Growing up, I would repeat in the mirror, “I’m a girl, I’m a girl, I’m a girl…” but, I couldn’t make my words come to life. I never felt like a girl. I’d always felt disconnected, and tried to push it out of my mind. I was so far from the model of a smart, calm, and collected Asian woman. When I watched TV, all the Asian female characters were stereotypes. At home, my independent single Laotian mom meant everything to me and I wanted to make her proud, so I focused on school and getting into college. Going to school, getting married to a man, and having his children was the model my mom and step-father had set for me. But on the inside I struggled. Both the media and my home life presented models that I was unsatisfied with.
Then, when I was 14, K-pop culture came into my life and immediately caught my full attention because of the great lack of Asian role models in American media. Korean pop idols seemed more charismatic. Following K-pop culture became my way to escape expectations of being a model young Asian daughter.
To set the scene, the 2012 era of K-pop was in a rapidly transitioning visual era. K-pop companies were highlighting visual idols of being more trendy with “Sexy”/“Street” fashion that highlight tighter clothes, see through shirts, leather, lace, bright colors and bright colored hair. From a Western perspective, this type of fashion on men and tomboy idols really caught my attention and it was the first time I came face to face with gender non-conforming fashion.
I was intrigued by idols like Kim Kibum (Key) of SHINee because he was always comfortable wearing colors, patterns, makeup, women’s accessories and enjoyed doing things that were seen as “feminine.” I was intrigued even more so by Amber Liu of f(x) because she was a very popular tomboy idol during the time and still is one of the most popular tomboy idols and visuals in modern Asian pop culture today. Her hair was very short, she had lighter skin, and wore snapbacks and oversized clothes.
Seeing these idols making statements about unapologetically being themselves with their fashion and presentation showed me a new model presented in a glamorized East Asian body. I started to tie my long hair up and tried to hide it under hats and to wear oversized sweaters and sports hoodies in attempt to be more androgynous. When my best friend/girlfriend told me I looked “handsome” for the first time, I was filled with joy.
But my relationship with exploring gender and gender expression was a volatile one. When I was outed as bisexual to my mom by my middle school administration, I ended my attempts at achieving the “tomboy model.” I moved into high school trying to conform to the model of being a hyper-feminine, quiet, smart, and pretty cishet East Asian girl as a form of repression. Conforming looked like: white/light BB creams, red lipstick, mini skirts, cardigans, and dresses. In high school, and even after I came out as nonbinary my first year of college, the men I dated expected me to dress and act like their obedient Asian femme/”girlfriend.” Conforming to this new hyper-feminine model fostered my internalized colorism and pushed me to always meet other people’s desires and ideas of me.
Even though I had gained a new “model” of how to be, conforming was still problematic and resulted in me being fetishized. After all, toxic East Asian beauty standards adhere to Western Eurocentric beauty standards where androgyny is associated with a specific look: soft, sharp features, thin and white. I realized that on one hand, I was “Asian enough” to non-Asian people that fetishized EA ideals while being not “Asian enough” for myself because I didn’t meet East Asian standards. I would never be enough if I continued to aspire to toxic models of beauty, whether White or Asian.
Today, though my mom has disowned me and I’m barely surviving in poverty on my own, I love my complexion and am comfortable in my own body now. While K-pop played an important role for me growing up, I know now that Asian representation is not positive by default, and that it can be toxic.Today, my own existence is important representation. I am a proud brown, queer, nonbinary Laotian POC and no one can take that from me anymore.
We're building community. 100% of your support for our platform goes to writers and creatives.
Write for us. Review our submission guidelines and send us a pitch.