Soon after I moved to the UK, a woman sprinted through my village’s main crosswalk, where traffic from two hills streams into a dip in the road. I had rushed to make the light many times myself, running to the beat of the flashing green man. New to my adopted country, I did not know that the flash meant cars could go after idling red. The woman sped across just as a tractor-trailer released its brake, rolling through the crosswalk in time to catch her leg in its massive wheel.
This is how I imagined it, because I never saw her. I arrived afterward, nosing by a police blockade and the bystanders staring at a long blue tarp that paramedics had erected while they tried to extract the woman. The tarp was the color of an IKEA bag, its only purpose to spare us the sight of flesh and bone. For the rest of the year, I crossed the street only if crowds cushioned me on both sides. What stayed in my mind was not the woman, but the blue that kept the horrifying hidden underneath.
In Joy Williams’ 1986 short story “Escapes,” a daughter and her alcoholic mother travel to a magic show in a blue convertible, their vehicle so decrepit that the floor has rusted through to reveal the asphalt whizzing below. When they arrive, a magician prepares to chainsaw a woman in two. He slices through a plank of wood to prove the saw’s deadliness while the woman, wearing a bikini and high heels, lies flat on a table. Then,
The magician said that what was about to happen was too dreadful to be seen directly, that he did not want anyone to faint from the sight, so he brought out a small screen and placed it in front of the lady so that we could no longer see her white stomach, although everyone could still see her face and her shoes. […] Several people in the audience screamed.
The audience’s terror is prompted not by any witnessed violence, but by the screen that forces them to imagine it. Neuroscientists have shown that visualizing an action—even one experienced by someone else—activates our motor cortex, the part of our brain that guides movement. If we picture the magician’s act, our guts shiver because we identify with the woman and her pain. Instead of shielding us, the screen brings the violence closer, until it is inside us.
I should admit that I did not register the blue while reading Joy Williams or gawking at the crosswalk. The blue rises from my recorded memory much later, as I am trying to understand another story, a white man’s murder of six women of Asian descent in March 2021. I linger on a photograph of the aftermath. It is drowned in blue light. This is logical. Blue is the foil to yellow, which is what those women were to their killer.
Also, when blue and yellow light mix, they cancel each other out. All that remains is white.
In the image by Associated Press photojournalist Brynn Anderson taken shortly after the shootings at three Atlanta spas, blue douses a wet parking lot. A rain-flecked strip of caution tape separates the viewer from a lone figure who faces away from the camera. Handcuffs hang on the officer’s belt loop, and a plastic dongle—perhaps attached to a radio crackling with static—peeks over a shoulder. I imagine the light refracts from a 24-hour massage parlor sign.
In fact, Anderson tells me when I contact her, the blue bleeds from a police car outside the frame. Because blue is more visible at night, police blast this color (rather than daytime red) so that people in need of help can find them more easily—though it is not always clear whom the police are helping. The day after the murders, a police spokesman told reporters that the suspect had suffered from “sexual addiction”; the women were “a temptation for him that he wanted to eliminate.” Later, it emerged that the spokesman had privately urged his Facebook friends to buy T-shirts printed with a mockup of the Corona beer logo, the original copy replaced by the words “Covid 19: IMPORTED VIRUS FROM CHY-NA.” The amateurish design, something a child might concoct in Microsoft Paint, is far from the professional presentation of the spokesman at the press conference. There, he was flanked by four other white men, all similarly dressed: suits, button-downs, a single tie shouting a bright IKEA blue.
At the press conference, the spokesman did not report what the shooter said while firing rounds of 9mm bullets, declared “the cartridge of choice” by the law enforcement publication POLICE Magazine. But a spa employee had escaped and relayed the phrase to the Korean-language Hankook Ilbo (한국일보); English-language media later reprinted a translation of the shooter’s promise to “kill all the Asians.” The quote knocks awkwardly on my ear. More natural would be “get all you Asians” or simply “Asian b—,” the phrase of choice for a man who this March punched a 67-year-old woman 125 times in her building’s foyer. But the gunman’s words disappear in layers of translation: English to Korean, Korean to English; white to Asian, Asian to white.
As a translator, I sometimes work texts from Spanish to English. The English translated is traducido, but my tired brain sometimes craves a Spanish word with a better echo: traslado, with the second half of the word—lado—meaning side. In an Anglo-centric model of translation, words move from side to side, foreign to native, like immigrants deserting homelands to press flesh in spas. But in reality, traslado is a noun usually indicating a job transfer or the hauling of furniture, as in their removal. And although I know the meaning is different, I cannot help but make the leap to one of removal’s synonyms: elimination.
Maggie Nelson’s book-length lyric essay Bluets opens,
Suppose I were to begin by saying that I had fallen in love with a color. Suppose I were to speak this as though it were a confession; suppose I shredded my napkin as we spoke. […] I fell in love with a color—in this case, the color blue––as if falling under a spell, a spell I fought to stay under and get out from under, in turns.
Suppose I were to say that the love in this essay is not my own. That this love, unlike other loves, is pleasurable only for one party. Suppose I were to use the word love because it sounds more human than elimination. Suppose I were to collect that shredded napkin’s wisps, weave them, make the napkin whole. Tell me it will be enough. Tell me it will be enough to wipe away the spreading stain of blue.
In an old Comedy Central ad, Amy Schumer delivers a routine below blue-lit arches. “It doesn’t matter what you do, ladies. Every guy is going to leave you for an Asian woman. They’re smarter. They laugh like this”—Schumer demurely places her hand in front of her mouth—“because they know men hate when women speak.” The screen cuts to a close-up of a woman of Asian descent, a chain-link purse strap looped on her shoulder as if she is prepared to leave at any time. The woman tips forward, eyes shut, quivering with laughter or tears; all we hear is the audience’s laugh track. A cameraman would have heard the theme of Schumer’s joke, scanned the room for the perfect subject, and zoomed in on her shaking body. Or perhaps he shot the woman at an entirely different time; later, an editor would have spliced her in.
Schumer lands the second punchline: “How do they bring it on home for the win? The smallest vaginas in the game.” Small like everything else belonging to the Asian woman—her eyes, her laugh, her time on screen. The Asian woman is so incredibly small. Look. You can’t even see her.
Women I will never see:
- Michelle Alyssa Go, 40, died January 2022
- Christina Yuna Lee, 35, died February 2022
- GuiYing Ma, 61, died February 2022
Twitter is a field of temporary tombstones. More than 10,000 hate incidents have been reported from the start of the coronavirus pandemic to the death of Michelle Alyssa Go. I stop clicking on the little blue bird. My fingers go numb. I struggle to type, to hold on.
The Asian woman does not post on the Reddit board “HappyEndingMassage.” Its more than 20,000 members use terms like LE (law enforcement), FS (full service, as in vaginal sex), and AMP (Asian massage parlor, used to refer to both the site and the service, as in, “If the AMP is for sale, they will provide the condoms”). This language allows them to communicate efficiently about rates, locations, and masseuses. It is a given that the masseuses are of Asian descent, unless they are otherwise specified as “Latina” or “Russian,” in which case the Redditors also describe skin tone (“milky white”).
But when communicating with the masseuses, the men switch to a different language. Under a post titled “Newbie assistance: Signs/hints/signals?” veterans counsel a novice: leave a “donation” on the table, eschew the modesty towel, raise your hips, “exhale sharply.” They believe they are trying to speak the language of the masseuses, although it is the men who taught them this code. Despite my distaste, a part of me is stirred by the spirit of camaraderie, which values educating the uninitiated and celebrating community wins. Immersed in their digital bonhomie, I find myself starting to empathize with the Redditors, some of whom even denounce the Atlanta shooter.
The spell is broken when I click on a blue button to view more posts and encounter user ISTANDCORRECTED63:
Personally I think that the popularity of Asian massage parlors in a large part due to political correctness and men are shamed for their desire for the female submissive experience so we pay for the luxury of being catered to and having our ego stroked when we hear You SO BIG while we are having our cock stroked at the same time. […] everybody wants to feel like they are that Horse Hung Guy standing there in the superhero pose feeling like he’s got GOD’S OWN DICK SWINGING BETWEEN HIS LEGS
In the Western imagination, Asia has been conflated with female sexuality since the earliest maps, when cartographers would plump a mountain into a womanly breast. “They would talk about penetrating the land,” says Christina Firpo, the author of Black Market Business, which chronicles the policing of prostitution in colonial Indochina. “They were very much expressing their sexual desire in terms of how they took the land.” The taking of land was inseparable from the taking of women; on the sidelines of French and British military outposts, brothels sprang up, many of them established and guarded by the troops themselves.
As a reporter, I once chatted to a friendly man at a gas field in Basra, where flares illuminated bare sand that guards surveilled from security towers. He worked two months on, one month off. What do you do in your month off? I asked. I go to Thailand, he replied. I did not ask what he did in Thailand when he was not helping to extract resources from Iraq. In the poetry collection The Year of Blue Water, Chinese American writer Yanyi considers the relationship between colonial exploration and physical jouissance, “beauty as a field of power.” He writes, “The search for land, for possession, for domination, is all in service of a search for pleasure.” This pleasure, this love.
I own a T-shirt older than me, taken from the closet of someone who spent years representing Western interests in Asia. Nearly transparent with age, it features a yellow frame enclosing a tropical scene: palm trees, sailboat, blue sky. A flag waves from a mast poking out of the frame. The boat’s deck is piled with unlabeled parcels. SMUGGLING, declares the shirt. IT’S MORE THAN A JOB / IT’S AN ADVENTURE. I have worn it in at least a dozen countries, taken it camping in the desert, recovered it from an ex. But it is only while writing this essay, four decades into the T-shirt’s life, that I look in the mirror and notice, for the first time, a human. Sitting on the prow, legs flung wide over the edge, is a woman in a bikini, the sweetener to the adventure of smuggling. Until then, she had been invisible to me.
On a pebbled beach, my companion and I bite into fish cakes from a local hut. But I have trouble chewing. I spit out a blue speck. When I inspect my food, I find more fragments the color of fishing nets, of IKEA bags, of infinitely reproducible objects. I discreetly pick them out and push them between the pebbles so my companion won’t notice. Of course, his is probably also studded with blue. But I stay quiet. The most important thing is the preservation of his pleasure. I picture his stomach embracing the blue.
How can I keep pace with the spreading blue? I rewrite this essay after a man attacks seven women of Asian descent in two hours. Reporters unearth a 2015 photo of him in an Army uniform, his brown hair tucked in a beret with a star-studded blue shield. But by the time he has decided to attack people in his own country, his hair is bleached white. His mother hints to a reporter that he loved Asians, that “he appreciated the culture and had plans to learn how to speak Japanese.” He is arrested in a library. There, he was known for changing into slippers, as if he were relaxing in a spa.
One of my remaining pleasures is art. I go to a gallery showing Untitled (Blue Glitter). Buckets of turquoise sparkles are strewn across the floor, an industrial spill made by unicorns. The sheer volume of stuff catalyzes emotion: the desire to touch it, to mess with it, to depart with blue in my hair and under my fingernails. It is the centerpiece of an exhibition by Belgian artist Ann Veronica Janssens, who exploits light and manmade materials—glass, PVC, corrugated roofing—to encourage viewers to move and reveal new colors and shapes. In an interview with the art review Studio International, Janssens says her work “can be very violent, though I don’t want to make violent work.”
I go upstairs in search of more unintentionally violent art. Leaning on a wall are three person-sized panels, their shiny surfaces shivering with color. I admire them one at a time, approaching from different angles. The last panel, CL2BK, glints a brilliant blue. As I walk past, the blue slips to yellow—am I even there in that wobbling reflection?—and then to the red of blood.
—April Yee (The Offing)