No Asian Paper Dolls Here

By Jesi Concepcion

Jessica Hagedorn's opening paragraph in "Asian Women in Film: No Joy, No Luck" is a checklist of roles I’ve been mistaken for: “Lady. Lotus Blossom. Sultry. Model Minority." These terms say nothing about who I am. Instead, they project harmful images created by colonialism and pop culture—stereotypes of what Asian women are apparently supposed to be. The existence of these images have profoundly affected my day-to-day interactions with others.

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My relationship with western pop culture is a bit confusing. For most of my adolescent years, I didn’t have much exposure to it. I did not grow up surrounded by larger-than-life billboards, images of flashy commercials, or even a wide variety of television shows. My father served in the U.S. Navy and his career required him to live overseas in Okinawa, Japan—a small tropical island where I was born and raised. Growing up on an overseas U.S. Military base hindered our community's access to western pop culture a great deal, and to the disappointment of my friends, also hindered my knowledge of those infamous Star Wars quotes. (Don’t judge me.)

Although, from the age of three to seven, my father was stationed in southern California. I don't remember much, but I do recall having difficulty making friends. I was one of the few kids who were not white at my school. I tried to befriend the girls in my class, but they often refused to interact with me. Even at a young age, I was able to recognize that they kept their distance because my skin, eyes, and hair were a darker shade than theirs. I began to resent the melanin in my skin and hid from the sun to avoid becoming a deeper brown. If I could go back in time, I’d tell my younger self these are traits to never be ashamed of. It wasn't until my father was stationed back to Okinawa that these unhealthy feelings subsided.            

Living and being a part of an overseas military community, as well as being a part of a military family in general, is quite different than civilian life. Life on a military base was an extreme equalizer and isn’t an easily understood or recognized subculture. At the time, I didn’t know what "minority," "class," and "white privilege" meant. My overseas environment was diverse, and my peers came from different walks of life and from all over the globe. The option to have basic cable wasn’t even readily available until I was in my teens. So while I gained access to consumer-heavy commercials and a plethora of television shows, I was not surrounded by the accessibility to ads and magazines easily seen on sidewalks and in convenient stores. There were very few movie theaters and the selection, again, was scarce. I lived in a bubble.

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After graduating high school, I made my way back to sunny California, which is where I live now. At times, it feels as if I've been casted in a stereotypical role that I’m constantly fighting against. I am invisible as a person, but instead made visible as a model minority who must be a mathematical genius. Y’all, I don’t even like math.

The projection of pop culture stereotypes from others onto myself are most prominent and recognizable through my personal interactions. There’s a particular moment with a past co-worker that I’m unable to shake. Their idea of what it is to be Asian seeped through a comment in casual conversation: I was laughing, and they responded with "your laugh is so Asian." The comment was  meant to be light-hearted, but there is nothing funny about it. What’s disheartening is it wasn’t the first time such a comment was directed at me, this comment seems to be generalized—a normal thing to say because “it's true.” Imagine how dehumanizing it is to be placed in a box because of the way you laugh. It sure doesn’t feel good.

Comments made in a seemingly light-spirited fashion, similar to the one my co-worker made, have seeped into my romantic relationships. I’ve discovered just how difficult it is for my cultural identity to be independent from my gender identity in the dating field. Recently, I watched the documentary Slaying the Dragon: Reloaded, and an interviewee uttered the words “it’s very hard to separate being a female and being Asian.” It felt like a punch in the stomach. I've dated men with different upbringings, men that had never dated an Asian woman, or men that “loved dating Asian women.” My experiences were all frustrating for different reasons but were still related to my ethnicity. The man who had never dated a woman of color constantly inquired, in jest, if something I did or said differently from him was "because I'm Asian." On the other hand, the relationship with the man who preferred dating Asian women was equally infuriating. Apparently he didn’t think I was, wait for it… "Asian enough.”  Boy, bye.

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The lack of complex images in Hollywood and media perpetuate the belief that Asian women are, as Jessica Hagedorn eloquently describes, “objects of desire or derision; we exist to provide sex, color, and texture in what is essentially a white man's world.” I've found it difficult to be recognized as Asian and a person simultaneously. The derogatory saying "you're whitewashed" has been directed at me several times. The oppressing term deems a person not “Asian enough” to a white person's standard, or their level of "Asian-ness" is not discernible. This comment is often made when one's english is "spoken very well" or "they don't act Asian," as if speaking and acting like an Asian person requires an accent and adorning traditional garments.

Through the understanding of colonization, I've been able to trace and identify where the harmful stereotypes of Asian women originated. My military upbringing along with my Asian background has unfortunately associated me with a combination of undesirable images. Film portrayals of Asian women are often exoticized paper dolls that get mixed-and-matched with predictable 2-d traits: the damsel in distress, the martial arts mistress, or the giggling schoolgirl. Hollywood seems to be unaware that Asian women have been political leaders in their countries for decades. There are no paper dolls here, you see. There are women with a career, or a family, or both.

In colonized minds, I am not just an Asian woman but a certain shade of Asian—a “flavor.” The men I have encountered expressed confusion when I didn’t live up to the image of a delicate exotic flower in need of rescuing or the dominatrix with Lucy Lui’s combat capabilities. In Yellow Rage's spoken poem I'm A Woman, Not a Flava, two women eloquently describe and capture the frustration with these stereotypes. They passionately declare “I can be Asian and speak eloquently without throwing kung fu kicks and screams of hi-ya . . . my English will always be a little too good for you, my voice a little too loud for you, my tongue a little too sharp for you, my eyes a little too round for you, my pride a little too strong for you, my strength a little too deep for you . . . my Asian a little too American for you.”

And to my Asian sisters, your identity isn't something to be scrutinized and placed on a scale. Don't let anyone tell you that you're “too Asian” or “not Asian enough.” Your worth is never a ground for measurement.