Use of Asian Adorables perpetuates stereotypes

Editors’ notes: The following article contains vulgar language. Asian as a term can be confusing and problematic. Here, the author has chosen to use ...

Nov 8, 2014

Editors’ notes:
The following article contains vulgar language.
Asian as a term can be confusing and problematic. Here, the author has chosen to use the term to reference East Asians and Southeast Asians, as the term is typically used in the United States, though she is aware it can also refer to the entire continent.
In light of the upcoming East Asian Night happening on campus, I want to make an objection to the use of the term Asian Adorable in our community. The term Asian Adorable first appeared in a skit from this year’s Real AD Show, where a group of Asians dubbed themselves the Asian Adorables and only allowed Asians to sit with them in the cafeteria. Since the performance, I have heard people, Asian and non-Asian, use the term Asian Adorable to describe all types of situations. In instances when Asian people are together, on Facebook or in real life, I sometimes hear someone make some Asian Adorable comment. I will not deny it, I am indeed cute. I am a five feet one inch, 155 cm, Chinese-American and I giggle a lot. But, I am so much more than cute.
Some people’s first response to me is that adorable is actually a compliment, so why am I getting upset? First of all, I want to challenge this — is adorable actually that positive of a term? Adorable, as a dictionary definition, is generally positive; it means charming and inspiring adoration. However, in the way we use the term nowadays, adorable is a synonym of cute and when we talk about the word cute, especially in the case of a group of East Asians, it is an insidious term that places East Asians in an inferior position to white people. It is condescending. Adorable is innocent, safe and well-behaved. Calling someone adorable is looking down on someone. You don’t call your boss, or anyone in a powerful position, adorable. Adorable puts you on the same level as puppies and fluffy animals, babies and pastel Asian stationary. Adorable can also extend to notions of submission and docility, two notions that have been linked to Asian identity.
Cute is a word that I want to destroy. Cute is an abomination. Calling me cute is a way to strip me of the power of my sexuality and any claim to intellectualism. When people, even some of my friends, coo at me and call me cute, I sometimes question to what extent they actually know me. I went to a public high school in a predominantly white and affluent suburb of Atlanta. Throughout my experience there, white girls who barely even knew me always said, “Awww, Emily, you’re so cute.” It is hard to qualify for the reader a set of conditions for when I feel these statements are offensive and when they are complimentary. However, it is easy for me to tell when the person intends it to be a compliment with an understanding of who I am and when the person is simply saying it, almost condescendingly.When those white girls called me cute, they were inadvertently also stating that I was like a child, I did not fit into their standards of beauty and sexiness and I was not viable sexual competition. Nowadays, I do not give a fuck about what any white guy thinks about me. But, growing up, my formative teen years were largely affected by how I did not fit certain standards of attractiveness and beauty — I was only cute.
Asian women are generally trapped in a dichotomy of representations. In Europe and the U.S., East Asian women are seen as either the dragon lady, a hypersexual being existing only to please men, or fetishized as the adorable, innocent and submissive woman, sometimes manifesting as a Japanese schoolgirl or as a Chinese visa-wife. Calling Asians adorable, even without intending to do so, only continues to perpetuate stereotypes.
Calling Asian men adorable has similar effects. Calling a man adorable is desexualizing. Asian men already have enough trouble in their representation in Western media. In the movie “Sixteen Candles,” a celebrated movie about the supposed all-American experience, Long Duk Dong, a Chinese exchange student, is solely used as comical fodder. His interest in women is seen as a joke and his ridiculous antics make him completely unrealistic as a character. At the same time,Vulture recently investigated how many times Asian men have kissed either men or women on screen, and the investigation left the readers with only around 20 or so instances. On the other hand, it is nearly impossible in any movie to watch a white male main character on screen without at some point seeing him lock lips with a female prop.
The idea of adorable is not only dangerous in keeping someone from being taken seriously sexually, but it also keeps them from being taken seriously professionally.  The Bamboo Ceiling, a term that is well-known to Asian Americans, signifies how Asians in the U.S. often face institutionalized racism in their workplace in which they get passed over for promotions and workplace opportunities because of stereotypes of Asians as lacking communication and leadership skills. Traits of assertiveness, even aggression, and being powerful and worthy of respect are all traits that, especially in the U.S., are seen as prerequisites to becoming someone in a high leadership position. But adorableness only reinforces notions of docility and submission. In addition,the concept of Asians as adorable, but to a larger extent, docile and submissive, hinders the careers of many Asian American rappers, DJs and B-boys, the subject of a documentary called Bad Rappers. Calling a group adorable, or linking an ethnic-regional group to adorableness, contributes to the institutionalized racism set up against Asians and Asian Americans in America and in European societies.
When I started hearing the term more often, I talked to many of my fellow Asian classmates. Just because one person is okay and puts up with racist comments does not make your comment okay. My East Asian friends here have told me of specific instances where even their friends here at NYU Abu Dhabi have made fun of their eyes or have said seemingly innocuous but still hurtful statements like, “You must be good at math, you’re Asian.” They have also never spoken out against their friends about this. When I was growing up in a minority Chinese culture in a predominantly white and not-so-secretly xenophobic culture, I was socialized into ignoring all racial slurs and microaggressions against my identity. I was told to calm down and just ignore all those remarks. I was taught that if you ignored the haters and worked harder than everyone else, it wouldn’t matter in the end.
In my high school, a white boy yelled “Konichiwa” at me while I was walking down the other side of the hallway. I ignored the remark. When I lived in Germany after high school, a random white guy came up to me in a club and told me that his white friend over there was the head of the Anime Club at their university. I smiled politely and turned away. When I volunteered at a German daycare, the little five-year-old white boys pulled their eyes into slits and started yelling the word China at me. I ignored them. Last summer, at 3 a.m. in New York City, when I rebuffed a drunk white man’s advances, he yelled, “Go back to your country, bitch.” I was afraid what he would do to me if I said anything back to him. I shut up and walked away quickly. I am angry that these racist issues continue to exist, and often I cannot or do not do anything about it. These are attacks on my identity, and I’m not going to be cute about it. I’m no longer going to ignore it. I am going to be angry about it.
What may be perplexing is that the organizers of East Asian Night themselves are using the term. I am a woman of color growing up in the diaspora. Most of the organizers of the event are Asians who were born and raised in Asia. From the moment I was born, I have been a minority in a predominantly white culture and my identity has been of the Other and the Exotic, whereas many of them were born and raised in a homogenous culture. We are all different parts and facets of an Asian identity. When my fellow Chinese students at this university tell me that I’m not pure Chinese or not really Chinese, they are forgetting that in my specific experience, I have chosen to assimilate into U.S. American culture in order to avoid racist slurs and discrimination and in order to gain at least a small semblance of acceptance in a place where I was born and raised. My entire life, I have faced attacks against a Chinese identity that doesn’t even fully accept me yet. It is important for the organizers of the event and other Asians at this school to recognize the long history of the representation of Asians as submissive and docile, and how this term adds to it. My particular experience as an Asian woman in the diaspora perhaps makes me even more aware of these racist remarks and situations.
In the actual instance of the Asian Adorables in the Real AD Show, the intentions were good. The Asian members of the cast created the term and used it themselves. In many instances, groups use terms that are racist against themselves to create a humorous situation and to gain agency in their own representation. However, each time someone who is not Asian utters that terms, and each time an Asian person allows that term to be used in a racist way, they are participating in a discourse with racist undertones.
It is important that we as a community take a harder stance against racial microaggressions on campus. Everybody comes from a different experience, and I understand many people may not be aware of the issues I have brought up in the article. I want to encourage more discourse about issues that may make us feel uncomfortable and for East Asian Night to be an opportunity more than just sharing authentic food and traditions but an opportunity that allows us to break down stereotypes.
I am not cute. I am to be taken seriously. I am ambitious. I am an aggressive and angry Asian woman. I am intellectual and critical, and I am to be feared.
Emily Wang is multimedia editor. Email her at 
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