They Look Like Me

Baltimore Review originally published this essay for their summer 2023 issue.

I was barely awake when I read the headline that a twenty-one-year-old white man had opened fire in three Atlanta-based massage parlors. Six out of the eight victims were Asian women. They look like me, I thought to myself.

It was March 2021, and I was visiting my parents in Taipei while my husband Derek was staying with his parents in rural Indiana. After shuffling between Hong Kong, Sri Lanka, and the United States for the last few years, Derek and I decided to make Taiwan our permanent home. So, I came to Taiwan at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic to apply for a spouse visa for my American husband.

I scrolled through The New York Times on my phone to scour for the latest updates about the rampage while the local Taiwanese news blared in the background. Fukuhara Ai’s marital scandal took over the Taiwanese headlines that day. She is a Japanese ping pong star, married to a Taiwanese ping pong star. She left her children in Taiwan, went on a holiday in Japan, and was caught walking out of a hotel with an unknown man. Her behavior caused an uproar. The following newsworthy headline was “Salmon chaos.” A Taiwanese chain restaurant offered free, all-you-can-eat sushi to anyone with the Chinese character “Salmon” in their name. As a result, more than two hundred people legally changed their names.

I shook my head at the absurdity of it all.

I told my mother about Atlanta. “How horrible,” she said, her eyes glued to the TV. She pondered over the security footage of Ai and her alleged lover and sighed. “Her Taiwanese husband is so handsome and rich. How could she do that to him?”

Atlanta was too far and too foreign for my mother to care. It felt surreal that thousands of miles away, six women who looked like me died at the hands of a coward who blamed his heinous crime on his sex addiction.

The shooting—and its representation in American media—reflect how Asian women have been caught at the intersection of racism and sexism in America. Initially, there was little information about the victims except for the two customers. Delania Ashley Yaun, a newlywed mother of two, and Paul Andre Michels, a businessman and an army veteran. We knew nothing about the other dead women except that they were Asian. The FBI director claimed that the shooting “[did] not appear” racially motivated, backing up the hypothesis of the sheriff’s office in Cherokee County that the crime was driven by the shooter’s sex addiction.

Six Asian women are dead. If this was not a racially motivated killing, what is?

The Atlanta rampage has triggered Kyoko Takenaka’s decision to release their film to a broader audience. Takenaka is a Japanese American, gender nonconforming filmmaker, model, musician, and performance artist. Growing up in Newton, MA, Takenaka’s family was the only Asian American family in white suburbia. Their short film, Home, a “sonic portrait of belonging and memory in four chapters,” documents the alienation and trauma they experienced. Initially only available through local screenings and film festivals, Takenaka made the film freely available on their website after the massacre at the massage parlors. The film opens with Takenaka taking a sledgehammer to their childhood home before demolition. It ends with recordings of drunk men who approached them at bars. The slurred ramblings Takenaka recorded sound familiar—men’s racial fetishism masked under a “compliment.”

“You know, your face is very beautiful, and it’s very oriental. It’s Asiatic. I don’t know anybody who is American who is born as an Occidental . . .”

“Sushi. I take you for sushi. If you like sushi?”

“Asians, altogether, they are very humble people, and I find them to have a superior beauty . . .”

I watched the film repeatedly on my computer, feeling seen and validated. I remembered all the times I endured white men talking at me or about me. As an Asian Canadian woman living in Vancouver, men messaged me on online dating sites and told me they loved “hot Asian chicks.” I had a boyfriend who sheepishly admitted that he suffered from “yellow fever” while we were with his friends. When I was younger, I didn’t know if I should feel flattered, scared, or angry when I heard statements or questions directed at my Asian-ness. Now I realize that my experiences and those of many Asian women have been non-consensual. Things are said and done to us that we do not consent to, yet we can’t stop them. As women, many of us are subjected to catcalls and other unpleasant sexual advances. For Asian women, however, there’s an extra layer of cultural fetishism—we are not just seen for our sex but also for our skin color and what that implies. Asian women are so much more than submissive sexual beings, yet it’s an uphill battle to fight against cultural stereotypes forced upon us.

In their interview with LA Times, Takenaka says about their film: “I felt very empowered to make productive use of that non-consensual way of speaking and way of fetishizing our culture, fetishizing me as a human, dehumanizing us. And recording was the only way for me to be able to translate this exact experience because so often Asian Americans are gaslit about their own experiences.”

Takenaka crystallized and distilled our existence in North America with one word: gaslit. When the FBI director and the sheriff’s office in Cherokee County said that the Atlanta shooting “[did] not appear” racially motivated, they gaslit my experience as an Asian woman. The six dead women could have been my mother, grandmother, and sister. They could have been me. When a white man targeted places where most workers were Asian women and shot them dead, it was a racially motivated killing. I defy the authorities who try to change the narrative of this horrendous crime and dismiss it as a man’s quest to eliminate what he perceived as temptations.


The history of fetishizing Asian women in the United States has deep roots. The Page Act of 1875 explicitly banned immigrants from “China, Japan, or any Oriental country” from entering the United States and prohibited bringing in women for “lewd and immoral purposes.” There was an implicit assumption that Asian women came to the US to engage in prostitution instead of seeking better opportunities or joining their husbands, many of whom had crossed the ocean to build the railroad.

During World War II, the Imperial Japanese Army captured many women in Japanese-occupied territories, such as China, Taiwan, and Korea, and forced them into prostitution. They became known as “comfort women,” though they had never consented to comfort anyone. As Americans began to occupy various parts of Asia in the twentieth century, fetishism against Asian women grew momentum. Many GIs were encouraged to visit local brothels from Vietnam to the Philippines and Korea to Taiwan to “improve morale.” During their R&R, they frequented the red-light districts in Hong Kong and Bangkok. Their limited experiences with Asian women had been sexual ones within the four walls of the brothels.

The idea of Asian women as sex objects has spilled into popular culture. In Madame Butterfly, Cio Cio San is a Japanese woman who dies waiting for her American husband’s return. In The World of Suzie Wong, the title character is a super-sexualized yet child-like Chinese prostitute with a heart of gold. Finally, there’s the Vietnamese girl from the film Full Metal Jacket with the line, “Me so horny; me love you a long time.” These portrayals and many others have reduced Asian women to stereotypes—seductive yet submissive; we are sources of exotic, erotic temptations, our purpose to satisfy white men’s sexual appetite.

The Asian women who died in Atlanta are not stereotypes. They are daughters, mothers, and wives. Like the thousands of comfort women, I don’t want them to disappear into the peripherals. They, too, were daughters, mothers, and wives, going about their day until their tragic fate as sex slaves took them away from their families. When they died, their families didn’t know what had happened to them or where to find their bodies. I don’t want the women in Atlanta to end up like the comfort women who died nameless and faceless.


When I first moved to Hong Kong in 2012, I lived a few blocks from a former comfort station. Nam Koo Terrace was a dilapidated mansion tucked away on the hillside at the end of the trendy Ship Street, a short distance from a pizzeria, a tapa house, and a speakeasy. The multi-story colonial-style brick structure was built around 1920 and embraced the styles of Classical Revival, Italian Renaissance, and traditional Chinese motifs. The red-bricked outer wall of the building and its rusticated quoins, molded cornices, and voussoir arches over the windows added to its uniqueness and beauty. The intricate ironwork for the window grilles, the balconies, and the entrance gate, reflected the taste of its previous owner, a prominent businessman, To Chun-man. It was a handsome house, but all the windows were boarded up, and the walls were scrawled with graffiti.

During World War II, the Imperial Japanese Army evicted the To family and turned Nam Koo Terrace into a military brothel to house the countless comfort women they’d captured. The women might have been sold by their families to pay debts, tricked into sexual slavery with the prospect of a better job, or abducted off the street. They faced multiple rapes daily, and their lives often ended in murders or suicides.

When I first learned about Nam Koo Terrace in 2012, I found it so morbid and fascinating that I took a man there on a first date. The building was off-limits, so we climbed the steep, shrub-covered hill behind it. We kissed, overlooking the hollowed-out estate with its eerie courtyard guarded by security cameras and barbed-wire fence. Even though the courtyard and the mansion were brightly lit, there was still a sense of foreboding darkness. Local lore warned of unholy spirits living in the mansion that harmed the living. Years ago, some schoolchildren attempted to spend a night at the estate to catch the ghosts. The following day, the adults found the children extremely disturbed, with three girls needing psychiatric help. God knows what possessed me to bring a date to such a place— was it a tactic to impress him, to show him that I was different from the local Hong Kong girls who would be too scared to go to a haunted house?

My fascination was rooted in the unspeakable suffering that hit close to home. I imagined a Taiwanese woman, not so different from myself, who was going about her day picking up groceries when Japanese soldiers stormed out of their trucks and snatched her off the street. How she struggled and kicked her legs as the green onion and radishes she carried were strewn across the ground. How the other women fled from the vicinity after witnessing Japanese soldiers grabbing random women. How the soldiers forced her onto a boat to Hong Kong, away from everything and everyone she knew. The Nam Koo Mansion became her hell. I could almost hear her agonized wail and feel her sense of powerlessness. Hopelessness. No one knows precisely how many women died in Nam Koo Terrace or how many were forced into sexual slavery and killed during World War II. My proximity to the mansion made my imagination run wild. Had I lived in a different time and place, could I have ended up as a comfort woman in a place like Nam Koo Terrace?


Several days after the shooting in Atlanta, the media released the identities of the dead Asian women. I studied their names—all Korean or Chinese. Soon C. Park, 74, and Sun cha Kim, 69, worked at Gold Spa. And Daoyou Feng, 44, only started working at Young’s Asian Massage several months before. Hyun J. Grant, 51, was a single mother who worked at Gold Spa to pay for her sons’ college tuition and rent. Yong A. Yue, 63, who worked at Aromatherapy Spa, moved to the US from South Korea in the 1970s with a husband stationed in the army. And then there was Xiaojie Tan, 49, the owner of Young’s Asian Massage. Customers said Tan made her patrons feel at home and treated her friends like family.

Perhaps it was intentional that the media released so little information about the dead women in Atlanta—there has always been a taboo about women working in massage parlors. Although not all women working in massage parlors are sex workers, many are subjected to sex work. Hyun J. Grant’s son, Randy Park, spoke out after her death. During an interview with a reporter, Park says his mother, who died at Gold Spa, worked long hours. “She spent her whole life just existing for my brother and I [sic]. She never had time to travel,” Park said in an interview with NBC News. “She would only be home a certain amount of days every few weeks.” He described his mother as “a big kid” who loved to dance to Tiësto. Before she immigrated to the US, Grant was an elementary school teacher in South Korea. Park didn’t describe the circumstances that led his mother to work in a massage parlor. I could only guess that American schools didn’t recognize her Korean teaching credentials, and mainstream society didn’t take her seriously due to her accent.

Though he didn’t have to endure sexual violence, my Taiwanese father also faced prejudices while looking for work shortly after we immigrated to Canada. He had a graduate degree in pharmacy from a Japanese university and had worked professionally for years. However, with his non-accredited degree and unstandardized accent, he couldn’t secure a professional position in Canada. He worked as a lab assistant and tour guide in Vancouver before finding a better-paying job in Taiwan. Like Park and his brother, my younger brother and I went for long periods without a guardian because my mother split her time between Taiwan and Canada. When I started university, and my brother was still a junior in high school, my mother joined my father permanently in Taiwan.

For Grant, an Asian woman, there were even fewer options for her. She had to do whatever she could to raise her sons. Deep down, the single mother of two may have been ashamed of where she worked as she asked her sons to tell people that she worked at a make-up counter. As a fellow Asian woman, I felt guilty. My parents had the means to ensure that I grew up with an acceptable accent and received educational credentials recognized by every country so I wouldn’t be subjected to a fate like Grant’s. It depresses me to think that some of us are just luckier than others.


Even though I’ve been lucky, that doesn’t mean I haven’t been subjected to racial fetishism. In the early 2000s, I was an undergraduate student working part-time at Chapters, a big-box bookstore in downtown Vancouver. I imagined how people saw me in the store: a petite Asian woman with a childish round face and impossibly long, ebony hair sweeping down her back. I dressed in black head to toe: a short-sleeved buttoned shirt, a skirt two inches above my knees, knee-high socks, and chunky Mary Janes. My presence in the store stirred male customers’ fantasies—I became the Asian version of the title character from Lolita. Multiple men asked if they could touch my hair. Older men loved to ask me if I had read Memoir of a Geisha—a novel about a geisha-in-training as she navigated her wealthy patrons’ sexual desires —written by a white man.

One day, I was tidying a display at the front of the store when an older man approached me. He was average-looking, with greying hair in a low ponytail and lazy blue eyes. “What have you got there?” he asked in a titled accent.

I told him it was Noam Chomsky’s new book. I was a communication major and felt like I knew Chomsky—though if someone had asked me to outline his basic argument from Manufacturing Consent, I would have balked.

The man told me he was German but had lived in Canada for a long time. After chatting with me for several minutes, he drifted away.

I only thought of the man again when he returned to the store a few days later. After that, he tracked me down every time I worked, even though I was only at the store two or three days a week. He lingered in the aisles when I shelved books. When I was helping customers, he stood aside and waited; when I was finished, he came right back. He was in the store so often that the undercover security guard, Rudy, grew concerned.

“Is that guy bothering you?” Rudy asked as I smoked a cigarette on break.

“Nah, he’s harmless,” I said. “He’s just an old man with no one to talk to.”

A few months later, the man came in with another man. When he saw me, he pointed and said to his friend, “That’s the comfort woman I was telling you about.”

For a second, I thought I had misheard him. But I knew what I heard when I saw how he and his buddy gawked at me with a smirk. I paged Rudy.

“He’s bothering me now.”

I never saw the German man or his buddy again.

I’ve wondered why I had allowed the older man to stalk me for as long as he did. Besides the first conversation about Noam Chomsky and that he was from Germany, I have no recollection of anything we discussed. It was a rude awakening when I realized what he genuinely thought of me—a comfort woman, a faceless, nameless sex object.


A few weeks after the Atlanta shooting, I finished all the appropriate paperwork to apply for Derek’s visa to Taiwan. Finally, it was time to leave Taiwan and join my husband in the United States. We planned to spend the spring of 2021 with his family and move to Taiwan in the summer. The night before my departure, my mother and I shared a bottle of Malbec.

“Are you done packing?” she asked.

I nodded.

She stared at the TV as the news anchor described the increasing number of COVID hospitalization and death in the US. “I understand you need to go back, but the COVID situation there is terrible,” she said as she smoothed the wrinkles in my dress as we sat on the sofa. “Have you packed the masks?” she asked.

“Yes, Mama,” I said, looking at my bulging suitcases, one of which was filled with two hundred medical masks. I stopped trying to convince my mother that the masks in the US were just as good.

“Don’t go out at night, okay?” my mother said before sipping her glass. “And don’t forget to wear your mask!”

I patted her hand. “I will be back in Taiwan soon.”

“I know,” my mother was almost in tears. “But I’m so worried! Promise me you won’t go out without Derek, especially at night.”

“Okay, Mama.”

My mother took my hand in hers. “Be careful,” she said.

“I will,” I said.


It’s been two decades since I was the naïve girl working in a bookstore. My university education didn’t include the treatment of Asians in American history. I couldn’t fully comprehend the damaging portrayal of Asian women in popular culture and how it shaped my experience. Since then, I’ve been reading, analyzing, and feeling outraged. After each violent incident involving an Asian American, we’ve been gaslit to believe that all the harm done to us is coincidental or accidental. However, according to Stop AAPI Hate, 10,905 hate incidents against AAPI (Asian American and Pacific Islander) persons were reported from 2020 to 2021. Verbal harassment makes up 63% of reported incidents, followed by physical assault (16.2%) and the deliberate avoidance of AAPIs (16.1%). Almost half (48.7%) of the incidents occurred in public places—on the street, in transit, or in a park. The fear we feel in the United States is factual—every day, we are verbally and physically assaulted or ignored and dismissed. The numbers only reflect the reported incidents—thousands or millions of aggressions went unreported. Knowing what I know, I reject the claim made by the FBI director and the sheriff’s office in Cherokee County that the Atlanta rampage was triggered by the shooter’s sex addiction. I refuse to be gaslit from the true narrative of the incident: A racially-motivated massacre.

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