Some Thoughts as a Korean Heritage Woman After the Atlanta shootings

It has been hard to figure out what to say about the recent murders that included six Asian women, four of them Korean, in Georgia, USA. Their names were Daoyou Feng 冯有友 (aged 44), Hyun Jung Grant 김현정 (51), Suncha Kim 김순자 (69), Soon Chung Park 박순정 (74), Xiaojie Tan 谭小洁 (49), and Yong Ae Yue 유용애 (63). These women were all close to my own age or my mother’s age.

It was helpful to gather with a group of Korean heritage women last week. I could tell that we all knew something about what it means to be Korean and female, that we didn’t have to pretend. Being Korean and female means that we do what we have to do. I could see that growing up with my mother and grandmother. They would each do whatever they had to do to make sure we survived. I could see their strength, determination, and intelligence as they did that; I also learned that sacrifice was what was required from them as Korean women, and therefore from me. I can see all those things in the stories that are coming out about the women who were killed. They each worked jobs and did whatever they had to do to take care of their families first and survive.

It is a direct line from the sex industry around U.S. military bases in South Korea (set up and sanctioned by both governments) to Korean women working in massage parlors in the U.S. Some of the women are directly trafficked from one location to the other. Others are not directly coerced through trafficking, but once they come to the U.S., that is where they are able to find work. The spas that were targeted last week may or may not have involved prostitution, but they were targeted because of that association.

During a CBS interview last week with Sung Yeon Choimorrow (where she did brilliantly), the interviewer asked if pop culture influenced how we view Asian women. That is a ridiculous question. From the beginning of Western contact with and colonization of different parts of Asia, Asian women have been treated as objects to be used, often sexually. Centuries of laws and practices that coerce Asian women into prostitution or treat them as prostitutes, use rape and sexual violence as weapons of war in Asia (and everywhere else), promote sex tourism in Asia and Asian mail order brides, the list goes on and on. Pop culture is the least of it.

This affects me personally every day. I don’t even realize how much space it takes up in my brain — deciding how to dress and carry myself in public so that I won’t attract sexualized attention from men. This is true for most women, but the attention that I am trying to avoid is specifically the kind that involves hyper-sexualized fantasies about East Asian women.

Safety is another issue. I do not have any expectation of safety. I was born during a military dictatorship in South Korea, which violently suppressed political dissent. My grandmother, who was born during the Japanese occupation of Korea in the first half of the 20th century, was forced to marry because that was thought to keep her safe from recruitment or kidnapping by the Japanese government to become a military sexual slave (comfort women). My grandfather was taken in the middle of the night from his home in Seoul by North Korean soldiers during the Korean War. My uncle, who lived with us when I was young, had served with the U.S. army in the Vietnam War. Given all of these circumstances, there was no way that my parents could provide a sense of safety as I was growing up. Many other Asian countries have experienced war, colonization and imperialism in the very recent past, often at the hands of the U.S. directly or indirectly. We carry grief, terror, numbness, despair, violence and victimization from those experiences.

One thing I would ask from allies is to help us Asian heritage women to remember that we matter for our own sake, not for what we do to serve others, even in the fight for liberation. We have been trained to be objects of use. We do it to ourselves, and others do it to us. It is hard to notice and interrupt. Try to notice where you count on us, and what you count on us for, where you might unawarely exploit our labor, our time, and our caring. Many of us are helpful, even in our leadership, and we need you to be able to see us and think about us as full human beings, worthy of value and respect.

Several families of the victims are raising money to cover funeral expenses and the living costs of children who had been supported by these women. I appreciate the specificities of what they share about who the women were.

Suncha Kim:

Yong Ae Yue:

Hyun Jung Kim Grant:

I stand with Indigenous, Black, Latina/x and other racialized women, girls and femmes against the ways we are targeted by sexual violence, misogyny, and dehumanization, to claim our full power and humanity.

JeeYeun Lee is an interdisciplinary artist, writer, and activist based in Chicago.