Former UNAVSA President, Thoa Kim Nguyen, shares another piece for the Presidential Perspective series. Read below for another soulfully crafted piece by Thoa.
“…My roommate and I dubbed you ‘Dragon lady’” he proclaimed loudly, while laughing and awkwardly jabbing his friend’s arm. Not more than 15 minutes before this statement he introduced himself as Ben and said “I wanted to say hi and welcome you to the neighborhood.” The kicker is that I’ve lived in the unit next to him for over a year, and the building for over two years. He and I have crossed paths before with off-based interactions, many times leaving me uncomfortable or perplexed. However this particular evening, he approached me enthusiastically.
After the proper introduction with names exchanged, and polite opening questions one usually asks, I learned it was his birthday and he had an early start to his night. I also learned about his love of cars and football. One of Ben’s friend decides to get another round. My friend accompanies his friend to help carry drinks. That’s when Ben turns to me, dazed eyed with a giant grin on his face and said, “you know, you’re pretty cool, I thought you were cold and intimidating. My roommate and I dubbed you ‘Dragon Lady’. Man, we would whisper and ask what the Dragon Lady was thinking when we waited for the elevator. I honestly thought it was because I was black. You scared us with your silence.” For a few seconds, I let his words settle in, a bit shocked by his blunt candor. The friends return and he continues to laugh and repeat the story. I start to retreat in my thoughts and only snapped to reality when my own friend, who happens to be Asian, said, “you can and do come off very standoff-ish.” At this point, I thank the men for the drinks and excuse my friend and I, so we can have our own private conversation.
The rest of the night wasn’t very interesting, nor did I address the “Dragon lady” comment, though I wish I did, because that conversation continued to bother me days and weeks after. It wasn’t the first time I was told I was unapproachable or was intimidating with my cold demeanor, but this was the first time it consumed my thoughts for as long as it did. My friend’s lack of empathy and Ben’s comments made me dive deeper on the topics of racism and gender inequality in and how they present themselves in everyday interactions.
A quick google search will inform you: “A ‘Dragon Lady’ is usually a stereotype of East Asian women as strong, deceitful, domineering, or mysterious. The stereotype has generated a large quantity of sociological literature. It is also used to refer to any powerful but prickly woman, usually in a derogatory fashion.” Good old Urban Dictionary’s top voted definition is: “A term used to describe a stereotype of Asian women found in literature and film from the late 19th to the mid-20th century. A “dragon lady” was a woman of Asian heritage who was thought of as being sexually powerful and generally of a cunning, underhanded, conniving nature, who would use her beauty and sexuality to get what she wanted. They were usually depicted as snide, assertive, aggressive, sneaky, and explosive in temperament.” Right below the definitions you just read, is a section displaying hyperlinked related words: “bitch, control freak, psycho, PMS, woman, and chink”. Terms that have been used throughout my time in college, as I climbed a corporate ladder pursuing a career in different industries, and even in leadership positions within the Vietnamese community and UNAVSA.
The term “Dragon lady” itself has a long history within American culture, first starting with the “Yellow Peril” propaganda. Fear of the Chinese immigrants taking jobs away from Americans during the height of colonialism in the late 19th century, produced propaganda painting Asians as evil and dangerous. The government then changed this negative narrative to a positive tune because of convenience to help with economic gains, not out of morally. For instance, Historian Ellen D. Wu states in her book, The Color of Success, that the Chinese Exclusion Act barred entry into the U.S. in fear jobs would be taken away. The Act was repealed in 1943 with the urge from President Roosevelt, as more allies were needed to win World War II. The “Yellow Peril” era furthered and extended itself into the anti-communist wave and gave birth to the many stereotypes you see portrayed in today’s society; Asian men as desexualized, caricatures tied to either comedic reliefs, masters of martial arts, stern demanding tiger dads, or villains. Sometimes a combination of the list. Asian women are portrayed as docile, helpless china dolls, complacent and easily moldable to a man’s wills and fantasies, or tiger moms, and you guessed it, cold hearted dragon ladies. In each of these stereotypes, there’s a strong underlying sexualization or fetish tied to Asian females. The Asian female stereotypes were solidified by actress Anna May Wong, who is considered to be one of the first Chinese American actresses in the western film industry. The dragon lady stereotype also made it into print work such as comics like “Terry and the Pirates”. Other historical females like Empress Dowager Cixi, Madame Chiang Kai-shek, and Madame Ngo Dinh Ngu were famously dubbed Dragon Ladies. In modern day, Actress Lucy Liu has been typecast into similar roles in “Charlie’s Angels”, and “Kill Bill”.
Then came the model minority myth, claiming Asian Americans as ideal, civilly obedient, educated, and a successful minority group overall. A closer look at that data on a desegregated level, proves that only those groups with multiple generations in the States are successful. Southeast Asians are not on equal grounds due a few factors such as a younger lineage, socio economic challenges in healthcare, and education. Education surely helps bridge gaps in our modern day society, but it’s not the sole reason for success. Reporter Jeff Guo’s Washington Post article sums it up by saying “Asian Americans — some of them at least — have made tremendous progress in the United States. But the greatest thing that ever happened to them wasn’t that they studied hard, or that they benefited from tiger moms or Confucian values. It’s that other Americans started treating them with a little more respect.” This Model Minority Myth is a conservative ideal that pits all minority groups against each other rather than tackle the issue of oppressive white culture as a whole.
Growing up, I was subjected to all of these stereotypes and characteristics. In school if I did well, it was because I was Asian. Nevermind the hard work and time put into studying or working on projects. If I didn’t do well in school, I wasn’t Asian enough. I was a failure, which warping my sense of identity. I was also taught to be quiet and obedient, because this is what “good Vietnamese girls” are suppose to do. Do not be loud, do not have an opinion, do not argue, and keep face because you are an extension of the family name. Now I understand that these traits are good to have in certain situations, but they did more harm than good as I entered college and even the beginnings of my career. I made sure to be accommodating even at the cost of my well being, I never questioned practices, nor did I voice an opinion because conflict would arise. The suppression of emotions mixed with repression of my own natural instincts became toxic. Society deemed me as not enough. Cultural standards deemed me not enough. The standards of beauty, of behavior, and the dualism of my cultures – American and Vietnamese did a number on my self confidence. The rejection I felt, played a large role in how I viewed myself, and in return I rejected everything I was. I hated myself.
That hatred I carried inside manifested in many unhealthy and harmful behaviors but rather than dive deep into those supplementary storylines, I’ll wrap it up by saying it was quite the journey to heal and regain that self confidence and love for myself. I learned very quickly that I would not make it in college or my career if I was not proactive and direct. I changed my behavior to not only mimic my mentors, people who I saw as strong, powerful people, but because I understood the value in being decisive, straight forward in confronting situations and people. More importantly there’s more to being a well rounded, good person. There are many layers that create privilege and challenges that make a person dynamic and compelling. I worked hard at not only on my attitude, but my skills and craft to be able to step onto platforms and navigate in spaces that are traditionally reserved for men. Yet, biases in treatment of men and female were considerably stark when I entered the workforce. I had to constantly prove my worth and skills day in and day out. My words and actions were often scrutinized and ideas dismissed only to have a male colleague to do the same repeat it in the same manner at later meeting and praised. I was mistaken for an intern or administrative assistant, and constantly objectified. Coworkers and even friends shared sentiments of me meeting the “female minority quota” rather than seeing that I put in blood, sweat, and tears for my career or other aspects of life. I missed birthdays, dinners, weddings, family reunions, and any other sentimental event to meet deadlines, work twice as hard to get half the recognition, and its not that minded because I had made those choices with the understanding of my industry, but to forgo the tedious details for my ethnicity was a slap to my face and capabilities. These types of interactions reinforces the notion that there is still a long way to go when it comes to eliminating inequalities. The reduction of my identity through discriminatory stipulations and hostility when change in a person’s traditional viewpoint is as draining as it is damaging.
Back to Ben and why it was different from other moments. In this particular incident, his words and assumptions not only rubbed me the wrong way, but lit a fury inside me. I wish he took the time to think out his viewpoint to see or ask why. He probably had no clue of the challenges women, especially women of Asian descent, go through, and why would he? He’s not an Asian woman himself, but his own assumption of me acting the way I have with him was because I was racist, presented a hypocritical point. I admit, there is still a good portion of society that may say they’re not racist because they are aware of social issues in society, but perpetuate and embody racist practices through their own actions. I can see how someone with his background reached that point, but that wasn’t why I was cold around him. His words that night at the bar, summed up the misunderstanding, and misguided view of the things I take pride and embrace: an Asian female and modern woman.
As mentioned earlier, I’ve had interactions with him before the formal introduction at the bar, and if he took the time to reflect on those interactions he would see my behavior and demeanor is not unwarranted. The first time I met Ben, I was in the building elevator holding my last moving box for the day. I was in a different unit within the building and moved for a better monthly rate. While sharing the elevator, Ben turns to me and says “you’re moving into apartment #1201!” Announcing it to to other strangers and without saying anything else, he turns to his friend to start a personal conversation. Seconds later the elevator doors open, and I start to make my way to the unit. He follows me out of the elevator and I start to get nervous. I don’t know how he knew I lived in that particular unit, which happens to be the end of the hall and a dead end. He’s not too far behind me as I quickly make my way down the hall, scrambling to hold a giant, heavy box. Thinking quickly, I put the box down so I can grab the apartment keys out of my pocket, only to have him pass me and insert his key into the door next to mine. “Oh, he’s my neighbor.”, I thought, relieved. This is a brief and rather minute moment, but highlights the already vastly different ways we conduct our lives.
Living by myself as a female in a major city presents different challenges. I constantly have to analyze and observe my environment and walk with intention and strategy for my safety. Announcing my apartment unit, without providing any additional information is alarming to me, especially not recognizing or ever meeting this person. I can only assume he took my discomfort as a link to his skin tone since his he mentioned my aloofness and lack of interaction was because he was black; this was far from the truth. After this initial encounter, I periodically ran into him and his roommate often at the elevator and mostly in the early morning. My job as a Marketing and Business Strategist demanded easily 60 hours a week, which left me exhausted and forced myself to be laser focused. The morning waiting for an elevator was not my ideal time to make conversation with neighbors. I had to worry about getting to work and finishing projects to meet tight deadlines. I can see why my behavior contributed to their viewpoint of me being cold, but did it warrant whispers and laughs behind my back? No, it did not. He didn’t take courtesies to even exchange pleasantries, why would he expect I do the same?
When something is unknown, human behavior often reaches for simplified meanings as an efficient way to process information. I believe this shortcut way of trying to understand produced a plethora of stereotypes. It creates a short-sighted view point and hinders personal and societal growth. To critically think and analyze is not natural behavior to most people and let’s face it, life in a first world country has made it easy not to dig deeper. Social media, news, and overall pop culture is quick and often creates disconnect as information pushed out matches attention spans. Saturated with the next big thing and focused on the loudest noise, there’s not many sources nor chances to present the intricacies of problems and issues. Shifting perspectives is indeed hard, so I don’t fault those that don’t naturally try, but rather than quickly box someone’s identity in a neat package with racially bound terms, I would implore people to pause and think on how society’s past is still very much present in today. The overt racism of the past may not be presented in the same way, as many people consider themselves progressive and forward thinking. Yet people still demonstrate nervous tolerance, oblivious or uninterested in a deep understanding of inequality or how to take on meaningful action.
Over time I let this situation go, because ultimately I never crossed paths with him again. A month or so after the bar interaction, I came home from work to see new neighbors moving in. I don’t think Ben had ill intent, after all he was out celebrating his birthday and had a few drinks. Alcohol alters one’s mental state. Lips become looser and words flow freerer as one’s mind is less inhibited. I definitely have been in those situations myself. This moment in my life taught me quite a bit as I explored the reason why I was upset and how small interactions like it could drastically affect someone. Even through all my revelations and insight gained, Ben will never know how inappropriate his comment was nor will he understand his attempt to connect fell flat with a racist connotation. I sincerely hope and challenge those around me to to help and support one another regardless of sex, class, or culture. In the fight against biases, remember to not only be vigilant, be kind, stand up for yourself, and each other. The next time someone calls me a Dragon Lady, I’ll firmly explain that I am more than my fire breathing words, and sharp claws. Till then, I’ll continue on being unapologetically myself, but recognize that everyone has challenges and privileges that make us unique. There is still a threat of lingering prejudice and antagonism that has woven itself within the progress we’ve made as a society.
Thoa Kim Nguyen originally hails from Denver, Colorado and currently resides & works in the D.C., Northern Virginia area as a project manager for a Forensic Accounting firm. Before becoming a project manager, she operated as a marketing consultant and business strategist specializing in branding. Curious and intrigued by the business world, Thoa pursued a business program with the dreams of owning her own company. She graduated from Johnson & Wales University Business School with Magna Cum Laude honors in both degrees – bachelors in Marketing and an MBA in Business Management.
Seeing the importance of serving her Vietnamese community, she continually dedicates time to various projects and organizations. She currently serves as President of the Union of North American Vietnamese Student Associations. Her past positions: UNAVSA-6 Entertainment Staff, Southwest Regional Representative, UNAVSA-7 Marketing Director, UNAVSA-8 Co-Executive Director, Co-CPP Campaign Director, and Secretary of the Executive board,. Thoa also served as President of the Southwest Union of Vietnamese Student Associations (SWUVSA) in 2012, an organization she co-founded alongside her brother Phong Kim Nguyen.
In her spare time, she enjoys expanding her world by growing her side business as a professional hair and makeup artist, eating extremely spicy food, writing, watching documentaries, singing and chasing after cats.