The Semantics of Being Called “Beautiful” as a Young Asian Woman
“You have such exotic features!” “That Oriental looking girl...” I can already feel my stomach turn and the indignity rising up inside me as a video montage of my childhood traumas starts to play inside my head. Some people don’t understand why I consider the terms “oriental” and “exotic” to be insulting. Especially when they consider these adjectives synonymous to Asian beauty and attractiveness in their minds. But I think it’s easier for one to think that way when they’re not aware of the history of their usage and their associations. “Oriental” and “exotic” are synonymous to the adjective “beautiful”, but only in regard to what’s non-caucasian. Why is there even another adjective of beauty for Asian women like they’re not deserving of the word “beautiful”? Someone might perceive these two words to be compliments, but my soul recognises it as being awarded a consolation prize. Because if you truly considered me to be “beautiful”, wouldn’t it just be easier to call me that instead? Why do you feel the need to emphasise my otherness, my foreignness? Because I could never be genuinely attractive or good looking if not for my race right?
In this discussion about the term “Oriental” and why its usage is problematic, I feel it’s necessary to include Edward Said and his book Orientalism published in 1978. Said was a prominent scholar and also the founder of the academic field of postcolonial studies. In his book he recognises Orientalism as a concept that the West utilised in their misportrayal of the East throughout the years. Said wrote that “Orientalism can be discussed and analysed as the corporate institution for dealing with the Orient - dealing with it by making statements about it, authorising views of it, describing it, by teaching it, settling it, ruling over it: in short, Orientalism as a Western style for dominating, restructuring, and having authority over the Orient.” The Orient is what the Asian locals were referred as by the colonisers, so when the adjective “Oriental” is applied to me, it’s actually the continuation of racist colonial ideology.
While growing up as a child of immigrants, I always felt self-conscious about my Asian ancestry. Being Asian meant speaking in a funny accent, eating weird things like dogs or cats, and being ugly. At least that’s what people tried to force upon me about my own heritage. My ethnicity didn’t match up with my nationality, which to this day is an issue that’s still cause for debate. Because what does it mean to be Asian while growing up outside of Asia? For me, it meant denying my cultural heritage, learning how to dislike my “exotic” features and the culture of my parents and their relatives, like they weren’t related to me too. To exist between two cultures, two worlds, is choosing whether I live according to my ethnicity, or my nationality. I tried to suppress the former in order to conform to the latter because that’s what sounded right. “...because of Orientalism the Orient was not (and is not) a free subject of thought or action. This is not to say that Orientalism unilaterally determines what can be said about the Orient, but that it is the whole network of interests inevitably brought to bear on (and therefore always involved in) any occasion when that peculiar entity “the Orient” is in question.”
I cannot disagree with this statement for all the times I felt the pressure to fit into the mould of what society considered an Asian woman to be like and look like. I wasn’t beautiful because I was alien to them, something to be looked at from a distance or made fun off. I lived my life as if I was white although there were many occasions that only seemed to emphasise that I wasn’t. I couldn’t ignore the inky black of my hair, the almond shape of my eyes, or my name, a name celebrating a language foreign to Western tongues and discordant to their ears. All things that were supposedly unattractive or strange according to Western cultural standards made me by association feel unattractive and strange.
“The Orient was Orientalized not only because it was discovered to be “Oriental” in all those ways considered commonplace by an average nineteenth-century European, but also because it could be - that is, submitted to being - made Oriental.” That’s the real crime here. I am made to be other, when in fact I am not. “Oriental” is the cruel label that will always emphasise what I’m not, what I will never be. My otherness has always made me feel unworthy of being beautiful, unworthy of being praised, unworthy of a lot of things actually. Because what do people see when they look at me? Do they look into my brown eyes and recognise hopes and dreams similar to the ones hidden in the depth of their own hearts? Or do they see two small slits with dark beads in them that are supposedly Asian eyes like often seen in racist cartoons?
“Oriental” is however not only a term reserved for lesser, but also, a perverse kind of beauty. “Oriental” and “exotic” are words associated with pornographic images and videos of young, slender looking Asian women being subjected to the animalistic desires of white men. Or images of cheap prostitutes in Thailand and dingy massage parlours. It’s the kind of beauty that makes it sound okay for men to fetishise our bodies, our beauty the kind that gets you fucked but not respected. It’s the kind of beauty that makes random men on the street ask you for a massage with a happy ending while all you wanted was to stretch your legs outside. Besides that, the Oxford English Dictionary reveals that “exotic” in one of its first entries is defined as the following: “Outlandish, barbarous, strange, uncouth. Also, having the attraction of the strange or foreign, glamorous.” How can I not feel anger when someone refers to me with such an insulting adjective?
It’s my otherness, my Asianness, that ultimately obstructs me from being considered beautiful by the masses without being foreign. Nevertheless, the real obstacle here is that the term “beauty” shouldn’t exclude my Asianness. I see beauty when I look at my reflection in store windows just like how I see beauty when I look at my Asian sisters in their different sizes and skin tones. There is nothing wrong with my hair, my skin, my face. My features are the features passed down from the daughters, mothers and wives before me, features imbued with stories about women, stories about their lives that can be found within my reflection in the mirror, in a shop’s window or a pool of water on the street.
Our beauty isn’t lesser so we can get crowned with titles such as “Hot Asian Babe” and “Geisha Doll.” Our beauty is there even when it’s not appreciated or recognised in the eyes of others. It’s not our loss if people cannot differentiate a jewel from a pebble. And I will repeat this for all the people who would say otherwise. I am not oriental, I am not exotic, I am beautiful.
Said, Edward. Orientalism. Vintage Books, 1978.
"exotic, adj. and n." OED Online, Oxford University Press, June 2020, www.oed.com/view/Entry/66403. Accessed 30 July 2020.
A short essay on why the usage of terms like “oriental” and “exotic” is a continuation of racist colonial ideology and how the toxicity of these two adjectives has tainted the image of Asian women.
I'm a 21-year-old Chinese Dutch girl who is about to start her master's in literary studies. I recently started writing articles just for myself to practise my writing skills but I'm now ready to find a platform for me to discuss topics I'm passionate about.