When I moved to New York, the city was in the middle of a heat wave — a languid heat that I didn’t know to expect and was wholly unprepared for, even coming from Texas. I didn’t understand the subway system, even after two months of living in downtown Manhattan, and rather than trying to figure out its labyrinthine ways, I just walked everywhere. Mostly I walked from the apartment I shared with my oldest sister on the edge of Chinatown where it butts up against Tribeca, east on Canal, up Broadway, to the Barnes & Noble perched on the north end of Union Square.
I often took refuge in the cafe located on one of its upper floors, buying an iced tea and grabbing a magazine, determined to while away a couple of hours in the blessed air conditioning.
One day, a white guy in his mid-thirties sitting at a table next to me, his head bald and gleaming, asked, “Do you like kayaking?” (To this day, I am confused by his opening gambit.)
Caught off guard, I said, “No.” He leaned in closer and began whispering, “I love Asian women. You wanna know why?”
I was a still-tender 19-year-old who hadn’t yet learned that there are some people in the world I could just ignore or walk away from, and so I asked him why.
“Because you’re hairless. Is your pussy hairless?”
He continued to talk of his love of Asian women in porn — he loved how young they (we) look, their (our) smooth bodies. He asked me if I wanted to go kayaking with him in Central Park, and suddenly the thought of being in any sort of proximity of him made me sick. That was the moment when I got up and walked away.
Of course, what I can’t flee from is my body, this Asian body, this young Asian woman’s body, as much as moments like this make me want to. This body has followed me around my entire life.
Does the universe sometimes provide what you need in life? I think most of history has shown that the answer is no, but what sometimes does happen is that out of sheer dumb luck, you spy something that could maybe help, if you decide to grab on to it.
For me, as a preteen on the cusp of adolescence, it was a mass-market romance novel called A Knight in Shining Armor by Jude Deveraux. My oldest sister was a fan, and I happened to spy it in her bookcase one day.
I still don’t know what drew me in. It could’ve been boredom: I was a voracious reader, having little else to do but read, as my parents eschewed things like television, pop music, and movies — not out of any sort of cultural elitism or skinflint immigrant desire to deprive their children of as many opportunities to waste time as possible, but simply because they were too broke and too tired from working 12- and 15-hour days to think that we might want those distractions.
It might have been the cover, which described the book as “A glorious love story… the epitome of every woman’s fantasy...”
Perhaps it was the word “fantasy” and the ellipsis that came after it, promising... what, exactly? I didn’t know, but I suspected it would have something to do with the sinuously rumpled peach silk and roses and baby’s breath splayed on the front of the book. Over the course of one afternoon, curled like a shrimp in the bunk bed of the room that I shared with my younger brother, I found out.
It’s not an exaggeration to say that A Knight in Shining Armor was like a drug to me. Other books gave me a contact high, but this cheesy, over-the-top romance about time travel and a hunky British medieval earl and the hapless American woman who loves him and solves the mystery of who is trying to kill him and ends up not only saving his life but rescuing his reputation for posterity (I know, I know) shot through my young veins and straight to the pleasure center of my brain. I swear my body must have hummed through the entire book.
In one of the final scenes and what I would argue is the climax (no pun intended) of the story, the heroine, Dougless Montgomery, and her lover, Earl of Thornwyck Nicholas Stafford, are splashing around in a fountain on his mid-16th-century estate in England, right before she’s whisked back to the present day:
Nicholas rolled with her until she was on her back, and his passion rose as he entered her deeply, her body rising to meet his. They arched together, both with their heads back, then they collapsed, Nicholas on top of her, holding her very tightly.
"I love you," he whispered. "I will love you for all time."
Dougless clung to him, holding him as tightly as she could. "You will remember me? You won't forget me?"
"Never," he said. "Never will I forget you. Were I to die tomorrow, my soul would remember you."
"Don't speak of death. Speak only of life. With you I am alive. With you I am whole."
"And I with you." He rolled to one side and pulled her close to him. "Look, you. The sun comes up."
I cried. I was hooked. It taught me that, at its core, being a woman has something to do with dampness — a mixture of maudlin tears and the absurd quickening that happens between your legs.
From there, I consumed so many Regency-era romance novels full of British virgins that I actually believed my hymen would break when I had sex for the first time, and I would feel some sort of ripping in my insides. I read my fair share of bodice rippers that in retrospect were disturbingly rapey. I read cheap Harlequin romances that my sisters bought in bulk at the supermarket. At one point, I discovered the saccharine ocean that is Nora Roberts, and gleefully plunged in.
These novels found me at a time when I was beginning to grasp that the way others saw me, their gaze, could be intensely painful. I was one of three Asian kids in a school that was mostly white and Latino, where kids were casually cruel in a way that young people often are.
Earlier that year, a classmate of mine had devised a sort of ranking system that only middle school girls with too much time on their hands can come up with. Her system, curiously, was based on carrots — with each carrot representing one part of the body that had already matured and blossomed, or, at the very least, was supposed to. I don’t quite remember which body parts she chose to evaluate — I’m pretty sure one was for breasts, one for height, and another for the butt. In the locker room after gym one day, she eyed me critically and said, “You don’t have any carrots.”
I don’t think I said anything in response; as a child, I tended to escape these moments by absorbing these psychic insults and punches like a neutered prizefighter, with hardly a grunt or acknowledgement that they landed. I knew what she meant, though — that my body was somehow wrong.
Is it any wonder, then, that I reached for the escape offered by these books? (The coda to that hot, sticky summer day when I was 19 and I fled from that Barnes & Noble is that I went straight home, turned on the fan, grabbed the latest pulp novel next to my cheap Ikea futon, and drifted away on my own personal bliss cloud.)
These paperbacks, and they’re always paperbacks — disparaged by so many as “trash” and the lowest rung of “women’s fiction” — were the balm that I turned to, and still turn to, when I need to escape.
Because here’s the secret, the most seductive, complicated pleasure of all: I’m drawn to them because I don't see myself in any of these stories about love and lust and desire, not in spite of it — because most romance novels are filled with white people falling in love and having sex with other white people. It may seem counterintuitive, but their overwhelming whiteness is one of the aspects I love most about them.
I find relief in the fact that I never see myself in their pages (for the most part — Nora Roberts once wrote a novel where a peripheral character was Korean American and a doctor, natch, and I deeply resented this intrusion into my fantasy land).
I love that I never experience that shock of recognition, and thus I never have to think about how someone who looks like me, with my body, is represented on the page and lives in the world. In these fictional fantasy worlds, not only does racism not exist — race doesn’t exist, at least in the ways that we live and experience it on a daily basis. There are no men who feel the need to fetishize unsuspecting young girls, no bad first dates with guys who ask you why Chinese people eat dogs, no middle school mean girls, no white women who get in your face and scream “Go back to China” when all you’re trying to do is get on the train and go home. In the world of the romance novel, your body is just a body that gets to fall in love and experience several volcanic orgasms in a row, and in this world, when you Google “Asian women,” you probably would get a 404 error page instead of dozens of links on how to find a sexy Asian girlfriend of your very own.
Moving through the world as a woman, as an Asian woman, is exhausting.
Race fatigue (also known as racial battle fatigue) is what sometimes sets in if you’re the kind of person who is constantly thinking about race and experiencing being othered, a certain weariness that comes from monitoring every interaction for a sign that the other person thinks you’re less than. Layer being a woman on top of that, and it’s as if I have an immune system that’s always on a low-grade alert and ready to defend my body and my sense of self against any perceived intrusion or attack. I’m constantly inflamed, like a paper cut that refuses to entirely heal.
It’s the fatigue that comes from being hypercognizant of race and gender, of the way that your body is seen, in a way that white men (and often white women as well) don’t have to be. The writer Eula Biss posits that guilt is the dominant emotion of whiteness in the U.S., but I suspect that it’s actually something else, and its core is something very different from guilt. Guilt implies a recognition of responsibility, culpability -- knowing that you’ve violated some sort of unspoken social contract. The only social contract that exists in this country is this: You’re supposed to know when it’s OK to be racist, and when you have to hide it.
Much like a medically induced coma helps our brains heal from trauma, escape is often just a way to survive the very fact that we have to live in our bodies.
Romance novels are often called “porn for women.” While there are many who are uncomfortable with this description, for me, the two, one visual and the other literary, are twinned together as ways that women experience our sexuality and see it depicted. (The romantic comedy is perhaps the other sister in that holy trinity.)
In both, there’s a certain kind of freedom in watching, reading, and experiencing lust, desire, pleasure — and not seeing myself in any of it, or the male gaze that turns and trains itself on me. There's a freedom in identifying with the white woman who, more often than I do, just gets to be a person. Because it’s a truth that the default for human in this country is still white, and white people porn is still just porn.
There’s a genre of porn that I like to think of as “massage porn.” It’s my favorite, oddly enough, given the trope of the happy-ending massage in seamy Asian massage parlors, and the typical narrative is this: An unsuspecting woman strips down for what she thinks will be a PG-13 massage, wriggles her way to the table, and, well, we all know what happens next.
In the one that I watch most often, which can be found on a variety of free porn sites that litter the internet, a perky blonde cheerleader who says she’s 18 and from Oklahoma is oiled up like a baby pig by the burly male masseur. He then proceeds to give her what looks like the world’s worst massage, and then the money shot, for me at least, comes when the camera zooms in, offering a close-up of her shaved vulva and his fingers and tongue.
I tried once to watch a similar scene with Asa Akira, arguably the most famous Asian porn star in the world. She’s undeniably hot, and a self-proclaimed feminist to boot. But I only lasted a couple of minutes before I had to close my browser window, my whole body flushed with an uncomfortable and distinctly unsexy heat.
The video starts with her narrating the experience of the white guy she’s giving a massage to, with what’s best described as chopstick music playing in the background: “Recently, while visiting the Orient, I experienced my first full-body massage. The woman who gave it, a lovely Asian girl, touched me like I've never been touched before.”
Is your pussy hairless?
The essayist and novelist Roxane Gay writes, “It makes perfect sense that many of us obsess over our bodies,” because, after all, “[o]ur bodies move us through our lives.” We obsess over our bodies precisely because we can’t escape them.
And yet despite our fundamental inability to escape our bodies and the weight of the things we carry, we certainly try our hardest to do so.
We all come up with our own ways of coping with the reality of our bodies and the ways that we’re seen, judged, and treated because of them. We turn to food, to drugs, to sex. We try to exert control over them, because too often control is wrested away from us. We’re taught that our bodies belong to everyone but ourselves, and we find ways to give bits of them away, one parcel and part at a time. We find ways to whittle our bodies down or have them expand softly beyond their previous borders. We bleach, tweeze, diet, tan, lighten, wax, tattoo.
I’ve done many of these things -- and yet the most gratifying release for me, the most pleasurable way I have to flee the confines of my own skin, is still, after all these years, to escape into a world where I don’t have to think about race and desire and the messy ways they interact — my own personal recovery room, filled with a blinding light.
It would be too easy and convenient to say that I’m just flipping the gaze — that I deal with how I’m consumed by others by gazing at other bodies. But a gaze implies a rootedness in a certain corporeality, and the existence of a brain that’s processing and sorting what you’re seeing according to a defined logic. Yet this is precisely what I’m trying to leave behind, attempting to flee what Claire Vaye Watkins describes in her essay “On Pandering” as the “working miniature replica of the patriarchy” built against our will in our minds and our bodies, their material all the stones that are tossed at us.
Escape seems to go against the grain of our culture of self-improvement and self-help that tells us one of the highest goals we should aspire to is to be comfortable in our own skin. Escape also connotes weakness. You flee something when you don’t want to confront it; you run away when something is too difficult to face, when there is no good response because the question is so absurd. But sometimes, you need to escape from reality into fantasy, where it’s always the golden hour, everything is drenched in honey, and nothing hurts.
It goes without saying that I understand that none of this is happening in a vacuum. This is yet another way that white supremacy fucks with me. It makes it exhausting to see myself.
There’s an entire realm of activism (which a coterie of writers have built a cottage industry upon) that has a laser-like focus on racial representation and the politics of representation, and this is an important conversation. But for me, and I suspect this is true for others as well, this battle becomes exhausting once it’s turned inward. How tiring is it to feel that I must mount these campaigns even in the alleyways and recesses of my own body?
I think I’m supposed to feel shame about all of this. I do feel a sense of ambivalence, because there are still some things we’re not supposed to derive pleasure from, and things we’re not supposed to admit, namely that watching and thinking about white people in love and white people having sex is one of the things that makes it easier for me to get through the day.
Vaye Watkins wrote of the miniature replica of the world that exists in her mind and all of our minds and bodies: “I would like very much to bust it up or burn it down. But I am afraid I don’t know how.”
I have no road map on how to navigate this patriarchal world, much less destroy its foundations and build it anew.
But I know these truths:
This landscape wasn't built by my hands and my imagination, yet I find myself here, and have created a reprieve from its weight, protecting myself from it. For me, those brief moments of respite take the shape of flight, of a deliberate erasure of myself. But in my mind, every time I rearrange something for my own delight — an insult, a slight, a stone — and, yes, every time I decide to escape and then return, it feels like a small and necessary step toward my survival.