Asian American Reproductive Justice Oral History: PUBLISHED!

Last summer, I conducted a series of oral histories with Asian American women who have been involved in different aspects of the reproductive justice movement. It’s not comprehensive, but I tried to reach out to a mixture of different activists, advocates, and scholars. The transcribing took hours (5-6 hours for each hour of interview), but it was finished and submitted last fall to the Smith College Sophia Smith Collection.

The Asian American Reproductive Justice Oral History is now publicly available online! There is also a short author’s note detailing my methodologies and limitations of the project.

I’ve come very far since I mass-emailed random listservs in hopes of landing an interview with these folks. It served as a basis for my own growth in political consciousness as well as development in understanding that I belong to a larger Asian American community. Some of their stories, I’ve shared with other Asian American students in the hopes that they will inspire action in the same way they did for me. Below, I’ve included two of my favorite quotes from Beckie Masaki (API Institute on Domestic Violence) and Helen Zia (former Editor in Chief of Ms. Magazine).


From Beckie Masaki, on her long-term vision around gender-based violence:

I think [that] might sound utopian, or “That will never happen in our lifetime,” but I believe that it’s possible to—or definitely possible to—There’s so much work that we could do better to move, to shift the scale. When you think about it, look how far we’ve come, you know, just even in my lifetime. I grew up pre-Civil Rights Movement, where laws were—Even in my lifetime, I think maybe the year when I was born is when Japanese Americans had the right to citizenship. So it’s really within my lifetime that a lot has changed, and so I have a lot of hope in the next generations or, say, within your lifetime how much is going to change.

From Helen Zia, on having discussions with those who are apolitical:

People come to consciousness—I mean my notion is people come to consciousness and awareness at their own time. You cannot force somebody to be into politics or into a certain political framework, if they’re not ready, if they’re not into it, if it’s not their experience. On the other hand, the fact that you bring it to them, later they might become ready. And you—young activists, any activist—you’ve planted a seed. It’s not like it just goes in one ear and out the other. Somewhere it lives. 


Asian American Immigration: Family & Citizenship

Last year’s bustle around comprehensive immigration reform and subsequent push back against undocumented immigrants was simply another chapter in the long history of immigration in the United States. Immigration—whether in search of jobs or fleeing war—have been the main route that Asian settlers have set foot on mainland U.S. soil. State regulation of immigration and the decision of who was fit to be a citizen has resulted in the history of exclusion for Asian American immigrants. More recent increases in Asian American immigration, however, have also exposed more subtle exclusion based on gender and sexual orientation lines. Immigration has always been a tool of white heteropatriarchy and even today, through regulation of gender and sexuality, the system functions to reinforce the heterosexual middle-class nuclear family.

The history of Asian immigration to the United States has largely been that of immigration exclusion. Asian women were the targets of the 1875 Page Act, the “first federal legislation that defined citizenship in negative terms.”[1] The Page Act sought to block immigration of Asian women who were thought to be prostitutes, immoral beings capable of dismantling the white family through their sexual seduction of White men.

The Page Act was first of many racist laws that sought to hinder the immigration and citizenship process of Asians to protect the white nuclear family. After the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882, there was the 1907 Gentlemen’s Agreement, which informally banned Japanese immigration, and the Immigration Act of 1924 that effectively banned all Asian immigration. It was not until 1952 that the Immigration and Nationality Act nullified federal immigration bans of Asians and allowed all Asians to gain citizenship in the United States.

Issues around Asian immigration and citizenship in particular has been heavily regulated throughout U.S. due to their perceived “foreign” status. At times, the xenophobia was rooted in economic reasons (i.e. Asians taking all the jobs) and at times, in a more fundamental distrust of all things foreign. Even today, this plays out on the micro-level. Many Asian Americans are confronted with the question of “Where are you really from?” which denies the person’s American roots and exemplifies our society’s inability to abandon its perception of “Asian” being mutually exclusive to “American.”

Today, there are over 18 million Asian/Asian American people in the United States, and Asians are the fastest growing racial group in the United States with a 46% increase between 2000 and 2010.[2] Especially considering that almost 3 out of 4 Asian adults are foreign-born, immigration is a relevant and important issue within the Asian American community. The next section will examine the current immigration reform movement and how it may be seeking a broad Asian American agenda at the expense of marginalized communities (i.e. LGBTQ, women) within the racial group.

From 1Love Movement & Southeast Asia Resource Action Center's petition
From 1Love Movement & Southeast Asia Resource Action Center’s petition

2013 was an exciting year for immigrant rights organizations, as many believed the comprehensive immigration reform bill would be passed through Congress. Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act of 2013 (Senate Bill 744) was drafted in April 2013 by the “Gang of Eight,” an all-male, largely white group of bipartisan senators in charge of drafting the immigration reform bill.

Under the current proposed bill, family reunifications would be severely cut to make room for employment-based visas, such as H1-B visas for high-skilled workers mainly in the STEM field. Currently, 70% of all H1-B visas go to men, and more than 70% of the high-skilled employment visas go to immigrants from Asia (U.S. Department of State).

Many Asian American organizations have supported the bill. However, seemingly beneficial to the American economy and the Asian American community, such a heavy emphasis on high-skilled visas such H-1B or INVEST would actually result in a narrowing and tailoring of the American Dream to fit the privileged few – mainly a wealthy, male population that originally had the resources to obtain an education or develop specialized skills. Selecting immigrants based on their “skills” or “education” would also disproportionately discriminate against women due to the existing worldwide gender discrepancy in education or employment opportunities for women.

However, the opposite push for increase in family reunification visas also has the danger of reproducing a heterosexual model of family, as the government does not federally recognize LGBTQ members. As Somerville writes in “Sexualized Aliens,” family reunification policies are the seemingly neutral ways to exclude the queer and other “unfit” community with “underlying blood logic,” much as they had been before.[3]

The contradictions that arise during the immigration reform debate for Asian Americans exemplify the importance of an intersectional perspective. It also calls for a vision beyond fitting hundreds and thousands of people through an increasingly narrowing door into the United States, and instead, addressing the imperialist political, economic, and military efforts abroad that push immigrants towards the promised land of America.

[1] Siobhan B. Somerville, “Sexual Aliens and the Racialized State: A Queer Reading of the 1952 U.S. Immigration and Nationality Act,” In Eithne Luibhed, Queer Migrations: Sexuality, U.S. Citizenship (University of Minnesota Press: 2005), 16.

[2] “Newsroom.” Facts for Features: Asian/Pacific American Heritage Month: May 2013. (accessed February 19, 2014).

[3] Somerville, “Sexualized Aliens,” 85

Mismatching Plates

As long as I can remember my grandmother has had a bent back and a floor-kissing gaze. When I was younger, I thought it was because her body never forgot the years of crouching and squatting on the streets of Seoul, selling fish and vegetables amongst the busy feet of passersby. Now I know that it was because her soul had crunched in a little bit further with every pummel against her fragile body.


Our cupboard at home holds mismatching sets of cups and plates. Three cups with a thin orange rim and zigzag green patterns, but only one matching plate. There’s only one single plate with the red flowers. Whenever I return home, I peer into the cupboard and count the number of plates and cups. Usually three or four small plates have gone missing. None, if my father hasn’t come back since I last left. The bigger dinner plates are usually all intact. They require two hands to throw. And I can never tell if we’re missing cups. They’re all identical ones from IKEA, and I think my mom secretly replaces them without my knowledge.

No one talks about the missing plates or the shouting matches that underlie the staccato of shattering plates. The shards get quietly brushed into the garbage can and my mom buys new sets of plates from garage sales. Our family quietly eats off of our mismatching plates, and the windows of our suburban house go on warmly glowing to the outside world.

The Space Between Black and White

During a practice run-through of a workshop examining rape culture in media, the facilitators showed a compiled video of examples of rape culture promoting media clips. The compilation included Robin Thicke’s Blurred Lines, coverage of the Steubenville case, rape jokes, Taylor Swift’s I Knew You Were Trouble, and a lot of images of black women being objectified and sexualized. Someone noticed and mentioned that the video largely showed white men and black women, but added that it was okay as long as the facilitators purposefully told people to notice that certain folks (like Asian and Latina women) were not present in the video: “Who is absent? Why do you think that is?” Placed in that particular point in the workshop, the answer to the question was bound to be — “because Asian American women’s lives are not affected by the rape culture in the media.” No.

Many women of color’s sheer lack of knowledge on Asian American women’s issues is absolutely terrifying.

The most fundamental problems in my experiences with coalition building have arisen from folks not understanding each other’s history. The lack of Native American folks in our organizing groups have led us to use people of color as an all-encompassing term, not realizing the unique identity of Indigenous folks and their history of violent intertwining with the white lineage. Similarly, not understanding the Asian American history has led to perpetuation of the same old stereotypes, even within the POC community. People use the terms “people of color” and “Black and Latino” interchangeably, thus, effectively denying that racism has also left a heavy handed mark on Asian American communities. Especially in discussing police brutality in Providence, it is imperative to recognize the that Cambodian Americans and other Southeast Asian communities are frequently subject to raids and criminalization. Yes, it should be recognized that it stems from anti-Blackness, but it also should be understood not simply as a Black & Latino men’s issue.

In a workshop run-through, a couple of Black women told me that the section around Asian American women’s sexualization via geisha images, binding, and submissive positions had very little to do with sexism broadly and as women of color, they felt as though it had nothing to do with them. It’s a race issue, they said simply. I blinked. I had heard that argument before, except from the other side: This isn’t an Asian American issue. This is a women’s problem. I challenged folks to tell me why sexualization of bodies was not relevant as a sexism issue and angrily added on that as an Asian American person, I constantly read and teach myself about black criminality and criticize the animalistic depictions of Black people in the media, understanding that the issue of dehumanization is one that I care about as well, even though I’m not Black. Oh, they said.

We are not just some appendage to the discussion around race. Not something you tag on. We must center Blackness in racism discussions, yes, as Blackness has heavily shaped racial politics in the U.S. However, as a person of color, I refuse to engage in this cannibalistic battle of “oppression olympics.” Asian American issues bring in important analysis around imperialism, Orientalism, commodification, and xenophobia. There has to be space for all of us under anti-racism.

For a similar topic article:

Asian American Reproductive Justice

I am currently in the Bay Area (living in a Berkeley co-op), researching Asian American reproductive justice and interviewing AA women activists. I had originally formulated an interest in the topic of reproductive justice via the reading of Dorothy Robert’s brilliant historical analysis of Black women’s reproductive oppression in her book, Killing the Black BodyThe book remains a personal favorite of mine, not only in the eye-opening natures of her arguments but also her clarity of voice throughout the dense material.

After reading Killing the Black Body, I set out to find an analogous book that used the lens of reproductive rights to examine American American women and their yellow bodies, if you will. I came up empty handed. There was virtually nothing upon the subject, which serves as a testament not to the lack of similar oppression for Asian American women but rather the silencing of their stories under the all-encompassing  “model minority” myth. The limited literature I found were the very basic, almost clinical assessments of the Asian American community — a list of numbers and data that were churned out and never thoroughly analyzed. Vietnamese women have the highest rate of cervical cancer. Over 20% of Korean Americans do not have health insurance. Sex trafficking and deportation are huge issues for the Asian American community. Many AA women do not use hormonal contraception. But the recurring thought I had in mind was why?

The danger of simply leaving these data hanging is that if accompanying historical, social, and economic explanations are not presented, others will decide for us what the reason for this health disparity is. And usually it’s race.

Race — not in the sense that historical of colonialism in Asia has sexualized the female body and the model minority myth has led to lower rates of intervention and funding in these communities — but rather that our race is inherently dirty and diseased or perhaps too traditional and conservative to talk about sex. This is why I wanted to dig up the truth and tell our own stories surrounding reproductive rights.

Relevant literature has begun to emerge, such as Undivided Rights: Women of Color Organize For Reproductive Justice and Asian American Women by Lora Jo Foo. However, the struggle to have our voices be heard and determine our own stories continues. In the midst of my research, I found several oral history archives, containing Asian American women activists’ stories. Hearing the actual voices of AA women activists is incredibly powerful. I urge you to check them out:

Aloysius O’Hare and The Lorax

I finished off my free one-month subscription at Netflix with The Lorax. First, I would just like to say that it was a horrible movie tainted with adult perspectives of how to appeal to children and their imagination. The movie also features random appearances of Zac Efron and Taylor Swift as the main characters as well as numerous awkward musical numbers that did not appeal to me at all.

I came upon one particular character, however, that I found interesting: Aloysius O’Hare. He is the greedy man who owns the large corporation that sells clean air to the residents of Thneedville, often using violence or coercion to make sure his business is profitable. He runs his company and its factories at the cost of the environment.


Is Aloysius O’Hare Asian?
Despite his Irish last name, the maybe two-feet tall, tiny, angry business man is oddly East Asian-looking with his straight, slick hair. There has been some debate on this — most will perhaps lash out at me and tell me to stop trying to fit him into a racial category. That the character is racially ambiguous. But the point is that to me, he instantaneously looked Asian (perhaps it’s because there was a vague resemblance to Edna Mode from The Incredibles).

Screen shot 2013-03-08 at 7.24.21 PM

The vague association with the Asian race is reaffirmed when you put his character into the context of the storyline. Even though the man who actually chopped down the trees and killed the environment was the Once-ler, O’Hare is the one that seized that opportunity to sell clean air to people and the clear villain in the story. His disregard for environmental concerns, seeming dictatorial “confinement” of the Thneedville people, constant surveillance, and withholding of the truth from the people seems similar to the American portrayal of Chinese or North Korean governments. At one point, O’Hare says to the main character:

You’ve got a beautiful town here, Ted! I can’t think of any reason you’d want to leave town again. Ever.

It Doesn’t Matter If He’s Asian
A fellow blogger posted a reply to the suggestion that O’Hare is an Asian character:

He’s a shorter person with straight, shiny black hair, and I guess that fits the standard expectations for an animated Asian character, but his facial features aren’t racialized. His name’s a long way from Chinese, too: Aloysius O’Hare. Plus he has no accent in the movie.

Before we even address anything I should note that this blogger’s argument against O’Hare being Asian is incredibly flawed. He puts forth an invalid argument that a character (1) without stereotypical chinky eyes, (2) with a “white American” name, and (3) a lack of an “Asian” accent could not possibly be Asian. We should not rely on heavily stereotyped images of Asian people to determine if O’Hare’s portrayal is indeed racially Asian or more importantly, has any impact on the Asian/Asian American community.

So let’s take it back a bit. Yes, there is a possibility that O’Hare is not an Asian portrayal — but then why did I think it was? Maybe there’s still something there. Seeing that all the regular residents of Thneedville were mostly white and not a single Asian character was featured in the movie, maybe I thought Aloysius O’Hare was Asian because he is possibly the closest looking character to an East Asian person in the entire movie. Or perhaps the comical emasculation (via his incredibly short stature and frequently ridiculed status) was an all-too-familiar depiction of Asian men in the media.

This is a bigger problem than just this cartoon of a racially-ambiguous evil environment killer. Certain familiar portrayals of Asians in the media is what even sparked my initial connection of this man to being Asian. And that’s not just me being racist or hypersensitive — it’s the media that’s the problem.


Disclaimer: I’m quite fond of Jeremy Lin. He’s a smart player and a complete crowd-pleaser. He understands the theatrics of a live basketball game, its appeal to the audience, and knows how to use it.

I’m not sure where I stand on the whole Asian American bandwagon thing though. I’m pretty certain that Jeremy Lin is a decently skilled basketball player — enough to have a good-sized fan base. Then again, I also know that I personally wouldn’t have watched reruns of the Knicks games if he hadn’t been an Asian American basketball player. But I don’t think that’s wrong. I like Jeremy Lin because he brings up questions about modern racism and seemingly immovable social constructs of masculinity, especially for Asian American men. I like that, for once, there is positive Asian American representation on TV — an athletic Asian American guy on national television who is scoring mad points, winning games, and succeeding.

His shot to fame had also exposed the existence of anti-Asian sentiments and racist comments and the need for a dialogue that I never thought would be still needed in the 21st century. People have always said things in private settings that have disturbed me — comments that were never quite able to be pinned down as being racist — but to be said in public or national TV? Quite interesting. I have found that many have a deep engrained disdain for Asian American success in this country. They analyze, evaluate, and calculate how Asian Americans are able to succeed in the rare cases they do — as if we’re some alien species or robots. Which is exactly what this article does by trying to analyze Lin’s perception skills and ascribing them to his “Asianness.”

I personally loved the SNL clip about the Linsanity surrounding Lin’s NBA basketball success. So often, the boundaries of Asian/AA racism are blurred for people. The juxtaposition to black racism helped to give people perspective — i.e. that references to chopsticks or fortune cookie humor is like talking about black people and fried chicken. For some reason, the former is considered funny while the latter disturb people’s political-correctness meter.

With Lin starting up again as the Houston Rockets’s point guard this coming October, the Linsanity conversation should be back soon. No matter how much the sight of another “Who said Asians Can’t Drive” Meme or a “Will you be my ValLINtine” poster makes me groan, I can’t deny that he has great court presence and flashy moves that makes the games worth watching. Heck, I might even buy myself one of his jerseys.

HIMYM: Slice of Asian American Stereotypes

Asian/Asian Americans always seem to be foreigners to this country. Despite the fact that many Chinese, Japanese, and Fillipino immigrants have been here since 1840s. Many second or third generation Asian Americans are constantly bothered by “where are you really from?” and “you speak English really well for an Asian!” (true stories). And the media doesn’t help in perpetuating that idea either.

Exhibit A: How I Met Your Mother Season 5 Episode 3, Robin 101

Japanese speaking Shin-ya, played by a Japanese actor, Kazu Nagahama.

Robin barges in on Ted giving Barney classes about how to date Robin. Robin confronts them, then asks who “that guy is.”
Ted: He’s sort of been auditing the class.
Robin: What?
Ted: Well I tried to explain to him that it wasn’t a real class, but I don’t think he speaks much English.

Often derived from the submissive, obedient Asian female stereotype. The Shy Quiet Girl never fights. She probably has pigtails or some other childlike quality about her. She usually cries or runs away from conflict.

Exhibit B. How I Met Your Mother Season Season 5 Episode 14, Perfect Week


Ted reads off names from the sign-up list, including the name “Cook Pu,” which he assumes to be a joke. Cook Pu says in her quiet whimpering voice, “Here.” Eventually a guy next to her tells Ted that she’s an actual person. She then proceeds to run out of class, crying.

Later in the bar, Ted hears an order for Cook Pu, which he assumes to be a prank by the other members of his gang, until Cook Pu says again in her quiet voice, “Here” and grabs her food.

She never once confronts Ted or even attempts to brush it off, she whimpers and eventually drops out of Ted’s Architecture class.


There are of course other types such as the Ying-Yang Wise Old GuyNinja Guy, Nerdy Computer Guy (although this has been long criticized and been slowly declining in number), and Super Hot Exotic Girl. We’ve seen them all.

How to Hit On An Asian Girl

Thayer at midnight was lit up with neon signs and girls in short dazzling dresses. I caught a glimpse of myself in the Bagel Gourmet window — a girl in a striped blouse, long sleeved blue cardigan, and modest navy shorts. I began to slow my pace. A mob of  drunk townies in front of me were having a difficult time putting one foot in front of the other. A couple of the guys were sober enough to notice someone walking behind them. “Let the lady pass!” they yelled into the air. I had almost reached the corner where I turn into Cushing St. — when a member of the rowdy gang stopped me. Barely able to fix his gaze, he bowed and yelled, “NI HAO!” A roar of laughter from his friends. I quickly maneuvered past him and dove into the safety of my dorm — and into the shower I went, knowing that this wasn’t the kind of dirty, grimy feeling you could wash off.

My friends responses have been “I’ve heard worse.” True. Me, too. I wasn’t sexually assaulted or mugged. I was just an “Asian” girl walking down the street who happened to run into a bunch of drunk white guys — who thought it would be funny to speak to me in Chinese. Maybe that was the only Asian exposure that he had. Maybe he was just trying to be nice and be “culturally competent.” Maybe he was just drunk. You never know his intentions.

But his intentions don’t matter. Well-meaning people can still offend others and perpetuate racist images in society. The incident arose in me various fears and insecurities that I have as an Asian American woman in this country.

I felt as though I looked extremely “Asian.” I’m foreign. Who am I kidding, I don’t belong here in America.

I felt that my hard-fought individuality was lost in the larger “Asian” stereotype. We all look alike to them. Maybe I’m just another Asian girl after all.

For y’all interactive learners, here’s a video called “How to Hit on An Asian Girl,” telling guys out there why talking about chopsticks or yelling Chinese at a random girl is not usually a very effective technique to express interest in Asian/AA women: