“Do you know what kind of random things they were shooting out of their pussies?!”
I found myself drinking with a group of (predominantly White) backpackers at a bar, listening to their trashy tales of partying and the infamous ping pong shows in Bangkok (for the uninitiated, it’s a popular sex show where, according to Wikipedia, “women use their pelvic muscles to either hold, eject, or blow objects from their vaginal cavity.”
Laughter. Ridicule. Squeals of shock and intrigue. And then…
“Hey Justine, where are you from again?”
I could feel the discomfort and anger rise up inside of me as I knew the implications of that question. What kind of associations were they making because of the color of my skin, the texture of my hair, the features of my face? Why did they ask me that in this very moment?
“I’m from Canada. I’m Canadian.” I said, trying to assert myself, trying not to waver in my answer.
Pause. I could see them looking at me, searching for the real answer of where I’m *really* from.
“Well, I mean, I was born in the Philippines, I’m Filipino,” I gave in to the discomfort of the moment. “But I left when I was four and I’ve pretty much lived my whole life in Canada. So I’m from Canada, and I’m Canadian.”
I stumbled on my words as I tried to explain who I am to these strangers. Trying, in a very small way, to subvert their idea of my people, to show that my story is not as simple as they may think. Trying to make clear that I am not here to be fetishized.
…as if I needed to justify or clarify that. As if it even mattered “where I’m from” or who I am.
Living in the Hyphen
My travel story begins, first and foremost, as a migration story – the version of travel that we don’t seem to glorify and glamorize on social media, despite being the OG aspirational, vision board-worthy move.
I was born in Manila, Philippines but moved to Toronto, Canada with my parents when I was just four years old. I am Filipina-Canadian. And living in between two cultures, two places, and two peoples in one of the most multicultural cities in the world has been an ongoing tug of war for me.
“Where are you from?” is a question that follows me everywhere I go. It’s not usually as loaded with racist undertones as the encounter above. More often than not, it can come from a place of genuine curiosity and a real attempt for connection. But even still, it’s usually a question I never quite know how to answer succinctly and completely. Because, well…it’s complicated.
Where am I from if I grew up rejoicing in the snow storms of Canada but went “home” to the beaches of the Philippines in the summer? Where am I from if I related more to the Chinese and Vietnamese girls I grew up with, but still proudly sang “Oh, Canada” every morning as the school day started? Where am I from if I believe so fiercely in the West’s focus on independence and individualism, but also hold fast to the Asian respect and deference for family and community? How do I answer this question in a way that honors my roots while also honoring my adopted land? And how can I firmly plant myself in either of these two cultures when sometimes I don’t even know where I stand?
Growing up, I never felt particularly Filipino. My family never really adhered to cultural traditions. We didn’t subscribe to the Filipino Channel to watch the latest teleseryes (soap operas). I didn’t have a debut or a cotillion for my 18th birthday and my family barely, if ever, went to church. I always felt like a watered-down version of what a Filipino is supposed to be.
And yet, something about our giant extended family, the fact that any and every Filipino I come in contact with instantly becomes my tita/tito/ate/kuya (aunt/uncle/big sister/big brother), my love for and commitment to karaoke and lumpia (spring rolls), the gratitude and obligation I feel towards my parents, and this spirit of resistance that runs through my veins…all that has always made me feel so fiercely Filipino.
But of course, I’m also proudly Canadian! My progressive values, my welcoming and empathetic nature, my “eh” and my “oh, I’m so sooorry!”, my embrace of multiculturalism and diversity….all this makes me want to shout out like our beer commercials of the 90s and early 00s that “I. Am. Canadian!!!”
And yet, there are many times when I don’t ever really feel Canadian either. Mostly because I don’t even know what that word means. When you grow up in one of the most ethnically diverse countries and yet only see White “Canadian” faces and voices represented in the media, well then…what’s Canadian? When the ethnic “minorities” are the majority in your school, but you learn in your textbook that the first Canadians were European (never mind, the various Indigenous nations who were here long before) and everyone else who came after is an “immigrant”, well…it can get hella confusing.
So I’m constantly in this tug of war, going back and forth between my identities.
Colour Me Exotic
Though my journey to feel more fully Filipino and fully Canadian has been a long and inconsistent one, there is one thing I have felt more fully and more consistently. I have felt fully society’s exoticization and fetishization of Asian women as modest, quiet, submissive, and subservient beings. All the things that I am not.
How have I felt thee? Let me count the ways:
- All the times I watched a movie or TV show that portrayed the Asian female character as a geisha, a prostitute, a masseuse, a sex trafficking victim, a china doll, a servant.
- All the times someone cracked a joke about Asian mail-order brides, the epidemic of “Yellow Fever”, and the happy endings at Asian massage parlours.
- That time a South Asian man on the streets of Amsterdam yelled at me “massage lay-dee, massage lay-dee!!” (…while I was with my mother)
- That time one of my best friends texted me in frustration, panic, and anguish when her White partner’s father waxed poetic about how men marry Asian women because of how “docile” they are (verbatim).
- All the times my friends – both Asian and non-Asian – have told me how I am the least “Asian” Asian friend they have because of how outspoken and loud I am (life hack: just get more and different Asian friends).
- Every time my own father has told me to stop wearing bikinis or mini-skirts because of how “un-Asian” it is (love you Pa, but you know I had to call you out on this.)
- That time I described above.
I could go on, but you get it. These stereotypes have been thrown at me all my life. Implicitly and explicitly. Blatantly and subtly.
But like I said, I grew up and live in Toronto – one of the most ethnically diverse and relatively tolerant cities in the world – so I’ve always felt that my experiences haven’t been that bad.
And yet they’ve affected the way I move through the world both at home cruising around the 6ix and abroad on my travels.
Journey to the Homeland to Feel at “Home”
In 2012, I went back “home” to the Philippines to work, to travel more “authentically”, and to learn about my roots.
I left at such a young age and I always wanted to go back to my country of origin to really experience it as a “local” would, whatever that meant. I thought maybe going back as a grown adult and on my own terms meant that I could finally find some answers to the questions that I’d been asking about my hyphenated Filipino-Canadian identity.
Turns out my trip only complicated matters as I felt even more displaced than I ever did in Canada. Things didn’t quite align the way I imagined it to. I disagreed with the prevailing politics of the country and so many cultural pieces ran up against my values. That Catholicism, with its violently homophobic and sexist leanings, is so deeply intertwined with the government is something I just couldn’t get down with. Sure, the patriarchy exists everywhere, but it reeeally exists in the Philippines. You just feel it and see it everywhere you go. And it is straight up unapologetic.
But even on a more basic social level, I still didn’t feel like I belonged there. I still felt like the “Other”. Most Filipinos were shocked that I spoke fluent Tagalog; all my kababayan (countrymen) thought I was Korean for some reason. Even co-workers and friends who knew me better still treated me differently because well, I’m Canadian. I’m not really Filipino.
So identity crisis reaffirmed. Disappointing, but at least that was familiar territory. Racial imposter syndrome is something I’d grown accustomed to, after all.
Tall and Tan and Young and Lovely
But something else happened on this trip that was new to me.
I saw so clearly the colonial mentality and the fetishization of my brown-skinned sisters in a way I never could in Canada or in Europe (the only other place I’d traveled to at that point). The aisles upon aisles of whitening creams in groceries and department stores. Women caked in foundation that so clearly did not match their real skin tones. The rampant fear of the sun and its tanning powers. And of course, the reverence towards White men.
While I was there, I was working in the country’s financial hub of Makati and I’d spend my evenings strolling around the city. It was there that I would see so many young beautiful Filipina women with White, typically older (and tbh, not so attractive) men. Their interactions felt performative in a way it never did when I saw Filipina women with Filipino men. And it was in those moments that I really felt the weight of our exoticism.
It was on that trip that I pieced together and saw in a very real way the lasting impact of our colonial history and the subjugation of our people, specifically our women, by Western men – first by the Spaniards, then by the Americans. There is an entire history spanning centuries of colonizing powers pillaging the brown bodies of Filipina women – and there it was continuing to be lived out in more pernicious ways right before my eyes.
Feelin’ Like Miss Saigon
It’s been 6 years since that trip and I’ve traveled to many other places in that time. I’ve backpacked around Europe, Central America, and East Africa. And nowhere else have I seen the rampant fetishization of Asian women as I did in the Philippines.
…that is until I traveled to Vietnam.
Fast forward to February 2018 and I’m hopping on a flight to Saigon, Vietnam to see my long-distance boo, my British bae who I am head over heels in love with. He’s in Vietnam for the next year for work, which has just been a great excuse for me to go on vacations. He’d planned a trip for us to hop around the south hitting up beaches, celebrating Tet, zipping around the city, and hiking up mountains.
We traveled to some spots that were really far off the beaten path (which really opened my eyes to just how little thought men put into their safety while traveling). But being based in Saigon, it was inevitable to spend time in more expat and tourist spaces.
And it was in these more affluent spaces that once again, I saw so many young beautiful Vietnamese women with White, typically older (and again to be honest, not so attractive) men. And just as in the Philippines, the women’s interactions felt performative in a way it never did with Vietnamese men. Those interactions forced me to question why and to think critically about the history of Vietnamese women’s exploitation under the country’s French colonial history and the American invasion. It made me reflect deeply on my homeland and the history we share with our Asian neighbours.
On one of my nights there, British bae took me to a bougie hotel rooftop bar where we could be dweeby lovebirds and catch the sunset. I was super excited. I love a mean cocktail with a view and getting dressed up for it – because duh, Instagram.
But the minute I stepped on to that rooftop and saw the faces around me, I felt a wave of discomfort wash over me. We were clearly in a space that was very specifically made for White expats. I was the only Asian woman in that bar except for the servers and one other patron. And all of a sudden, I watched myself through the eyes of others.
I felt hyper aware of my body, my skin, my colour – and also of the man I was with, and his body, his skin, his colour.
Even though I’ve been in so many spaces where I have been the only person of color, this felt and was entirely different. Being in Asia specifically as an Asian woman with a White man in an almost exclusively White space was completely new to me. Suddenly I felt the true and direct weight of being fetishized and exoticized as an Asian woman, in a way I never did back home or anywhere else I’d traveled to. Being in the very place where the history of the exploitation of Asian women began and continues to unfold gave this experience a whole different texture and meaning.
Plot Twist: I Discover I’m Problematic Too!
My reaction to the situation isn’t something I’m entirely proud of.
I found myself taking up more space. Speaking just a touch louder than usual to make sure people heard my perfectly unaccented English. I was doing all the things I could to show that I was not a local. That I was a Westerner, a modern woman. And most importantly, that I was not that Asian woman stereotype.
I hated my reaction for 101 reasons.
Because British bae and I suddenly stopped being the individuals that we are and instead became a blurry generalized caricature of a racist stereotype.
Because of the way I asserted my Western-ness. I suddenly felt shame around my Filipino and Asian identity and instead used my Canadian identity as armour. Because I did so to define myself as different from and ultimately superior to my local Vietnamese sisters.
Because of the shame I felt for being looked at like a prostitute. As if the generations of Asian women who had been exploited and abused by colonizers and the colonial system should feel any kind of shame.
Because I made the same exact assumption that I was worried people were making about me, as soon as I saw that one other Asian woman patron and the White man she was with.
Because I am part of this ugly patriarchal system that reduces people to flat beings and makes us treat each other (and ourselves) like garbage. And because I have yet to unlearn so much that that system has borne upon me.
Decolonizing Myself and Unlearning Systemic Oppression
The truth is, I don’t know if anyone in that room actually thought anything of me, or analyzed my relationship with British bae, or even batted an eye my way. But that’s not really the point. It could have all very well just been me projecting my own internalized racism. And that’s the point, or at least a big chunk of it.
Whether it was all real or perceived, I fell prey to that idea of the subservient Asian woman and recoiled in a million and one ways. My mind went from zero to a hundred, from the basic to the existential.
I don’t really have the solutions to end the fetishization of Asian women – or the sexualization of any woman for that matter – but I do know that we can start with ourselves. We can start by confronting and calling out our own internal biases, our own internal struggles and privileges as it relates to race, gender, ability, sexuality, and a whole set of other intersections.
For those of us who inhabit these dual and hyphenated identities, we can also begin the long and often convoluted journey of embracing all the pieces of ourselves. We are not half this or part that, but fully Filipino and fully Canadian (or whatever your “mix” might be) and most importantly, we are completely and wholly ourselves. Straddling these two (or more) worlds means we have the unique and significant opportunity to act as bridges, connecting people, places, histories, and cultures. And as I grow more comfortably into my hyphenated identity, I realize this is something I simply wouldn’t ever trade (despite my years of confusion and displacement).
Finally, we can all begin to challenge our identities (both as White people and People of Colour) and answer that question – where are you from – in ways that go deeper than place, that span beyond our current location or where we were born or where our parents were born. We can start by digging deep into our lineage and interrogating the systems of power that have gone into forming our answers to that loaded question.
As a good friend of mine always says, “none of us are born woke”. Wokeness is something we grow into, a journey we actively choose to embark on.
And I’ve got a one way ticket. Wanna join?
About The Author
Justine Abigail Yu is a communications and marketing strategist for the social impact space and has worked with organizations operating in North America, Central America, East Africa, and Southeast Asia. She recently launched Living Hyphen, an intimate journal that explores the experiences of hyphenated Canadians and examines what it means to be part of a diaspora. Her mission is to stir the conscience and spur social change. You can follow her journey by clicking on the social media links below: