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As a Korean American woman, what happened in Atlanta hurts

April 2, 2021

This piece represents the opinion of the author.
Shona Ortiz

On Tuesday evening on March 16, eight people were shot in three massage parlors in the “red-light districts” of Atlanta, Georgia. Six of those murdered were Asian—all of whom were women—and two were white. Four of the women were confirmed to be of Korean descent. The suspect in custody, Robert Aaron Long, is white, and he’s 21 years old—the same age as I am. But Robert Aaron Long is a white, churchgoing man who shoots six Asian women dead, and I am a Korean American woman writing this essay in California, trembling and feeling as if a bullet is tearing my heart to shreds.

When news of the Atlanta shooting first broke, people, specifically Asian Americans, began connecting the dots, even when initial reports were reluctant to condemn the shootings as “racially-motivated.” Why? Because this hit too close to home. The shooter targeted three Asian-owned spas, one of which included “Asian” in its name. Thirty-eight hundred anti-Asian racist incidents have been reported this year (reported; meaning this number is not inclusive of incidents that have not been documented). We’ve witnessed the aftermath of U.S. President Trump’s mockery of the coronavirus as “Kung Flu,” fueling existing Sinophobia in the United States. We’ve seen and repeatedly condemned white supremacists’ refusal to differentiate biological viruses from personhood. We continue the same conversations over and over again about how grouping Asians as a monolith is reductive, classist and East Asia-centric. But what was missing from the analysis was the public media attention granted to the treatment of the most invisible yet hypervisible demographic of Asian women. Sixty-eight percent of the past year’s racial incidents were reported by Asian women, and 29 percent by Asian men. As an Asian woman, I felt angry and powerless and embittered.

Asian women are hypervisible by virtue of our race and our gender; we are fetishized and objectified and even desired. We’re a lucrative Pornhub category for straight men and can become wives of powerful white men (check out the alt-right’s Asian fetish). But at the same time, our visibility is often belittled into something negligible by virtue of our race and gender. We’re a racial minority, and we’re the subjects of the patriarchy. We are part of the demographic targeted by “Kung Flu,” and we, too, are part of the demographic targeted by “me love you long time.” This is not to frame the narrative of Asian women as one primarily associated with victimhood but to recognize that there’s a multiplicity of structures that force us to occupy a position of smallness. There’s a whole sleuth of Asian male keyboard warriors dedicated to calling us race traitors if we date non-Asian men. I’ve been told that we should feel lucky to be fetishized and to be cat-called, even when it’s not just because we’re sexy women but because the man on the street wants to pay for a “Chinese girlfriend.” I often silenced myself because I was conditioned to doubt and feel shameful of my own truths. So let’s unpack that. Because God forbid we can’t handle racism and sexism at once.

The phrase “Me love you long time” originated from Stanley Kubrick’s 1987 film “Full Metal Jacket,” where a Vietnamese prostitute solicits American GI-s with promises that she will serve her john beyond a “short time” one night stand. It perpetuates the fantasy of a submissive Asian woman and the history of American imperialism with soldiers bringing Asian wives home from war.

But, like racism, sexism spreads contagiously until it is normalized into a funny pick-up line. “Me love you long time”  has now become a rite of passage for white men when they travel to Asian countries for sex tourism; it is now repeated in rap lyrics, parodied in South Park and hurled in middle school hallways at Asian female classmates. Maybe you’ve even said it or had it said to you. “Me love you long time” has been defiled and mimicked so many times that it has lost its seductive meaning when spoken by the Asian female sex worker. Because we know there is no seduction in this power dynamic; Asian women are the sexual conquests of the American patriarchy. Its combined racist and sexual fantasies penetrate our bodies. They prey on our exotic non-whiteness, our vulnerabilities, our policed-until-it’s-self-policed silence. We are both the danger of the Yellow Peril and the foreign allure of Yellow Fever. “Love” does not exist in “me love you long time”; only the thrill of dominance by men like Robert Aaron Long.

It’s not time, it’s been long overdue, to start an ongoing conversation on anti-Asian racism and sexism in the Bowdoin community. I’ve been so used to silencing and minimizing myself as an Asian woman at Bowdoin that it almost feels unnatural to have an audience for thoughts I’ve been grappling with for a long time—ever since my first-year move-in day. So listen and check in with your AAPI friends, and be open about mistakes made in the past, “jokes” that shouldn’t have been laughed off and comments you’ve made toward Asian women during parties. Anti-Asian attitudes have been normalized, so the first step is to learn to notice them.

But most of all, I wrote this to honor the victims of the Atlanta shootings on March 16. Learn why they came to America and know why they died at the hands of a white terrorist. Put the most vulnerable Asian women—Asian undocumented workers, minimum-wage laborers, non-English speaking immigrants and refugees—at the center of your anti-Asian racism awareness and reeducation. I’m sending prayers out to Atlanta and the grieving families, love and support to the tireless organizers and gratitude to BIPOC communities who have been supporting us since day one. Like many of you, I’m still angry, I still cry at night when I crawl into my thoughts too much, I still think I’m insignificant at times. But, I’m also becoming more clear-headed and open-minded, and I’m learning from my mistakes to find ways to move this forward. This op-ed is flawed and incomplete, but it exists and it’s my start.

Kyubin Kim is a member of the Class of 2022. 

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