Why am I mistaken for an Asian sex import?

By Pueng Vongs, New America Media

It’s hard being an Asian woman in America these days — increasing trafficking of women from Asia for prostitution and narrow portrayals of Asian women on the big screen exacerbates notions of them as exotic, sexual creatures.


LAS VEGAS-Dec 7, 2005-Lost in the crowd on the Strip among the replicas of world monuments, I never imagined I would also be on display — for my resemblance to an Asian import for prostitution.

Somewhere between the “Empire State Building” and the “Eiffel Tower” I was stopped twice on a recent afternoon, each time by Anglo-looking men who asked similar questions. They wanted to know where I was from, what I was doing there, how long I was staying. They stared at me like a plump, glistening prime rib roast centerpiece at a nearby buffet.

There was nothing out of the ordinary about me. I was like all the others milling around, dressed down in a baseball cap and T-shirt, except that I was an Asian woman. When the second guy shoved his business card at me and insisted I call him if I needed anything, I finally got it. I was standing beside a row of newspaper boxes, each window filled with glossy pictures of barely clad women in various “come hither” expressions. There were several portraits of Asian women, and the ads said they came direct from Korea, Vietnam, China. I stormed off, realizing that these men must have thought I was one of these women.

I sped through streets elaborately made to resemble the desert passages of the Sahara or the canals of Venice, but I felt more like I was in the dark, narrow alleys of Bangkok or Manila.

Asian women are the latest hot byproduct of globalization. They are imported from places like Shanghai, Ho Chi Minh City and Seoul and packaged to sell sex. They come through legal and illegal channels with increasing speed and volume. They are distributed not just in places like Las Vegas Blvd. or Hollywood Blvd., but Main Street, U.S.A., in massage parlors and hidden brothels in cities such as Atlanta, Detroit and New Haven. It is the McDonaldsization of la femme Asian. In many communities with small Asian populations these women become unsavory ambassadors for the rest of us.

Further fanning the flames are popular portrayals of Asian women as passive, sexual objects such as in the new movie “Memoirs of a Geisha.” It is a favorite telescopic view in the West of women from Asia.

I grew up in the Midwest and the South, and people often stopped me at checkout counters or the library and naively asked, “Are you Chinese or Japanese?” If Las Vegas — a microcosm of America which attracts visitors nationwide — is any indication, the questions based on my ethnicity have changed dramatically in the last two decades. Now, darker assumptions are being made about me.

My parents tried to protect me from racy images on trips back to my native Thailand as a teenager. They would forbid me from wearing T-shirts and shorts in the sweltering tropical heat. Instead, they insisted that I wear suffocating long pants and shirts to protect my honor and theirs. They did not want me to be mistaken for one of the women in bikinis standing on bars that I would steal a peek at when we drove by the Patpong red light district. My parents would always look the opposite way during those moments, refusing to acknowledge the existence of these women. On the Strip it was the same T-shirt and baggy cargo shorts that earned me unwanted attention.

Despite my parents’ insistence on discretion, they did not foresee the already ingrained popular view in this country of Asian women as exotic, sensual creatures. Long before “Geisha,” Suzie Wong was the name of a Chinese prostitute and popular film. She was one of the original Asian women archetypes in the West. Because of Bangkok’s history as an R&R stop during the Vietnam War, a reputation that continues, Bangkok’s Thai girls are frequent target of winks and raised eyebrows. The branding often made me blush. But what might’ve been a rumor, a whisper about Asian women, thanks to the mass importation of them for sex has become a public announcement.

The U.S. government says that an estimated 14,500 to 17,500 persons are trafficked into the United States each year — the majority are women and girls from Asia smuggled for the sole purpose of prostitution. Trafficking is the fastest growing crime in this country.

As much as I wanted to separate myself from these women, I found myself inextricably connected to them. I sat across from a trafficked woman recently on assignment, and unlike the vixens in the magazines, the woman before me was frail in body and spirit. She seemed hollow.

She came from a poor, rural town in Thailand, like many people I know there. And like them, poverty obscures their view. Many of the women have few saleable commodities. When this woman’s husband died, paying traffickers $45,000 to transport and misuse her to pay off her debt seemed like her only option to feed her family.

And there seems no end to this cycle.

In the boom cities of Asia, red light districts spring up as fast as newly erected economic zones. Both areas teem with life, constantly churning and producing their products to keep up with the increasing local and global demand.

For me the lines begin to blur between the cities of Asia and the cityscapes represented in Las Vegas, where Asian women are hot commodities. I left the Strip and headed into the red hills of the desert, away from both worlds and anxious to find my way.


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Pueng Vongs is an editor with New America Media, a collaboration of ethnic media in the United States.

Copyright by Pacific News Service and New American Media.  All rights reserved.

Founded in 1969, Pacific News Service is a nonprofit media organization dedicated to bringing the seldom heard, often most misunderstood or ignored voices and ideas into the public forum. PNS produces a daily news syndicate and sponsors magazine articles, books, TV segments and films.

New American Media (formerly New California Media) is a nationwide association of over 700 ethnic media organizations representing the development of a more inclusive journalism. Founded in 1996 by Pacific News Service, NAM promotes ethnic media through events such as the Ethnic Media Expo and Ethnic Media Awards, a National Directory of Ethnic Media, and such initiatives as the online feature Exchange Headlines from Ethnic Media, offering top headlines digested from ethnic media worldwide, updated five days a week.

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