said no. It was clear why he was attracted to me and it wasn’t for my brain. Maybe my rejection was an ego bruise, but it resulted in a flurry of loud Asian slurs that attracted an audience. I had never experienced this before. But this was not the first time I’ve had to fight a man. So it seemed natural to recite similar slurs back to him, since we were going there.
I think he was mostly shocked those words came out of my mouth. Is it because Asians are supposed to be domicile and submissive? He then threw a drink at my face. Did I mention it was also my birthday? I blacked out. There was scuffle, I pulled out a knife, other people got involved, the police were called. One of us was no longer welcome at school.
I was confused why these experiences kept happening. What was the origin of these stereotypes? Why was I being asked about my sexual make-up? Where did the fascination come from? Who gave them the confidence to ask that? And also, do other women experience this?
Walking into Phuket, Thailand, I immediately felt it: the raunchy sexual lawlessness of the area. But it wasn’t until night fall that I actually saw it. Sitting on a rooftop bar, counting with my friends how many Asian women paired with White men were walking below on the streets holding hands or making out. Why always White? Some of the Asian women were obviously men or lady-boys. Did the tourists walking next to them know? They had to know. Of course they knew.
Dodging these people back out on the street, we were bombarded with offers to see a ping-pong show. I don’t even play ping-pong, so I kept saying no. Until someone pulled out a menu.
“What’s this?” I asked.
“All the things you can see.”
As I was perusing the 30-item list, I saw ‘ping-pong’, ‘fish’, ‘12-foot chain’, ‘candle’, ‘bird’, ‘birthday cake’. None of these words had any correlation to each other. What does it mean? I looked up and saw the street man point to his privates. I was equal parts confused and curious, so I said…
“Yea, let’s do it.”
After negotiating a suitable price for this unknown experience, my friends and I were escorted into a dark room. There was a swinging door next to the parlor where screams and cheering were coming through the slit. I wondered what was going on. Then the door swung open. Neon lights lit up the stage. It was like a strip club, except the women on stage were exclusively Thai. The women were older and it was clear they had already had children since their stomach skin sagged as they danced around the pole.
On one end of the stage was a naked woman. On the opposite edge was a silver metal bucket. Men and women were cheering her on as she put ping-pong balls up her vagina and shot them into the bucket. When a ping-pong would land in the bucket, she would laugh. It seemed like she was enjoying herself.
Then someone pulled out a camera.
She slapped him across the face and told him to put the camera away. He did. Until the next time she pulled out of her vagina a seemingly never-ending metal chain and clanked it against the pole. He tried to take a picture again, despite the many warnings and signs to not pull out your cell phone. He was then escorted out, all the while laughing, thinking this was funny.
But the show got even more interesting. Those items on the menu were things she was pulling out of her vagina. I’m not sure how she got it all in there, but I remember feeling fascinated at her skillset. Like, HOW?
Then one woman put a glass Coke bottle on the ground. The bottle was full of clear liquid. She sat on it, sucked it all up with her vagina, and as the liquid streamed back into the Coke bottle, it turned brown, like a real glass of Coke. Then people started to bid for it. A girl paid $100 and gave it to her boyfriend. Was he going to drink it?
My friends and I had seen enough at this point. So we hopped off our bar stools and stumbled into a man below us getting publicly masturbated by one of the women.
I felt so…gross. Don’t get me wrong. It wasn’t the women who grossed me out at all. I actually felt admiration for them. How did they learn to do all of that? And to do it everyday is true skill, determination, entrepreneurship, ambition, I could go on. I was amazed by them. Maybe that is weird to say, but that’s how I felt.
But the AUDIENCE, though. The audience was so fucking despicable. Why couldn’t they see these women were playing into their sickest desires? While the audience thought they were objectifying the strippers, it was the strippers who were the real ones judging. It was as if they were performing in front of a bunch of howling monkeys and the Thai women treated them like wild animals, shooing them, physically and verbally abusing them, not caring about them at all, while the monkeys kept howling. Because, after all, what kind of humane person would be entertained by this?
Retreating back to our hotel, we stood next to a couple on the elevator. We quickly realized we were standing next to the man who got kicked out of the bar and the stripper who slapped him.
It wasn’t until Thailand that I realized where these sexual stereotypes stemmed from. I didn’t know these things happened in the world. You hear about sex tourism on the news, but I had never seen it in real life.
I also never understood why I felt so uncomfortable seeing Asian women with White men and why I’ve felt uncomfortable dating a White man myself. It wasn’t until I realized that it’s impossible to parse out the fetish from actual love with men who have historically used Asian women as sexual slaves. Men have gone to war in the process of colonizing Asian countries, only to come back with Asian wives who were prevented, by either culture or language barrier, to speak on what was happening to them. However, the Asian mentality is so colonized, that I’d bet a lot of those women felt privileged to be with a White man. A White man means economic stability and opportunity compared to their Asian male counterparts who were stuck dealing with the aftermath of wars started by White men. And unfortunately, this process still continues in many Asian countries: where travelers take advantage of economic differences, and continue the sexual oppression that Asian women born in the West may not have ever seen or experienced.
However, the colonist mentality didn’t stay in the East. Standing next to a White man is still seen as a privilege to many Asian families in 2017. I’ve seen Asian families disown their daughters for dating Latino or Black men, but have begrudgingly accepted a White son-in-law, despite him violating basic Asian courtesies, and have even smiled in his face.
Looking around, I see that if Asian women don’t date White, they date within other Asian groups. I wondered if this is because they know other Asians won’t fetishize them? I personally wouldn’t know since an Asian man has never asked me out, always leaving me to wonder if it’s because I’m not Asian enough. Like maybe I’m 30 pounds over what an Asian is supposed to be? Maybe it’s because I don’t speak the language? Maybe I’m just culturally not Asian.
Despite this, when engaging in a romance, an Asian woman will always have to question if it’s out of love or fetish. Can she ever just be loved for who she is?
Moving forward, while I have no profound solution for changing the stigma of being a sexual object, I hope Asian women will use the added attention as learning moments for the people trying to exotify them. And also for allies to question comments made about the sexual nature of Asian women. Asian women should not be defined by sex. Asian women have more to offer than “a few tight holes and a horizontal vagina”.
I know I’ll hear those questions about my private parts again. But I’ve never spoken out against them until now. I just felt lucky that it was something of desire rather than hate. I’ve seen hate in action, and I’m forced to see the glass as half full; as if hate crime and sexual assault are on somehow different levels of the racism spectrum. My culture has made me think I should just be grateful. Just let them admire you, be quiet, don’t complain.
But actually, being fetishized is oppression and inherently racist. It means you’re only worthy if you’re sexually admired, putting value on what they think of you rather than what you think of you, and your value being deemed by your race and what’s in-between your legs, rather than your personality, creativity, or intellect. While others have been silenced with physical slavery and oppression, sexual slavery and oppression are tools being used to silence Asian voices to this day.
FETISHISM IS RACISM. DON’T LET THEM ADMIRE YOU.
Kiona, Ph.D., is an advocate for women, minority populations, and being self-aware and accepting when cultures mix. She believes that if more people traveled, the more humans would have mutual respect for each other and a greater appreciation for the things they have at home; making the world more about love and less about hate. Her blog partners travelers with the best recommendations on how to conquer a country ethically, with minimal hassle and on a budget. You can find her at www.