Sex, Lies, And History Books
Esquire Singapore|May 2021
The Atlanta spa shootings highlight again the problems Asian Americans face against violence—and Asian women particularly are seen as inherently violable. Writer Xoai Pham shares her story.
Xoai Pham

The day after Robert Aaron Long killed six Asian women as they were working at a series of massage parlours in Atlanta, Georgia, I spent the day thinking of my mother.

She is a nail technician, a different kind of care worker. But like massage workers, she tended to people’s bodies. Cutting, buffing, filing, polishing. I grew up familiar with the smell of acetone. I eavesdropped on the women in her salon speaking to one another in Vietnamese while massaging the feet of wealthy white women.

I imagined what would have happened if Long entered my mother’s salon, looking for more businesses where Asian women worked, and shot up the place. The glass decals shattering, the leather seats punctured by bullets, water from the pedicure fountains spraying all over the bodies that littered the floor.

And then I remembered a former client of mine, in the years I was in the sex industry. A middle-aged man who told me he loved pedicures, because he could fantasise about the women putting down their tools and pulling down his pants to give him a blow job.

Long was a patron at two of the massage parlours he shot up. He blamed his acts of murder on a ‘sex addiction’.

In the 24 hours after he killed eight people, six of whom were Asian women, I didn’t have it in me to do anything but cry. That night, I decided to drink, in the comfort of my apartment, hoping the company of a man I met on a dating app would be enough to take my mind off of grief. Like me, he wasn’t sure either about how to process the violence that happened. But we talked and drank and I laughed every now and then.

Eventually, he made advances that I didn’t want. “Okay,” he’d respond. Then, he tried it again. And again. And again.

Each time, I said some variation of no. “I don’t think I can do that.”

“It’s not happening.”

Stop trying to enter me.”

At his last attempt, I told him I needed to use the bathroom. And there I hid, trying to find safety within my own home. I stalled, not sure what to do. When I finally opened the door, I was relieved to find he was preparing to leave.

Five days later, I texted him to tell him what had happened from my point of view.

“I’m really sorry,” he kept repeating. But I wasn’t asking for an apology. I just wanted to hear him say it: that I was Asian and trans and woman. That it meant, even subconsciously, he didn’t see my body as worth listening to. That he didn’t hear it when I told him no.

Instead, he said, “I let my attraction to you get the best of my judgment.”

And I heard Robert Aaron Long in the back of my mind say his sex addiction was what led him to harm six Asian women. Long was giving voice to not only his personal feelings but a commonplace perception of Asian women’s bodies. He isn’t the only one. He decided to act upon the long-standing relationship between the American empire and Asian women.

The violation of Asian women is embedded in American history and culture. Before I was even born, countless women and children in Southeast Asia were raped at the hands of American service members. Part of the conquest of countries was the conquest of women.

The war that my mother tried to escape, the one that led my parents to leave their beloved homes, was one of the many wars that built the present day United States. Just like the original wars on Indigenous territories across North America, the American War in Southeast Asia—inaccurately dubbed the Vietnam War—attempted to expand the US empire while treating the lives of people across Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos as disposable.

During the decades of American intervention in the region, the US killed up to 3.8 million people. Countless homes and an unimaginable amount of land were destroyed through bombs and chemical weapons.

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