Recently, I discovered that my great-great-grandmother, Ah Choy, was brought to the United States at five years old as a child slave in 1888. She grew up in San Francisco, escaped, and met my great-great-grandfather, with whom she had eight children. Had she grown up freely in China, Ah Choy would likely not have been able to come over, because of the view held by Americans that all Chinese women were prostitutes.
This sentiment still exists today. On March 16, when six Asian women were murdered by a sex addict who wanted to eliminate his “temptation”, it became abundantly clear that, over a century later, our lives and safety are still dictated by the sexual fetishization that dominates the world’s perception of who we are. Asian women are expected to be mute, vacant vessels waiting to be filled by someone else’s fantasy. We are seen as the dehumanizer’s dream, as in-actionable objects waiting to be acted upon. We are plaything, service, pleasure. We are blank faces to be drawn upon and empty mouths to be clogged with others’ words. From the time we are born, we are tossed into our role in existing for the world’s consumption: yellow fever, Asian fetish, concubine, comfort women.
I’ve often heard Asian women use the word “invisible” when describing how they feel within society, but this is not the case; we are visible, but only as entertainment, exotic toy — the rest of us is swallowed whole. They want to subjugate us, fuck us, kill us. Not wanting to disrupt their institutionalized delusions of our prostitution, they block their ears and eyes from our voices and the strength and truth of who we are.
Silence is built into the identity of Asian Americans, and even more so with Asian American women. It is both cultural value and a tool for violence and marginalization. I exist in a strange point in concentric circles, being from the margins of the US as an Asian person, the margins of my own people as an American, and the margins of the world as a woman. I was raised by a brilliant mother who was brought up on an air force base drenched in the need to assimilate to the whiteness surrounding her, stay quiet, and follow the rules lest my grandfather be discovered for the “illegal” immigrant that he was. In contrast to her experience, it is during this unique time of having been raised during the Me Too Generation that I am unlearning silence as survival and seeing that empowerment and self-assertion is the way we break the cycle of invisibility. We need to be loud just as much as we deserve to be heard.
After the recent attacks in Atlanta — among the too many others throughout the past year — and the revelation of my grandmother, Ah Choy’s, origins in this country, I am still processing the anger and grief, and may be for the rest of my life. But it is the work of progress, revolution, and healing. It is the work of both validating generations, old suffering and dreaming of something new. Moving past survival, and instead, living more fully into ourselves is the new hope, as the need for Asian women’s voices to be lifted is synonymous with the fight against racism and sexism. In my imaginings of the future, we have visibility as much as we have agency. Asian women can exist in a place of power and voice and autonomy. Asian women will exist in a place of power and voice and autonomy.
We do not exist simply to be consumed. We exist within our untouchable truths, and the freedom that lies within every moment we choose to be fearlessly and lovingly ourselves.
May we always know the strength of who we are.
Laura Jew is a writer, artist, and educator based in Guadalajara, Mexico. An Oakland native, she is a Kundiman Fellow and graduated from Mills College with a BA in Creative Writing. More of her work can be found @laurajew_art.