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  • Koreen Liew-Young

You're not like other Asians...

Updated: Oct 16, 2021

So I’m chilling at the bar, sipping my drink when some guy slides up next to me, and whispers into my ear.  “I’m not usually into Asians, but you, you’re not like other Asians.”

There is a suggestive glint in his eye and a smirk out of the corner of his mouth. 

He probably sees me as an exotic easy lay, who’ll jump at any supposedly masculine guy who pays her any attention. I smile at him, pick up my drink and throw it in his face. I whisper back into his ear “No thanks”, turn and walk away.  He just stands there looking back at me in shock.

Or at least that’s how I wish the story went!  But it didn’t.  Instead I just said I wasn’t interested and brushed it off like it was nothing.

Some could argue he might have been giving me a genuine compliment or that I am totally over thinking it. But now that I look back at it, the implication for him was that (he found) Asians were undesirable and I should thank him for not stereotyping me into the same pigeonhole. It was racialised negging.

Pro tip to the single guys: don’t throw a whole race of people under the bus just to impress a girl.

But the other problem was that at the time I didn’t even realise how problematic his statement was.

Unfortunately, my world view was that Chinese were a second-class race and I desperately wanted to distance myself from being Asian as far as I could.  I hate that at times, I would even insult my own race just to feel accepted. I had huge issues with my identity and below are some of the reasons.

Interactions with people

The bar incident wasn’t the first time a guy told me he thought Asians were unattractive. I can recall two occasions when I was growing up and explicitly rejected by boys saying they didn’t want to go out with me due to the stigma of being with an Asian.

You can tell what sort of impact this could have on an adolescent trying to make sense of the world and where they fitted in. I began to believe that being Chinese was a huge negative and like a kid walking 10 steps in front of their parents at the mall, I didn’t want to be associated with something so uncool. Kids just want to fit in and my ethnicity was proving to be a huge barrier to that.

I should add that the flip-side is just as bad; fetishizing Asians doesn’t make it better. Because all I ever wanted was a guy to see me for me rather than whether I could tick the “got with an Asian” box on their sexual scavenger hunt.

And it wasn’t just relationships. Something as mundane as driving could become racialised.

People would casually ridicule “crazy Asian driving” when seeing a badly parked car, or being cut off suddenly by a driver who just happened to be Asian. My friend would cry out in disgust, “Gargh, crazy Asian drivers…*awkward pause looking at me* Oh but we don’t see you as one of them Kore.” Cue nervous laughter and inner conflict. She gave me a way out of being seen as one of “those asians” and it was easier to ridicule myself than risk a friendship. After all, I didn’t want to call out her casual racism and risk being too “precious”. Interestingly, James Roque has a hilarious stand-up comedy routine on why Asians are seen to be bad drivers.

I even started to be very self-conscious of going out with a large group of Asians for fear we’d draw negative attention and again get yelled at, spat at and told to “Go Home”. These things make you paranoid. You start questioning whether race was a factor in why that menacing guy came up and headbutted you. Would he have done it if you weren’t making so much noise at the party with all your Asian friends? Maybe it’s safer to just not exercise your right to freedom of association. Oh yea, there was also that time I was standing outside a movie theatre on the main street with my chinese friend, and we had eggs thrown at us. Coincidence?

The solution I was told, was to “not rock the boat”, to keep your head down, work hard and you’ll be alright. The problem is that not challenging these incidents means society continues to reinforce the same tired “model minority” stereotypes. 

The lack of representation in media

These stereotypes are used over and over again. Asian females are often represented as either hyper-sexualised, dragon ladies (like Ling Woo in “Ally McBeal” or see the clip from Charlie's Angels to the right), or submissive with no voice (Lilly Onakurama from “Pitch Perfect”).

Both males and females are generally socially awkward, on the geeky side and lack any charisma or individuality.

Chinese males have it tougher though, always the subservient side kick and never the lead (which is why I love characters such as Glenn Rhee, from The Walking Dead. He's Asian, he's the hero, gets the girl, stands for what is right and is described as "the beating heart of the AMC series"). It was hard to grow up always seeing movie characters who represented your ethnicity constantly over-simplified like we never had any complex emotions or stories worth telling. (Edit: Video below contains scenes from The Walking Dead which is unsuitable for those under the age of 17.)

Thankfully I have come full circle - and really embraced my "Chineseness" due to being with my husband, a journey of self-discovery including multiple trips to China and the desire to not want my son to go through the insecurities I went through. I don’t want him to have to second guess himself when he goes to park his car. I don’t want him to have the added pressure that a girl would not like him because of his race too. I want him to see himself as more than just a punchline in a movie. And I want him to walk with me in the mall!

Me and my son making funny faces
I don't want my son to go through the insecurities I went through

I don’t have all the answers and this is just my story, but I hope that this turns into a conversation that helps to turn a big ship in the right direction. So let me know, do you have similar stories? What “racial pressure” do you face? What advice do you have for a mother bringing up a young Chinese-New Zealand boy?

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