‘Sad Asian Girls’ collective takes on stereotypes of Asian women

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White bowls on a white table in front of a white wall: a clean, quiet setting. Two women sit at a table, facing their food, in alternate scenes. It’s the setting for a casually devastating domestic scene.

“When you go to Korea, relearn everything. Relearn makeup, learn how a girl should behave,” says an off-camera woman, presumably a mother figure, in Korean. “Just start losing weight now. [Then, we can go to Korea and] fix your eyes, raise your nose and shape your face.”

“Are you still hanging out with that gay guy?” asks another mother figure in Mandarin. “You need to stop making friends with people like that.”

The women don’t make eye contact with the camera, looking anywhere else but straight ahead, eating quietly.

The work — titled “Have You Eaten?” — is the creation of “Sad Asian Girls,” a team of Rhode Island School of Design students Esther Fan and Olivia Park who describe themselves as Asian femme creatives. Feeling unrepresented in coursework and in general Western media, they have carved out an inclusive space online for Asian femmes who live in white-dominant societies.

In 2010, Asian Americans made up 4.8 percent of the population, and experienced a population increase of 43.4 percent since 2000, the greatest of any racial demographic, according to the 2010 U.S. Census. But in 2015’s 100 top-grossing films, Asians made up just 3.9 percent of speaking roles, and there was just one Asian female director among the top 800 films from 2007 to 2015 (excluding 2011), according to a study by the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. In the top 100 grossing films of 2013, women, in general, comprised 30 percent of all speaking roles, and just 3 percent of those female speaking roles were played by Asian women, according to the study “It’s a Man’s (Celluloid) World” by Martha Lauzen, who is the executive director of the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film.

“Have You Eaten?,” originally created for a class assignment, has reached nearly 70,000 views on YouTube.

“[T]hat video was a list of words our mothers actually said to us,” said Park. “[When] I showed it to my parents, they didn’t really fully understand what the bigger message of it was. They were just like laughing, like, ‘Oh yeah, I do call you fat while you’re eating — isn’t that funny, ha ha ha.’”

Olivia Park and Esther Fan

Olivia Park and Esther Fan. Photo courtesy of Olivia Park and Esther Fan

Park and Fan said they are frustrated with the lack of modern and diverse representation of Asian art in established museums in the U.S. and Canada.

“I think as creatives, we go and visit these museums, thinking that we’re going to get some type of inspiration or see our type of voice and people,” said Park.

“There’s always an Asian art section,” Fan said, laughing.

“[But] we’re tired of seeing ink paintings of mountains and Buddha sculptures in a modern or contemporary art space,” Park said.

“Have You Eaten?” launched their official partnership as “Sad Asian Girls,” but the duo has gone on to do other projects, including a YouTube series where they had participants discuss the model minority myth. However, Fan and Park found that there was much less of a response to that series than there had been for their other projects.

“I feel like it wasn’t as strong as the projects where it was us telling our own personal experiences,” Fan said. “At one point, we were trying to be the voice for every single Asian identity. And we realized we couldn’t do that.”

Though most of their work is digital, last year, Fan and Park took over the outer walls of the school’s Fleet Library.

They posted onto the walls 100 posters, on which they printed statements that began with “ASIAN WOMEN ARE NOT.” All statements were submissions that Fan and Park took online.

Posters installed by Olivia Park and Esther Fan onto the walls of the Rhode Island School of Design's Fleet Library. Photo courtesy of Esther Fan and Olivia Park

Posters installed by Olivia Park and Esther Fan onto the walls of the Rhode Island School of Design’s Fleet Library. Photo courtesy of Esther Fan and Olivia Park

Fan and Park have received a lot of input on their “Sad Asian Girls” work – especially from people online who often say it resonates with them.

Commenting on “Have You Eaten,” one YouTube user said it was “painfully accurate.” Another said, “It was like they pulled lines out of my own mother’s mouth.”

One of the submissions printed onto a poster. Photo courtesy of Esther Fan and Olivia Park

One of the submissions printed onto a poster. Photo courtesy of Esther Fan and Olivia Park

But they also get input from people at school including some professors, many of whom are white and found it difficult to understand, they said.

“They don’t understand it on a conceptual level,” Park said. “They can critique the formal aspects, but they don’t know what the experience is or that there was even an issue in the first place.”

“Like our ‘Have You Eaten?’ video,” Park said. “There were two languages, Korean and Chinese, and they didn’t understand that they were two different languages.”

Sometimes, the comments online are sexually violent and threatening.

“I think we see [all comments] on the web, but it almost doesn’t faze us anymore. After so many, you’re just like ‘ok but they don’t really matter to us’,” said Park. “Who does matter? It’s the Asian femmes reaching out. So, we take most of their criticism pretty seriously.”

Fan and Park's zine submission for the Yale Odds and Ends Book Fair, which they also sold as merchandise to followers. Photo courtesy of Esther Fan and Olivia Park

Fan and Park’s zine submission for the Yale Odds and Ends Book Fair, which they also sold as merchandise to followers. Photo courtesy of Esther Fan and Olivia Park

Fan and Park said they do not plan to continue “Sad Asian Girls” work after graduating. Fan, who is Canadian, will be returning to Vancouver. Since realizing this, they have created a Facebook page to help connect Asian femmes doing similar work and plan to use their “Sad Asian Girls” Instagram page to promote the projects of other Asian femmes.

“What we want to encourage now is all the [people of] other identities who are inspired to make their own work and tell their own stories,” Fan said.

“We’re not trying to speak for other voices,” said Park. “And we want to release the concept of ‘Sad Asian Girls’ out into the wild.”

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