My first clear memory of racism is from when I was four years old. It came from kids who didn’t know better, kids who had never encountered anyone who looked so different to them. I was the only Asian child in my class, one of maybe ten ethnic kids in a school of five hundred odd. They used their fingers to make their eyes into slits and “ching-chong-Chinaman” was their war cry. I didn’t understand why it hurt at the time, nor did I understand why they were yelling it at me. All I knew was that there was something about me that made me stand out, when I desperately wanted to blend in. There was so much I hadn’t yet learned about the world, but this was my first cruel lesson: I was different and that was wrong.
I was seven years old when I first experienced the yearning to be white – a wish that would stay with me until my early twenties. When I looked around at all my friends, at Kylie Minogue, Melissa George or Nicole Kidman, they all had one thing in common: they were white. I did not know their stories, their circumstances, their insecurities – all I knew was that I was not white. I was not beautiful, because my skin was darker. I was not beautiful, because my nose was too wide, too flat. I was not beautiful, because my eyes were narrow and small. “You’re cute for an Asian” I was told over and over, by boys I had crushes on, girls who were my friends; all reinforcing the idea that I could be beautiful, if only I wasn’t Korean.
Years later, I would laugh at this idea, when the Western world came to view South Koreans as fashionable, as masters of make-up and plastic surgery. But that was 15 years away – at seven years old, I was ugly. But I would soon learn that sometimes it was better to be overlooked than to have the attention of men.
One comment sticks in my mind, because I would hear it echoed later on in my life – “love Asian schoolgirls”.
I was 13 years old when I first realised how dangerous men could be. It was a summer afternoon. I was sitting outside the shops in my school uniform, waiting for my mum to finish grocery shopping, when two men in their mid-30s catcalled me. They must have known I would hear them, I was less than two metres away, and by the way they called out to me with variations of “hey” and “we’re over here” and “we’re talking to you”, their intention was obviously to get my attention. I didn’t dare look over for fear of encouraging them more, I’ve always been on the shorter side for my age, and they were two fully grown men.
Looking back now, they couldn’t have been more than six feet, but they might as well have been giants to me. Also, rather naively, I held onto the hope that they would get tired of this game and leave me alone. They didn’t, if anything, it just made them more persistent. The yells for my attention just got louder, and the comments progressively more aggressive, more disgusting. It was the standard catcall of obnoxious, bored men, looking to impress each other in the circle jerk of misogyny – with one slight difference. One comment sticks in my mind, because I would hear it echoed later on in my life – “love Asian schoolgirls”. It never occurred to me that I could or should say something to someone.
It’s a revolting statement – not least of all because I was a child. This attitude contributes to the fetishisation and sexualisation of young Asian girls – an attitude that has very real and dangerous repercussions when it involves men taking underground sex tours and buying young girls to use as their sex slaves in South-East Asia, where the sex trade is embedded into countries’ very veins. Two million children are sold into the global commercial sex trade per year, and of all victims of sex trafficking, women and young girls make up 98 per cent.
“That’s not what I mean!” has become the recurring defence of men, when I ask if they’re aware of the connotations of statements like “I just think Asian schoolgirls are hot”. I get it – people have kinks, fantasies – but it is important that we be aware of how dangerous these attitudes can be. It is crucial we understand that statements such as these are helping to perpetuate a stereotype and culture that’s dangerous for young girls in other countries. I am not suggesting people who make these statements would necessarily take a sex tour if given the chance, nor condone selling girls into slavery, but the fact remains that I was 13 years old when I first heard the term “Asian schoolgirl” be used in reference to me, and I am 31 years old and I’m still hearing it. I have changed, but the sexualisation of my appearance has not.
Even now, on my darkest days, “ching-chong-Chinaman” still haunts me the way it did when I was four.
“It gets better” is the mantra we tell any kid who does not fit the white, heteronormative standard; the answer to any child who is singled out for being different. I don’t necessarily agree with it, but I understand why we say it. You have to give kids hope. “It stays pretty shit, but you learn to deal with it” just doesn’t have the same ring to it.
In my experience, it hasn’t gotten better; I’ve just learned not to take it personally. Maybe we tell kids it’ll get better not because the situation will change, nor will people become kinder as they grow up; maybe we say it because we mean that they’ll get better at brushing it off. It will still sting every so often, but your perspective shifts from hurt to anger and frustration. Mostly, these days, I just feel so tired – tired of fighting a fight that started hundreds of years ago; a fight that should not still be going on today; a fight that, sometimes, feels like mine and mine alone.
Looking back, I wish I had told someone when these things were said to me. Had I learned what racism was earlier, maybe I wouldn’t have held onto the hurt from childhood for so long. Even now, on my darkest days, “ching-chong-Chinaman” still haunts me the way it did when I was four. My wounds are no longer fresh, but they will never close.
At 31, I am still different, but I’ve learned this is not wrong.