Naomi Ko, a Korean-American woman who created and stars in NICE, the series, tells me about hearing those words.
“The first time it happened to me I was in high school, visiting a nursing home in Minnesota,” Ko remembers. “An elderly white man said it. It was horrifying. The second time I was in college at a house party and then the guy added, ‘love me MORE long time because you’re ugly.’ Both times white women made excuses or said nothing.”
Phung Huynh, a Vietnamese-American boat person refugee painter and educator, recalls that she was a ten year old visiting her teenage male Vietnamese-American cousins in Miami, who were laughing and pointing at the Full Metal Jacket scene on TV. “I remembered being confused and upset.”
Kate Marley, a twenty-nine year old American actress adopted from South Korea by white parents, heard it on the playground in a Catholic elementary school in Tacoma, Washington. She felt uncomfortable and couldn't figure out why boys were directing this broken English at her and not at any other kids.
To many Asian-American women, hearing the phrase “Me love you long time” can be completely de-humanizing and traumatic.Yet this hasn’t stopped the phrase from casually entering various areas of pop culture, school yards, and the music and fashion industries. It’s a weaponized phrase deployed to put down Asian diaspora women, to make us the joke. It's used to reduce Asian and Asian-American women to sex objects. Asian hate crimes have disproportionately been an Asian women’s issue. Sixty-one percent of reported incidents happened to Asian and Asian diaspora women, largely due to the hypersexualization of them. While this should have happened ages ago, now is the time to make sure the use of this phrase as a weapon to belittle and objectify Asian and Asian-American women stops.
While many think the phrase started in 1989 with a 2 Live Crew track in which female vocals ooze “Me so horny. Me love you long time,” the words were originally spoken by actress Papillon Soo Soo, who portrays a Vietnamese sex worker soliciting American GIs in the 1987 Stanley Kubrick film, Full Metal Jacket.
Unfortunately, we can’t ask the men who wrote the movie—Kubrick, Michael Herr, and Gustav Hasford (whose novel, The Short-Timers, became the movie), all of whom are dead—what their intentions were when they wrote that line of dialogue. From the reactions of the soldiers in the scene, it appears the Asian female character was being mocked.
As for the accuracy of the usage of the phrase, I spoke with Pulitzer Prize-winning author Robert Olen Butler, who was in his twenties when he served as a translator in the American War in Vietnam. “My sense of the phrase is its inextricable relationship to a comparable phrase: The ‘short-timer;’” Butler says. “A short-timer was a young woman who was willing to sell temporary time and access to her body. I had a strong sense that very few, if any, of the ‘short-timers’ were hardened prostitutes.” He says that “long time” means the women's availability over the duration of the soldier's tour or beyond.
Through the years, “Me love you long time” has mutated beyond a phrase related to a Vietnamese sex worker. Unfortunately, it’s become a way to put down any Asian-looking woman virtually unchecked. The phrase is pervasive in mainstream entertainment. It's in South Park and Family Guy, in 40 Year Old Virgin and Tommy Boy. Even non-Asian women have appropriated the phrase in the music world. Fergie’s used it in a track, as well as Nelly Furtado and Mariah Carey. Some have likened it to reclaiming the word “bitch,” but, because of its harmful use specifically towards Asian women, I believe that only women of the Asian diaspora should be the ones reclaiming it.
The phrase has also become so commonplace over the years that some feel comfortable enough to use it in a professional setting. A story from Chicago went viral in July 2019 when Connie Cheung, a twenty-seven year-old Chinese-American job applicant, got an email that she was accidentally copied on. In it, one male interviewer refers to Cheung as “me love you long time,” mocking her application.
Those five words are just a small, relatively recent part of the story of Asian and Asian diaspora women shown to be the inaccurate fantasies of non-Asian writers. Stereotypes of Asian women either being a demure flower or dragon lady have been rampant throughout entertainment history. From Madame Butterfly (1904) to Miss Saigon (1989), Full Metal Jacket is just part of a line of Asian female identifying characters to be classified as self-sacrificial for white male domination. You see it in The Quiet American starring Michael Caine. In The Karate Kid II. In The Last Samurai. For far too long, Asian female characters have had no agency and serve as “exotic” partners making tea for and/or bathing white men.
Viet Thanh Nguyen, winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and public intellectual, denounced the musical Miss Saigon in the New York Times on August 3, 2019. When I spoke with Nguyen recently about “me love you long time,” he said, “It's a terrible phrase that became a racist/sexist way for people to provoke Asian/Asian-American women. It was sampled by 2 Live Crew, which probably helped to account for its popularity, which shows that orientalism is both black and white.”
People of varying cultural backgrounds think it’s possible to alter phrase’s place in history from here on out.
In Season one of Hulu’s hit Emmy nominated show PEN15, a white boy, who bullies the half-Japanese lead created and portrayed by Maya Erskine, says “me love you long time.” When I asked Erskine about this episode, she said boys would hurl “me love you long time” at her in middle school in Los Angeles. The show, which has deftly tackled racism, has been renewed for a new season.
Lauren Bradley, a script coordinator at Dreamworks thinks transforming the phrase will be difficult. “At it's core, it's about reducing Vietnamese women to an accent and sex work,” she told me. “But I think the more blowback white people get for saying it, the better. I also think it's the duty of people in control of culture—entertainment, fashion, etc.—to not use it as a joke. Eventually the phrase will work its way out of common lexicon if future generations don't see it as effective.”
Bing Chen, a Chinese-American, is the founder of Gold House Collective, which has been a booster for films with Asian-American leads. Bing's advice: “Stereotypical mockery seeks ownership. Phrasing like this compartmentalizes how communities are spoken to, how they're (mis)treated, and, therefore, what they are capable of achieving within the ‘owner's’ system. But to paraphrase Toni Morrison, definitions do not belong to the defined—they belong to the definers. Halting the persistence of racist sentiments isn't just incumbent on the perpetrators—it's up to us.”
Full Metal Jacket’s official tagline is “Vietnam can kill me, but it can’t make me care..." We need the world to care and to respond to how Asian diaspora women are treated globally. Stop using that phrase, and calling out those who do, is just one small yet significant way to help.
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