On Safety as an Asian Woman

It’s not always safe to go out as an Asian woman, but I lean on the strength of my ancestors before me.

I was sixteen and stuck on a chairlift.

I had just learned how to snowboard and this was another exciting weekend on the local mountain. I was having fun, so when the chairlift came and I ended up next to three tall, white boys in their late teens/early twenties, I didn’t think much of it.

The boys were loud, swore a lot, and intimidating. Like many ski/board bros I’ve seen, they refused to pull down the safety bar.

Then, one of them said something along these lines:

“Man, there are so many Asian girls on the mountain today. Asian girls are so hot. I want to fuck all the Asian girls.”

I don’t remember his exact words. Maybe he didn’t say “fuck,” I’m not sure. All I remember is how I felt. Scared. Offended. Grossed out. And trapped.

There was nowhere to go. Unless I wanted to shatter my bones by jumping off the lift, I would have to wait until the top of the hill.

Then I heard one guy say, in a lower voice, “Wait…is that person Asian?” in reference to me. I was in full snowboarding gear — helmet, goggles, facemask, baggy clothes — so I wasn’t very identifiable.

I couldn’t hear the rest of the conversation, but the moment we touched down at the top, I took off my goggles. I wanted the guy to see my Asian face. I wanted him to feel embarrassed. I wanted him to regret what he said.

Sidenote: For those interested in allyship, please read to the end of this article for resources.

Thankfully, I haven’t had to deal with much overt racism in my life. I live in Vancouver, one of the most Asian cities outside of Asia. And unlike my peers who are first-generation immigrants, I was born and raised in Canada.

As a child, I attended a white church and learned how to be a good Canadian; that is, I always stop at the crosswalk, I hold doors open for people behind me, and I say “sorry” when someone bumps into me. If a stranger approaches me and asks for a spare toonie, it’s likely I’ll give it to them with a, “Take care, bud.”

I mention these details because they give me an advantage when navigating life as a racial minority. These seemingly small things allow me to blend in a way that many Asian women can’t.

I wanted the guy to see my Asian face. I wanted him to feel embarrassed. I wanted him to regret what he said.

Yet I’ve always felt like my Canadianness was questioned. I’ve always felt like a foreigner despite not knowing anywhere else as home.

Figuring out my Canadianness and my Chineseness is a topic I write about a lot. And usually, this means I write about food, language, and quirky cultural customs.

But today, I want to talk about something more serious: basic safety.

It blows my mind that some people—especially men like this one—still don’t realize how dangerous it is for a woman to walk alone at night.

I thought my dad was being overprotective when he’d stay up to make sure I got home okay. But while I couldn’t find hard statistics on this, I do know that several cases of street assault in Vancouver have been on Asian women.

In terms of, well, convenience, it makes sense to target Asian women because many of us are small. While Asia is a very diverse continent with people of all colours, shapes, and sizes, many Asian people are on the small side. As you can see from this map, the shortest women in the world are in the South East Asia region.

I mention these details because they give me an advantage when navigating life as a racial minority. These seemingly small things allow me to blend in a way that many Asian women can’t.

At 4’11”, I am a small person, even relative to other Asians. My feet can’t be flat on the ground when I ride Vancouver transit. Imagine my delight when I visited Japan and could sit comfortably on the train with my feet on the floor!

But the worst thing about being small is that you’re an easy target. My parents understood that there will always be the scary possibility that I’d be attacked on the street and left for dead.

This is why the recent Atlanta shooting that left six Asian women dead hit so close to home. And why the recent spike in anti-Asian violence also hits so close to home.

Because, as Asian women, we know that violence against us is nothing new. Mainstream society is just starting to realize and acknowledge it.

And then there is the sexualization and fetishization of Asian women.

I’ve only gone clubbing a handful of times (and most of those times were in queer spaces) so I haven’t experienced that many unwanted sexual solicitations. I am what your grandparents might call a “modest” woman in this regard.

But even so-called modest women can have sketchy things happen to them through no fault of their own.

A few years ago, I was minding my own business at a café. It was broad daylight, not nighttime, and the café was at a busy intersection, not some dark alley. The man sitting next to me suddenly started chatting me up. Me being a Nice Canadian, I chatted back.

It was all good until, out of nowhere, he started asking probing questions about my race.

He just seemed…a little too interested in my race. Where are you from? Here. Canada. No, where are you from? Well, I was born in Toronto — Scarborough, specifically — but my family moved west when I was three to be closer to my grandparents. But…??? Oh. You want to know that I’m Chinese.

As Asian women, we know that violence against us is nothing new. Mainstream society is just starting to realize and acknowledge it.

It got even weirder when he told me he performed massages…and offered to give me one. “I could even come to your house!” he said. Like having a strange man come to my house and touch my body was some perk I just won a coupon for.

I shut down the conversation quickly, and I’m relieved that it worked. Because it could have gotten worse.

After all, I’m well-trained in Nice Canadianness — that is, whiteness. I’ve been told I have a strong Canadian accent, which may have saved me from being shoehorned into Naïve Innocent Asian Chick, Exotic Black Woman, Feisty Latina, or any of the other sexualized stereotypes of women of colour.

Now, unlike the snowboarders, Café Masseur wasn’t white. I’m not sure what his ethnicity was (I don’t care about people’s ethnicities as much as he did, evidently), but that doesn’t mean Asian fetishization isn’t the fault of white supremacy.

Over the last few days, I’ve seen countless tweets and comments along these lines: “But most of the anti-Asian attackers have been Black! Therefore, stop blaming white supremacy!”

Sorry, but white supremacy is still to blame. Trying to shift the blame to Black people is deferring responsibility.

Because, if you don’t remember, it was a white man who popularized “China virus” and “kung flu.” That white man was the most powerful person in the world when he said that.

And it was a white man who murdered eight people and then had his actions described as the result of a “bad day.”

Yes, several individuals of colour were responsible for violent altercations. But the people who invented the violence — and lest we forget, anti-Asian racism has a long history in the U.S. and Canada — were white supremacists.

Let me be clear: I don’t hate white people. What I hate is white supremacy, which can come in many guises. If I’m being honest, I’ve been guilty of white supremacy myself.

And if I, an Asian woman of colour, can own up to racist mistakes, you can too.

When I think of Asian women, I don’t see hypersexualized and fetishized anime girls that satisfy the problematic urges of racist men.

When I think of Asian women, I see 75-year-old Xiao Zhen Xie. She was attacked, unprovoked, in broad daylight by a white man nearly half her age — and she fought back. She fought back so well that she put the young man in a stretcher. When I think of Asian women, I see badass elders like her.

When I think of Asian women, I don’t see submissive women yearning to be rescued by white men. I see these fashionable ladies:

Black and white old photo of two young Chinese women lounge posing in long, floral gowns, 1910s/1920s style bob haircuts.
My great-grandmother and great-aunt. (Photo provided by author)

A few months ago, I told my parents I wanted to investigate our family history. My grand-aunt sent me this photo of my great-grandmother and her sister.

I am told that they were among the first unmarried women in Canton to cut their hair short. My great-grandmother also broke tradition by wearing a western wedding gown and having a married friend be her bridesmaid.

My ancestors weren’t trailblazing, feminist activists who upturned patriarchal laws — most of our ancestors weren’t— but they challenged barriers in their own way.

Sorry, but white supremacy is still to blame.

When I think of Asian women, I see my grandmother. I see her fleeing the Imperial Japanese Army on horseback as a seven-year-old. If she hadn’t survived World War II, I wouldn’t be here.

When I think of Asian women, I see my mother, whose English skills are better than the vast majority of native English speakers I’ve met. She taught me to love reading, and then later, writing.

When I think of Asian women, I hear the names of the eight people who lost their lives, including six Asian women:

  • Soon Chung Park
  • Suncha Kim
  • Hyun Jung Grant
  • Delaina Ashley Yaun
  • Paul Andre Michels
  • Yong A Yue
  • Daoyou Feng
  • Xiaojie Tan

Further Reading

If you want to practice good allyship and understand further the marginalizations of Asian women, please read these pieces by Asian woman writers:

  • “Why Yellow Fever Is Different Than ‘Having a Type’” by Chin Lu in The Bold Italic
  • “Asian Women Are Not a ‘Temptation’” by Yasmin Tayag in GEN
  • “The Atlanta Shooting and the Dehumanizing of Asian Women” by Jiayang Fan in The New Yorker
  • “White Fragility Is a Disease, and It Just Killed Six Asian Women” by Frankie Huang in The Daily Beast
  • “The history of fetishizing Asian women” by Rachel Ramirez in Vox
  • “How Racism and Sexism Intertwine to Torment Asian-American Women” by Shaila Dewan in The New York Times

For examples of good allyship, check out these:

Li Charmaine Anne (she/they) is a Canadian author and freelance writer on unceded Coast Salish territories (aka Vancouver, Canada). Her work has appeared in literary journals and magazines and she is at work on her first novel, a contemporary YA about queer Asian skater girls. To read Charmaine’s articles for free (no subscription required), sign up for her newsletter.

(She/They) Author on unceded Coast Salish territories (Vancouver, Canada). At work on first novel. Get links to read my stuff for free: https://bit.ly/2MleRqJ

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