I’m in the sixth grade when a boy tells me “You would be really pretty if you weren’t Asian.” At twelve years old, he says this with no ill intent, no rancor in his voice—it’s a sincere observation, innocently insensitive in a sixth-grade-boy way. Seven years later, I’m in college. Things are going pretty well for me. I retell this story—to friends, to an audience at a TEDx event—so many times that the words become almost funny. Illogical. How absurd it is, the implication of choice—waking up one day and simply deciding to Not Be Asian.
His remarks still left indelible impressions on me, though. Being able to laugh at his earnestness, the strangeness of the sentiment, doesn’t change that. Intentional or not, I was taught that my Asian features were unattractive well before I was even old enough to know anything about sexual or romantic attraction. Now, as a college student, I am by all means interested in casual sex. Yet rarely am I ever willing to actually pursue hookups. I’m incredibly careful about the people with whom I share my body. (So if you’re reading this and we’ve hooked up, feel honored! Or, on a more serious note, thank you for making me feel comfortable enough to not think about my, uh, flawed relationship with my cultural identity!)
Anyway. I’ve been called a tease by multiple guys with whom I refused to hook up, but I would never admit that my reluctance to do so stems from the part of me that still believes being Asian makes me ugly. And I would never admit that the things I hear around campus sometimes make me want to give up on hookups altogether. They’re like decidedly less sincere reincarnations of the sixth-grade words: I wouldn’t go for it—he’s not really into Asian girls. Or Asian chicks just aren’t my type. You know the vibes.
Listen. Being rejected is a part of life—you’re not going to be everyone’s cup of tea. I get that. At risk of sounding like an incel, I disclaim that I’m not trying to whine about how random guys aren’t into me. But I’m bothered by comments like these because of the immediate mention of race. I’m bothered because, instead of simply saying “she’s not my type,” they say “Asian chicks aren’t my type,” attributing perceived unattractiveness directly to race.
Of course attraction can be largely determined by one’s physical traits, and one’s physical traits are largely determined by race, meaning that “Asian chicks aren’t my type” may very well be a simple expression for preference of non-Asian features. But isn’t it depressing to think about how you—and billions of people who share your race—can be immediately deemed unattractive because of things you cannot change? And isn’t it incorrect to assume that all Asian features look the same, or manifest in the same patterns on every Asian person? Attraction is inextricably linked to race, but the ways we speak about these concepts need not be so general.
The common thread between these comments and that sixth-grade one is the simple idea that being Asian makes one ugly. Sometimes, though, you get lucky! Instead of being told I’d be really pretty if I wasn’t Asian, I sometimes heard I was “really pretty for an Asian.”
Funny how life switches up on you, right? This one comes disguised as a compliment, a backhanded one. It’s well-meaning, to be sure. But despite these “honest, well-meaning observations,” writes Nikita Redkar of Everyday Feminism, “adding race into it is more a reflection of your personal biases.” The issue is in the implication of surprise: you’re pretty for a group of people I generally assume is entirely unattractive. “You’re pretty for an Asian” calls you attractive, then uses your race to diminish it.
Julie Feng, writer for The Body Is Not An Apology, posits that the bodily characteristics of Asian people are frequently “qualified with a conjunction”—they are constantly described as pretty, hot, attractive, but rarely without the adjunct addition of “Asian.” “Racialized people,” says Feng, “cannot escape the ‘for/because’ clause of their bodies. A tall Asian person is ‘tall for an Asian person.’ A short Asian person is ‘short because they’re an Asian person.’ A white person, however, gets to be ‘tall’ or ‘short.’ White people get the privilege of being seen as ‘people,’ sans qualifier.”
What I want from casual college hookups is to exist, to be spoken about, without limitations or modifiers. I’d like to be ugly without it being because I look Asian. I’d like to be hot without it being because I look less Asian. Ideally, I’d like to be a hot person who just happens to be Asian. I don’t believe in not seeing race, either. I do want people to acknowledge that part of me—I just don’t want it to be the only thing they see.
And so for me, inhabiting an Asian body, having a face with Asian features, has made hookup culture slightly difficult to navigate. It can be frustrating, going out knowing that my Asianness will often be the first and most important thing people notice. (Also? If I’m being candid here—it’s annoying that my issues with hookup culture have to be about race. Like, I could have had problems with getting attached too quickly, or problems with intimacy, but I don’t. Instead, I have...this. Fucking why.)
Fortunately, not everyone is like this. College has introduced me to more people who don’t say things like this than people who do. I was slightly shocked during my first semester when boys wanted to know my name, wanted to dance with me, wanted to take me home—so shocked that, as mentioned earlier, I rarely reciprocated. In September, an attractive guy tried to kiss me at a bar and I pulled away, telling him I was “a bad kisser.” (In retrospect, there was probably a better way to go about this.) A month later, a boy wanted me to leave the club and go home with him. I couldn’t do it.
Why? I was always waiting for the catch. I was always waiting for them to reveal that they were kidding, that they simply took pity on me and were performing an act of charity. I can’t blame any of these people. They meant no harm—but my personal insecurity had begun to tangle with my actual desire to follow through with hooking up. It felt like no amount of validation could undo the years of internalized racism telling me I couldn’t be simultaneously Asian and pretty.
I don’t think most people even know that this is, or ever was, an issue for me. I guess it’s because these things are so deeply ingrained in me that habits like “waiting for the catch” have become subconscious. When I ask my friends to describe me, they call me confident, easy to talk to. I’m a social person. I like going out. There are no visible indicators that it would be this difficult for me to engage in hookup culture.
And are there ever any? Is there ever going to be a good way of saying to guys I can’t hook up with you because other guys have said fucked-up stuff to me, and it was years ago but it’s still led me to believe that I’m ugly and you’re lying? Absolutely not. Which means that all there’s left for me to do is unlearn the internalized. Teach this body to accept when people want it.
The hardest part of this process has been training my brain not to add conjunctions when there aren’t any said. A boy called me pretty at a party in January and I spent an hour rehashing this very simple statement with my friends until I’d convinced myself that he hadn’t really meant it. That he had probably meant for an Asian. But when I really think about it, I can now tell myself: he never said that. He isn’t like every guy who wronged you in your childhood. If race wasn’t mentioned, I can’t assume that race is even on his mind.
Appearance, too, has been difficult, although less so. I’m pretty secure in the way I look, and I have no desire to change any of my features. I have, however, learned to stop trying so hard to separate them from my Asianness, because not every single person who looks at me is only going to see race. My monolid eyes, the literally nonexist bridge of my flat-ass nose, and my dark hair are all features very closely intertwined with being Asian. But that’s okay. Besides, I like Asian me. She’s cute.
And so I’ve been better. Once I worked on myself, everything else came naturally. I’ve been lucky to meet people with whom things instantly felt...good. I don’t mean that I went home with every guy I talked to at every party I attended. I just mean that, at the very least, I talked to them. I didn’t assume the worst. And when I did experiment more sexually, things were good. I was comfortable, safe, respected. I wasn’t looking for anything serious, so I think it’s entirely possible to meet people in casual situations who can teach you well, watch you learn, and, on top of it all, not be racist.
Above all, I’m proud of myself for doing the things that used to scare me so much. I’m starting to realize that there are, in fact, people in this world who think that I’m pretty. And that’s it. Not “for an Asian girl.” Not “if I were white.” Just plain pretty. To them, my race isn’t at all a detriment to my appearance. I have to remind myself that if they believe it, so should I. I am pretty, and I am Asian, and neither of these things are because of or in spite of each other. They simply are.
Illustration by Raven Yamamoto