There were countless dinner parties where my mother would don her mangalsutra (a Hindu marriage necklace) and smile at the door to greet the guests before retreating to the kitchen with the other wives. The kids always ate first, then the men, and then the women. My mother ate last, gave us the fresh rice and finished up the old. This was how regular meals were too—making sure us kids and my dad were fed before settling down hours later with her own dinner. She always ate alone.
My mother was always the one who had to be strong. All the women in my family are people who swallowed the pain of their husbands and their children first. This is the standard Asian women are taught to uphold.
The issues with such rigid cultural expectations are glaring: suppression becomes an impossible, almost superhuman task only made more difficult to those who cannot easily comply. When I failed to uphold these standards, as my mother before me had done and her mother before her, I knew that I was in trouble. I started to show signs of mental illness, my grades slipped, and I neglected taking care of myself. It seemed as if everything was over for me. With myself, I took everyone. I fought excessively with my family and lashed out at every attempt my mother or father made to subdue me. I was no longer a daughter my parents could be proud of.
Orientalism is defined by Edward W. Said as “the way the West perceives of — and thereby defines — the East.” In this narrative, the West always has autonomy over their views over the “East,” the West being the norm, the center in which the rest of the world revolves around, while the East stands as the deviant, exoticized, “other.” When this perspective is applied to the people of Asia, it renders them a caricature of their culture. How Orientalism transcends racism against Asian people has been treated as an indisputable truth for centuries. Stereotypes of Asian women, specifically the “submissive Asian woman” archetype (popularized by the likes of Madame Butterfly and Miss Saigon) have rooted themselves in perceptions of Asian women in Western culture.
Such portrayals depict Asian women as docile, eager to please partners, pliant and viable for the domination of (often white) men. Thus invokes the outbreak of Yellow Fever, the phenomenon of white men seeking out Asian women who fit the bill—Asian by definition, East. Such is the insidious nature of Orientalism: the hypersexualization of light skinned East and Southeast Asian women combined with the desexualization of brown skinned Southeast and South Asian women presents a complicated dichotomy that exists to trap all parties involved.
But we are living in a new age of media. Now, more than ever, it seems that the voices of marginalized people are being uplifted through their stories. Breakthrough hits like Fresh Off The Boat and Master of None receiving mainstream success must be proof of Asian American creatives making their mark on the country that had long neglected their voice. Right?
The sad truth is that even though Constance Wu easily engages audiences with her incredible performance as tough-loving pragmatic mother Jessica Huang, she’s merely a supporting character in the larger arc of her son. Fresh Off The Boat is not her story. My excitement as an Indian girl at the success of Master of None was quickly squashed when I found out that the most prominent Indian female character on the show was his mother. Kumail Nanjiani further aggravates with his cartoonish portrayal of Pakistani women in The Big Sick.
This was not news to me. I saw the neglect of compelling narratives for Asian women the same way I saw the way the women in my family submitted themselves to their husbands. I saw the way my mother’s eyes would unconsciously follow my father, seeking silent approval when they’d softly converse in Marathi across the room. Although she ran our household, when it came down to it, my mother always surrendered herself.
In the midst of my rebellion, there was always a light wash of shame. Who was I to admonish the same people who sacrificed everything to give me a better chance? Who was I to fail them when the price they asked of me was so small compared to the one they paid to come to this country?
I live in the San Gabriel Valley, southern California’s largest Asian-American enclave. Despite being one of the only brown girls in my classes, my school is still predominantly Korean and Chinese. My upbringing was just as rigid as that implies. Eastern family structures leak into classroom settings and words like “expectation” become part of the air you breathe. Where I grew up, docility and obedience were only amplified by my peers. There was nowhere for me to go.
Discovering Mitski felt like a breath of fresh air. Her sound was the kind of thing I had never experienced before, and when I lent a closer ear, her lyrics offered sanctuary. I remember wanting to cry at first, and I remember bawling when I listened further. In all my almost seventeen years of being, I had never come upon anyone describing exactly what I was feeling in such a vivid way, even emotions that I myself hadn’t yet identified.
Of all the articles I’ve read about Mitski as a champion of girl power-- there is a glaring absence of mention when it comes to the racial undertones of her music. Many are quick to tokenize her identity and promote how she's a Japanese woman in a field dominated by white men, but few seem to be able to pinpoint the way race and gender impact her artistry. Not only that, but they fail to highlight the way she defies Orientalist stereotypes by simply existing as an artist.
Perhaps the most blatant example of this is found in the music video for Happy. In the video, Mitski personifies happiness, singing about the ease its presence brings, and the incessant gnawing it leaves. The video itself is stunning, blue toned and reminiscent of plastic post-war bliss. Happy opens with a shot of the protagonist passionately embracing what we assume to her husband. From there it only goes downhill. While the most notable scene is its twist ending, there are hints throughout the whole video. Everything is told through the wife’s perspective. We see her longing, her fear, and her embarrassment at not conforming to the role she’s been assigned. Mitski also addresses the power dynamics between the Asian protagonist and her white husband. (Mitski herself is the product of an interracial relationship.) We see the betrayal that stems from her discovering her husband is cheating on her with someone blonder, more blue eyed.
Rarely do we talk about these things, the way that, more often than not, women of color will pale in comparison to their prettier, lighter, thinner, whiter sisters. Happy accomplishes these dynamics with just a few wordless scenes. Mitski subverts the submissive Asian woman trope simply through perspective. Through her point of view, we are able to see the protagonist in a three-dimensional light, and the beautifully human motives behind her actions.
Her first two albums, Lush and Retired From Sad, New Career in Business don’t feel like songs so much as poems set to music.
Real Men stands to be probably one of my favorite tracks of all time, its mocking tone and heightened lyrics provides its audience a sort of debauched satisfaction. “But little boys hold me, color me / Praise me, make me feel lovely / For a little while,” she croons in the final verse. Mitski perfects the balancing act; of wanting that sense of validation, of love, just desperately enough to be okay with being seen as a commodity.
Mitski’s power does not rely in provocative lyrics nor sweeping generalizations meant to shatter proverbial glass ceilings. It’s quieter, a little bit more worn in, admittedly mad and beautifully sensitive.
In I Don’t Smoke’s chorus, she sings, “If you need to be mean / be mean to me / I can take it and put it inside of me / If your hands need to break more than trinkets in your room / You can lean on my arm as you break my heart.” Bag of Bones you can hear her lull “And I can take it a little more / Let’s shake this poet out of the beast.”
Door has her whispering, “A hopeless violence / I named it love.”
Live versions of Class of 2013 sees her screaming the lyrics into her guitar only to have her quietly whisper the last two lines, “Mom am I still young? / Can I dream for a few months more?” She thrives in her vulnerability, exudes in the in-between stages, at intervals between wholeness and constant collapse. It’s not so much of a line as it is a tightrope. She is adept at wading for peace through visceral pain — the same pain that I was bred to contain. I used to imagine myself as one of those fancy pitchers, filled to the brim with water on the brink of collapse. The threat of it hung in the air as I once more composed myself.
Each lyric tells a vivid story: learning to love the little things, being exhausted from loving so loudly, having a complicated relationship with your parents, or not really having a place to call home. I didn't realize how desperately I needed those kinds of narratives told until I found them.
The best part of it all is that none of it is intentional. I saw Mitski live for the first time at the Fonda, in October of 2017. I was front row, saucer-eyed and starstruck. It was a transformative experience, probably the best concert I've ever been to. It was the middle of college application season, and I arrived at the venue stressed out of mind. I went to sleep that night still stuck in that dream-like state, like someone fresh out of catharsis. Sometimes the most powerful thing you can do for someone is give them a voice.
isha k is a writer-of-sorts from california. her work deals with themes of identity and placement. she loves girls and ghost stories and really good soup. you can find her on twitter at @sansjuniperos