To be an Asian woman is to be metaphorically cut up and reduced to your body parts.
I learned this for the first time in the seventh grade when a boy in my class told me, completely out of the blue, that I had “good dick-sucking lips.” I was 12 years old then and unaccustomed to such attention from anyone, let alone someone of the opposite sex. I was thrilled by the remark.
Before hormones started ravaging my body, I had lived a life of attempted invisibility. As one of only two non-white kids in my grade — and the only Chinese Canadian — I found freedom in not being noticed. Even as a young child, I recognized that being so different from everyone else made me too remarkable. It was easier to try to fade into the walls and to not be seen. After all, to be seen would be to invite commentary about my difference.
But in that moment, as I was complimented on my lips and the specific act I could do with them, I felt the intoxicating high of being noticed and feeling beautiful for the very first time. It registered with me, then, that my body — my sexuality — could be my superpower.
As the years went by, and my boobs grew perky and my hips began to curve, the comments about my body parts only intensified.
There was the time when a boy accosted me on the beach to ask me what color and shape my nipples were before asking if I wanted to touch his penis.
Or the time when a friend came home for Christmas after his first semester at university and told me he had slept with his “first Asian” and that the rumors about the tightness of our vaginas was true. “I bet yours is just like that,” he said, adding a new twist to the racist stereotype that “all Asians look alike.”
Such unsolicited remarks about my Asian body weren’t always sexual in nature, either. There was the time when some girls crowded around me in the changing room after an elementary school gym class to touch my hair. “Wow, it’s so thick,” someone said. “Like a horse’s.” I smiled and let them pet me, and as they ran their fingers through my long hair, I winced only slightly when someone tugged too hard.
I learned to repress how ashamed and small these comments made me feel. “What’s your problem, Rachel?” I would think to myself. “This is what it feels like to be wanted.” In my mind, I had been given the choice of continuing to hide and be invisible, or to be wanted and desired — and I chose the latter, every time.
After years of fetishization and objectification, I had at some point internalized the belief that this was what it meant to be an Asian woman. It meant being a source of desire and derision all at once. While others may have stopped believing the lie we hear as young children — “he hurts you because he likes you” — I let myself see racial abuse as the price to pay to be granted attention and affection, especially from white men.
I eventually became so full of self-loathing — and my self-worth became so devastatingly low — that I convinced myself it was enough to be wanted solely because of my race and my appearance. Who I was as a person didn’t really matter. In all honesty, I don’t think I even knew who I was as a person at the time. I had become a blank slate, to be whatever the people around me wanted me to be.
That meant I laughed it off when that boy approached me on the beach to inquire about my nipples. It meant I ended up having a secret relationship with the friend who thought all Asian vaginas felt the same.
And later, it meant I would stay in a six-year relationship with a man who made me feel ashamed about my ethnicity at every turn. This relationship was marked by his refusals to eat Chinese food unless it was “westernized,” his silence whenever his father would refer to Asian people as “panfaces,” and his insistence that I learn how to “take a joke.”
I eventually ended things with him after one final fight, when he told me how uncomfortable it made him whenever I brought up race. And because he and his friends found racist jokes to be hilarious, I had started to bring up race a lot.
I know stories like mine aren’t particularly new or shocking, especially to my Asian American sisters. The sexualized racism and microaggressions I’ve faced in my life are no different from what too many of them endure every single day. In fact, the painful, dehumanizing belief that I learned at 12 years old — that we as people matter less than our body parts — is one that women of the Asian diaspora learn directly and indirectly, all the time.
We learn it from the harmful stereotypes of Asian women in popular culture where we’re depicted — if we’re shown at all — as either meek and submissive “China Dolls” or hypersexual and deceitful “Dragon Ladies.” Such depictions are the result of centuries of western imperialism and violent conquests, all of which have contributed to a present-day reality in which men feel entitled to Asian women’s bodies.
Some people, like my ex-boyfriend, might think this is “not a big deal” and even argue that being fetishized by the white patriarchal gaze is an empowering privilege. I shamefully used to believe this lie, too.
But I know better now. These seemingly “harmless” comments and stereotypes are acts of violence, full stop. The whole point is to dehumanize us so it’s easier to abuse, exploit and degrade Asian women and our bodies. Our dehumanization makes it easier to see us as “temptation” to gun down and “eliminate.” It makes us more vulnerable to domestic abuse and random violence on the street, too.
A few weeks after the breakup with my ex, I found myself newly single, afraid to be alone for the first time in my adult life, and on a first date with a stranger. It was on that night that I finally acknowledged how destructive my thoughts and actions had become. It was, after all, the night when my date leaned across the table and told me, “I bet your pussy tastes just like General Tso’s chicken,” and I still went home with him.
There’s no ruder wake-up call than sleeping with a man who’s compared your genitalia to a deep-fried chicken dish. I knew then that I desperately needed to get my house in order.
I found myself a Chinese Canadian psychotherapist and committed to being single for as long as I needed to be able to form healthy relationships with people who weren’t racist. I ended friendships with people who thought racist jokes were not only acceptable but actually funny. I started to reconnect with my culture in meaningful ways, one dish and conversation with my parents at a time.
The hardest and most life-changing work, though, was the internal work. It took years of therapy and many painful reflections about the hateful, subconscious beliefs I had internalized about myself and my Asian body to finally end my destructive patterns.
Of course, I still struggle with less-than-healthy decision-making and I don’t always feel comfortable in my Asian skin, but I am unwaveringly proud to be a Chinese Canadian woman. And, by the grace of God, I’m in a happy marriage with a wonderful man who sees me as a whole, complex human being and who feels just as strongly about dismantling white supremacy as I do.
Repeat after me: Asian women are human beings. We do not exist to fulfill your sexual desires or whatever entitlement to sex you believe you have. We have the right to live without being bombarded with this stigma.
And if you approach me to make an unsolicited comment about my body and expect me to be the docile China Doll who will do whatever you want, I will kindly and happily tell you to fuck off. My body has never — and will never — belong to you.
This article originally appeared on HuffPost and has been updated.