Sparkling Water

Asian American Womanhood, Sex, and Sobriety

In 2006, I was hired as the “assistant” to a white woman who was a Suicide Girl. She owned a self-proclaimed art gallery. “I’m done with modeling,” she said, “because I put on too much weight and my calling is really in the art business.” I was thrilled to got the job. I was a real creative professional! I had a real resume item! But my job actually entailed dressing in the tiniest, most revealing clothes I could find, serving drinks at gallery openings & to sell, sell, sell artwork. The gallery-goers were primarily middle-aged white men who heard it was the “porn gallery.” I was often solicited for threesomes or approached by white male photographers who wanted to “work with” me.

I made extra cash by bartending at warehouse parties for the Suicide Girls crew. I was paid by strangers who tucked money into my corset and waistband. Yes, it was a diverse crowd of many racial, sexual, and gender identities. And yes, I was still objectified, hyper-sexualized, and infantilized. I got paid for becoming whoever and whatever anyone wanted me to be.

One night, while I was wasted on booze and cocktails of narcotics, I signed a contract for a white male owned clothing company to take photos of me in their t-shirts and mesh panties and for them to own those images in perpetuity. I was promised a bag of cocaine and a few tabs of ecstasy.

I went ahead with the photoshoot. The images were released publicly. Friends from all over the world saw them. I was horrified and helpless. They assured me that it was “OK,” because “You look totally hot.” I felt better.

I contacted the owner years later, after he’d re-used them for multiple companies he’d founded afterward. I asked him to take them down. I begged him to at least crop them for modesty or edit out intimate body parts that showed through the clothes. I offered my labor again, to edit them for free. He refused.

The last time I “bartended”, I woke up in a stranger’s house. A man put me on his lap and tried to force me to snort coke out of his hand. I broke away and ran down the street, barely clothed. I peeled bills off my body to pay for a cab back to my apartment.

After I stopped “assisting” at the gallery, I still needed to pay rent. I took a job waiting tables and bartending at an Asian Tea House and Fusion Restaurant. Men would come in and sit for hours, ordering one cup of tea or one plate of spring rolls. They would tip $50 on a $3 bill. All of the other servers except for two were Asian women. We joked that we would make more tips if we played into the Asian schoolgirl stereotype. I put on my booty shorts and thigh high socks, pulled my hair into “anime” pigtails, and giggled when people asked for my number or grabbed me in whatever places they could get their hands on.

I convinced myself that I enjoyed all of the attention. It made me feel powerful. Because I was desired, I reasoned, I had power over people’s feelings and actions. Years later, the shame set in. I started wearing huge, thick, oversized clothing, and cut off my hair. The pendulum swung in the other direction. I overplayed being physically and sexually modest.

New sexual partners, even people I was in committed monogamous relationships with, would remark with pride, “You’re a lady in the street but a freak in the bed.” Many bragged to their friends. The night I lost my virginity, I took pictures of myself in bed and posted them online to be sure everyone knew I was desirable. A few months later, I had anal sex for the first time in a street-facing window where people below could watch. They had taken bets on if I would go through with it.

I’ve repressed so much for so many years. I try to erase every moment, every gaze, every tiny piece of clothing, every “exciting” $20 bill, every lascivious joke that made me feel empowered. I convinced myself that I could use this “power” because I looked Asian, but was not, at the core, that stereotype.

The floodgates broke open when I read the names of the slaughtered Asian American women in Atlanta. I was transported back in time and could see the jerseys of the middle school soccer team, hear the giggles of teenage girls, feel the cold gel of 90s glitter makeup. As a young person, I only felt like I fit in if I spent hours helping people with math homework. Classmates used to ask me to “yell at boys with big words to scare them off.” They would push me into the soccer field and order me to yell long, incoherent diatribes using the word “antidisestablishmentarianism” at their crush-who-wronged-them du jour. The boys would leave us alone out of disgust. They were not cowed by my intellectual prowess. I was just being othered. I could never do makeup with my friends because no one knew how to apply make-up to people without eyelid creases. “You’re so pretty,” they would say. “You don’t need eyeshadow,” as they all excitedly applied it to each other’s faces.

I was always the yellow power ranger. For Spice Girls karaoke, I was assigned the role of “Scary Spice” because “I guess she’s the closest to how you look.” My mom bought me “Asian Barbie,” and I never wanted to play with her. I didn’t consider her part of the Barbie contingent. I let her sit on the shelf. A doll, not a participant.

I also knew from a very young age that cops were not here to keep anyone safe. That they were tools of the powerful. I was hunted down and detained at the request of my own parents. I was restrained and thrown into the back of their car. They thanked the two cops who had arrested a 5-foot-tall teenager.

For years, I have lowered my eyes and nodded my head when I’m told how “privileged” I am. Folks have referred to my “pedigree” as a way to guilt me out of community organizing. I silently nurse my aching heart when backs turn because I “chose the Ivory Tower.” I have committed to speaking out less. I try to take up the least space possible in order to be a good ally. I calling myself “uneducated” about Asian American history. I question if I’m just making up all of these stories and feelings in order to toss my hat into the Oppression Olympics.

I truly believed I had succeeded at disappearing but could still be a force for good “behind the scenes.” Until two years ago when, again, I found myself trapped under clammy hands.

“No. No. NO.”

Until 8 months ago when I called them because I was lonely. I convinced myself that it was consensual because this time wasn’t nearly as grotesque as trapping cash in between my legs.

Today I am broken because I feel the pain and bleeding of the Asian women who used aliases and lived where they worked. The Asian women who opened doors and served food to clients who were looking for pleasure. Whether that be sex, or just corporeal pleasure. The Asian women who grew old both alone and together. The media says “there may not be anyone to hold a funeral for them.”

That is not true, and it has never been true. We’re all dying incrementally, but we are doing it together.

At lavish private dinners during graduate school, I am often asked directly why I don’t drink alcohol. Most of the time, though, it’s just a quick glance, a quick jolt, “Oh! Right! You don’t drink!” as the $200 bottle of wine is served out of $100 pieces of glassware.

“Is this temporary for a detox or, um, permanent?”

The edges of my lips turn up in a forced smile.

“I’ll just take sparkling water, please.”

No one, regardless of title or even personal biography, is entitled to the story behind the sparkling water. Yet here it is; because why not? The stakes are too high these days to just smile and push the glass away.

In 2015, I jumped out of a second story window and woke up in a bathtub covered in my own blood. There were bruises all over my body. A truly decent person who I will never be able to thank for this deed had brought me to safety and left 2 aspirin and a glass of water on the edge of the tub.

I peeled myself out of the ceramic basin and walked to New Orleans Jazz Fest in a haze. I watched Aaron Neville croon “Amazing Grace,” and repeated over and over to myself with each wave of nausea that I was fine. This song was the finale to an epic party. No one really needed to be saved, especially after they were dead. I certainly didn’t need any moral reckoning. I’d just partied a little too hard. Hell, another drink might event help! I limped back across Bayou St. John carrying take-out drinks for people.

A few months later, I was driving home drunk — this had become a daily activity — and passed a car flipped over on the neutral ground in flames. I was filled with inexplicable rage. I shook with white hot anger.

Because the person inside the car was not me.

Freelance Writer and Proud AAPI Femme