Asian-American Identity, Part I: From Atlanta to Promontory, Utah, 170 years later, Chinese Women are still being sexualized | Haiyun Lu | 8 Min Read

By Haiyun Lu, Chinese language teacher, University School of Milwaukee (WI)

It was the morning of March 17, 2021. I was standing in the kitchen, waiting for the tea kettle to whistle when I first saw the headline from the Washington Post, Eight Killed, Including Six Asian Women… My head started to buzz, “A hate crime?” Since the onset of COVID-19, hate crimes against Asian people have been escalating, according to an AAPI source report, nearly 3800 incidents were reported.  Most of the time, it was Asian women and elders who had been targeted. As I quickly skimmed through the Post article, I spotted the line “no motives have been determined.”  My stomach began to churn; if it was not a hate crime, I wondered what the motive was…

Finally, the police released a statement regarding the mass shooting: Robert Aaron Long was not motivated by race.  Long has been referred to as having a “sex addiction;” after a bad day, he thought he needed to eliminate the temptation of this addiction….

My 18-year-old sunny, funny, and beautiful niece was doing dishes as I was reading the police statement to her.  “What are they saying?”  I obverted my eyes from looking at her, I was overwhelmed by “shame” and “doubt” instantly.  The only thought rushing through my head was, “Were these women doing something illegal behind the doors?”  That doubt weighed on me so heavily.

When the truth of the victims was told as “hard-working, devoted single mother, family oriented, good-hearted…”  I was in a long waiting line for an oil change.  I had my engine off and windows down as I was waiting.  As tears began trickling down my cheeks, I turned on the car, rolled up the windows, cranked the meditation music I normally enjoy to the maximum volume, and allowed myself to have a good cry, alone.  A sense of deep loss and anger took over me.  These women could be my sisters or aunties!  These women could easily be a part of my family.  These women not only were victimized, but they were also unfairly and cruelly humiliated to explain the cause of their death.  Just as Ibram X. Kendi has said, “Black people are apparently responsible for calming the fears of violent cops in the way women are supposedly responsible for calming the sexual desires of male rapists.”  I felt outrage in every single cell in my body.

“What is worse?” When I finally stood in front of my class after spring break, I prepared a special lesson on #StopAsianHate. I told them, “The killing is bad, but the police statement is worse.  It reinforces the double standard that a criminal has been treated primarily based on their skin color.  It blames the victims for a criminal’s cruelty and despicable act…. It projects women as men’s problem!  But you know what’s the worst?”  I looked around the room, everyone was wide-eyed, and eager to be informed.  “It is the nearly two centuries of old negative stereotypes about Asian women portrayed as sexual objects, particularly, Chinese women, that have been magnified and played out in the modern media.  I hope to have your support and understanding as we are going to take a dive into Asian American history, which has been intentionally left out.”  Everyone nodded in agreement.

Being a mindfulness practitioner for over a decade, I know that taking on a learning objective so big, the best learning outcome occurs when students feel safe and supported so they can stretch themselves.  Learning about anti-racism can be overwhelming, emotionally exhausting, or even traumatizing.  I explained the Learning Zone Model by Dr. Senninger to students, applauded their commitment to the challenging work, and reminded them to self-regulate according to the model. The students charged on.

When the class resumed the next day, I was quite eager to hear the students’ takes on this.  At the same time, as an educator who has been deeply committed to all students’ emotional wellbeing, my warm-up was a mindful emotion activity.  They were instructed to follow a prompt and journal how they felt.  The prompt stated: Reflect back during your research on Asian American history, please journal the thoughts, feelings, and sensations which you felt.  This is a silent activity; you have 10 minutes to finish.

Afterward, students were grouped into pairs and used the mindful speaking technique during sharing.  Everybody was instructed to speak with “I” statements.  “When I was researching, I read about this, I felt…, the thoughts went through my mind were…, the sensations I noticed in the body were…”.

When the pair-share was done, I gathered everyone’s attention and asked: What do you know now that you didn’t know before?

A pink-haired girl’s arm shot into the air like a flying arrow. I held her gaze for a brief second and gave her a nod.  “I’ve heard about the transcontinental railway and Chinese workers stuff, but I didn’t know how much Chinese workers had contributed.  Between 1863 – 1869, approximately 20,000 Chinese worked on the western portion of the railroad.  In 1865, 90% of the workers were Chinese.  At the places when simple machines failed and white workers refused to do the backbreaking and hazardous work, the Chinese were given the most dangerous jobs: drilling and explosives in unbearable heat or extreme cold.  Hundreds died from explosions, landslides, avalanches, equipment accidents, and diseases.  But they were intentionally excluded from the records and history.”

The air in the room became increasingly heavy.  A short dark-haired boy whose head was down for a while suddenly looked up and cut in, “I did not know before how bad Asian Americans had been treated, dehumanized, and excluded.  I read after the railroad, white Americans did not want to share the pies after Chinese workers helped to bake them. They became increasingly hostile and claimed they were taking their jobs away.  On Oct. 24, 1871, the deadliest violence against the Chinese in California occurred. Around 500 white and Hispanic men attacked and looted Los Angeles’ Chinatown, they lynched 19 Chinese men. Eight defendants were convicted of manslaughter but later had their convictions overturned.  This kind of brutality and violence against Chinese Americans was like a wildfire that spread to many small towns.  It eventually led to the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882, which was the first and only law that barred immigration solely based on race.”

A curly haired boy made eye contact with me and pointed one finger at his chest, I gave him a nod.  “I feel Asian American history has been overlooked and neglected.  I feel a big sense of loss and frustration because a part of my knowledge was taken away by systemic racism.  I feel this is so unfair and unjust…”

Everybody’s head was down, the air in the room reached a freezing point.  I looked around the room and held each student in a warm gaze.  “This is courageous and difficult work we have launched into.  Remember when you enter the overwhelming zone, you have permission to take a break from it: simply overt your eyes from the screen, feel your feet on the ground, get up and take a walk, or grab some water…  So you can get back into the comfort zone to be grounded, then we stretch again into the learning zone.” There was a sign of relief and many grateful eyes were looking back at me.

Ibram X. Kendi has said that “…. racist and antiracist are not fixed identities. We can be a racist one minute and an antiracist the next. What we say about race, what we do about race, in each moment, determines what — not who — we are.”  I projected the Becoming Anti-Racist chart created by Dr. Andrew Ibrahim on the board to demonstrate Kendi’s words virtually.

“I, I, I… have a question,” a long black-straight-haired girl said in a quiet voice. I noticed that she had been fidgeting in her seat for a while.  I summoned all the compassion from the heart and smiled at her, although she probably would not be able to see it through the mask.  At any given situation, I get myself ready to respond with loving-kindness toward my students, because I don’t know who could be triggered by what and when.

“I read that when the very first Chinese women came to the U.S., they were mostly prostitutes in their teens.  I learned that the first Chinese female movie star, Anna May Wong, in Hollywood could only portray the bad, or evil stereotypical Chinese women on the screen.  When Hollywood was going to cast the Yellow Earth, a story about Chinese people in China, the female leading role was given to a white woman, Anna May Wong was asked to play the fourth concubine in the film. It happened to be the only negative role in the film, and she refused based on principle…”  Tears began to well up in her eyes, “I am so angry!  I am so angry that women had been put through so much and what women still have to endure today.”

“Me too!  I am angry too.”  Many murmured in support and shared sentiment.

I assured my students that whatever they are feeling is legit and valid.  From sadness to outrage, from shame to guilt, from helpless to hopeful…, these are all valid feelings that are available for us to own.  The work has just begun, if we are mindful of monitoring the zones we are in, we can prevent the emotional burn-out from happening too soon.  We can carry on the work longer and better.

If you are an administrator reading this article, you might wonder what you can do to help. To #StopAsianHate and #BecomeAnti-Racist needs all hands on deck.  Here are a few suggestions:

  • Learn about Asian American History
  • Read Asian American literature
  • Get to know an Asian American personally
  • Empower your Asian American teachers to speak up and speak out
  • Set up a buddy system for students of color
  • Make Asian American history and literature a part of your school’s curriculum
  • Encourage everyone to become an anti-racist

You may also like Asian-American Identity (Part II): Call me “China Doll” No More | Haiyun Lu.

Haiyun Lu

Haiyun Lu, a Chinese language teacher at the University School of Milwaukee (WI), is also a writer, blogger, trainer, curriculum designer, meditator, and Co-Founder at Ignite Chinese.

One thought on “Asian-American Identity, Part I: From Atlanta to Promontory, Utah, 170 years later, Chinese Women are still being sexualized | Haiyun Lu | 8 Min Read

  1. I love how you provided a safe space for your students to learn about Asian American history and to process and express their thoughts and feelings. It requires courage and compassion to examine and discuss these important issues with our youth. Well done.

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