When I was 11 my neighbour told my first crush that I liked him. Later he relayed his reaction back to a group of us on the driveway, bare feet padding up and down on the late afternoon concrete.
He said he doesn’t like Asian cunts.
My neighbour winced involuntarily at the word. Even before Googling it, something about the way it spat out the mouth imitated poison.
I absorbed the shock like violence. With an exaggerated eye roll, I mounted my bike and rode away – the beginnings of a polished nonchalance cultivated throughout adolescence.
The irony was that my crush was himself half Asian.
My first real love years later, was a boy who could have been the grown up version of that crush. They had the same sharp jaw and ethnic mix – the only difference being that he conceded to return my affections for some time. It seems likely that on some level I sought out his love as a salve for the broken promise of that first crush – that I had still been searching for some vindication for my pre-adolescent self.
Early on, I came to understand that my personhood was definable by my ethnicity foremost, then my gender and my looks. I felt gratified each time I was told that I was a “cool Asian” or a “pretty Asian”. It never occurred to me that I was passively – eagerly – internalising harmful messages about myself because I so deeply desired acceptance.
To protect myself, I took nothing but a critically detached interest in the white boys my girlfriends dated. I constructed my personality around the trope of the sarcastic Asian sidekick, a persona that relegated me to the background – nonthreatening and untouchable. Yet, it was an identity that I could finally inhabit freely.
It served my ego that there were Asian boys who took some interest in me, but I was quietly conscious that such a pairing was somehow undesirable. When I briefly dated one, we were mistaken for brother and sister on more than one occasion. This confirmed one of my deepest fears. To them, weren’t we all just sexless members of one massive, monolid, extended family?
This insecurity still overwhelmingly influences my interactions with men, despite the fact that I now live in a country where I belong to the ethnic majority:
An Asian cunt among Asian cunts.
In my early twenties, I rushed through first dates; wilfully intoxicating myself in anticipation of sloppy, impersonal sex. I used my body to win the validation of undeserving boys. I was fully aware of the cognitive dissonance inherent in my actions and so I labeled the experiences “exercises in sexual freedom”.
What I have learned from numerous UTIs is that sexual freedom is not the same as free sex. The former has something to do with embracing intimacy from a place of strength. I have been using sex to get over an adolescence of feeling othered.
I am acutely aware of the fact that my accent, paired with my face, makes me somewhat of a commodity in this city. I am Asian Girl-lite for white men starting out in Asia-lite. Singapore is an appealing city to the white expat man, with its resplendence of rooftop bars and easy access to exotic cunt.
The fact that I embody that exotic cunt while speaking like them seems to make me more palatable, like an order of sashimi with a side of hot chips. The attention is disorienting and flattering and sickening all at once, and has an inverse resonance with my teenage experience.
You speak such good English, I am frequently told.
I’ll slit your throat. I smile back.
I know too that despite my best intentions, attempts to “decolonise” romantic relationships are unfairly burdensome. Jenny Zhang writes in Rookie (Far Away From Me, April 2015) of the “paralyzing” pressures put on women of colour to align their politics with their personal lives: “To make sure that everyone whose mouths we want to kiss and faces we want to touch have to be thoroughly vetted and pose no difficulty […] to our beliefs.” Such rigorous appraisals are an inevitably sobering prospect for a fledgling romance.
My best friend back in Australia is blessedly carefree in matters of the heart. She goes on dates and takes for granted that men are attracted to her because she is interesting and fun and beautiful. She never has to account for the multitudes of ways her ethnicity might impact on an interaction.
When she reminds me to play it cool with a guy, I can’t find the words to explain how, after an adolescence spent at a distance, I often feel lucky to be on the receiving end of white male attention. That I nevertheless second guess any attention I receive because it is so often predicated on sexualised assumptions about Asian women.
When a guy did not make a move after a first date, I descended into a spiral of anxiety. I assumed that I must have said or done something, or that there was something intimately wrong with me. It never occurred to me that he simply wanted to get to know me. That my Asian body was not my only resource to plunder.
I want to claim my race and my ethnicity. To look at myself and simply see myself. I don’t want to shrink from my skin and disavow the people I am from. I want to accept my Asian body as a neutral one and not a body that is fraught with meaning.
I am an Asian cunt.