This Little Asian Woman Has Had Enough of Your Shit
by JS LEE
Women are conditioned from a young age how to think, feel, and be—from our families, the media, and society at large. Minority women are blessed with another layer of that, with race-specific rules. Adoptees get yet another.
For years, my rebellion against what the world expects of me has been consistent but measured. I’ve pushed just enough to feel some self-respect, but with fear that I’d fall completely out of favor if I dared push as hard as I’d have liked. Maybe it’s the timing of things, on the verge of the anniversary of when my omma pushed me out of her body and soon, her life. Or maybe I’ve just had enough. I’ve cracked my shell open and kicked down the sides. I’m ready to stand on my own, if need be—because on my own with conviction has proved safer than with those who need my disguise.
It started early. My white adoptive mother was adamant I resemble an Asian doll. My hair was so straight and so long that my head yanked back when I sat. In the sixth grade, when allowed to cut it into a short Asian bob, the first day felt like freedom. But as the weeks passed, I began to understand I’d only traded one stereotypical look for another. Hair is one of the most easily changeable physical traits. So began the fixation with my hair as a tool to fight against how I was expected to look, in the long journey towards embracing my natural Asian features.
Physical representation is one thing. While important, it takes a back seat to personality, which is as heavily enforced. We can seek out the rebels in books and films but we see in real life the majority of who’s rewarded and most of us want to succeed. Likability—the pressure to comply—is, in my opinion, one of the biggest deterrents to personal growth. We must be strong enough to say no, but it has to be said the right way for our safety or not to offend. If someone has good intentions, we’re forced to forgive them and become their unwanted teachers.
My old band used to play a lot of club shows in Boston. This older white man was a known groupie for any band with at least one woman. He’d find me after our set, put his hands in prayer pose and—I shit you not—he would bow. “I bow down to your Asian goddess,” he’d say, grinning wide. Shaking my head and rolling my eyes wasn’t a big enough clue because his ritual continued. When I explained that his joke wasn’t funny, he proceeded to insist it was a compliment. My (white) bandmate told me to brush it off because, after all, he was a big fan and came to every show.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had to stand in public while someone waxed poetic over what they approved of me and how I could improve. When I sold my work at art markets, there was no shortage of mansplainers to do me this supposed favor. If I could just accept that their ideas for my art and business were worth more than my own, I’d go so much further. Unable to make a scene at those events I’d paid a premium to attend, I’d nod my head shallowly, begging for their exit.
A few years back, I had to say goodbye to someone I’d envisioned a lifelong friend because he couldn’t stop criticizing my every move. He always had good intentions, of course, but I tired of the nitpicking over how to run my own life. Another male friend simply lost interest when I stopped feeding his ego and stopped letting him chip away at mine. I loved both of these people for some time. I’m not ashamed to say it. It’s okay to grieve what we thought we had—as long as we don’t allow that grief to let them back in our lives with unchanged behavior.
Nearly four years ago I finally let go of my adoptive parents. When my adoptive mother sent an email detailing how I wasn’t the right kind of rape victim, I said enough. Actually, I didn’t at first. I told her she had unresolved issues on how she mishandled the aftermath of my teenage rape and was projecting. I begged her to talk about it—among other things that needed resolving. When she decided it was too much for her, I swallowed my unsaid goodbye and began to move on to the healthiest place I’ve been.
In case you didn’t know, it’s taboo for an adopted person—especially one of color—to not be grateful for everything their adoptive parents do. Leaving that family took everything at first. Every ounce of strength. Every ounce of weakness. All of my adoptive siblings for a couple of years. Since then, I’ve been giving myself the license to remove myself from those who expect me to be grateful for their unapologetic bad behavior. I know how I’ve looked in most people’s eyes as I’ve done so: the villain. But it had to be done.
Thanking people for doing the least is a hard habit to break when you’ve spent your whole life being told it’s the most you deserve. Keeping them in your life is as good as a thank you in my mind. Now in my forties, I see through the masochism that makes you a better person in society’s naive, hopeful eyes.
Tolerance can be dangerous and enabling. I’m not here to further perpetuate any well meaning bad behavior.
We shouldn’t have to play nice with someone who’s rude or offensive. We needn’t smile at men when they shout their approval or disapproval. We oughtn’t nod our heads when we want to shake them, or bite our tongues when we have something important to say. We don’t have to fear the loss of an imagined alliance or supposed fan.
People see me, a barely 5’2″ Asian woman, declaring my strength and they laugh. Because as an Asian woman, I’m not allowed to be strong in this way. I’m too human for the vulnerabilities I’ve shared. Or maybe I’m too much like them, and they lack what it takes to do the same, therefore they deny me. Whatever the resistance, I’m done with being told—subtly and directly—who and what I can’t be; how to think of myself; how to think for myself; that I’m not entitled to be both strong and vulnerable at the same time.
Strong is not synonymous with perfect. Strong does not mean there’s never weakness or still more to learn. Strong doesn’t manifest into a certain brand of beauty. True strength is admitting vulnerability and imperfection while enforcing boundaries that lead to greater peace.
Say it with me, ladies:
I will not give passes to people who don’t respect my bodily, mental, and emotional autonomy.
There. Now go on and live it.