In spring of 2013, a spoken word poem went viral. Yet what made this instance unique was that the performer was not a white man, or even a white woman, but rather a young Korean-American woman. Rachel Rostad, by mere fact of achieving this type of visibility, challenged notions of Asian women as soft-spoken and submissive; the subject of art rather than the creator. In contrast, Rostad was loud, unabashedly angry, and created a performance that has n garnered nearly one million views. Through her critique of the Harry Potter character Cho Chang, Rostad bridges the conflict between her rejection of long-standing depictions of Asian women and her desire to be accepted and loved.
Race and Ethnicity
Rostad begins her critique of author JK Rowling’s depiction of Cho Chang by pointing out the clear lack of depth. Chang is not a fully developed character, but rather, is there to further the plot and to serve as a love interest for the white, male protagonist for only a short period of time. Here, Rostad begins with one aspect of her identity she feel has been affronted: her ethnicity.
First of all, you put me in Ravenclaw.
Of course the only Asian at Hogwarts would be in the nerdy house.
Too bad there wasn’t a house that specialized in computers and math and karate, huh?
Furthermore, Rostad brings attention to Rowling’s apparent lack of nuance in understanding Asian nationality, falling into the trap of panethnicity:
Let’s talk about my name. Cho. Chang.
Cho and Chang are both last names. They are both Korean last names.
I am supposed to be Chinese.
Me being named “Cho Chang” is like a Frenchman being named “Garcia Sanchez.”
Although Rostad has also received criticism over the validity of this claim – Chang is a fairly common Cantonese last name – the point still stands that the character’s name was chosen as a way to emphasize her exoticism, rather than as a realistic effort to convey her ethnicity. Chang’s “otherness” was conveyed from her name itself.
Rostad then draws on caricatures of Asian women as explored by the documentary Slaying the Dragon, namely the Lotus Blossom. Cho Chang as a character on her own does not seem to have fully developed motivations; she is the girlfriend of one white male character (Cedric Diggory), undergoes trauma when he is killed, and then is comforted by another white male character (Harry Potter).
She delineates a short history of Asian women who fall for white men but are ultimately abandoned – for the character of Cho Chang, this happens when Cedric Diggory is killed and when she is never truly considered to be the woman Harry Potter would end with at the end of the series. Rostad points to Madame Butterfly, Miss Saigon, and Memoirs of a Geisha as notable instances of this phenomenon.However, Rostad then shifts the narrative, dropping “Lucy Liu in leather, schoolgirl porn” as instances of Asian fetishization as well. Instead, Rostad is bridging the two stereotypes, the Lotus Blossom and Dragon Lady, as not only stemming from the same place of sexual fetishization, but as two sides of the same coin.
Bridging Rejection and Desire
In the same tradition set by This Bridge Called My Back, Rostad uses her words to bridge her inner conflict. On one hand, she expresses a rejection of the fetishization placed onto her body as an Asian woman:
We giggle behind small hands and “no speak Engrish.”
What else could a man see in me?
What else could I be but what you made me?
Yet on the other hand, despite herself, there is an innate desperation to be loved by the white men who have turned her into a caricature:
When he left me, I told myself I should have seen it coming.
I wasn’t sure I was sad but I cried anyway.
Girls who look like me are supposed to cry over boys who look like him.
Nellie Wong writes a similar sentiment in her work, explaining, “[W]hen..a white man wanted to take me out, I thought I was special, an exotic gardenia, anxious to fit the stereotype of an [O]riental chick” (6). Being chosen by a white man was perceived as being an exception to the controlling images placed onto Asian women. Rostad tells of how the “boy who spoke like rain against windows” and “had his father’s blue eyes” would also say that her “skin was so much more beautiful.” Ultimately, he ended up fetishizing her as well, signifying the hegemonic power of these images.
The final line of the poem rings true with a sentiment that is rooted throughout This Bridge Called My Back: “the personal is political.” When Rostad notes that “[w]e were just following the plot,” she is speaking to the broader trend she previously observed. This relationship she had failed due to the history of fetishization they could not overcome; the political and historical implications overwhelmed the possibility for a real relationship.
In the introduction to This Bridge Called My Back, Cherríe Moraga states that “…we cannot escape recurring self-doubts about the actual power of our acts of resistance against global patriarchy” (xxiii). Although the act of calling out images that blatantly fetishize the bodies of Asian women is radical, Rostad conveys that nothing is quite that straightforward. Despite the growing consciousness of the problematic nature of these images and the history of so-called “yellow fever,” our socialization leads us to still seek out and desire acceptance from the white male patriarchy.