After I wrote my first blog post here ("I Called Amy Tan a Dirty Word -- And Then She Friended Me"), I felt a certain sense of satisfaction. I felt like I'd excavated something difficult about ethnicity and gender and literature and identity. In my small way, I'd complicated the picture of Asian American women. And readers had responded. Together, we'd added to a much larger conversation.
That's what I was thinking, anyway, when I scrolled down my article to respond to the latest comments and saw this ad wedged between my own earnest sentences about fetishization and pigeonholing:
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Like most Asian American women, I'm familiar with depictions of us as exotic objects for sale. But somehow it seems like there should be some mechanism -- automated shame? irony-overload protection software? -- to keep my own name and photo from aiding in that promotion.
No such luck. When I revisited a few other blogs that had posted author Q&As or reviews of my novel, I saw ads for "Hottest Orient Girls," "Asian Women Best Price," and so on. Of course, if you google some variation of "Chinese/Asian women," nine results out of ten will offer more of the same (and the tenth probably refers to foot-binding). Maybe you'll get one of these offers by the time you scroll to the bottom of this page.
I wish this were just a quirk of the Web, but I think it underscores the fact that contending with these images is still, for most Asian American women, an everyday reality. No matter where we work or how we dress, we're prone to getting mistaken for subservient brides, masseuses and hookers. Usually, of course, it's more subtle -- say, a certain leer or a knowing wink in referring to so-and-so's "Asian girlfriend."
This isn't a novel observation -- and it's taken me weeks to write this post partly because a voice in my own head keeps scoffing, Oh, come on, not this again. But it's one that seems to bear reexamining.
The disconnect between that enduring stereotype of submissive sex objects and the Asian women I know in real life was partly what impelled me to write my novel A Thread of Sky, the story of a family of six Chinese American women, each strong-willed and independent-minded to a fault, who reunite for a tour of China. When I spoke about this during my recent book tour, some readers expressed surprise that stereotyping is still an issue for us. I should probably mention that none of these readers were Asian. They'd had Asian female colleagues, friends and significant others who were so the opposite of the stereotype that they'd assumed we were over this already.
I can understand the assumption, but I'd venture to guess that at least some of those Asian females were like me and many of my peers and the characters in my novel: We're driven to embody the opposite of that stereotype precisely because it still surrounds us. Until we defy it, it defines us by default.
Which isn't to say that all Asian American women spend our days agonizing over being stereotyped. It's more like a background noise, a persistent buzzing. Mostly we ignore it. Sometimes we laugh it off or forget about it. Sometimes we decide it's worth a fight. And every now and then we wonder if we're the only ones who hear it. We're almost relieved when something like Google Adsense makes it explicit, because at least that shows we're not crazy.
The three American-born daughters in A Thread of Sky are more attuned to that buzzing than most because they've been raised to view their personal lives through the lens of political struggle and to strive to "make a difference by being different." While the struggle was overt for their grandmother, a former revolutionary and feminist leader in China, their battles are more abstract: getting compared to "Hotorientalbabes.com" by a coworker, getting mistaken for a Beijing prostitute, worrying whether a boyfriend has "yellow fever."
You could call them hypersensitive, and they probably wouldn't disagree. In the course of the novel, they come to see how, in constantly striving to demonstrate their strength and independence, they "forfeit a measure of their humanity," as one reviewer put it. They learn that sometimes they need to stop proving themselves and simply be.
Like them, I've learned to pick my battles. The reality is that anytime I write about myself, my peers, or my characters in a space that can be monetized, my own words are liable to become a platform for advertising Asian women like discounted designer watches. Maybe this speaks to the limits of literature. Or of Google Adsense. Maybe it's just something to laugh off. I'm still not sure, but I fear this reality is here to stay.