I was with Katja and Malachi at "Urban" (or Urban Outfitters, as those out of the know, like me, call it), getting fidgety and restless as I always do when I take the kids shopping. So many cutesy halters and candles and bong art from developing countries, it all makes me squirm and feel so much the imperialist. Urban Outfitters is a little high end for teens, but still, you can find $9 tops made in sweatshops in Mauritia, $15 skirts from Pakistan alongside the $30 message Ts.
"Hey, Mom, look at this." 15 year-old Malachi calls me over to the guys' section and points to a red t-shirt that reads "Everybody Loves an Asian Boy."
My mothering hormones kick in. "Awww," I say, "let me buy that for you."
I love my Asian boy and want everyone else to love him too. It's corny but kind of sweet, and it would be funny to see my skinny, handsome, 6-foot tall son sporting such a shirt. I shell out the money for the overpriced "imported" shirt made of a cotton interlock so thin it may barely last a dozen washings. Very uncharacteristic of a recycling addict and cheapskate like me.
On the way out, we spy the same shirt, this time a scoop neck for girls.
"Look, Katja, 'Everybody Loves an Asian Girl'! Let's buy it," I say, but as soon as the words come out of my mouth, we all know it's a mistake.
"Uh, no," Katja narrows her eyes, "I don't want it."
She doesn't have to say another word. We are all creeped out by the shirt, which is folded in a stack on a crowded table instead of displayed on a hanger. It makes me think of the Cambodian prostitutes Nicholas Kristof writes about in the New York Times, the sex tours of Bangkok, AIDS spreading through the red light districts of cities in India... Yeah, right, everyone loves an Asian girl.
I don't know if Katja thinks of all that, but at age 17 she is savvy enough to know she's too old to wear a shirt like that. She used to wear a shirt her grandma gave her that said "Cutie," but that was back in 4th grade. Wearing a shirt like that now would just be... eww, yucky. It's bad enough the world and the media have made it so common and acceptable to treat women as sex objects, without objectifying our own selves. Thank god neither of my daughters wear those shirts that read "Hottie" or "Sexy."
But what was different about the Asian boy shirt? Why weren't we creeped out by that?
An old friend ran into Malachi and his dad in the parking lot at the high school. She commented to Ed on how tall and good-looking Malachi had become. Later she emailed me to apologize for the comment, realizing that if a male friend had made a similar comment to her about her pubescent daughter she would have been disturbed.
True, there's something definitely creepy about a male adult commenting on the beauty of a teenage girl to her mother. And the men I know understand this implicitly. No man has ever made an equivalent comment about my girls. Instead they will speak more generically, saying, "my, your daughters are all grown up," or "what a lovely family you have."
Women friends, however, comment freely and specifically on each of my kids. "Katja is so beautiful," "Meiko is lovely," "Malachi is so handsome," they say, in that way that women always compliment and comment on appearances. But a man commenting on a girl definitely crosses a line.
Why is this so? Despite the strides we've made, one of every six women is still a victim of sexual assault, with 44% of those victims under age 18 and 22% under age 12. Open any magazine, drive down any city street, turn on any television, and you see image after image of women's bodies posed to provoke. And as we've become more global, sexual images of Asian women abound.
My kids and I talk about the t-shirt. What if it said "everybody loves a black girl" or "everybody loves a black boy"? No way. What about Latino or Latina? Also wrong. What about white girl/boy? Creepy in a supremacist sort of way. We try every variation, and decide the only one who can pull off wearing the shirt is the Asian boy.
The Asian boy is the only one of the lot who hasn't been turned into a sex object -- yet. How long will Malachi be exempt? How long will Malachi be able to wear that shirt with his baggy shorts and flip flops?