Asian American Woman's Burden

By the age of ten I could picture my future husband. He would be handsome, thoughtful, brilliant, strong and sing like an archangel, just like my father. In my family race was never mentioned in connection with marriage. My parents’ only advice on the subject was, “Marry someone who respects you, someone you can respect in return.” I secretly decided, however, that the man I would marry would be Asian. It was a decision born of racial pride, filial love and maybe a touch of hero-worship.

Other than my brother and me, few Asians attended my high school. One was my best friend, a Chinese American girl. Kaylee had a crush on my older brother Jongsoo. I was friendly with an Asian boy named Lyle. He was smart, cute and, despite a few pimples and a nasal voice, attractive to me. We had some classes together and were friendly. I found myself thinking of him in a romantic way and imagined he saw me the same way. My hopes were dashed when he took another girl, a blonde, to the sophomore Halloween dance. I was equally disappointed when my brother Jongsoo turned down Kaylee’s invitation to the Sadie Hawkins dance.

For two years I turned down other boys in the hope Lyle would see the light. He never did, though we stayed friends. To this day he probably doesn’t know I had been waiting for him to ask me out. In my senior year I gave up on him and began dating a caucasian boy who had been asking me out since sophomore year. If Lyle cared, he never showed it. At our ten-year reunion I was flabbergasted to hear him recall, “You always did have a thing for blond guys!” The icy fury of my response surprised me even more than it did him.

“And you always were such a clueless asshole!” With that I turned on my heel and headed for the far side of the room.

It wasn’t until later that I began sorting out the emotions behind that little outburst. That’s when I began to understand that we Asian American women have been forced to carry a cross that is at least as heavy as the one borne by Asian American men. What makes it so much worse is that most people, including even some Asian American women, don’t know it. Remember that law of physics about every action producing an equal and opposite reaction? It applies to relations between men and women: for every injustice suffered by Asian men, Asian women suffer one of equal magnitude.

By now it’s well understood, at least among Asian Americans, that Asian men in America have to live with a lot of insulting false assumptions. It suffices to say that those stereotypes hamper AA men in the pursuit of professional and personal goals. Most people agree as to how unfair and inaccurate those assumptions are. By contrast even many otherwise intelligent people actually believe that we Asian American women enjoy a corresponding advantage! In other words, we are thought actually to benefit in some way from the existence of those nasty stereotypes about Asian men!

What is the advantage we are thought to enjoy? That we scorn our own men and are, therefore, desperately seeking white men which in turn makes us eager to please and therefore appealing to white men. How unspeakably vile is that? What self-respecting woman of any race would want to live with that kind of image?

It’s bad enough that we are constantly forced to fend off the insulting advances of white men who are clueless enough to believe the stereotype. What’s even worse is that many Asians of both genders seem to believe it as well! That, I would submit, is the terrible burden that we Asian women must bear. To have members of your own race see you as having traded on your ethnicity is like being trapped in one of those nightmarish halls of mirrors with no way out. That was the frustration behind my surprising outburst to Lyle at our reunion.

Before I continue, let me pause to admit that I am married to a white man. I say “admit” because there will be those Asian Americans who see in that fact irrefutable evidence that I am a “whitewashed sellout” and have been all along. As though we Asian American women have spent our entire lives hoping to marry outside of our race!

Why did I marry a white man? Because the first man I met who respected me as a person and whom I could respect in return happened to be white. And because my parents raised me not to judge a person by his race. Had I decided against marrying my husband for the sake of my girlhood dream of marrying an Asian American man, wouldn’t I have been as much a racist as a white woman who refuses to marry an Asian American man?

My parents had no trouble accepting my husband because they saw that he is a man worth respecting and, more importantly, that he does indeed respect me. Their love for me remains undiminished. They have never questioned the deep pride I have in my Asian heritage and culture. Yet every time I meet an Asian person, I catch myself bracing. Will I be recognized for what I am or be mistaken for their preconceptions?

That may have something to do with the fact that I was unmarried well into my thirties, dating rarely through my twenties. By most measures I should have been considered an attractive marriage prospect. I have a pleasant face, a cheerful disposition, a trim body, a good education, a successful career and good conversational skills. I never imagined myself as the type men would swarm over but I had always expected that I would have my fair share of interest from Asian men. How wrong life proved me.

Men did swarm over me but few were Asian. On those occasions when I spotted an attractive Asian man and worked up the nerve to strike up a conversation, he typically showed conditional interest, then drifted away. That happened again and again. I was baffled. For a while I even took secretly to studying women with Asian husbands to see what I might be doing wrong. I even let my mother set me up with a man introduced by a friend of hers. He turned out to have very old-country expectations of women. I wanted to marry an Asian man, but I wasn’t willing to transform myself from an American into someone of an alien nationality.

No one understands the Asian woman’s burden better than their men, perhaps even more so if they happen not to be Asian. My husband is as troubled as I am by false assumptions about Asian American woman. “It’s an insult to us both,” he told me more than once. When we are together in social situations I find myself putting on a kind of performance for his sake. He understands why I do it but sometimes calls me on it. “You were doing the bitch-goddess bit again,” he would observe. He knows I do it to counter the assumption that I, as an Asian woman, was somehow an easy catch for him — and the attendant implications about himself. He knows better than anyone how untrue it is. I was by no means a bitch-goddess but I was certainly no easy catch. For nearly two years I had put him off by confiding that I was hoping to marry an Asian man. It hurt him. “That will never happen,” he scoffed with what I took to be false bravado. “Those Asian guys don’t know a good thing when they see it.”

Unbeknownst to him I had often consoled myself with those very words. To this day I don’t know why not one of the Asian men I dated showed serious interest in me, but I soothed myself with a plethora of theories. Were they too confused by the stereotypes — about themselves and about Asian women — to take me at face value — a desirable Asian woman who preferred Asian men? They seemed to hold back, as though suspicious of my motives, doubtful of my sincerity, perhaps waiting for me to throw myself at their feet to prove my commitment. Stereotypes had robbed me of the power to be seen for what I am. As I approached my mid thirties my longing for someone who understood me came to overshadow my girlhood dream of marrying an Asian man.

Some Asians seem to suppose that an Asian woman married to a white man has no interest in her identity. Nothing could be less true. As an Asian woman in an interracial relationship I am subjected to far more opportunities to experience the subtle prejudices than an Asian woman married to an Asian man can even imagine. It isn’t that my husband’s relatives, old friends, co-workers and neighbors dislike me for being Asian. It’s simply that most can’t know me the way my husband does and too often fill in the blanks with those old misconceptions. For that reason I am more conscious, on a day to day basis, of a longing to connect with my fellow Asian Americans. Unfortunately, all too often that longing slams up against so much misunderstanding and hostility that at times, bitterly disillusioned, I have come close to turning my back on Asians.

What could be more painful than being misunderstood and rejected by those with whom you share the most? I asked myself why I should keep subjecting myself to rejection and pain because of stereotypes and assumptions for which I have no responsibility? It seemed easier to avoid Asians altogether. But then would come those rare and brief but powerful flashes of mutual recognition upon meeting a kindred Asian American soul who can see me for what I am. I cherish those moments and long for the day when they won’t be so rare.