Literary Mama writing about the many faces of motherhood
Everybody Loves an Asian Boy


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?

Peggy Hong was born in Seoul, South Korea, and raised in Hawaii and New York. She is the author of a poetry collection, Three Truths and a Lie (forthcoming, Water Press and Media); the poetry chapbooks Lies and Fables and The Sister Who Swallows the Ocean (CrowLadies Press); and a fine art letterpress book, Hoofbeats (Gokiburi Press). Poetry publications include Spoon River Poetry Review, Rhino, Bamboo Ridge, and Mothering magazine, among others. A graduate of Barnard College, she received a Master of Fine Arts degree at Antioch University with a dual concentration in poetry and fiction. She lives in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, with her husband and three children, ages 18, 16, and 13. She teaches at Alverno College and Woodland Pattern Book Center.

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What I love most about this article is the nurturing and indeed, loving discussion that went on around the t-shirt. I'd call it "mindful consumption". The capacity to discern is a gift I quest to teach my own son. To remember the connection, ask the question and fill in the blank, offers the potential for a more compassionate and loving world. Thank you for the reminder to "fill in the blank". The freedom to love, and display love has been and continues to be more than a notion.
This article was a powerful reminder that the socialization of Purist America still permeates despite aggressive progress. The bottom line for me is that women and children are sexualized and have been openly and legally so since the birth of this nation who politics and social structure has crasly crept over the globe. Native women's vaginas on stakes and slave women and girls raped without consequence to the rapists. People are still viewed as property...something that can be purchased and or traded... I believe this is the core to the horror of the sex industry. I believe it is our reponsibility as a people from a nation built on violence and raped to acknowledge the wrong and address the issue with vigor. To tie in your article with the issue of civility, I believe we should all be proud of our sex and race and creed and learn to be stronger against social more. Otherwise how is social consciousness ever going to shift? By having certain reactions are we not perpetuating stereotypes and mistruths? We are protecting our fears, yet others have no protection from these fears as they are their living nightmares. Thanks Peggy, as always, considerate and thought-provoking
Maybe the reason only an Asian boy can pull off that shirt is because Asian men have been desexualized in western culture as a way of making them nonthreatening to white men. It's like the reverse of objectification.
Yet innocence remains: when I read about Katja's reaction to the "Asian girl" T-shirt, my first thought was, "She doesn't want to be like her brother!" It took a minute, and then I realized. Of course. How foolish of me. I feel both ridiculous and relieved that in my naivete I missed the point. Thank you for a glimpse into a beautiful relationship with your kids, and for your honesty and insight about an age-old problem. And the answer, I'm afraid, to your question is: not long. Not long at all.
I very much appreciate Marin's observation about the desexualization of Asian men. Yes, too true! My Korean cousin here in the states for college was commenting to me about how she wanted to date white men--said she didn't find Asian men attractive. Made me sad, thinking how attractiveness is socially constructed and how easily we are taught to conform to dominant povs. And how dominant culture manages to keep others down.
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