Cute Asian Pens and Racism

This post contains themes of abuse and racism.

The other day, I commented on a Twitter mutual’s picture of a bunch of cute brightly colored pens in the stationary section of a store. I commented that I didn’t think that White people understand Asian people’s obsession with cute pens. Then someone replied that my statement was racist and then they said essentially #NotAllWhitePeople. (There is a whole different conversation around the definition of racism which I will save for a future post.)

In Asian cultures we love things that are cute. I have a Hello Kitty toaster despite the fact that I never buy bread. I have a Hello Kitty dream pillow. I have tons of plushies that I snuggle with at night. And of course, I have my cute pens. In the US, often our obsession with all things cute has been depicted as silly and childish. There is only a small counter culture that has been growing with the popularization of Anime, and also more recently the rise of k-pop that is making it more popular for white people also to love cute things too, but there is no question that this is an Asian culture thing.

But beyond that, I grew up in Korea, and went to school there for many years and it was very abusive. The teachers would hit us regularly. The teachers would walk around with these pointers that they used on the blackboard, but really, they were carrying it around so they had something to hit us with. In some occasions that they didn’t have pointers they would make us get the broom sticks from the cleaning supply closet and use that to hit us. I even had one teacher that would use a sawed off baseball bat on us. Sometimes we were forced to sit in stress positions, holding our chairs above our heads. And also they would make us run for extended periods of time in formation as if we were in some sort of military bootcamp. And what did we do to deserve this punishment? Maybe forget to do a homework assignment or do poorly on a test. But it didn’t really stop at school either. After school so many of us were forced to go to after school schools that would force us to study more, or we would meet with tutors. Work into late hours of the night. Anything that we could do to get better grades.

There was so much abuse centered around studying that for many years, I lived in constant fear and exhaustion.

We always lived with some sort of writing utensil in our hands to take notes. We would have extensive notebooks that were written so that it would stick in our heads better and we can review the material later. In grade school we would compare calluses on our writing fingers to see who was studying the hardest. Decades later today, my hands still bear the marks from back then.

But within this abuse, one of the few things that I remember giving me joy were all the cute pens. All of the beautiful colored pens we would use to highlight important items, put down notes in the margins, write in our notebooks while switching between colors to better organize the information. Our study materials just turned into a beautiful rainbow of colors. To me, these pens were a small spark of happiness. It was something that I have used to hold onto for some small escape from the abuse.

These were my experiences growing up in South Korea and other people’s experiences may have differed, especially depending on the periods they went to school. or what Asian country they are from, but there is a very real shared culture of the strict emphasis on education and these cute and colorful pens.

So yes, when I talk about how I feel that White people wouldn’t understand our obsession over cute pens, that is what I am talking about. And it is not racist one bit to share our collective solidarity around it.