first person

What White Men Say in Our Absence

Photo: Reinhard Krull / EyeEm/Getty Images

This essay contains graphic descriptions of murder, sexual violence, and racist language used online.

When I graduated from college, I moved to Taipei to teach ESL. One afternoon on the train, I overheard two white men discussing Asian women with an unfiltered openness achieved only under the guise of total privacy. They’d assumed no one around them could understand English.

The first man expressed his frustration about a recent date with a Taiwanese woman that didn’t result in sex. His friend gave him advice. “They use a code,” he said. “When I was living in Japan, I went out with this Japanese girl. The conversation sucked but at least she was nice to look at.” Though it wasn’t late, the girl kept saying how sleepy she was, he told his friend. “So I finally took her back to her place and well, she wasn’t sleepy, if you know what I mean.” The two men laughed. “See? They won’t actually tell you what they want.” The first man nodded seriously, his expression one of a child trying to memorize an important fact.

By this point, I’d arrived at my stop. I froze, caught between arriving to work on time or telling them off for describing Asian women like sex robots whose operative functions include codes. At the last minute, I jumped through the train doors. I regret it to this day.

I wasn’t a stranger to white male “expats” preying on Asian women. At the English school where I taught, all my white male co-workers exclusively dated or were married to Taiwanese women. In the teacher’s room, as we graded homework and prepped for classes, they never spoke about Asian women. At least, not in front of me. But after hearing the two men on the train, I realized I couldn’t assume anything about what they thought. After all, it’s my absence that makes all the difference. In my absence, they feel free.

Eight years later, the incident on the train still troubled me. I was living in New York and writing a novel about a Taiwanese American woman with a complicated relationship to white men: She is both attracted to them and disgusted by her attraction. In this early version of the novel, my protagonist is married to a white man; together, they have two children.

In an attempt to understand how their children might feel about their relationship, I stumbled upon the sub-Reddit /hapas. I don’t know what I expected to find, but certainly not what I did: an online community mostly composed of men with an Asian mother and a white father, abbreviated as “WMAF.” According to the sub-Reddit, WMAF couples doomed their children to mental-health issues because they were the product of a “white worshiping” Asian mother and a white father with an Asian fetish. Believing such pairings were inherently flawed, members exclusively shared posts that upheld this ideology.

On, a white man fantasized about raping his half-Japanese teenage daughter, called “little geisha fuck doll” and “little neo-colonialist jewel.” On another forum, a white man asked in all earnestness if he could still be a white nationalist and fuck East Asian women. In the replies, men advertised us like an infomercial, touting our supposed pros over cons: “their pussies are really tight”; “their skin feels so nice”; “they open their legs easy.” Our supposed demeanor was touted as much as, if not more than, our supposed physical attributes: “you get sex when YOU want, not when SHE wants. They’re also happy to do all the housework, cooking, and other chores around the house. It’s so fucking easy, man.”

A lengthy manifesto on a related blog declared that Asian women are destined “to be slaves to the White man.” It outlined 12 commandments Asian women must follow, including swearing to never let an Asian or Black man touch her. The final commandment reads: “If an asian woman becomes old, ugly, out of shape, disfigured, or diseased, then she should be divorced, abandoned, sold to someone else, or sent back to China or wherever she came from; and the White master can go back to Asia and pick out a new asian woman to replace her.”

The monstrosity of this post had such an overwhelming effect on me that several drafts of my novel included it verbatim. I thought, people have to know this exists. In the end, I deleted it because I didn’t want this man’s degenerate words in my novel. Then again, here I am bringing attention to it.

It’s doubtful these men would dare speak these thoughts aloud when faced with a living, breathing Asian woman. But these thoughts are actually voiced aloud all the time in polite society: I’ve never been with an Asian girl before. I have a thing for Asian girls. Behind these terribly unoriginal lines is another terribly unoriginal myth: that Asian women, in appearance and mentality, are somehow different from other women — so different as to be a separate species.

Beyond the unnerving content of all these websites was the unnerving realization that they were written by someone I could know. The person behind them was likely someone functioning in society. They likely came across Asian women in their day-to-day lives. And when they did, be it at work or on a dating app, I doubt they opened with, “Do you agree your evolutionary purpose is to be my slave?”

I wanted these men identified. I wanted their thoughts broadcasted above their heads. Because how can I move through the world knowing that the men who think these thoughts are real? They’re subway riders, salesmen, police officers, teachers, bosses, friends. They’re someone’s father. They’re someone’s husband. They’re someone’s lover.

There’s a false comfort to online anonymity. We think that’s an exception, not a rule. We think, what those people say is irrelevant. Except it is relevant. It’s no mere exaggeration to say some of our lives are at stake.

The post that disturbed me the most and threw me into a bad state for weeks was “List of WMAF Violent Crimes that Made the International News.”

The most gruesome images haunted me: women dismembered and melted in sixty liters of acid, women stabbed 76 times in the chest, women sliced up and boiled in a pot, women choked and tortured to death, women sawed into eight pieces and stored in a locker, women molested and photographed in disturbing positions after they’d been killed. One hundred and three pornographic DVDs were found at one murderer’s home; 51 featured Asian women.

I felt nauseous combing through each article, but I was possessed — even when I was physically trembling, I couldn’t stop. I felt I owed it to these women, that my discomfort was the least I could offer up to their suffering.
In 2017, Quyen Ngoc Nguyen, a 28-year-old Vietnamese mother of two, was murdered in Blackpool, England, by William McFall and Stephen Unwin. “Are we raping the chink?” McFall texted Unwin. How much was said in that line — about hate and desire and a racism so banal it’s inaccurate.

After luring her into Unwin’s home, they raped and tortured Nguyen for five hours. The two then wrapped her in a sheet, threw her body in her car, doused the car in gasoline and burned her alive. Leaving the scene, they took a smiling selfie together.

Instead of working on my novel, I copied quotations from these forums and blogs and pasted them alongside summaries of the murders. Here was proof that believing “yellow pussy is always ripe for being raped,” as one online user declared, leads to dissolving an Asian women in acid. I needed to document it, not because I needed proof, but because this truth — a truth many Asian women and femmes know to be true from a young age — had been so obliviated in society, I was constantly made to doubt my own reality.

In Minor Feelings, Cathy Park Hong questions why Theresa Hak Kyung Cha’s brutal 1982 murder was severed from her rape, as though the two had no connection: “no one admits that Cha was also raped, an omission so stubborn I had to consult court records to confirm that she was also sexually assaulted.”

The erasure of the circumstances around Cha’s murder speaks to another kind of relentless, daily erasure. “The Asian American woman,” Anne A. Cheng writes, “has absorbed centuries of the most blatant racist and sexist projections, yet she hardly registers in the public consciousness as a minority, much less a figure who has suffered discrimination.”

All of this would be simpler if these murders were committed by masked strangers who chose their victims by happenstance. But here is a tricky truth: Most of the men who murdered these women were their romantic or sexual partners, among them several long-term marriages. A relationship, however flawed, existed before it ended, which raises the thorny question: Did hate live within love? Or did love live within hate? That the boundary separating them is so thin as to be transparent is what unsettles me. The oppressor’s desire for the oppressed is by no means new; it’s built into our country’s very existence. What we don’t talk about as often is how it works in the other direction.

At first my rage was uncomplicated because I assumed none of these women had the slightest inclination about their partners’ true feelings until it was simply too late. But that’s an easy way out of a hard truth. New questions obsessed me: What if I knew and chose to stay? What if I’d sensed clues but tried to ignore them or reason them away? Would a “preference” for Asian women seem not only unproblematic, but harmless, even desirable?
These questions obsessed me because they spoke to my own latent fears. When I was 17, a 22-year-old white man took me to his bedroom and produced a box of photos of his ex-girlfriends. He flipped through them while reciting their respective ethnicities: “Vietnamese, Korean, Chinese, Japanese …”

I wish I could say I ran. I wish, like Chris in Get Out, I understood I was in a horror movie. When Chris sees Rose’s box full of exes, his face contorts in fear. If my expression were captured on film, it would have been dreamy, even wistful. I wanted my photo in that box. I wanted him to choose me.

As Jenny Zhang has written, “My only choices, I thought, were to be invisible and ugly or to be exoticized into worthiness.” Rather than turning away from someone’s fixation on my race, I grasped it the way a drowning person grasps a lifeline. This man told me in no unclear terms who he was, without me having to look up his online history or overhear him talking about me. But I didn’t run. Eyes wide open, I stayed.

One night when I was 24, a white man stared at me at a roundabout, circled it twice, and followed me. He circled another roundabout at the end of the street, then slowed down before fully stopping the car, his headlights blinding me. On either side of the street was nothing but dark water. I screamed at the top of my lungs and ran. When I reached home, I hid behind the kitchen counter in the dark, terrified I’d see his shadow in the window.

Another time, a white man pulled over in his car in broad daylight and, when I looked in the window, his pants had been yanked down to his ankles. He grinned at me as he furiously masturbated before he asked, “Do you want to —” I didn’t hear the rest of his question. Again I screamed at the top of my lungs and ran, not stopping until I saw his car drive away.

When I was waiting in the street for my friend one evening, a white man pulled over next to me. He rolled down his window, a confusing exchange took place and, when he realized I wasn’t a sex worker, he quickly drove off in embarrassment.

In Paris, more than one Asian friend told me men would come up to them and demand, “Combien?” which means, “How much?”

On March 16, 2021, a white man targeted and killed Daoyou Feng, Hyun Jung Grant, Suncha Kim, Soon Chung Park, Xiaojie Tan, and Yong Ae Yue because he believed Asian women were “temptations,” and a flood of urgent and necessary essays on the subject of how fetishization is in fact murderous filled the Internet. I wondered how to feel about a private fear being catapulted into public discussion, at long last released from the cognitive dissonance of being gaslit. Grateful? Relieved? Affirmed? But mostly all I felt was frightened and tired of feeling frightened.

More tragedies followed: Michelle Alyssa Go was pushed onto the subway tracks and died. Christina Yuna Lee was followed into her home and stabbed to death. A white man assaulted seven different Asian women in a single day. “It was a little surprising that it was him,” the employee who identified the culprit said. “He’s usually kind of quiet and to himself.” Not all of these perpetrators were white. A white-supremacist myth works like a drop of poison in a well; sooner or later, it infects everyone.

Online, more Asian women shared their stories and tips on how to stay safe. We recycled the same language we’d used in 2021 and 2020. I couldn’t tell if we were shouting into the void. I wanted to ask if things would change this time around, but the answer stung too much to consider. If we cannot identify these men by invading their private thoughts and tracking down their IP addresses, we’re left waiting for society to change as a whole, to once and forever disentangle notions of Asian women from notions of being submissive, hypersexual, and weak. To finally see each of us as individuals who, from the outset, you can assume nothing about.

How long must we wait? And how many more of us will die in the meantime? And so the onus falls on us to not be raped, to not be killed.
I researched where to buy pepper spray in NYC. I started keeping my back against the subway wall (again). I walk down stairs with my hand over the handrail, fearful that someone will push me down the steps. At night, I startle when a shadow appears behind me. I haven’t stopped thinking about the woman who had acid thrown on her face — how could she have prevented it? What precautions could she have possibly taken? I can’t think of a single one.

I wonder if the men who attacked and killed us are the same men on the Internet who argue that we make better wives because we don’t talk or fight back and that we make for easy sex because we are, after all, such easy prey.

Men have looked at me with many emotions: kindness, desire, annoyance, rage, total and complete apathy. But one emotion I have never been looked at with is fear.

The night I heard about Christina Yuna Lee’s murder, I started texting a friend, “I understand now why people buy guns.” Because if I cannot inspire fear, at least a semi-automatic can. But I quickly backspaced, ashamed, and never sent the text. If any of these men had looked at the women they hurt with fear, would they still be alive?

Here is what I wish I’d said to the two white men on the train: Be careful what you say. I’m listening. And I’m not going anywhere.

Elaine Hsieh Chou is the author of Disorientation.

What White Men Say in Our Absence