By Anastasia Volkoff
Exotic /iɡˈzädik/ adjective: “introduced from another country; strikingly, excitingly, or
mysteriously different or unusual.”
I have a complicated relationship with the word “exotic.” The word itself evokes images
of foreignness, separating those it categorizes from a cultural norm. Like many Asian American
women in predominantly white spaces, “exotic” has been the most conclusive description of my
appearance for as long as I can remember. Although this label has been applied in a context
beyond my intimate relationships, its usage by white men, in particular, has forced me to
question the point at which my exoticism makes me an “other” within Western society.
White men have called me “exotic”, a euphemistic way of saying “not white but
somewhat attractive,” in comparison to their mostly white past partners. While the women they
had been with were fair, familiar, and palatable, I was quite the opposite. My darker coloring
contrasted the appearance of their typical girl, a stain on their otherwise unadulterated white
histories. I was not one of “them,” nor was I viewed as such. My existence was (is, and will
continue to be) squished into the restrictive narrative of an Asian sexual fantasy.
The fetishization of Asian women has a long-standing history in American culture. It has
extended its pervasive roots through landmark legislation in the nineteenth century into the
modern-day. Although legal policy may have changed throughout the years, white society’s
obsession with Asian sexuality has not. With “hentai” (erotic anime), “Japanese,” and “Asian” all
placing within the top 10 most popular searches on PornHub in 2021, Asian women continue to
be reduced to a one-dimensional fetish.
Starting in 1875, the Page Act was enacted to restrict Asian women from immigrating to
the United States. As a predecessor to the more commonly known Chinese Exclusion Act of
1882, the Page Act was one of the first federally implemented laws deterring immigration.
During this period, the anti-Asian sentiment in the United States was already raging. With more
and more Asians immigrating because of the Gold Rush, the racial purity of white American
lineage was jeopardized. At the same time, the concern that Asian immigrants were taking jobs
from white, low-wage laborers was heightened. Asian women became the perfect scapegoat for
white Americans’ fears.
Banning Asian women from immigrating to the United States was a way to prevent racial
mixing and suppress growing Asian communities. Asian women were considered a sexual
threat to the white-Anglo social order. They were labeled as “promiscuous”, “prostitutes”, and
“sexually submissive”-stereotypes that continue to reveal themselves time and time again
throughout history and media. Musicals from the 19th and 20th-century such as Madame
Chrysanthème (1893) and Miss Saigon (1989) play into the damaging trope that Asian women
are at the disposal of white men’s sexual desires.
Personally, Miss Saigon strikes a chord. The musical, written by Claude-Michel
Schönberg and Alain Boublil, tells the story of an American GI who falls in love with Kim, a
Vietnamese prostitute, while fighting in the Vietnam War. After Chris returns home to America,
Kim sends their son to live with Chris and his wife with the hope that he will be given a better
future. In the end, Kim is left with nothing. Her character is robbed of both a happy ending and
an identity beyond her “rescue” at the hands of a white man.
There is a misconception that we are willing to submit to white men because we need to
be saved––that we are not strong enough to exist as sovereign individuals. The “Lotus
Blossom” trope represents us as fragile and helpless. It sends a message to viewers that Asian
women are so powerless that we will allow ourselves to be used over and over again as an
exotic fantasy. The rape and prostitution of Asian women that originated with imperialism helped
create the stereotype of the submissive “Lotus Blossom”. It also gave birth to Orientalism, the
principle by which the West is viewed as strong and the East as weak. Women are already
viewed as the weaker gender––coupled with these racial stereotypes, Asian women are seen
as frail, and their bodies, disposable.
As a community, we have been forced to watch these misconceptions give rise to
violence. The Atlanta spa killings on March 16, 2021, in which six Asian women were shot and
killed, act as a testament to the lasting consequences of the damaging sexual stereotypes
assigned to Asian women. The perpetrator, Robert Aaron Long, used his “sex addiction” as a
justification for the killings, sending a message that our lives are expendable, serving to quell
the sexual desires of white men.
We are by no means incapable. As the fight against outdated narratives and anti-Asian
hate continues, we prevail. We have risen above centuries of bigotry and have thrived in a
country where our existence has been unwelcomed. We are educators, professionals, mothers,
activists, and artists. We have established ourselves despite the obstacles, growing our families
and passing on our cultures throughout generations. Our histories, our fights, and our lives are
too rich to simply be distilled into nothing more than “exotic.”